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20.05.2014 INTERVIEW

Linda Hilfling (right) introducing her work at the opening of Open Wire, Køge 2014. Foto: Martin Håkan / CoverGanda.dk.

Linda Hilfling: “A Public Domain” is in a way a painful reflection on its own tragedy.

Danish artist and critical designer, Linda Hilfling, works with the premises of participation and public space within media structures, with a focus on means of control (codes, organisation and law) and their cultural impact.

AF Karolina Potoczniak

Linda's artistic practice takes the form of interventions which in humoristic and often absurd ways reflect on and reveal gaps within existing structures – the place where a system fails and its inadequacies become visible. Works range from concepts for using ATM-machines or surveillance cameras as local-media platforms to software interventions. I had a great pleasure of meeting Linda for a short chat about "Et Offentligt Domæne" ("A Public Domain"), the installation which is currently a part of digital art exhibition "Open Wire" located in the harbour area of Køge.

"Et Offentligt Domæne"

Køge Havn
03.05.2014 - 14.09.2014

First of all, how would you as an author introduce "A Public Domain"?
"A Public Domain" is a reflection on language as a common and how it is deteriorating as words and even phrases are being reserved and privatized as trademarks. The work is a reflection on this, and at the same time an intervention into it. It takes form as an open WiFi network called “A Public Domain”, but when you log onto it, you discover that something is a little bit strange: As you browse the net, you might start wondering why the newspaper left out some words or why your favorite website seems truncated. What's actually happening is that I'm removing all trademark-registered words from the data passing through the network. Thus, despite that the user will have to guess the overall meaning of the content, the WIFI connection becomes a public domain in a literal sense.

Where does your interest in public domains come from and what is the actual difference from or its relation to private domain in that sense?
In a capitalistic system the whole idea of trademarks is to protect from possible exploitation but what it's actually ending up doing is encouraging, or at least allowing, private to exploit the commons and I think that's a very interesting paradox.

I am interested in the Public Domain, not as an utopia or something idealized as that pool where all artworks go 70 years after we, the artists, have passed away, which fits well into a capitalistic logic. But rather I see the public domain as a plural of public domains. They are potential, irrational, dysfunctional and omnipresent leftovers, giving us glimpses of the paradox and impossibility which is actually part of realizing public domains.

For the Danish version of "A Public Domain" you used the database of Danish Copyright Office, is it easy to get access to such kind of sources?
Well, when I first contacted them, they didn't want to talk to me at all, since I'm an artist. I tried to explain that I wasn't even going to display the database, only use it in order to remove words as a sort of inverted database. But they were still very possessive and asked me for around 15.000 DKK for a very basic printout of the words, which would be of little use since I wouldn't know the expiry data and the actual "owners" of those words.

Then I started wondering why I should pay for publicly available data. On the website you can make a search and then receive information related to this search. So what I eventually did was, to make a small programme which hacked their website and over a certain amount of time made multiple searches and copied their data.

I pirated the entire database, and they didn't discover it. The only time I really had a sort of contact with “the other side” eg. the people from the Intellectual Property Offices, was when I did the Canadian version of A Public Domain in 2012. They began to react, block me and change their code, so I continuously had to rewrite my own programme or fix my IP status. It became a really fantastic performance, I got up every second hour in the night for almost a month to actually finish it for the exhibition.

What kind of words are registered as trademarks? What's the extent of such databases?
Of course first you think about words like "Coca Cola" and “Mærsk” but I got surprised to find many everyday words like for example "mormor" (grandma), “public”, “fri”(free) or “information”. What I also find a funny tendency is when famous people trademark their own names for example “Joan Ørving”, “Arnold Schwarzenegger” or “Don Ø” (although the two latter expired in 2012). Besides that, everything you can imagine, words for companies, words for people, words for products along with phrases.

The current Danish database has approximately 55.000 entrances, when I did the Benelux version, I think it was around 150.000 and the Canadian was more than 230.000. But it is very difficult to get an idea of such an amount of data, since it's just there in a register. There is no way of touching it or to get a feeling of what it is about. Sometimes cases pop up in the media, for instance some years ago Facebook reserved 'face' or when the Swedish Social Democratic Party reserved the phrase “The Scandinavian Model” and everybody got angry. In these cases, which are often utterly absurd, one gets a glimpse of what it is all about. But otherwise it is hard to sense the materiality of it. Which is in way what I try to do through the work, to make it tangible and to give people a sense of it's impact.

What kind of reactions would you like to provoke through "A Public Domain" and how does it relate to physical spaces such as Søndre Havn in Køge?
“A Public Domain” is in a way a painful reflection on its own tragedy, the paradox and impossibility of creating public domains. I'd like to encourage people to rethink the term and consider it as a site for anticommunicative actions. The installation in Køge is in fact the first version of this work, which is not a temporary intervention into an existing structure. The previous versions were all interventions within existing, often closed networks, which I would open up and make accessible as amputated public domains. People would not necessarily know the context, but they just happened to access it because they discovered an open WiFi. I got some funny responses like people thinking that there was a virus in their phone.

Do you think your work can be considered by some a social or political intervention rather than an artwork? How do you feel about its relevance in regard to classical art criticism?
It is not so often that I work with galleries and museums. Normally I work with code, software and programs, intervention and information architectures and that doesn't show so well. I like the idea of playing with my work as design pieces, potentially this could be what you call critical design but designers often want to solve a problem and in my work it's never about solving problems or making things better. You could also call me a hacker, but hackers work extremely functional too and it's always about the logic beauty of coding and being more effective, which is again not my interest.

Are there any upcoming projects you would like to shed some light on?
For quite a long time now I've been really immersed in obsolete programming languages. I investigate their cultural and geopolitical impact and write small programmes with them, which turn into metareflections and humoristic comments on technology and development.

Thank you.

Wikipedia's article on the Public Domain visited through "A Public Domain". Foto: Courtesy of the artist.

"Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks for Dummies" @ amazon.com visited through the Benelux version of "A Public Domain". Foto: Courtesy of the artist.

Et Offentligt Domæne, Køge 2014. Foto: Courtesy of the artist.

Et Offentligt Domæne, Køge 2014. Foto: Courtesy of the artist.

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