0aachampsbllleThis 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)

Originally Published: January 20th, 2010

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...

  1. January 21, 2010

    this sounds amazing thom! i studied with rob halpern during the mfa and he is the most amazing teacher (& an amazing writer/scholar!). good luck with the presentation.\r


  2. January 21, 2010
     Mark Mitchell

    I always liked the idea of using the WTC space to plant cherry trees, something that must be tended.

  3. January 21, 2010
     rich owens


    an astounding post -- as all yr Harriet posts have been. man, grateful as ever. wondering a couple of things. all three talks sound, to my ears, incredibly important & i wonder if they'll be available afterward for those of us that can't make it -- maybe as video, sound or text files at, say, Pennsound or WHOF. i love that you make yr careful intros to the Segue Series available at WHOF &, more recently, here _after_ the events & i'm hoping something like that might happen w/ these talks for those of us locked in icy arctic environs like Bflo. \r

    i'm incredibly excited too abt yr mention of Christopher Hill in the biblio -- the British Marxist historians get such short shrift re application, usefulness -- more often mentioned as a sort of footnote on the way to discussions of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, the NLR &c. but it's really exciting seeing Hill put to use here & i'm curious to know more abt how yr planning to draw him into the conversation re method. \r

    bear hugs! rich ...

  4. January 21, 2010
     thom donovan

    glad to see a familiar voice here Rich. man, and wish you cld make the talk which should be stellar. there will definitely be audio recording and I'm pretty sure video: will make sure to put you in touch with whoever's doing video. I will try to make audio available via PennSound though I suspect someone else will be making a more professional archival recording. you know, college years were all about British Cultural Studies, especially Stuart Hall--one of my heros. I owe the bibliography to Robert though; he gets all the credit...\r
    thanks for doing such great stuff at Damn the Caesars lately. I've been digging all the connections you're making between Vigilance, Brenda, Rob and others... ON2 just came out. we're still figuring out how to have a launch but if we have one down in the city I hope you'll consider joining us. warmth and hugs to you too... --Thom

  5. January 21, 2010
     thom donovan

    Rob always talks about you as being one of his favorite and most gifted students Craig...\r

    Thanks for wishing me luck...\r


  6. January 25, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    "How, likewise, can reenactment (restaging a prior historical or art historical event) become a tool for the present concerns of a potential commons?"\r

    Thom, maybe this question has already developed a future! I wanted to ask about the re-enactment of particular kinds of passage; where the passage, in a sense, has become completely "denatured." Perhaps it has already passed outside of contemporary political consciousness, or perhaps what happened at a border site was so - vastly - disgusting: that reorganizing the matter of a body (posture, gesture) virtually or (there): is impossible -- because nothing is THERE anymore. Even the vibration of the place has somehow been dismembered. The subject matter refracts itself when you say even one word about it. Am I making sense? Last year, I went to the border environment of India and Pakistan -- to lie down as near as I could, really, to a very dark line. I am going again in May. My strong desire is to lie down in the space of the line itself. I felt on the edge of this last time, but struggled with the vast space -- the sky, the distance from others -- that surrounded the streaming images my "restaging" produced; a ritual observed, instead, in silence, by a tiny community of men and boys -- casual, serious witnesses to the experiment of "lying down forever," having wandered over when I lit the fire inside the outline of my body on the dirt. Mendieta's fire and vermillion powder, and marigolds. Via, too, Eliz. Grosz -- her language of "relations" that have become so denatured that perhaps, as writers, we need to have a body "there again" -- to experience a "sensation" (Glissant again, and the question of "non-history...) -- before the kinds of psychic and physical transformations we long for can be enacted. This feels like the most inward or somatic part of reenactment to me. Easy to bullshit a spectator, or to feel numb, when so much of this -- Grosz again; I know you studied with her in Buffalo? -- is "imperceptible." Perhaps these are remedial notes. An attempt to meet your question at an immigrant commons, and also the desire to learn more from you about how to become a different kind of writer.

