The negotiation of the commons takes place in two distinct realms that are increasingly reaching into and shaping one another: the long history of the landscape commons both in cities and in the countryside, and across digital networks. In both realms we find the continued project of the enclosures, appropriating forms of collectively-created use value and converting it, wherever possible, into exchange value. In this conversation Ruth Catlow and Tim Waterman discuss the ‘Reading the Commons’ project together with Furtherfield’s work on understanding the commons.
Ruth Catlow is an artist and co-founder co-director of Furtherfield. Tim Waterman is a landscape architectural and urban theorist and critic at the University of Greenwich and Research Associate for Landscape and Commons at Furtherfield.
TW: I’ll start with a little background. ‘Reading the Commons’ is an ongoing project which we initiated that seeks to find a place of power in order to defend the continual project of the creation of the commons in all realms in the future and to augment and magnify other similar endeavours by other groups and organisations. We knew that there is already a lot of work being done in and around the idea of the commons, so we were less interested in staking out any intellectual ground than we were in making connections and finding ways of sharing research and experiences amongst ourselves and other interested parties. So far two groups have been assembled to read and discuss. The first was convened in the summer of 2014 at Furtherfield Commons, the community lab space in the South West corner of Finsbury Park, and was composed of a broad range of academics and practitioners from different disciplines. It met once a fortnight for several months and discussion was wide-ranging. The second was in the Summer of 2015 and involved a group of Master’s students in curation at Goldsmiths under the direction of Ele Carpenter. Future incarnations of the group will each try for different configurations of people, disciplines, and callings.
RC: The first group was very diverse – from backgrounds in geography, sociology, law, political science, technology, landscape architecture, art, and more. We faced an immediate challenge talking across the boundaries of all these disciplines and philosophical and cultural traditions. This was illustrated immediately in the first session. One of our group, a scholar in Law and Property, was irked by our early introduction of two Americans , Garrett Hardin and Yochai Benkler. We had introduced these theorists along with Elinor Ostrom, Oliver Goldsmith and Michel Bauwens. The law and property scholar was irked for a number of reasons, but particularly because they represented a bias towards a US and UK (English speaking) over other European traditions- of property and ownership over civil liberties. Another participant, with an established practice in arts and technology looked pained throughout. I think this was because we seemed to be scratching the surface of topics, works and discussions that make up the discourse around the network, and the digital commons.
TW: We partially remedied this problem by asking the participants to provide readings for future sections and to give a brief verbal introduction.
RC: For instance Christian Nold led a show-and-tell at the second session, based on a book, Autopsy of an Island Currency (2014) that he had worked on with Nathalie Aubret and Susanne Jaschko. The book problematises a project called Suomenlinna Money Lab, a participatory art and design project that worked with money and local currencies as a social and artistic medium and that sought to involve a community of people in a critique of its own economies. This reinforced for me the contribution that situated practices have to make to theories of the commons, as the book tells a revealing story of resistance to critique in a place and community with an established interest and investment in the cultures associated with private ownership.
TW: Nevertheless there were a lot of times when people ‘looked pained’, because basically we had just jumped in and started discussing the idea of the commons without realising that we were all speaking with different understandings of basic terms. In other words, we were all operating on different registers that sprang from our hailing from different philosophical and disciplinary roots and traditions. It might have benefited us to begin by trying to map out our terms. On the other hand, this might have prevented us from ever even starting! This mapping, perhaps, is a project that we need to figure out how to undertake.
RC: The difficulty of wrangling different registers was also exacerbated by the seemingly unbounded scope of the discussion. The relatively recent growth of the World Wide Web introduces enough material for months of readings about how the digital commons has helped to shift thinking about the commons away from merely the management of material resources to knowledge and cultural work.
Still, we felt – perhaps because Furtherfield’s physical venues are located within a public park – a sense of urgency to think about the social layers of physical and digital space in relation to the commons, as a way to resist the unquestioning total commercialisation of all realms.
RC: To take a couple of steps back….There are misconceptions about the commons that require rectification. Political economist Elinor Ostrom showed, in opposition to Garrett Hardin, that in theory and in practice, the collective co-operative management of shared socio-ecological resources was a lived reality in many localities (1990). While her research drew on management of material resources her Eight Design Principles for Common Pool Resources, shares many characteristics with digital commons.
