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Imaginary property: Frequently asked questions

Florian Schneider

What does "imaginary property" mean?

"Imaginary property" is a concept that can be read in at least two directions: Property produced by imagination, or Images turning into property.

While the bourgeois conception of property has been characterized by anonymity and pure objectivity, today it seems to be the opposite way. In the age of immaterial production, digital reproduction, and networked distribution - property relations need to be made visible in order to be enforced. Property exists first of all as imagery and rapidly becomes a matter of imagination.

A contrary way of reading "imaginary property" could also be understood as questioning of possession or ownership of imageness as such: It opens up to the question: "What does it mean to own an image"?

So, what does it mean to own an image?

From invention, creation and distribution to recognition, exhibition and conservation, images are subject to an infinite variety of operations that are not only characterized by conflicting powers of producing, possessing and processing them. Ownership of images has turned into the challenge of implementing solutions that are executed in real time. It is a progressive appropriation, which is, as Etienne Balibar might say, "defined in terms of an intrinsic relationship to its other".

Imaginary property deals with the imagination of social relationships with others who could also use it, enjoy it, play it or play with it. Ownership has become a matter of communication and constant renegotiation, gained and performed on an increasingly precarious basis rather than grounded on a stable set of eternally valid laws which follow traditional ideas of property and personhood.

Does "imaginary" mean, it is faked or unreal?

Apparently, there is no way out of the imaginary. Not because the "imaginary" is equal to the fictitious, faked or "unreal"; rather than the opposite of "real" imaginary relates to the indiscernibility of real and unreal, as Gilles Deleuze mentions once in his very few remarks on this peculiar terminology: "The two terms don't become interchangeable, they remain distinct, but the distinction between them keeps changing round..." This could lead to a first and fundamental characterization of imaginary property: As a set of exchanges it is based on the impossibility to discern anymore what is one's own and what not. Such indiscernibility certainly rests on the persuasive power of the digital image which promises to instantly provide lossless and cost free copies, while insisting on the identity of the copied content. But more importantly, it introduces the urgency of a constant re-negotiation and exchange of meanings of ownership which remain distinct.

Isn't all property imaginary? Why should it matter all the sudden?

In a society after the spectacle, the networked world of customized channels of so-called "social networking" - the fetishized character of non-things or absurdities (the means of immaterial production) needs to be inscribed directly into the process of imagination (the labor power of the creative industries of late capitalism).

The actual results are massive expropriations and re-appropriations of both the actualized and actual production of images and imaginary values associated with them. This is what the hype of "web 2.0" is about, but it also characterizes it as the response to the impact of pirate networks or file-sharing communities.

Global corporate networks desperately attempt to re-identify and reinforce the abstract nature of the value of exchange while being confronted with the overwhelming opulence of use value once the images are liberated from the fetters that arrested their freedom of movement, their capacity to circulate freely.

What is the problem with "social networking"?

As soon as one uploads some film or footage to, for example, one of those predominant video portals one signs an agreement that basically consists of handing over the ownership (at least, if there is any, in legal terms) of these images to a corporate (or not yet-corporate) entity. The example of YouTube and Myspace - just to name the two most prominent examples - leaves no doubt: Obviously, "sharing" is not a problem, it is even officially encouraged and essential part of the core corporate strategy.

The problem is a different one: The problem is multiplication. How can we imagine multiple forms of ownership that accomodate images that are multiplied rather than being shared, divided and fragmented?

What is at stake in "imaginary property"?

The project "imaginary property" sets out to examine the ways in which social relationships are configured, designed and performed in reference to the objects that are supposed to be owned, used and displayed as one's property.

What is at stake is not at all the relationship between the owner of some thing and the object that a person owns. The juridical forms do not determine the content even of what they make effective, as Bernard Edelman wrote. "The relation between the expression of the content and the effectivity of the content is ideological and that is this relation itself becomes a mysterious power, 'the true basis of all property relations'."

"Imaginary property" deals with the imagination, the practical critique and the re-design of ideological relationships. Relationships between me and others who could also develop the will to use and enjoy it, modify or alter it, play it or play with it.

Does "imaginary property" try to advocate for creative commons or piracy?

The sweet dreams about the commons, about sharing and caring, in an organic, unselfish, platonic and idealistic fashion, as well as the romanticism of the figure of the pirate, the digital small-time criminal or gentleman-thief -- that is rather fiction and fantasy and smells like a sort of petit-bourgeois projection.

The project "imaginary property" defies a vulgar marxism or "Proudhonism" which seems quite popular today. It is not about the "abolishment of intellectual property" in an utopian manner, let alone coquetry with far too simple slogans like "property is theft". In the last instance both, the advocates of theft and piracy as well as the defenders of a pre- or post-capitalist concept of the "commons" are either entangled with fantasies about 'true' or 'fair' conceptions of property or just turn a blind eye on the social and political realities.

What do you suggest instead?

What is urgent today is a critical analysis of 'political economy of image production' "embracing the totality of these property relations, considering not their legal aspect as relations of volition but their real form, that is, as relations of production." (Karl Marx on Proudhon).

We have to turn the platonic world of image production upside down. If it is allowed to use a well-worn metaphor: We have to turn off the head, on which so-called "intellectual" property is standing, and place it upon its feet. Instead of an utopianism which is hunting for a scientific or technological formula for the solution of the property question that is to be devised a priori, science needs to derrive "from a critical knowledge of the historical movement, a movement which itself produces the material conditions of emancipation" -- just to paraprahese Marx once more.

If we understand imagination as a rule of production, what might characterize theimages that are actually produced?

I suggest to call them 'control images'. In "Counter-Music", a video installation for the european cultural capital Lille in 2004 Harun Farocki coined the term: "Operative images, control images. Representations of traffic regulation, by car, train or metro, representations determining the height at which mobile phone network transmitters are fixed, and where the holes in the networks are. Images from thermo-cameras to discover heat loss from buildings. And digital models of the city, portrayed with fewer shapes of buildings or roofs..."

In one of his very few remarks on electronic images Gilles Deleuze noted: "Not just the voices but sounds, lights, and movements are being constantly modulated. These parameters of the image are subjected to variations, repetitions, alternations, recycling, and so on... This corresponds to a transition from visibility to legibility. The legibility of images relates to the independence of their parameters and the divergence of series..."

What seems absolutely crucial here: The control image is an image that is characterized by its modulation; by the fact that it can be altered, variated, halted, repeated, recycled or in short: it can be controlled not only by its producers, by its legal or legitimate owners, but by all its users and viewers.

Is it then possible to think of 'images beyond control'?

Good question! What Laura Mulvey called "the possessive spectator" could in fact lead to the invention and creation of entirely new relationships between those who were formerly known as filmmakers, distributors, spectators.

Originally Mulvey refered to the "remote control", a device to control the motion of the movie, but that marked only the very beginning of a process which has produced many different subjectivities and accelerates a variety conflicts about possessing images.

Consequentially, soon we can probably see a wide range of projects which are not only illustrative, but pushing the concept of the control image towards its extremes and maybe even beyond it.


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