There Is Something Political in the City Air

What, How & for Whom / WHW

“There is something political in the city air”*

The curatorial collective What,
How & for Whom / WHW, based
in Zagreb and Berlin, examine
the interconnections between
contemporary art and political and
social strata, including the role of art
institutions in contemporary society.
In the present essay, their discussion
of recent projects they curated
highlights the struggle for access to
knowledge and the free distribution
of information, which in Croatia also
means confronting the pressures
of censorship and revisionism
in the writing of history and the
construction of the future.

Contemporary art’s attempts to come to terms with its evasions in delivering on the promise of its own intrinsic capacity to propose alternatives, and
to do better in the constant game of staying ahead of institutional closures
and marketization, are related to a broader malady in leftist politics. The
crisis of organizational models and modes of political action feels especially acute nowadays, after the latest waves of massive political mobilization
and upheaval embodied in such movements as the Arab Spring and Occupy and the widespread social protests in Southern Europe against austerity
measures – and the failure of these movements to bring about structural
changes. As we witnessed in the dramatic events that unfolded through the
spring and summer of 2015, even in Greece, where Syriza was brought to
power, the people’s will behind newly elected governments proved insufficient to change the course of austerity politics in Europe. Simultaneously,
a series of conditional gains and effective defeats gave rise to the alarming
ascent of radical right-wing populism, against which the left has failed to
provide any real vision or driving force.
Both the practice of political articulation and the political practices of
art have been affected by the hollowing and disabling of democracy related
to the ascendant hegemony of the neoliberal rationale that shapes every
domain of our lives in accordance with a specific image of economics,1
as well as the problematic “embrace of localism and autonomy by much
of the left as the pure strategy”2 and the left’s inability to destabilize the
dominant world-view and reclaim the future.3 Consequently, art practices
increasingly venture into novel modes of operation that seek to “expand
our collective imagination beyond what capitalism allows”.4 They not only
point to the problems but address them head on. By negotiating art’s autonomy and impact on the social, and by conceptualizing the whole edifice
of art as a social symptom, such practices attempt to do more than simply
squeeze novel ideas into exhausted artistic formats and endow them with
political content that produces “marks of distinction”,5 which capital then
exploits for the enhancement of its own reproduction.
The two projects visited in this text both work toward building truly
accessible public spaces. Public Library, launched by Marcell Mars and
Tomislav Medak in 2012, is an ongoing media and social project based on
ideas from the open-source software movement, while Autonomy Cube, by
artist Trevor Paglen and the hacker and computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum, centres on anonymized internet usage in the post–Edward

David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, Verso, London and New York, 2012, p. 117.
See Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, Zone books,
New York, 2015.
Harvey, Rebel Cities, p. 83.
See Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World
Without Work, Verso, London and New York, 2015.
Ibid., p. 495.
See Harvey, Rebel Cities, especially pp. 103–109.

“There is something political in the city air”


Snowden world of unprecedented institutionalized surveillance. Both projects operate in tacit alliance with art institutions that more often than not
are suffering from a kind of “mission drift” under pressure to align their
practices and structures with the profit sector, a situation that in recent
decades has gradually become the new norm.6 By working within and with
art institutions, both Public Library and Autonomy Cube induce the institutions to return to their initial mission of creating new common spaces
of socialization and political action. The projects develop counter-publics
and work with infrastructures, in the sense proposed by Keller Easterling:
not just physical networks but shared standards and ideas that constitute
points of contact and access between people and thus rule, govern, and
control the spaces in which we live.7
By building a repository of digitized books, and enabling others to do this
as well, Public Library promotes the idea of the library as a truly public institution that offers universal access to knowledge, which “together with
free public education, a free public healthcare, the scientific method, the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Wikipedia, and free software,
among others – we, the people, are most proud of ”, as the authors of the
project have said.8 Public Library develops devices for the free sharing of
books, but it also functions as a platform for advocating social solidarity
in free access to knowledge. By ignoring and avoiding the restrictive legal
regime for intellectual property, which was brought about by decades of
neoliberalism, as well as the privatization or closure of public institutions,
spatial controls, policing, and surveillance – all of which disable or restrict
possibilities for building new social relations and a new commons – Public
Library can be seen as part of the broader movement to resist neoliberal
austerity politics and the commodification of knowledge and education
and to appropriate public spaces and public goods for common purposes.
While Public Library is fully engaged with the movement to oppose the
copyright regime – which developed as a kind of rent for expropriating the
commons and reintroducing an artificial scarcity of cognitive goods that
could be reproduced virtually for free – the project is not under the spell of
digital fetishism, which until fairly recently celebrated a new digital commons as a non-frictional space of smooth collaboration where a new political and economic autonomy would be forged that would spill over and
undermine the real economy and permeate all spheres of life.9 As Matteo
Pasquinelli argues in his critique of “digitalism” and its celebration of the

