Culture in Times of the Cornucopia. A New Agenda for the Cultural Institutions
photo: Marcin Ignac, flickr, CC BY-NC-ND license

Culture in Times of the Cornucopia. A New Agenda
for the Cultural Institutions

BY Alek Tarkowski

Online collections will not draw viewers away from the physical displays. The documentation, archiving and distribution of materials or recordings of events should become an essential task of every cultural institution

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Several decades after the onset of the new – digital – media, the transformation begun by their arrival continues. Like the surface of water after a stone has been thrown into it, our culture is still rippling too hard for us to be able to fully understand the changes taking place. At the same time, during the successive attempts to achieve an at least partial equilibrium, tensions occur, and sometimes even conflicts – between the old and new, producers and consumers, the local and the global, analogue and digital.

A simple quantitative criterion can serve as a common point for trying to understand these tensions: a constant growth in the volume, mass, and weight of culture. We have more of everything today than we did yesterday: communication channels and media forms in the convergent media system; actors on the globalised media market and in the cultural sector; authors and consumers; content circulating between us all. Each increment means a new state of the ecosystem, and these states have been following each other ever more quickly.

Digital Cornucopia

Culture's rapid growth is partly a function of general civilisational development. The key agent here, however, the source of the qualitative change following the quantitative one, is the Web. The medium plays the role of a cultural cornucopia today – the mythical horn of plenty. It is culture’s centre of gravity, the bloodstream of the convergent media system.

The Web is a cornucopia for several reasons. Firstly, it is generative, which is how Jonathan Zittrain calls the technology’s openness to the possibility of creation and rapid distribution of innovation by its users. Secondly, thanks to its global scale, on which it is able to function as a unified single information medium. Finally, by means of the fact that due to its effectiveness and low transmission costs it is the preferred medium for more and more content.

Thanks to the Web, Gerd Leonhard claims, music will soon become like water: cheap and commonly available. And all other content may well follow. The effect of the Web has been enhanced by the wide range of digital technologies that are democratising content generation and ensure increased mobility of the elements of culture.

Thus, the tensions visible in contemporary culture can be explained as a result of its inadaptation to the new situation of abundance – particularly after a long period when limited availability or even scarcity of culture was the norm. The cultural shock involved reminds me of the state I experienced when, as a communist child, I first entered a supermarket in the West.

From “2.0” to N+1

“Web 2.0!” And then business 2.0, culture 2.0, museum 2.0, library 2.0, state 2.0, media 2.0… The numbering, borrowed from software programming lingo, means a new, significantly different version. Announcing version 2.0 is an opportunity for revising earlier premises, proposing new modes of action. “Web 2.0” is a slogan under which several years ago a new generation of Web applications was launched, more interactive and interoperable. Today, similar changes, associated with greater openness and interactivity, are described as a transition to the 2.0 state.

Web companies are already hinting at Web 3.0, while somewhere on the Web someone is probably already sketching visions of Web 4.0. A galloping inflation of the versions of cultural phenomena looms on the horizon. Yet a new version is not really possible. According to David Stark and Gina Neff, Web services function in permanent beta state, “beta state” meaning a publicly available, but still test-level version of software. Modifications and improvements are never enough, users always expect something new – so the work actually never ends. A mediatised culture functions in a similar state, constantly modified by the emergence of another trend, another hip gadget, another media form.

Thus, thinking about culture and the media today requires a “n+1” perspective, assuming that the meter can at any time move to the next position, signalling another shock, another change in the vital parameters. This means an openness to change, flexible operation, and a readiness to grant a vote of confidence to new phenomena instead of instinctively siding with the media ancien régime.


One thing is certain – we need more institutions oriented towards the future; towards the most recent phenomena, situated on the borderline between the future world and the present one; phenomena, thanks to which the future is now.

It’s become customary to protect the so called high-brow culture perhaps as a niche, but necessary for the healthy functioning of culture as such. A similar argument can be used with regard to the future – which, by nature, will always be the subject of interest of a minority of us. This is because it lacks routine and the familiar elements we all know. It lacks monuments and other emotion-focusing symbols, as well as classics and a canon.

Marshall McLuhan noticed that many people look at the world as if through a rear-view mirror, marching backwards into the future. Our “contemporary” culture is dominated by elements from the past: a cultural canon formed centuries ago, music genres and hit songs from decades ago, clothes and gadgets that were truly novel years ago.

A future orientation is particularly difficult in Poland – a traditional society, constantly returning to past events, trying to come to terms with past conflicts and traumas and reliving the old days of glory. Nor do we, as a society, appreciate the role of individual resourcefulness and inventiveness that pave the way for the future unfolding before our very eyes.

