Monthly Archives: December 2016

Investigating the Conflicts and Potentials of Cultural Commons: A Report

“Challenging Commons: A Seminar on Appropriation and Copyright” (18.11.2016), organised by the Art, Copyright and the Transformation of Authorship -project, focused on the term ‘commons’ in the fields of art and culture. Public discussion concerning commons have been mainly focused on natural resources, such as water, land, and air. However, issues often related to natural resources, such as tensions between ownership and appropriation, are emblematic also to ‘cultural commons’ or shared cultural resources such as cultural heritage. The speakers of the seminar approached the complexities of cultural commons in various ways in their presentations.

In her welcome words, the director of the research project Sanna Nyqvist, Post-Doctoral Researcher in Comparative literature at University of Helsinki, referred to the similarities between debates concerning natural and cultural resources by reminding that when discussing ‘commons’ as cultural material, protection and restriction are at the heart of the discourse. Nyqvist also pointed out that stakeholders of cultural commons often have difficulties in defining the rights to the usage of the cultural material, namely, who has the right to use and in what manner. Nyqvist concluded her talk by giving prominence to potentials of commons in the contemporary culture, such as Creative Commons, an American non-profit organisation that endeavours to enhance cultural interaction by operating a digital public domain designed for sharing and accessing creative works.

In his keynote presentation entitled “Traditional Cultural Expressions and Intellectual Commons”, Martin Fredriksson, Marie Curie Fellow and Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Linköping University, tackled the inconsistencies between traditional cultural heritage and western copyright law. In the first part of his presentation, Fredriksson showed that the terminological transition from ‘folkore’ into ‘traditional cultural expressions’ (TCEs) in the course of recent decades reflects the change that has taken place in understanding the subject itself, as the creation of guidelines to protect traditional cultural heritage has extended the conception of folklore as ‘artistic expression’ to include expressions of ‘traditional culture and knowledge’. Fredriksson stated that international law ought to respect the communities’ own laws and norms related to TCEs, including the right to withhold certain expressions and information concerning traditional culture.

In the second part of his lecture, Fredriksson called attention to the way the conception of authorship based on an individuality and originality that has flourished since Romanticism has had a tremendous impact upon the Western copyright law, which has hence resulted in the neglect of other forms of authorship, such as collective ones typical to indigenous communities. After that Fredriksson introduced a section of the Swedish copyright law that protects literary and artistic classics from a morally questionable appropriation. Since this section (klassikerskydd) entails a more holistic understanding of authorship, Fredriksson speculated on the idea of applying this law to protect TCEs, although he admitted that there are various predicaments involved. Fredriksson finished his lecture by asking whether the norms of intellectual property (IP) rights fit into any form of cultural production, either indigenous or non-indigenous, and hence suggested that we should call for a law that protects culture from IP, giving priority to the norms of use for all kinds of cultural resources within the communities managing those resources.

The next speaker, Heidi Haapoja, PhD student in Folklore Studies at University of Helsinki, gave a presentation entitled “Author Unknown”: Traditional Kalevalaic Runo Songs, Authorship and Contemporary Folk Music in Finland”. In her presentation Haapoja illuminated the problematic notion of authorship that was practiced while collecting and recording traditional Karelian and Ingrian songs during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and showed that recent reconstructions of these oral poems made by contemporary folk music artists reflect these problematic practices. With the help of a case study of the song Oi Dai, first collected by Armas Launis in Ingria in 1906 and published as a transcription in a collection called Suomen Kansan Sävelmiä: Inkerin runosävelmät (engl. Ingria Runo Songs) in 1910, Haapoja demonstrated that the performers of the songs were often left unmentioned when the songs were recorded for archives. A similar tendency is seen in the remakes of Oi Dai by contemporary folk music artists. This gives rise to the idea that in Finland folklore is often seen as public domain that has no authors and hence can be used freely, although the Finnish copyright law states that folklore performances should not be recorded, saved, or published without a permission of the performer.

In her concluding remarks Haapoja drew our attention to the power imbalance entailed in the ‘runo’ song collections, as they were shaped by the selective agency of the collectors who represented the Finnish elite interested in the “Finnish primitive languages”. Thus Haapoja also showed that the notion of authorship was and is closely related to the discussions of Finnish nationalism.  As for recent appropriation of traditional songs, Haapoja remarked that their usage is often justified by the “Fenno-Ugric kinship”. In the discussion after the presentation Haapoja maintained that the performers behind the archival material ought to be mentioned when these songs are used. There was also discussion on the need to recognise the collective voice of cultural production, both within the traditional culture and between two cultures, when the collector can be considered as a collaborator of a performance.

