Ian Nesbitt, The Commoners' Fair, Nottingham, 2016. Cider: Blue Barrel Cider, Photo: Reece Straw

ART as/is SOCIAL: The Commons
Lianne Mol

ART as/is SOCIAL is an ongoing discussion group initiated by cultural researcher Lianne Mol at ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics in Berlin. The sixth session in the series, focusing on the Commons, was co-hosted by Rebecca Beinart, Engagement Curator at Primary. Departing from two short texts by Casco Art Institute in Utrecht (NL) this session took on the question ‘How can art and art institutions contribute to the Commons and take on practices of commoning?’. Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch provided a historical framework to the idea of the Commons within the context of the transition to capitalism. This session discussed the use and value of the notion of the Commons within artistic, curatorial and art-institutional contexts, and explored various formats for commoning in the artistic and social realm.

Caliban and the Witch sketches the beginnings of capitalism and the economic system of accumulation and private ownership for profit. Starting with land privatisation and expropriation, the development of capitalism was predominantly a process of enclosure. Essentially, enclosure consisted of the privatisation of the Commons – fields to keep cattle, woods to collect timber, ponds to catch fish – that were essential for many people to survive. As importantly, they were spaces of encounter, solidarity and sociality, and their social function was especially important for the subsistence and autonomy of women. Their expropriation reduced economic and social space, and thereby freedom.

The contemporary return to the Commons and practices of ‘commoning’ can thus be considered an act of opposition towards the capitalist system. Indeed, in their most recent exhibition Working for the Commons, Casco understands the Commons as “a value system, a governing principle and ethics, and a way toward counter-hegemonic relations”. They question the logic of arts production within capitalism, and propose feminist values of reproduction, care and sustainability as a basis for their practice. As such, they advocate that they are “producing within reproduction”. Rather than doing a one-off project around the idea of the Commons, Casco is aspiring to build a sustained practice of commoning.

What Casco seems to imply is that they aim to make visible the reproductive labour of maintenance taking place behind the scenes, as much as the productive labour that manifests itself in exhibitions and public programmes, and to be transparent about official and unofficial hierarchies. The question this raises is whether we can learn to work together non-hierarchically, and if so, how and on what scale? The existing art market and funding structures – rooted in capitalism – that shape so many arts organisations make genuine commoning a real challenge. Casco’s text shows a deep awareness of this reality, and contrary to some radically critical and activist projects and initiatives, it does not claim to work outside the system. Rather, they acknowledge the existence of a political system in art that prioritises production over reproduction, that is strongly based in the logic of capitalism, and that keeps producing crises; and they aim to work within and beyond this system to propose alternative methods for knowledge-making. One example is the project Site for Unlearning, initiated by artist Annette Krauss. ‘Unlearning’ is a tool to collectively reflect on internalised social norms, structures and habits, in order to move towards more common ways of doing and knowing. An important part of this is “unlearning one’s privileges” (inspired by Spivak) and to use our privileged positions to imagine and enact alternative individual and communal realities. The project focused specifically on ‘unlearning the arts organisation’ and asked what they could unlearn in order to institute a more communal way of working, in line with Casco’s conceptual agenda.

We can learn from initiatives outside of the art world, like housing projects. Legislations about ownership of space and land often complicate practices of commoning. There are nevertheless some successful examples of spaces that were returned to the Commons in Berlin. Kastanienallee 86 for instance: this building was originally squatted by a group of activists. In 2004 arrangements were being made to sell the building to a group of investors who wanted to make luxury apartments out of it. The activist group managed to avoid this and founded a civil law partnership in order to buy the house collectively. As such, they have a contract that ensures no one can take ownership of the space, i.e. collective non-ownership, and the house is secured as a communal living space now.

Whilst a traditional notion of the Commons is based on spaces and resources, practices of commoning also have a lot to do with knowledge-production. How do we share common knowledge? Rebecca gave an example from the programme at Primary, where artist Ian Nesbitt initiated The Commoners’ Fair. This one-day event brought together people from the neighbourhood and the wider city to exchange skills and knowledge with each other. It experimented with different models for non-monetary community systems.The event asked:‘What is it that everyone has that they can share, and how do we share it? And what could we think of as being the Commons in contemporary urban communities?’ Some of the formats that were executed during The Commoners’ Fair led to ongoing programmes. For instance, Primary now hosts a monthly skillshare session, bringing together two people with very different skills on one evening, and questions raised through this project continue through the Making Place programme.

The capacity of artists, communities, collectives and institutions to contribute to practices of commoning is contextual, and dependent on how they are plugged into the current economic system. Commoning requires an awareness of differences in what people have to offer and can invest; some people might not be able to contribute financially but have their time to offer as volunteer labour, while others do not have the time but have money to donate. This capacity tends to create a certain hierarchy, which is counter-productive to the idea of commoning in the first place. Important ways to overcome this are transparency and honesty about one’s agenda, one’s interests and what one can offer. This also requires that we move beyond the current competition at play in the art world, where artists are forced to chase opportunities in order to make a living. Within a collective, how do you negotiate and decide on individual income? Is paying rent a personal or a social interest? Should everybody earn exactly the same amount of money? These are topics not many people are willing to talk about but it is important we open up this conversation and let go of personal differences. Collaboration doesn’t mean harmony, it always reveals conflict. But conflict does not mean there is no working together. Conflict can be highly productive, and a collective has to be able to deal with it.

Similarly, the recently published book Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Research and the Utopia of the Everyday argues: “The power of the commons [...] does not reside in the promise of a coming together free of friction. As different dimensions of power organise the terrain of the social, social movements are often caught between competing agendas, and in the gap between aims and everyday life. It is precisely the sites of these struggles that the book calls spaces of commoning.” One of the ideas this book proposes, is to deal with the necessary discomfort that comes with social differences, and especially with the awareness of one’s privileged position. Rather than trying to erase differences and privileges altogether, we have to try to work with them and use them to work together. This also seems to be what Casco is proposing when they write that they are producing within reproduction: to work within the existing system and propose alternative practices that fit in, without giving in.

Conceptual statements by artists, curators and institutions tend to raise some skepticism: ‘How does this actually work in reality, and what practices follow from this framework?’. Quite often there seems to be a gap between ideological agenda and actual practice. In organisations that claim to be non-hierarchical for example, it often turns out that directors do not actually perform maintenance tasks because they simply have too many responsibilities and too little time, and interns, volunteers and maintenance workers are not involved in processes of institutional change. This is not necessarily problematic but we have to be honest and transparent about it. As for Casco, they seem to have a feedback loop: their practices are informed by their conceptual framework, and what they learn from them leads to an evaluation of their ideological and institutional backbone, feeding back into their agenda, which then causes a re-assessment of their praxis. This model facilitates constant constructive institutional reflection and change. Could this also be taken up by other institutions? Is this the answer to constructive counter-hegemonic work and transformation within the art world? And how can we put commoning at the core of art-institutional practices?

– Lianne Mol

Lianne Mol (NL) is a cultural researcher based in Berlin, working in the field of museology and institutional critique, and focusing on how artists and art institutions engage with socio-political issues through
their practices.

The full version of this text can be found on the blog zkuartsocial.wordpress.com


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