See Brown, Undoing the Demos.
Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, Verso, London and
New York, 2014.
Marcell Mars, Manar Zarroug, and Tomislav Medak, “Public Library”, in Public Library,
ed. Marcell Mars, Tomislav Medak, and What, How & for Whom / WHW, exh. publication, What, How & for Whom / WHW and Multimedia Institute, Zagreb, 2015, p. 78.
See Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, and Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2008.


What, How & for Whom / WHW

virtues of the information economy with no concern about the material
basis of production, the information economy is a parasite on the material
economy and therefore “an accurate understanding of the common must
be always interlinked with the real physical forces producing it and the material economy surrounding it.”10
Public Library emancipates books from the restrictive copyright regime
and participates in the exchange of information enabled by digital technology, but it also acknowledges the labour and energy that make this possible. There is labour that goes into the cataloguing of the books, and labour
that goes into scanning them before they can be brought into the digital
realm of free reproduction, just as there are the ingenuity and labour of
the engineers who developed a special scanner that makes it easier to scan
books; also, the scanner needs to be installed, maintained, and fed books
over hours of work. This is where the institutional space of art comes in
handy by supporting the material production central to the Public Library
endeavour. But the scanner itself does not need to be visible. In 2014, at
the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, we curated the
exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, which dealt with conflicts triggered by
struggles over access to knowledge and the effects that knowledge, as the
basis of capital reproduction, has on the totality of workers’ lives. In the
exhibition, the production funds allocated to Public Library were used to
build the book scanner at Calafou, an anarchist cooperative outside Barcelona. The books chosen for scanning were relevant to the exhibition’s
themes – methods of reciprocal learning and teaching, forms of social and
political organization, the history of the Spanish Civil War, etc. – and after
being scanned, they were uploaded to the Public Library website. All that
was visible in the exhibition itself was a kind of index card or business card
with a URL link to the Public Library website and a short statement (fig. 1):
A public library is:
• free access to books for every member of society
• library catalog
• librarian
With books ready to be shared, meticulously cataloged, everyone is a
librarian. When everyone is librarian, the library is everywhere.11
Public Library’s alliance with art institutions serves to strengthen the
cultural capital both for the general demand to free books from copyright
restrictions on cultural goods and for the project itself – such cultural capital could be useful in a potential lawsuit. Simultaneously, the presence and
realization of the Public Library project within an exhibition enlists the host
institution as part of the movement and exerts influence on it by taking
the museum’s public mission seriously and extending it into a grey zone of

Ibid., p. 29.
Mars, Zarroug, and Medak, “Public Library”, p. 85.

“There is something political in the city air”


