Fortify the Lobby
BCAA system, the Prague-based audiovisual collective, presents a solo exhibition that wanders freely between centuries and spaces both virtual and physical. Following the trail of poaching wars, the show traverses space-time, immersing the audience in real and imaginary forests where the battle over the state of things rages on. On one well-trodden forest path, Marx’s early ideas on the theft of lumber meet with the total privatization of contemporary digital space – from this encounter, general questions arise as to the limits of the public and the private, freedom and restriction, entitlement and ownership.
This exhibition is realized with the support of HMP and MKČR
Photos: Jonáš Verešpej
From time immemorial, forests have provided people with a means of livelihood. Farmers, peasants, blacksmiths, healers, dowsers or roamers have used their gifts to make shelter, warm the body, cultivate the land, prepare medicine, weave baskets, feed animals or craft furniture. However, the access to these riches did not last forever. The forest began turning, slowly but surely, into a controlled space, whose fruit could only be harvested by those who secured themselves a place in the limelight of the newly emerging relations of production.
As feudalism waned, common people found themselves expropriated from the soil and compelled to realize new ways of living. Freed from their direct subordination to the landed gentry, the former land users roamed the grounds they were no longer allowed to benefit from and travelled to the city, where many would be unable to find work. They turned into beggars, robbers... vagabonds. In the first volume of Capital, Karl Marx refers to these thieves and vagrants, who fell through the cracks of the proceeding economic system, as "Vogelfrei" – that is, "free birds". He regards them as the forebears of the modern proletariat: individuals who, having ceased to be the property of anyone, were left with no property of their own and therefore stood – just like the medieval outlaws for whom the term Vogelfrei was originally reserved – outside the law, condemned to illegality while at the same time punished for it.
It was timber from the very forests that often provided shelter for the wanderers and proffered a priceless pool of resources for the poor, which fuelled the accelerating industrial revolution. Throughout the nineteenth century, the growing demand for timber led to the increased control of woodlands, and even mere entry into the forests became more restricted. With the rise of the modern tax system and the advent of the nation-state, forests were subjected piece by piece to the ownership of a newly established industrial bourgeoisie, which enforced the legislative entrenchment of a new form of “private” property. A state-appointed administration, along with a staff of paid wardens, was put in place to enforce the situation. For many however, forest riches were a vital support, and their harvesting was a hitherto undisputed right. Almost three-quarters of criminal prosecutions in Prussia in 1836 thus concerned precisely the “theft” of timber or the perpetration of other forest crimes, all of which were heavily fined or led to imprisonment.
It was none other than the young Marx who noticed that the state was using such forestry laws to serve the interests of landowners while neglecting the previous customary rights of the people who had depended on the forests for centuries. In 1842 he published a series of articles in the Rhenish Newspaper, criticizing the injustice of the law which did not distinguish between theft and the mere gathering of fallen branches or forest berries. He writes: “[i]f the law applies the term theft to an action that is scarcely even a violation of forest regulations, then the law lies, and the poor are sacrificed to a legal lie... The modern idea conceived by some money-grabbing petty traders becomes irrefutable when it provides profit for the age-old Teutonic landed interest.” It was precisely this law and its exactions on the common people that first drew Marx toward the ideas of communism.
According to British historian Eric Hobsbawm, of all property offences, forest poaching can be understood as an act with "a distinct element of social protest." Just as the free-roaming vagabonds, vagrants, or nomadic Romani people upset the seventeenth-century conceptions of social order – for which they were severely punished or even put to death – poaching in the privatized forest pointed to the absurdity of a new legislation that, in Marx's words, turned “the customary right of the poor […] into a monopoly of the rich.“
In Czech lands, it is at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that we encounter looting forest expeditions which precipitated not only individual acts of rebellion, but open war between poachers and gamekeepers. For example, on 14 June 1888, as part of an escalation of a prolonged conflict, the shooting of gamekeeper Dlabal took place under Panská skála, near Prosečnice outside of Prague. Thus emboldened, the poachers then plucked out the beard of warden Waldhauser and, assuming he was dead, threw him into a gorge and hid him under a pile of deadwood. However, Waldhauser endured and crawled all the way to a cabin in Horní Požáry, where, after having realized their mistake, the poachers held him besieged until dawn. Battles between poachers and gamekeepers also erupted in the Schwarzenberg forests near Chyňava, where, during a skirmish, gamekeeper Jakub Pulec killed poacher Mrázek from Liškov with a rifle blow to the back of his head. Fearful of the poachers' revenge, Pulec then fled to Šumava. But he did not escape his fate: while on duty in his new range, he was ambushed, stripped and tied to a tree by an anthill – a routine treatment of forest guards who found themselves at the hands of poachers.
History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. The war between the enforcers of the law and those the law does not reckon with has moved into new forests where pines lost their scent. The spaces of imagination, equity and boundless possibilities once promised by the virtual worlds have long since taken on the imprint of the property relations of our withering world. Land ownership, whether behind the barn or on the cloud, is a form of ownership most susceptible to monopolization: those who acquire lucrative plots can expand their wealth without constraint, whereas those who do not own land find it very difficult to gain access to any.
The free birds browsing the digital skies thus have no hope for hospitality. As peasants faced expropriation from the land, hungry mouths must now sneak under the cloak of VPNs onto the right side of the paywall. But the moors of cryptocapitalism grow restless. The vagabonds must once again earn a living on their own terms. Sometimes, plots of land disappear overnight from inflated virtual wallets, other times they hardly last a few minutes. Much can be obtained by bartering with virtual goods, but the guardians of the server, gamekeepers of the woodlands of digital speculation, are ever on their tail. Like swallows over the heads of their predecessors, the rogues traverse the picturesque landscape in search of better service. The land here and there does not belong to them, and they enter upon it uninvited. Hard to blame them, for no one asked for their side of the story when marking out the walls. Today they are thus left, as it was back then, with no other way but to walk at a slant – following the side trails, whose shadows are difficult to leave.