The new culture, the culture of the future, deserves the attention of the institutions responsible for managing culture as a whole. We’ve come to think that the digital culture (which is the cultural vanguard today) is autonomous, grassroots, and spontaneous, which is largely true. Still, it too needs support. In the Netherlands, the government has classified e-culture as a separate sector, next to cinematography, dance and ballet or folk culture, and has assigned a separate sector institution and budget item to it. The needs of the different “traditional” forms of cultural expression are catered for by one or several institutions responsible for promoting them. New culture needs such an institution too.

How could such an institution look like? Simplifying things, we could say that it should draw inspiration from the Web. It should be generative and should treat its “recipients” as users rather than as viewers or listeners. It should be modelled on the laboratory or design studio as well as such operational models as experimental process or rapid prototyping. In its operations, it should observe the principles of openness, networking and non-hierarchical collaboration, reproducing collaboration models developed online, in the fields of free software and free culture. An institution so shaped could also dialogue with independent-culture, urban-culture and design-sphere phenomena.

Examples of such institutions include the experimental medialabs (e.g. in Madrid or Zagreb), the FabLab, BricoLab or Future Center networks, or co-working spaces. In Poland, the model is being implemented – with regard to social innovation, though – by the recently created Unit for Social Innovation and Research – Shipyard.

Real vs. Virtual

For generations familiar with the Web from their youngest years, the distinction between the real and the virtual will be incomprehensible. Yet the stereotype still persists that the Web (“the virtual”) is a separate world, a different reality, governed by its own laws – and inferior, or even hostile, to the institutions of the “real” world.

This kind of logic continues to motivate many cultural institutions that see no need for operating in “virtual space”. Yet, failing to accompany presentations in “brick-and-mortar” exhibition spaces with online presentations of its collection, a museum or gallery sentences itself to ephemerality and locality – marginalisation through restricting its presence in both space and time. Today, the ephemerality of music concerts, theatre performances or temporary exhibitions appears to be natural, and even desirable due to the aura of exceptionality it entails. Yet, contrary to common belief, online collections will not draw viewers away from the physical displays, and recordings of music concerts available online will sooner serve the philharmonic as promotion than as unfair competition. The documentation, archiving and distribution of materials or recordings of events should become an essential task of every cultural institution.

Particularly resistant are institutions regarding themselves as part of “high-brow culture”, often manifesting an elitist perspective on cultural participation, equalling the presence of culture with the physical space of the given institution, appreciating direct (“authentic”) contact with culture and dismissing the Web as a low-brow, plebeian space. Instead of a horn filled with ambrosia, they see an overfilled garbage can. (This, in fact, is a common view among the Polish intellectual elites, as evidenced by a recent discussion about online vulgarity, which blew up a marginal gutter to the proportions of the medium’s governing principle).

Because of the apathy of the traditional institutions, a state of deficiency continues – and abundance remains but a promise. Polish culture has a poor Web presence, remaining (often at its own request) excluded from the digital bloodstream. An effective commercial offer that would ensure online access to films or music is lacking, too. Public TV and radio (and especially their vast archives) are present on the Web only in a small degree. Despite intense efforts made in recent years, but a tiny fraction of public library collections is available online. Some efforts are being made in all of those spheres, of course, but they are usually half-hearted or out of tune with the users’ needs. To find an example of mass consumption of online content, one has to look to the pirate circuit – as is the case with the downloading of movies or TV series from the Web.

New Heritage, New Canon

The presence of the cornucopia means that the category of the cultural canon is unsustainable. It will always be followed by a long trail of cultural niches, ignored by the canon, though equally significant (just as speaking of mainstream culture makes ever less sense). Here, again, Poland’s uniqueness manifests itself – since the times of WWII, we have been practically deprived of the experience of multiculturality, an experience that undermines thinking in terms of a single, common body of culture.

Thus, we need a new metaphor for the common heritage. Perhaps it’s the dispersed web, where all the elements are connected, some may even be acting as nodes, but it’s hard to discern any hard core. Another possible metaphor is the free market, with its constant exchange of all kinds of products, regulated by a common set of rules. Cultural goods are today becoming a currency regulating social relations, which are built around common interests and fascinations and shared content.

The category of heritage has to obtain a more multi-media character and include the most recent and niche manifestations of culture. These are often less durable than the historical examples of Polish literature. At the same time, the pace of changes in culture and the media means that the horizon of our cultural memory is becoming shorter – the youngest generations can find it hard to understand, for instance, how cassette tape recorders worked.

Archives, too, need to change their paradigm – not only preserve past culture, but also make it available, so that it constitutes a firm foundation for the construction of our cultural future. From the viewpoint of the availability of cultural heritage, copyright protection is a hindrance factor. For heritage to be able to regenerate itself, we need a relatively short copyright period and a broad range of legal use for memory institutions.