questionable legality. The defence of the project becomes possible by making the traditional claim of the “autonomy” of art, which is not supposed
to assert any power beyond the museum walls. By taking art’s autonomy
at its word, and by testing the truth of the liberal-democratic claim that
the field of art is a field of unlimited freedom, Public Library engages in a
kind of “overidentification” game, or what Keller Easterling, writing about
the expanded activist repertoire in infrastructure space, calls “exaggerated
compliance”.12 Should the need arise, as in the case of a potential lawsuit
against the project, claims of autonomy and artistic freedom create a protective shroud of untouchability. And in this game of liberating books from
the parochial capitalist imagination that restricts their free circulation, the
institution becomes a complicit partner. The long-acknowledged insight
that institutions embrace and co-opt critique is, in this particular case, a
win-win situation, as Public Library uses the public status of the museum
as a springboard to establish the basic message of free access and the free
circulation of books and knowledge as common sense, while the museum
performs its mission of bringing knowledge to the public and supporting
creativity, in this case the reworking, rebuilding and reuse of technology
for the common good. The fact that the institution is not naive but complicit produces a synergy that enhances potentialities for influencing and
permeating the public sphere. The gesture of not exhibiting the scanner in
the museum has, among other things, a practical purpose, as more books
would be scanned voluntarily by the members of the anarchist commune
in Calafou than would be by the overworked museum staff, and employing
somebody to do this during the exhibition would be too expensive (and the
mantra of cuts, cuts, cuts would render negotiation futile). If there is a flirtatious nod to the strategic game of not exposing too much, it is directed less
toward the watchful eyes of the copyright police than toward the exhibition
regime of contemporary art group shows in which works compete for attention, the biggest scarcity of all. Public Library flatly rejects identification
with the object “our beloved bookscanner” (as the scanner is described on
the project website13), although it is an attractive object that could easily
be featured as a sculpture within the exhibition. But its efficacy and use
come first, as is also true of the enigmatic business card–like leaflet, which
attracts people to visit the Public Library website and use books, not only to
read them but also to add books to the library: doing this in the privacy of
one’s home on one’s own computer is certainly more effective than doing
it on a computer provided and displayed in the exhibition among the other
art objects, films, installations, texts, shops, cafés, corridors, exhibition
halls, elevators, signs, and crowds in a museum like Reina Sofia.
For the exhibition to include a scanner that was unlikely to be used or
a computer monitor that showed the website from which books might be

Easterling, Extrastatecraft, p. 492.
See https://www.memoryoftheworld.org/blog/2012/10/28/our-belovedbookscanner-2/ (accessed July 4, 2016).


What, How & for Whom / WHW

downloaded, but probably not read, would be the embodiment of what
philosopher Robert Pfaller calls “interpassivity”, the appearance of activity or a stand-in for it that in fact replaces any genuine engagement.14 For
Pfaller, interpassivity designates a flight from engagement, a misplaced libidinal investment that under the mask of enjoyment hides aversion to an
activity that one is supposed to enjoy, or more precisely: “Interpassivity is
the creation of a compromise between cultural interests and latent cultural
aversion.”15 Pfaller’s examples of participation in an enjoyable process that
is actually loathed include book collecting and the frantic photocopying of
articles in libraries (his book was originally published in 2002, when photocopying had not yet been completely replaced by downloading, bookmarking, etc.).16 But he also discusses contemporary art exhibitions as sites of
interpassivity, with their overabundance of objects and time-based works
that require time that nobody has, and with the figure of the curator on
whom enjoyment is displaced – the latter, he says, is a good example of
“delegated enjoyment”. By not providing the exhibition with a computer
from which books can be downloaded, the project ensures that books are
seen as vehicles of knowledge acquired by reading and not as immaterial
capital to be frantically exchanged; the undeniable pleasure of downloading and hoarding books is, after all, just one step removed from the playground of interpassivity that the exhibition site (also) is.
But Public Library is hardly making a moralistic statement about the
virtues of reading, nor does it believe that ignorance (such as could be
overcome by reading the library’s books) is the only obstacle that stands
in the way of ultimate emancipation. Rather, the project engages with, and
contributes to, the social practice that David Harvey calls “commoning”:
“an unstable and malleable social relation between a particular self-defined social group and those aspects of its actually existing or yet-to-becreated social and/or physical environment deemed crucial to its life and
livelihood”.17 Public Library works on the basis of commoning and tries to
enlist others to join it, which adds a distinctly political dimension to the
sabotage of intellectual property revenues and capital accumulation.
The political dimension of Public Library and the effort to form and
publicize the movement were expressed more explicitly in the Public Li14