Hardin’s (1968) essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” had argued that commonly owned resources were doomed to exploitation and depletion by private individuals; therefore justifying the role of hierarchical, centralised systems of power to maintain private ownership. On the other hand, Jeremy Gilbert in his book Common Ground (2013), quotes radical economist Massimo de Angelis, to define the commons as social spheres which help protect us from the market. This becomes particularly useful to help us to recalibrate our definitions of “free” and “sharing” as we reveal so much of our private lives (so nonchalantly) via ubiquitous, proprietary digital devices and commercial social platforms.
TW: Hardin’s one-dimensional projection of the commons as unworkable and disastrous was based upon an understanding of human relations that assumed that competitive individualism is ‘human nature’ and that all such ‘experiments’ were doomed to failure as a result. This is Darwin’s survival of the fittest rendered as ‘dog eat dog’. The voice almost contemporary with Darwin’s that I think most clearly articulates how evolution (human and otherwise) is based upon cooperation is Peter Kropotkin’s, in his amazing book Mutual Aid (1902). Evolutionary science and theory is moving ever more towards Kropotkin’s conclusions rather than Darwin’s, or at least Kropotkin’s work is becoming ever more relevant and complementary to Darwin’s. For me, it’s also impossible to imagine how cultural evolution could work at all except through the cooperation, sharing, and processes of negotiation that characterise the commons.
The landscape commons has always been about more than just material resources, and this is perhaps the most reductively oversimplified register on which we might speak of the commons. So if the problem is to align the different and more meaningful registers along which we all discuss the commons so that a truly collective and collaborative project can emerge amongst many disciplines simultaneously, we should have a go at pinning in place a few core understandings of the commons? Shall we give that a go?
RC: Yes! From my work with Furtherfield, my feeling for the commons is strongly influenced by the cultures of freedom and openness in engineering and software. In 2011 we created a collection of artworks, texts and resources about freedom and openness in the arts in the age of the Internet. “Freedom to collaborate – to use, modify and redistribute ideas, artworks, experiences, media and tools. Openness to the ideas and contributions of others, and new ways of organising and making decisions together.”
If we can agree that the commons are those resources that are collectively produced and managed by, and in the interests of, the people who use them, then the digital commons, as set out by Felix Stalder, are the technologies, knowledge and digital cultural resources that are communally designed, distributed and owned : wikis, open-source software and licensing, and open cultural works and knowledge repositories. Licences such as the GNU General Public License and various Creative Commons licenses ensure that the freedom to use, adapt and distribute works produced collectively is preserved for the future.
Discussions of the commons have, in the liberal tradition, centred around how to produce, manage and share scarce material resources in a bounded geographical locality. This is fundamentally changed in the post-industrial, information age, where cultural and knowledge goods can be easily, cheaply and quickly copied, shared worldwide and transformed. It has brought about a massive shift in the way economics, politics and law are practiced.
As distinct from the users of the majority of corporately-owned search, sales and social media utilities (think Google, Amazon, Paypal, Facebook, Twitter) and digital entertainment platforms (think Netflix, iMusic and Spotify) the community of people involved in developing the digital commons ‘can intervene in the design and governance of their interaction processes and of their shared resources’ (Stalder) – think Wikipedia, Freesound, Wikihouse. This has long continued to be an area of intense critical inquiry, unfolding, and practice for artists who are creating digital and networked artworks that take the form of platforms, software, tools and interventions such as : Upstage software for online “cyberformance”; Naked on Pluto, an online game whose ‘players’ become unwitting agents in the invasion of their own and others’ privacy ; and PureDyne, the USB-bootable GNU/Linux operating system for creative multimedia.
Consumer cultures invite us constantly to outsource responsibility for knowledge, information and cultural works to the markets. Artists and technologists involved in the digital commons make these otherwise abstract (and often invisible) shifts in power and social relations “feelable” for more people. In this way they are asserting alternatives to the prevailing economic models – often privileging collaboration and free expression that disrupt outmoded models of copyright and intellectual property.
Discussions about the role of affect in the development of the commons will be the subject of the next explorations of Reading the Commons, and we will certainly come back to these.
TW: Let’s look at this from another direction. In landscape terms, the idea of the commons has evolved a great deal over time, as, for example, feudal forms gave way to different hierarchical forms based in capitalism and private property, and now in late capitalism and neoliberalism’s adaptation to, and cooptation of various forms of horizontality, especially in managerial practices. The importance of the commons has also shifted from defining notions of shared ownership and management of agrarian resources to include various manifestations of urban life, most recently and compellingly, perhaps, in the dogmatically horizontal democratic organisation amongst participants in the Occupy movement.