The canon has also been unable to keep pace with “n+1”-mode media growth. The best illustration of this is the school-system mandatory reading list, which is restricted to books and thus replicating the 19th-century media ecosystem (projects such as the School Film Library offer a promise of change here). It is worth considering whether film adaptations of works of literature aren’t perhaps something more than just substitutes (used by students as an unethical shortcut). And shouldn’t the cultural canon also include theatre performances, works of music (how is one to understand the 1981 Polish martial law without Brygada Kryzys?) or even comics and computer games?

Common Good

Laws regulating shortage-period culture don’t work in times of abundance. Our legal system, but also our habits, were shaped in a reality where there were a dozen broadcasters, several dozen producers and several (several dozen at most) thousand content contributors. They will inevitably fail when we multiply each of those groups many times and when (according to the legal definition) content authors are counted in millions. Labelling the surplus as “amateur authors and content” and exempting it from regulation limited to “professional culture” can only be a temporary solution. The amateurs will sooner or later start demanding their rights.

At the same time, they are often guided by motives other than economic gain, denying the axiomatic knowledge that “everything has its price”. Moreover, in an environment where there is an abundance of content and user attention is limited, popularity becomes as valuable as material profit. For these reasons, cultural institutions need to consider alternative regulation systems based on the idea of common access and content sharing.

This is necessary also from the perspective of the condition of our culture. Culture renews itself and develops through constant references, use of extant elements, ideas and motifs. Through quotations, adaptations, borrowings, inspirations, remakes, sequels and prequels, cover versions and remixes. Reducing the costs of production and distribution, the digital media expedite such cultural regeneration or recycling.

However, there still exist barriers caused by the functioning of the intellectual property system based on the dominant principle of the author’s strict control over how their work is used. The system has a positive function, ensuring that authors are paid for their work. At the same time, however, it makes treating culture as a common good difficult. The system was developed in modern times and perfected in the mass-media era. While it works well in the still thriving “traditional” sphere of culture, it generates strong friction in the case of new culture. The mechanisms of control or remuneration malfunction in the situation of a rapid growth in the number of content authors, and from the legal point of view, the now common practice of copying is a often illegal. Regulation striking the right balance between the interests of the authors, users and intermediaries, on the one hand, and public interest, on the other, urgently requires a 2.0 version. The legislators face the challenging task of ensuring fair regulation of both the “old” analogue culture and the “new” digital one.

From Cultural Institutions to Cultural Individuals

In his provocative book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen laments the state of culture, saying that the demise of the traditional institutions foretells the “death of culture”. I don’t share his pessimism, even though I said in the beginning that institutions are the mechanisms of culture’s duration. Essentially, it is the people that matter – the authors and users of culture. Institutions are but useful intermediaries.

Until now, high production and distribution costs necessitated the intermediation of institutions equipped with the proper resources. Today, virtually everything one needs to create, distribute and promote culture is Web access and a handful of electronic gadgets. So you don’t need a major budget or a large building to create a cultural institution – in many situations, the individual (with a mobile and a laptop) is enough. Of course, we need museums, philharmonics and archives (although their shape will be changing) – but it’s also worth appreciating the power of the individual. The vision of the living library presented by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 is becoming reality.

Individuals have the advantage – and disadvantage at the same time – of being able to ignore institutional limitations, most particularly the law. Given the sluggishness of traditional institutions, large areas of Web culture are shaped today by individuals that have taken matters into their own hands. The resulting piracy is illegal or semi-legal – but it deserves a sober analysis from the viewpoint of, for instance, cultural activity and cultural participation. The 20th century knows many examples where piracy (eventually brought under control and regulated) drove culture forward. The most well known of those is Hollywood, the dream factory, founded by filmmakers who had fled from the East Coast US legal system and made California their pirate nest. Today, the largest movie or music archives have pirate status and the nature of a dispersed network of content stored on private computers.

Individuals self-organising themselves via the Web represent, as a form of cultural institution, a unique phenomenon also from the perspective of their financing model. Today, culture, especially high-brow culture, is dependent on public financing. Individual Web culture and communication, in turn, self-finance themselves, existing without any budgets – at most, living in a symbiosis with commercial projects that, for instance, offer them online platforms through which to operate.

Towards Cornucopia Culture

Less than twenty years ago, with democracy and the free market, the Web came to Poland. Twenty years from now, a generation will become fully mature that has never lived in analogue times. Thus, we’re halfway from the analog world to a truly digital one. We’re living in interesting times, facing the task of creating foundations for a culture that for many of us will no longer be comprehensible. This is also an opportunity to make sure that, in the course of the transformation, the most valuable elements of analog culture are not lost. I don’t know what the culture of the future will look like. But I believe that cornucopia culture is one of the better options. And that today we can help it to materialise by shaping the institutions of present-day culture.

translated by Marcin Wawrzyńczak