The debate about ‘Commons’ seems to be growing by the day. It is a term that is close to what we do and how we think. This text is an attempt to look in more detail at our own commons, at what we have in common as colleagues and friends. The reason for starting from our own immediate, tangible situation is not to move the subject into the private sphere, but on the contrary to reflect on the wider implications of what ‘to common’ could mean starting from our own actions, within the public and private spheres we are part of.
For this purpose, a conversation, speaking amongst and with each other to try and think together, seems to be the most appropriate way to approach these questions; this both reflects the form of this essay and the process which generated it in the first place. We – Andreas, Céline and Kathrin – have done things in common for a long time already: education – both given and received, projects, friendships, holidays, studio space, dinners, etc. Rhyzom was also a sixteen months project during which many common things were shared, discussed and practiced. We want to use this conversation to explore some of the experiences and observations from those shared activities further – also in regards to each of our own practices and research. We wish to reflect on the genuine common spaces, subjects and activities that arose during this time of being and working together, and speculate on their potential.
What is our own ‘self-interest’ and the ‘common interest’?
We try to balance this carefully in our projects, which allows us to work with others and invite others into our work, without feeling that we are being patronising or manipulative.
If someone has enough self-interest (as in declared by themselves) in an idea or structure proposed by us, then this is the first step towards common ground.
Both motivations need to coexist, they seem complementary, and as reasons they bridge between the personal and the shared.
I think that moment is crucial: self-interest or an understanding of personal motivations often gives meaning to an action, which is an important aspect for others to see and understand in order to relate.
In most of the projects we (public works) act as agents within a local context trying to implement self-managed or participatory processes. Acting as an agent immediately means being an outsider and being limited by funding resources that support the time for our involvement. As public works we collectively articulated a desire to work on larger projects. Larger in terms of physical scale, time scale or the networks of people involved. One way of starting a larger project for me
was Abbey Gardens* and I made a conscious decision of getting involved first a citizen and, if appropriate at a later stage, as a professional. This has also meant that my involvement is limited to my spare time and all my input is unpaid volunteer time.
* Abbey Gardens is a public space, which is open daily for anyone. What was a neglected wasteland has been transformed into an open-access Harvest Garden where anyone can grow and harvest flowers, fruit and vegetables. Abbey Gardens was initiated by the Friends of Abbey Gardens, a group of local residents with the help of ‘somewhere’, a multi-disciplinary, non-profit creative company run by artists Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie and Newham Council.
Why the commons?
Hannah Arendt has a clear reasoning towards providing us with an answer, she defines the public domain as corresponding with the Commons, of the city and of politics, as opposed to the private. The domain of the private, on the other hand, relies on excluding others from claiming one’s property, and by extension, where one is deprived of the possibility of being, acting and talking together, which defines the common world, the public domain, the world outside the door.
Thinking with commons should prevent us from creating (or hiding behind) redeeming ‘common good’ projects, good for all, for the public good etc… but it requires that we articulate our own motivations, our underlying interest in relationship to these. This is important because it clarifies our position (to ourselves, to others) but also contains the expectations we may have
about projects we do, preventing latent expectations of gratitude, engagement, appreciation, and understanding that these are the (patronising) underbelly of so many participatory projects. I would even say that through this question we are talking and raising issues that are very similar to questions that were posed 500 years ago by people in different situations, but resembling needs and desires – this perhaps is another way of speaking in common. We are, in effect, taking sides in these struggles, and that is what is meaningful in friendship. I take friendship very
seriously in these terms, as a political alliance and responsibility. To be friends in projects also means to rely on each other and work collectively towards productions that exceed individual authorships or appropriations. This leads very practically to sharing on different levels, sharing resources or conditions, but also to forming support structures for activities and practices, that are just simply to be inhabited by each of us. A lot of our commonality came through very pragmatic decisions to set things up together: our studio, networks, projects, ideas and resources, which in our case also include sharing mobility (it was Kathrin who realised that my constant travelling could be useful to things we did together rather than the opposite).
I’d like to call upon Andrea Fraser’s ‘The critique of artistic autonomy’1 to reclaim some of the issues and their ancestry – where this all comes from. Whether we are totally conscious of this or not, I think the kind of work suggested and taking place with commons, is work against capitalistic modes of production – and by this I really mean against exploitation. This does not mean that exploitation does not or cannot take place, and there are a whole set of new problems that one has to deal with (exhaustion and repetition not being the least of these), but this is where this starts from.
Working on forms of commons and commonality means not working on the creation of objects, or commodities, and therefore not working on things that can be capitalised upon. This is really important in terms of what kind of artistic practice this proposes, and it comes straight from some of the important work that artists were doing in the 70s and 80s, including Andrea Fraser. But of course this is a position, and not a solution – we still have to deal with how to sustain a practice taking place in social labour when social labour in itself is rarely given value.
‘Commoning is embedded in a labour process’ says Peter Linebaugh;2 the idea of entering a commons by working together, added to that beginning taking place in our own everyday life, resonates with larger concerns around feminist practices. Which existing commons do we feel the need to engage with and support further and why? Can we use this text to make commons and commoning more of a concrete activity for ourselves and the world at large? Could we work towards not only clarifying a terminology for this, but also a more propositional language or ideas that can filter back into our practice and projects, as well as the ongoing Rhyzom ‘movement’?
While we know theoretically that togetherness is not based on similarity but on difference (Derrida would say this is the danger of fraternity, or ideas of brotherhood: if we are included and belong together because we are the same, that means anyone coming from an external, or different position would be automatically excluded) this is in fact what happens with us in our collaborations already. We work well together because we bring very different things to the table, or as Katherine shonfield once put it, Although it sounds very obvious to say, a collaboration is about difference, otherwise why bother? Acknowledging difference opens up a space to recognize what you don’ t know, what you do know and what you didn’t know you knew.