The next presentation, “Sámi Music, Cultural Commons, Indigenous Gifting” by Dr. Thomas R. Hilder from Grieg Academy, University of Bergen, continued the exploration of indigenous ownership and the distribution of the indigenous heritage for wider audiences. In his case study Hilder investigated a recent musical collaboration between Swedish and Sámi artists in a Swedish documentary television series Sápmi Sessions (2011 and 2014, Sveriges Television). By deploying the researcher in indigenous cultures Rauna Kuokkanen’s concept of the ‘gift’, Hilder regarded Sápmi Sessions as a new way of understanding cultural ownership, inter-cultural respect and sharing. For Hilder, the television series affirms Sámi aspirations for political and cultural sovereignty. He also considered the television series as a manifestation of a momentous shift in the media history related to the indigenous people: formerly deployed as a tool for assimilating the Sámi by the Nordic states, now television along with other technological devices are used by the Sámi artists themselves so as to create innovative cultural expressions aimed at local, national, and global audiences.

By calling our attention to the usage of ethnographic material in Sápmi Sessions, Hilder showed that television series implicitly refers to the long-established forms of appropriating Sàmi heritage. Although the presented archival material brings to the fore “the cultural dispossession” made by Nordic states, recent attempts to revitalise the joik tradition with the help of old recordings within Sámi community can be seen as an expression of cultural sovereignty. Similarly, Sápmi Sessions reinforces the notion of authorship of a Sámi cultural heritage, and at the same time it engenders positive cultural exchange and cultural transmission of Sámi music for wider audiences. Hilder remarked that the collaboration between Swedish and Sámi artists in the television series manifests the willingness of the Sámi to share their traditional knowledge on joik, provided that it is learnt and mastered in a respectful manner. Hilder concluded his presentation by surmising that Sápmi Sessions may transform debates about copyright law, the ownership of indigenous heritage and the global cultural commons.

The next presenter, Karina Lukin, Post-Doctoral Researcher in Folklore Studies at University of Helsinki, explored in her talk entitled “How a Mighty Eagle Brought the Sun Back” the re-contextualisation of the cultural heritage of the indigenous Nenets people in Russia. By concentrating on the effective role of the Leningrad-based Institute of Northern Peoples (founded in 1930) in collecting tales of the indigenous people, Lukin showed that the ethnographic studies practiced during the Soviet Union were dictated by the political ideology. This led to various reshapings of the mythic animal tales told and preserved by the Nenets, as the ‘accepted’ tales had to be consistent with the Soviet ideology. Lukin also pointed out the problematic notion of ‘original’ related to oral performances: after numerous tellings, re-tellings, and translations, the traditional tales of the Nenets were once more re-contextualised into a textual form by the folklorists. Thus, in her talk Lukin demonstrated that the reworkings of the Nenets epic poems by the Soviet folklorists articulate how folklore as collective and creative action was adopted into a new context of the communist state.

The last speaker of the seminar, Anne Heimo, Adjunct Professor of Folklore Studies at University of Turku, gave a talk entitled “Who owns my memories? The public use of private memories”. In her presentation Heimo discussed the ways in which new communication technologies enable people to share their private memories in the digital media. Heimo regarded this kind of vernacular history created on the Internet as a form of ‘non-institutional memory making practice’. As an example, Heimo mentioned Facebook groups in which people share private photos and other material to other members of the group. Heimo described these kinds of online sites as “spontaneous archives”, as they do not require a formerly established community and may disappear as quickly as they have emerged.

Building on Anna Reading’s term ‘globital’ that refers to digital and global distribution of private memories, Heimo asked whether the increasing readiness to share material in the digital age results in the eradication of privacy and private memories. Heimo drew attention to the way private and public conflate dramatically in the cases of highly popular home movies uploaded on YouTube and followed by numerous remakes. Heimo ended her presentation by contending that cultural heritage has been transformed into a dynamic and participatory process that blurs the notions of ownership and privacy. In the discussion after the presentation the participants pondered whether people give away their rights to their memories if shared in digital platforms. By the same token, the fragility of the digital infrastructure people are relying on in these practices was acknowledged in the discussion.

During the concluding discussion, the participants of the seminar seemed to agree that ‘cultural appropriation’ is a contested and ideological term and hence should be used with caution in academic discourse. The debatable nature of ‘cultural appropriation’ notwithstanding, the participants felt that the term  has two aspects and that these aspects can be detected in the presentations heard during the day. The positive one was seen, for example, in the case of Sàpmi Sessions introduced by Hilder; the negative one emerges when unequal power relations are added, as was seen in the case studies presented by Lukin and Haapoja on the selective potency of the non-indigenous collectors with regard to the cultural heritage of the indigenous people. There was also further discussion concerning the problem of authenticity and originality related to cultural material that was raised many times during the seminar. The discussion was concluded with the consideration of the fluidity of the term ‘communities’ in contemporary society. The need to re-think how ‘communities’ are described and defined in discourses concerning cultural commons was recognised, as well as the need to protect groups who are right now in the middle of the process of creating their communal identity.

Hannasofia Hardwick
PhD student in Comparative Literature