Robert Pfaller, On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners, Verso, London and New York, 2014.
Ibid., p. 76.
Pfaller’s book, which first appeared in German, was published in English only in 2014.
His ideas have gained greater relevance over time, not only as the shortcomings of the
immensely popular social media activism became apparent – where, as many critics
have noted, participation in political organizing and the articulation of political tasks
and agendas are often replaced by a click on an icon – but also because of Pfaller’s
broader argument about the self-deception at play in interpassivity and its role in eliciting enjoyment from austerity measures and other calamities imposed on the welfare
state by the neoliberal regime, which since early 2000 has exceeded even the most sober (and pessimistic) expectations.
Ibid., p. 73.

“There is something political in the city air”


brary exhibition in 2015 at Gallery Nova in Zagreb, where we have been
directing the programme since 2003. If the Public Library project was not
such an eminently collective practice that pays no heed to the author function, the Gallery Nova show might be considered something like a solo exhibition. As it was realized, the project again used art as an infrastructure
and resource to promote the movement of freeing books from copyright
restrictions while collecting legitimization points from the art world as enhanced cultural capital that could serve as armour against future attacks
by the defenders of the holy scripture of copyright laws. But here the more
important tactic was to show the movement as an army of many and to
strengthen it through self-presentation. The exhibition presented Public
Library as a collection of collections, and the repertory form (used in archive science to describe a collection) was taken as the basic narrative procedure. It mobilized and activated several archives and open digital repositories, such as MayDay Rooms from London, The Ignorant Schoolmaster and
His Committees from Belgrade, Library Genesis and Aaaaaarg.org, Catalogue
of Free Books, (Digitized) Praxis, the digitized work of the Midnight Notes
Collective, and Textz.com, with special emphasis on activating the digital
repositories UbuWeb and Monoskop. Not only did the exhibition attempt to
enlist the gallery audience but, equally important, the project was testing
its own strength in building, articulating, announcing, and proposing, or
speculating on, a broader movement to oppose the copyright of cultural
goods within and adjacent to the art field.
Presenting such a movement in an art institution changes one of the
basic tenets of art, and for an art institution the project’s main allure probably lies in this kind of expansion of the art field. A shared politics is welcome, but nothing makes an art institution so happy as the sense of purpose that a project like Public Library can endow it with. (This, of course,
comes with its own irony, for while art institutions nowadays compete for
projects that show emphatically how obsolete the aesthetic regime of art is,
they continue to base their claims of social influence on knowledge gained
through some form of aesthetic appreciation, however they go about explaining and justifying it.) At the same time, Public Library’s nonchalance
about institutional maladies and anxieties provides a homeopathic medicine whose effect is sometimes so strong that discussion about placebos
becomes, at least temporarily, beside the point. One occasion when Public
Library’s roving of the political terrain became blatantly direct was the exhibition Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation
Storm, which we organized in the summer of 2015 at Gallery Nova (figs.
The exhibition/action Written-off was based on data from Ante Lesaja’s
extensive research on “library purification”, which he published in his book
Knjigocid: Uništavanje knjige u Hrvatskoj 1990-ih (Libricide: The Destruction
of Books in Croatia in the 1990s).18 People were invited to bring in copies of

Ante Lesaja, Knjigocid: Uništavanje knjige u Hrvatskoj 1990-ih, Profil and Srbsko narodno