Ultimately, the commons, for me, is about dialogue, sharing, and the relationship between people and place. The earliest expressions of the commons were all about our relationship with food; its procurement, preparation, and consumption. A beautiful historic example is the importance of the chestnut tree to the inhabitants of the Cévennes in southern France, and how it not only embodied the commons, but symbolised it as well. It’s not possible to romanticise this story, as it’s one of very hardscrabble survival, but it does illustrate the point. As a staple food, the chestnut was a matter of survival for the inhabitants of the Cévennes. It would seem, metaphorically, that the idea of rootedness would follow naturally from this as a characteristic of the commons, but the reality is more nuanced. Chestnuts were introduced to the Cévennes by the Romans, and then tended centuries later by monks, who would share plants with the peasants with the expectation of future tithes. Labour-intensive chestnut orchards were farmed not just by locals, but by migrant workers as well. If we fast-forward to the 1960s, chestnuts were rediscovered by those wishing to get ‘back to the land’, reviving agricultural practices that had withered away during the years that capitalism had lured people from the countryside into towns.
This shows a very complex picture of the commons: one in which colonization and imperialism, monasticism, peasantry, migrant labour, and then finally arcadian anti-capitalist mythologies of the 1960s each play a part – and I’m skipping over a lot of historic detail and nuance. There is a tendency nowadays to see the commons as exclusively autonomous and horizontal, but historically the commons have been inextricably bound to patterns of ownership and domination. Far from discounting the commons, this shows how the commons can exist within and exert pressure against prevailing forms of domination and ownership. We need not wait for total revolution or the construction of utopia or arcadia. We can get to work now and make a shining example of what is possible, making use of existing networks and existing places. The anthropologist David Graeber, in his book The Democracy Project, (2014) calls this ‘prefigurative politics’: the idea that by acting out the model of politics and human association and inhabitation that we wish to see, that we work to bring it about.
RC: Yes, and while sociality, rootedness and affinity are all associated with embodied experience, they bubble up again and again in the critical and activist media art community who take digital networks for their tools, inspiration and context. Take for example the Swedish artist/activist group Piratbyrån (The Bureau of Piracy) established in 2003 to promote the free sharing of information, culture and intellectual property. Their entire 2014 exhibition of online and physical installations at Furtherfield Gallery highlighted the centrality to their work of cultural sharing and affinity-building. In his recent conversation with Tatiana Bazzichelli about networked disruption and business, Marc Garrett discusses the importance of affinities in evolving more imaginative, less oppositional (and macho) engagement with regressive forces; and quoting Donna Haraway says “Situated knowledges are about communities, not isolated individuals.”(Haraway 1996).
But Tim, I think you were on a roll. Why don’t you keep going? Why is the commons important now?
TW: The exploitation of people and resources that marks the practices of contemporary capitalism is very much a continuation of the project of the enclosures, whether it is to skim value off creative projects, to asset-strip the public sector which is increasingly encroached upon by the private sector, or to exhaust land and oppress workers in the Third World. The commons, however, are being created continually, and they represent not just a resource to be enclosed and exploited, but a form of resistance that has particular power because it is lived and acted. It’s not at all a contradiction to say that what is common is simultaneously enclosed, exploited, and liberatory. It’s a matter of tipping the balance so that the creation of the commons outpaces its negation.
RC: As people negotiate systems for renewal and stewardship of the resources over time they also arrive at an expression of creative identity and shared values.
TW: A moral economy …
RC: By freely surrendering all collectively created culture, from use value for conversion to exchange value, our shared ecologies of knowledge, culture and land are dismantled.
And with this we stand to lose the ability to attend to the nature of co-evolving, interdependent entities (human and non-human) and conditions, for the healthy evolution and survival of our species.
We are seeing a resurgence of collective and collaborative efforts. Our ongoing DIWO (Do It With Others) campaign sets out to adopt the verve and tactics of DIY culture, but to move us on from its individualism towards imaginative and experimental artistic collaboration. We construct more varied social relations (than those set up by pure market exchange) into the proliferation of connected sensing, communication and knowledge tools, in order to facilitate new forms of trans-global relations and cooperation. Most exciting is the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative,an activist hedge fund (and the project of economists, critical theorists, artists and financial experts) which distributes shares to members and its profits are invested in pro-social and commons-focused cultural projects.
