In the spring of 2001 we demanded: All Power to the Copenhagen Free University. We had just opened a free university in our home in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen. This impossible demand was put forward in the form of a manifesto intented to provoke and unsettle the collective imaginary and open new potential paths of action. We wanted to take power.
The manifesto was written in a very specific socio-political context preceding September 11th 2001. It was written in a mood of confidence. With the Copenhagen Free University we wanted to reclaim power and help undermine the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ – a term used to describe the new economy that was consolidating around the turn of the millennium. The unrolling of the knowledge economy was a part of the neoliberal campaign for control orchestrated by the financial and political elites and the term made clear what kind of ambition was at the core of this campaign: the financialisation of our brains, our nervous systems, our subjectivity, our desires, our selves.
In the midst of the unrolling of this economy, we intended to push the limits and develop new means to stem the invasion of our life by the abstract calculations of capitalist valorisation. It was our intention to picket the social factory, preventing an imminent and clearly hostile take over. We opened our flat as a space for social research and exploration within a context shaped by the hard material facts, fluctuating passions and affective instabilities that characterized our daily life. We wanted to turn the tide. We took power by using the available means: a mattress became a residency, the bedroom a cinema, the living room a meeting space, the workroom an archive, our flat became a university. Opening our private space turned it into a public institution. The Copenhagen Free University was a real collective phantom, hovering.
At the same time, many art workers in their hunt for a new function in society and new sources of income were getting involved in the corridors and boardrooms of the companies and corporations of the neoliberal economy. The artists acted as consultants and legitimators in branding and business activities relating to new ethical and social responsibility schemes and human resource management. The anger and hopes of the revolutionary avant garde had been deemed naive and artists were adapting to a new landscape of immaterial production. This told a sad story about society’s lost ability to dream.
When turning to the education sector we saw that universities across the globe were increasingly restructuring and adapting to corporate practices. Ideas of autonomy and independence in research were quickly falling out of fashion. Not only was the usability of the knowledge produced in universities becoming a contested area, the distribution of intellectual property was becoming a key lever in the new economy. The Copenhagen Free University made it clear that universities do not necessarily have to reflect the hegemonic structures of society; universities could be organised and based in and around the everyday knowledge and material struggles structuring people’s lives. Universities could in fact counter the hegemonic structures. We tried to open a new front at least.
By reclaiming one of society’s central means of knowledge production, the machinery of the university, it was actually possible to create spaces that were not based on capitalist valorisation. For us ‘free’ mean gratis and liberated. Everybody can open their own university, it is a simple action. By self-organising universities people can, in a very practical way, counter the free market restructuring of the official universities by re-appropriating the concept of the university as a place for the sharing of knowledge among students (as the first universities were defined). With the Copenhagen Free University we wanted to break into the university as one of the imaginary institutions of neoliberal society and create a new image, and a new potential path of the possible.
Six months after we opened the CFU, 9-11 happened and the War on Terror pushed the anti-capitalist movement onto the defensive, having to react to all the emerging wars unfolding in the following years. The global civil war was invading our lives and imaginations. This broke the back of the anti-capitalist movement right after the victories of London, Seattle, Gothenburg and Genoa and turned it into the much more vague so-called Social Movement whose objectives became reformist and unclear. Despite this, arrays of de-centralised and self-organised initiatives were still developing and proliferating at grassroots level. Swarms of projects engaging in developing alternative ways of life, building on friendship, extending networks, and with clear cultural, social and political aims, were still coming into being. These community based initiatives were usually resisting formalisation and avoiding the spectacularisation of politics through the useless and pacifying academic seminars, art exhibitions and publications that have increasingly characterized the mediation of critical culture in recent years. We also checked into this circuit occasionally and got a taste of the forces that are producing schizophrenia and resignation in us.
During our life at the CFU we have encountered the way in which the authority of the word ‘university’ works on many levels. On a very practical level, people from across the globe started to write to us, applying as students and lecturers; people were using the CFU as a means of getting into increasingly privatized archives, people were using the CFU to obtain job references, people were using the CFU as a means to get into the fortified first world . . . These and other incidents make plain how embedded the authority of institutions is in the global imaginary. But it also tells us how fragile ruling power is when you play with its language and its basic definitions. The drive to self-determination despite the neoliberal knowledge economy was also demonstrated by all our sister self-organised universities that have mushroomed everywhere in parallel to our own development. It has never been about joining the CFU, or any other university, but about opening your own university.
One thing is the fact that a self-instituted university is messing around with the institutional power relations. But on a structural level the question is what conceptions of knowledge are actually pervading the self-institution? Knowledge for us has always been something that is evaporating, slipping between our fingers. It is not something that we treat as a truth or a possession but something living, a relation between people. Truth is always the truth of the masters, the proprietary knowledge is always the knowledge that separates people into those who posses and those who don’t. Knowledge for us is always situated and interweaved with desire. The kitchen, the bed, the living room made up our anything-but-sterile laboratories. Dreams, unhappiness, rage were all over the architecture. Knowledge is at the same time about empowerment, making people able to understand and act closer to existence and despite the distortion of the spectacle. The research projects we initiated worked as invitations to share rather than drives to accumulate. There have been no singular end products; of importance were all the various experiences and conclusions that people carried into their own lives and networks after taking part in the activities at the CFU. This is why we haven’t published papers or dissertations to wrap up the research projects that we have worked with. We found that the research and the knowledge spun at the CFU did not need a closure. But the institution did.
The Copenhagen Free University has never wanted to become a fixed identity and as a part of the concept of self-institutionalisation we have always found it important to take power and play with power but also to abolish power. This is why the Copenhagen Free University closed down at the end of 2007. Looking back at the six years of existence of the CFU we end our activities with a clear conviction and declare: We Have Won!
The CFU Abolition Committee of 2007 /
Henriette Heise & Jakob Jakobsen