Commoning With Rob Halpern and Robert Kocik
This weekend I will be presenting with Rob Halpern and Robert Kocik at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counsel about the histories and futures of commoning. The title of our presentation is “How Things Hold Together And How The Way In Which We're Currently Going About Things As A Society Is Not How Things Hold Together” and is subtitled “a practical discussion about common interest, the economy, and the social production of artwork.” Rob’s talk, “The Promise of Use-Value: Art at the Limits of Social Practice," or "Recovering Use from Exchange: New Enclosures / New Commons,” will make special reference to artist Amy Balkin’s works Public Domain and Public Smog, which grapple with the expropriation of land and atmosphere. Robert will present a brief history of the commons, and introduce “an impartial (neither capitalist nor socialist) economic commons based on reciprocal ‘due’ and re-portioning of our collective wealth.” For my own part, I hope to talk about some different aesthetic practices and spaces in terms of ways future commons might be modeled. Approaching the talk, I am keeping in mind the various ways that poets/artists share resources, how they exchange with one another, and how they demonstrate against models of community/economy which they wish to critique/wither.
There are quite a few different aesthetic/poetic practices that I think it would be interesting to discuss in terms of commons. One is Anna Halprin’s choreography, and especially her dance City Dance. Much as in the work of the Critical Mass bicyclists, in City Dance Halprin and her dancers/collaborators confronted legal issues surrounding public demonstration by giving dance performances continuously around San Francisco and other cities. The result was a carnivalesque atmosphere where dance could be seen/experienced as a public expression at the limit of the law. How, I wonder, can past performances from an “avant garde” be reactivated in public contexts to achieve particular socio-political ends, such as the demonstration against laws restricting public assembly? Given our virtual era, I am also interested in reclaiming common spaces for physicality/embodiment/affect. What can dance teach us about the potential of bodies—their coevalness and mutual empowerment? Halprin is a hero of mine for her valuable research politicizing movement research and dance. How, likewise, can reenactment (restaging a prior historical or art historical event) become a tool for the present concerns of a potential commons?
Another artist I would like to discuss, who forms a precedent for Amy Balkin’s work, is Agnes Denes. In Agnes Denes’ work “Wheatfield,” the artist strategically intervenes in a public landfill on Manhattan’s Battery Park via a Public Art Fund grant. By planting and yielding 5,000 pounds of wheat in an abandoned property (what, for a time, in England, would have been called a “wasteland”) Denes simultaneously kindles the hope of reclaiming blighted land/property while drawing-out the antinomies of New York’s real estate market (after Denes yielded her crop the land she had brought back to life was immediately bought by developers). How to transform spaces which have been abandoned or would appear unusable? Another artist I would like to talk about within this context is Mierle Ukeles, who founded the “maintenance” art movement, a movement of artists who foregrounded art’s usefulness in producing and upkeeping public spaces.
The problem of commons, as Peter Linebaugh’s book The Magna Carta Manifesto brilliantly analyzes, is one of sustainability—how we live with the land and the land with us; or, to quote Robert Kocik quoting Augustine, of “using without using.” Its origins go back to the Charter of the Forest, a constitutional document accompanying the Magna (Big) Carta (Charter), which determined the common right of land use.
In the period from the 16th century to our present moment, the legal power of the Charter of the Forest has been significantly altered and eroded. A major blow to the document’s legal power occurred in the 16th-19th centuries when Feudal law was overturned and a peasantry driven into emerging cities. Karl Marx called this period that of the “expropriation of a free people.” How to reinstate the tenets (and tenants) of the Charter of the Forest through aesthetic practices? While many tools are available to us via the legacies of "land" and "maintenance" art, I believe we also have a new set of tools through artists such as Jodi and Cory Arcangel, whose works often “hack” information to draw out the aporias of digital expropriation. In Arcangel’s work and countless other digital artists I see a movement of younger artists working for a digital commons. So this is hopefully a place my talk can end up.
Thanks to Robert Kocik, we have started to write a bibliography for commoning. I’ll post that here in case any are curious what we are up to or would like to build upon it:
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004)
Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (University of California Press, 2008)
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000)
Hugo P. Leaming, Hidden Americans: Maroons of Virginia and the Carolinas (Routledge, 1995)
Marcus Nevitt, Women and the Pamphlet Culture of Revolutionary England, 1640—1660 (Ashgate Publishing, 2006)
Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (Verso, 2005)
Geoff Kennedy, Diggers, Levellers, and Agrarian Capitalism: Radical Political Thought in 17th Century England (Lexington Books, 2008)
Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalized Economy (Zed Books, 2000)
Christopher Hill, Winstanley ‘The Law of Freedom’ and other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Penguin, 1984)
Neil Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Duke University Press, 1998)
Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy (Cornell University Press 1997)
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Commonwealth (Belknap Press, 2009)
David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism (Arbeiter Ring, 2006)
Richard Price editor, Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979)
Kenneth Rexroth, Communalism: From It’s Origins to the Twentieth Century (Seabury Press, 1974) [also available online at http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/communalism.htm]
Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography of John Lilburne (Phoenix Press, 2001)
J.M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700—1820 (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
John Hanson Mitchel, Trespassing: An Inquiry into the Private Ownership of Land (Perseus Books, 1998)
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property (Cambridge University Press, 1994)
Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
Thom Donovan lives in New York City where he edits Wild Horses of Fire weblog (whof.blogspot.com) and coedits ON Contemporary Practice with Michael Cross and Kyle Schlesinger. He is a participant in the Nonsite Collective and a curator for the SEGUE reading series (NYC). He holds a Ph.D. in English...