What, How & for Whom / WHW

books that had been removed from Croatian public libraries in the 1990s.
The books were scanned and deposited in a digital archive; they then became available on a website established especially for the project. In Croatia during the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of books were removed from
schools and factories, from public, specialized, and private libraries, from
former Yugoslav People’s Army centres, socio-political organizations, and
elsewhere because of their ideologically inappropriate content, the alphabet they used (Serbian Cyrillic), or the ethnic or political background of the
authors. The books were mostly thrown into rubbish bins, discarded on
the street, destroyed, or recycled. What Lesaja’s research clearly shows is
that the destruction of the books – as well as the destruction of monuments
to the People’s Liberation War (World War II) – was not the result of individuals running amok, as official accounts preach, but a deliberate and systematic action that symbolically summarizes the dominant politics of the
1990s, in which war, rampant nationalism, and phrases about democracy
and sovereignty were used as a rhetorical cloak to cover the nakedness of
the capitalist counter-revolution and criminal processes of dispossession.
Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation Storm
set up scanners in the gallery, initiated a call for collecting and scanning
books that had been expunged from public institutions in the 1990s, and
outlined the criteria for the collection, which corresponded to the basic
domains in which the destruction of the books, as a form of censorship,
was originally implemented: books written in the Cyrillic alphabet or in
Serbian regardless of the alphabet; books forming a corpus of knowledge
about communism, especially Yugoslav communism, Yugoslav socialism,
and the history of the workers’ struggle; and books presenting the anti-Fascist and revolutionary character of the People’s Liberation Struggle during
World War II.
The exhibition/action was called Written-off because the removal and
destruction of the books were often presented as a legitimate procedure
of library maintenance, thus masking the fact that these books were unwanted, ideologically unacceptable, dangerous, harmful, unnecessary, etc.
Written-off unequivocally placed “book destruction” in the social context
of the period, when the destruction of “unwanted” monuments and books
was happening alongside the destruction of homes and the killing of “unwanted” citizens, outside of and prior to war operations. For this reason,
the exhibition was dedicated to the twentieth anniversary of Operation
Storm, the final military/police operation in what is called, locally, the
Croatian Homeland War.19
The exhibition was intended as a concrete intervention against a political logic that resulted in mass exile and killing, the history of which is
glossed over and critical discussion silenced, and also against the official

vijeće, Zagreb, 2012.
Known internationally as the Croatian War of Independence, the war was fought between Croatian forces and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army from 1991 to

“There is something political in the city air”


celebrations of the anniversary, which glorified militarism and proclaimed
the ethical purity of the victory (resulting in the desired ethnic purity of the
As both symbolic intervention and real-life action, then, the exhibition
Written-off took place against a background of suppressed issues relating
to Operation Storm – ethno-nationalism as the flip side of neoliberalism,
justice and the present status of the victims and refugees, and the overall character of the war known officially as the Homeland War, in which
discussions about its prominent traits as a civil war are actively silenced
and increasingly prosecuted. In protest against the official celebrations
and military parades, the exhibition marked the anniversary of Operation
Storm with a collective action that evokes books as symbolic of a “knowledge society” in which knowledge becomes the location of conflictual engagement. It pointed toward the struggle over collective symbolic capital
and collective memory, in which culture as a form of the commons has a
direct bearing on the kind of place we live in. The Public Library project,
however, is engaged not so much with cultural memory and remembrance
as a form of recollection or testimony that might lend political legitimation
to artistic gestures; rather, it engages with history as a construction and
speculative proposition about the future, as Peter Osborne argues in his
polemical hypotheses on the notion of contemporary art that distinguishes
between “contemporary” and “present-day” art: “History is not just a relationship between the present and the past – it is equally about the future.
It is this speculative futural moment that definitively separates the concept
of history from memory.”20 For Public Library, the future that participates
in the construction of history does not yet exist, but it is defined as more
than just a project against the present as reflected in the exclusionary, parochially nationalistic, revisionist and increasingly fascist discursive practices of the Croatian political elites. Rather, the future comes into being as
an active and collective construction based on the emancipatory aspects of
historical experiences as future possibilities.
Although defined as an action, the project is not exultantly enthusiastic
about collectivity or the immediacy and affective affinities of its participants, but rather it transcends its local and transient character by taking
up the broader counter-hegemonic struggle for the mutual management
of joint resources. Its endeavour is not limited to the realm of the political
and ideological but is rooted in the repurposing of technological potentials
from the restrictive capitalist game and the reutilization of the existing infrastructure to build a qualitatively different one. While the culture industry adapts itself to the limited success of measures that are geared toward
preventing the free circulation of information by creating new strategies
for pushing information into a form of property and expropriating value


Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, Verso, London
and New York, 2013, p. 194.