  7. January 25, 2010
     Sina Queyras

    "My strong desire is to lie down in the space of the line itself."\r


    the "language of “relations” that have become so denatured that perhaps, as writers, we need to have a body “there again” – to experience a “sensation”\r

    These are the kinds of questions that persist for me when I come to what we think of as eco-poetry, or that kind of poetry that speaking for the land/oikos. I wonder, even when there is a speaking subject in the poem, where is the body? Where are the sensations, and where is the sense of risk inherent in lying down in the space of the line itself, or, of speaking on behalf of a space (can we distinguish nature from some kind of non-nature in any way)?

  8. January 25, 2010
     Bhanu Kapil

    The risk, for example, of being raped.\r

    I am going to Naropa, now, to teach on "the sentence" -- having written, too, a letter to my students in the cafe this morning, about denature/nature/renaturalize: and so, Sina, you've inspired me...thank you. I will try to think towards your question as I teach today: the great pleasure of teaching when it is the same as writing. \r

    "Where is the body?"\r

    I will ask my students this question and report back.

  9. January 26, 2010
     Susan M. Schultz

    Some great work being done in Hawai`i on the commons by Nandita Sharma and Gaye Chan. I blogged on it a bit here:\r
    but go directly to them for more information.\r

    aloha, Susan

  10. January 26, 2010
     thom donovan

    thanks for this Susan. I was teaching some commons materials over the summer and Sharma/Chan/Collis were all on the radar. I will be sure to add them to the bibliography...\r

  11. January 26, 2010
     thom donovan

    hi Bhanu, \r

    back from my whirlwind wkend of commoning. I have wanted to reply to this but just couldn't find the time to be on the internet, and needed a break from the, um... "community" at Harriet frankly. but here I am. \r

    what you are saying about the place/body being dismembered. or not even available for reenactment once again reminds me of Toufic, who I taught last night with students at SVA in the city. his concept of "surpassing disaster" specifically which can be read about here: http://www.jalaltoufic.com/downloads/Jalal_Toufic,_The_Withdrawal_of_Tradition_Past_a_Surpassing_Disaster.pdf\r

    because it as tho things are not available for our experience. even their spiritual emanation/subtle vibration is gone.\r

    surpassing disaster is when something may still be materially available, but is no longer immaterially available. \r

    to lie down at that border--I am thinking of your thresholds again. and (the) threshold as having vibratory qualities. an intensity. passing from intensity to intensity. a travel not by map but by intensities. a travel often in place.\r

    via Deleuze I want to think about reenactment in terms of reactivation. in Nietzsche and Philosophy Deleuze discusses ressentiment in terms of felt traces. ressentiment results from a re-sensation. an inability to re-act sensations. sensations get the better of us. being re-active is different then re-acting (igniting those traces willfully). so how could your return and how could our bodily returns result in reactivations? enactments that make active the countless memory traces lodged in our bodies--impressed there. our bodies being vessels for what seems lost.\r

    this seems one way to think about reenactment, tho there are others. \r

    I have been wondering about commons in terms of a future anterior--a tense of what we would have wanted to have happened. how can our bodies enact such a tense for an unforeseeable future lodged in the past of our bodies? its sensations that may or may not return. \r

    our bodies are history after all. they are reenactments whether we like it or not.\r

    I don't know what I could possibly have to teach you about writing.\r

    re: Sina's comment below. I have been wanting to think about the history of live performance more clearly in terms of the history of civil rights. because I know intutively that live art comes out of the Civil Rights movement in the US from 50s-70s, and that live art as such is a kind of marsh for thinking somatic practices in art via a politics of civil disobedience and bodily activity/interaction.\r

    I think we need to start teaching classes on civil disobediance. I believe this very strongly. and that the body has to have a serious place in these classes. dancers, therapists, writers, biologists, artists should seriously unite around this problem.\r

    how to deserve our bodies as such, where Deleuze says that the thing is to deserve the consequences of our life, echoing Nietzsche's injucntion to deserve our enemies and our friends?\r

    how to make possible our future perfects--our future anteriors?\r

    maybe this has something to do with your laying on the line which reminds of the phrase "to lay on the line." that is, to do something fully aware of the dangers and risks which attend what you are doing.\r

    your grammar sizzles with this exigency (grammar/syntax being somatic--especially in writing that challenges official language usages). \r

    the period as pulse. the period as rupture. the period--what breaks the glass of the ticket booth at the beginning of your Humanimal.\r

    the period marking lines of flight. flights of intensities. the stimmung of universal history...\r