.re_potemkin is a crowdsourced re-make of the film “Battleship Potemkin”. It is a “.f.reeP_” project by .-_-., part of a series of projects that embrace the ideology and means of production of contemporary media and technoculture in order to make art.
From December 2006 to January 2007 .-_-. worked with 15 groups of students from Yildiz Technical University to reproduce Battleship Potemkin on a shot-by-shot basis. Not all shots were reproduced, there are empty black sections in the new film. The students and the setting of the university and its surrounds are very different from the locations and actors of Battleship Potemkin. The domesticity, institutional backdrops and modern street furniture would be very different from the 1920s Soviet backdrops of the original even if they weren’t in colour.
Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” (1925) is a classic of early 20th century cinema, a piece of obvious propaganda that both fulfils and transcends its instrumental purpose with its exceptional aesthetics. Its most famous images have become cultural icons and cliches. If you haven’t seen it then ironically enough it’s on YouTube so you can watch it there and go “oh, that’s where that came from…” before we continue. Or you can watch it in the side-by-side comparison with .re_potmkin on the project’s homepage.
The Soviet dream became (or always was) a nightmare, an ideology that sacrificed many millions of lives in order to maintain its fictions. Our contemporary liberal democratic society regards itself as unquestionably morally superior to communism for this and many other reasons. The (self-)defining difference between Soviet communism and liberal free-market capitalism is economic ideology. Free markets benefit individuals by reducing inefficiencies.
As free market capitalism has triumphed its means of production have evolved. Corporations emerged as a leading way of organizing labour, leading to utopian social projects in the West in the same era as Eisenstein was working in the East and later to a burgeoning middle class in the post-war era. But since then corporations have become increasingly unapologetic exploitative economic projects.
In order to cut costs and become more economically efficient, corporations can become virtual. They shed jobs to reduce payroll and other costs associated with actually employing people. They then source cheaper labour and production from outside, paying other companies to make the branded goods that the corporation sells. This is known as outsourcing.
A logical next step in corporate cost reduction is to source labour from individuals without paying for it at all. This is known as crowdsourcing. Although individuals who donate their labour to a corporation through crowdsourcing might not be compensated monetarily, they can still be compensated in other ways.
With crowdsourced intangible goods the best way of rewarding people who donate their labour to produce those goods is simply to give the resulting product to them under a licence that allows them to use it freely. Non-profit projects such as GNU and Wikipedia do this very successfully, but corporations are always tempted to try and privilege their “ownership” of other people’s work. Where crowdsourced labour is exploited without fair compensation this called sharecropping.
.re_potemkin is a non-profit project rather than a corporation, and as such it has adopted a GNU or Wikipedia-style copyleft licence. Or at least it claims to have. In a creative solution to the fact that there is more than one copyleft licence suitable for cultural works, .re_potemkin’s licence is a kind of meta-copyleft. Checking the licence page reveals that .re_potemkin’s licence is more a licence offer than a licence.
This avoids the politics of imposing a choice between competing copyleft licences on the producers and consumers of the work. The only problem with this approach is that adaptations of the project, works that build upon it, may end up unable to be combined and built on further because they have been placed under incompatible licences. This is unlikely to happen, but it can be very frustrating when it does.
.re_potemkin is crowdsourced equitably, then. And even in its technical form, .re_potemkin is a free and open resource. it is distributed not in a patent-encumbered, proprietary format such as Flash or MP4 but in the Free Software Ogg Vorbis format. Too few artistic projects follow the logic of their principles in this way, instead sacrificing principle to the at best temporary convenience of the proprietary YouTube or QuickTime distribution channels.
The politics of the production of an artwork are only of aesthetic (rather than art historical) interest if they intrude into the finished artwork. A crowdsourced artwork such as the Sheep Exchange is about crowdsourcing as well as being made by it. The aesthetic of that work (many differently styled drawings of sheep) raises the question of how and why it was produced and this feeds back into the aesthetic experience.
.re_potemkin does not follow the classic crowdsourcing model of an open call for volunteer labour on the internet. It was produced by many groups, but in a closed community. It functions more as an allegory of crowdsourcing than as a literal example of it, but this adds to the project artistically, creating a layer of depiction. The means of production are aestheticized in a way that presents them for the viewer’s consideration in way that can be understood and contemplated more easily than an amorphous internet project.
The “commons based peer production” of free software and free culture is not, to use Jaron Lanier’s phrase, “Digital Maoism”. But the comparison is a useful one even if it is not correct. Utopianism was exploited by the Soviets as it is exploited by the vectorialist media barons of Web 2.0 . re_potemkin gives us side-by-side examples of communism and crowdsourcing to consider this comparison for ourselves.
Within the work the similarities and differences between the original film and its recreation vary from the comical to the poignant. Students in a play park acting out shots of soldiers on a warship, hands placing spoons on a table cloth, crowds gathering around notice boards. This isn’t a parody, it’s an interrogation of meaning. And it is a strong example of why political, critical and artistic freedom is at stake in the ability of individuals and groups other than the chosen few of the old mass media to organize in order to refer to and reproduce (or recreate) existing media.