What, How & for Whom / WHW

fig. 1
Marcell Mars, Art as Infrastructure: Public Library, installation
view, Really Useful Knowledge, curated by WHW, Museo
Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2014.
Photo by Joaquin Cortes and Roman Lores / MNCARS.

fig. 2
Public Library, exhibition view, Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2015.
Photo by Ivan Kuharic.

fig. 3
Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation
Storm, exhibition detail, Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2015.
Photo by Ivan Kuharic.

fig. 4
Written-off: On the Occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Operation
Storm, exhibition detail, Gallery Nova, Zagreb, 2015.
Photo by Ivan Kuharic.

fig. 5
Trevor Paglen and Jacob Appelbaum, Autonomy Cube,
installation view, Really Useful Knowledge, curated by WHW,
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 2014.
Photo by Joaquín Cortés and Román Lores / MNCARS.

through the control of metadata (information about information),21 Public Library shifts the focus away from aesthetic intention – from unique,
closed, and discrete works – to a database of works and the metabolism
of the database. It creates values through indexing and connectivity, imagined communities and imaginative dialecticization. The web of interpenetration and determination activated by Public Library creates a pedagogical endeavour that also includes a propagandist thrust, if the notion of
propaganda can be recast in its original meaning as “things that must be
A similar didactic impetus and constructivist praxis is present in the work
Autonomy Cube, which was developed through the combined expertise of
artist and geographer Trevor Paglen and internet security researcher, activist and hacker Jacob Appelbaum. This work, too, we presented in the
Reina Sofia exhibition Really Useful Knowledge, along with Public Library
and other projects that offered a range of strategies and methodologies
through which the artists attempted to think through the disjunction between concrete experience and the abstraction of capital, enlisting pedagogy as a crucial element in organized collective struggles. Autonomy Cube
offers a free, open-access, encrypted internet hotspot that routes internet
traffic over TOR, a volunteer-run global network of servers, relays, and services, which provides anonymous and unsurveilled communication. The
importance of the privacy of the anonymized information that Autonomy
Cube enables and protects is that it prevents so-called traffic analysis – the
tracking, analysis, and theft of metadata for the purpose of anticipating
people’s behaviour and relationships. In the hands of the surveillance
state this data becomes not only a means of steering our tastes, modes of
consumption, and behaviours for the sake of making profit but also, and
more crucially, an effective method and weapon of political control that
can affect political organizing in often still-unforeseeable ways that offer
few reasons for optimism. Visually, Autonomy Cube references minimalist
sculpture (fig. 5) (specifically, Hans Haacke’s seminal piece Condensation
Cube, 1963–1965), but its main creative drive lies in the affirmative salvaging of technologies, infrastructures, and networks that form both the leading organizing principle and the pervasive condition of complex societies,
with the aim of supporting the potentially liberated accumulation of collective knowledge and action. Aesthetic and art-historical references serve
as camouflage or tools for a strategic infiltration that enables expansion of
the movement’s field of influence and the projection of a different (contingent) future. Engagement with historical forms of challenging institutions
becomes the starting point of a poetic praxis that materializes the object of
its striving in the here and now.
Both Public Library and Autonomy Cube build their autonomy on the dedi21

McKenzie Wark, “Metadata Punk”, in Public Library, pp. 113–117 (see n. 9).

“There is something political in the city air”


cation and effort of the collective body, without which they would not
exist, rendering this interdependence not as some consensual idyll of cooperation but as conflicting fields that create further information and experiences. By doing so, they question the traditional edifice of art in a way
that supports Peter Osborne’s claim that art is defined not by its aesthetic
or medium-based status, but by its poetics: “Postconceptual art articulates a post-aesthetic poetics.”22 This means going beyond criticality and
bringing into the world something defined not by its opposition to the real,
but by its creation of the fiction of a shared present, which, for Osborne,
is what makes art truly contemporary. And if projects like these become a
kind of political trophy for art institutions, the side the institutions choose
nevertheless affects the common sense of our future.


Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All, p. 33.


What, How & for Whom / WHW

“There is something political in the city air”



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