TW: The point about use value is an important one. Capitalism, in the familiar equation, seeks to convert use value into exchange value. This process abstracts and simplifies value into purely financial terms. The language and action of the commons resists this because it is so often emplaced and embodied. The commons are local, experienced, shared, and negotiated, and they exist within networks of friendship, family, and civil society, which operate as moral economies, not purely monetary ones. I should probably also make the point that the Greek root of the word ‘moral’ signifies custom – which suggests that morals exist in the relational realm of everyday life, rather than in abstract ‘higher’ realms or in abstract financialised realms such as ‘the market’ – and that ‘economy’ comes from Greek again, the oikos, or household. Another firmly embodied and situated idea that is also incontrovertibly relational.
RC: The digital is becoming embodied and situated in a number of ways. Where once the boundaries between the worlds of atoms and bits were marked by screens and passwords, chips and implants are now on or in our bodies, devices and appliances. People and things are becoming increasingly expressive as nodes in the machineweb. Again, this gives artists a vital role in making these effects more legible, feelable and visible. Our actions are tracked, our utterances and exchanges are monitored, and our behaviours inform the design of future media, systems and products. This is the cybernetic loop. We also see a growing awareness of the geo-political questions surrounding the physical infrastructure of the Internet and its role in global markets. The problematisation of the web through heated debates about ownership and control of infrastructure and data, privacy and surveillance expressed in the SOPA debates- the Edward Snowden affair; Tim Berners-Lee’s campaign for a Magna Carta for the web; calls for a Digital Bill of Rights; the development of decentralising blockchain technologies that underpin Bitcoin, Etherium and (many other projects; artistic projects with a Situationist verve such as those of Piratbyran and F.A.T Lab- these all help us to clarify our place, the opportunities and limits for agency and action as we straddle the physical and digital layers.
So then we come back to the question of resistance and the commons. If, as you’ve described above, the continued project of the enclosures sets the scene for new acts of resistance, how Tim do you see these acts taking place in landscape space?
TW: The fact that democracy and the commons both take place (literally a historic act is situated by its taking place) by occupying space as well as by initiating dialogues and negotiations is important. Occupying digital space is important, as you have shown Ruth, and resisting the forms of surveillance and control that seek to close down the digital commons. I take hope from the fact that even if it takes generations to end capitalism, or at least to shift it from a form of global governance to a competitive economic system more appropriate to the scale of the farmers’ market, that the commons will never be fully enclosed, because capitalism is dependent upon the commons to create value that it then marketises and financialises.
Defending the digital commons also occupies physical space. It will be, from time to time, necessary to occupy the streets and squares of our cities in protest to stand up for them. In doing so we stand up for the physical commons at the same time. Governments have all sorts of tools against public demonstrations, such as the British government’s recently renewed hostility to trade unionism and its desire to further limit strike powers. Strikes will happen whether they’re legal or not though, as history amply demonstrates. Often many instances of land occupations are seen to have failed, however they have to have succeeded, at least temporarily, to register in the historical record as symbolic moments. These moments have immense power. The Diggers, for example, followers of Gerrard Winstanley, were proto-anarchists who organised horizontally in their land occupation in Surrey, Northamptonshire, and Buckinghamshire in the mid-1600s. Their planting of vegetables on common land, though a brief experiment, lives on powerfully in the discourses of democracy.
More modern incarnations of this power include the access to land gained by the mass trespass at Kinder Scout, the long-term encampment at Greenham Common, and the incredibly powerful and highly visible symbolism of the Occupy movement in various places from New York to London to Istanbul and beyond. A recent echo of the Diggers is the occupation of Grow Heathrow, which seeks to prevent the airport’s expansion by peacefully living on land proposed for a third runway and growing food there.
RC: So our next steps both for Reading the Commons and in our acting out of the commons are to define and map, for the purposes of resistance in the ongoing creation of commons; digital collaborocracy and an exploration of affect, agency, embodiment and the commons. Creative practices under capitalism have long contained elements of both creation and resistance (or defence), and now these actions, both positive and negative, take place across the digital and situated realms as well as what might now be termed the ‘situated digital’.
TW: I’m pursuing ideas of what Kate Soper calls ‘alternative hedonism’ so that sustainability can be conceived of as joyful. I think satisfaction – the fulfillment of desire – can have radical transformative potential for prosperity as a collective pursuit and is perhaps the only way to tip the balance away from liberal and neoliberal individualist competitive models. My idea of the commons and commoning includes freedom, democracy, nice cups of tea, evenings spent drinking wine and talking, the elimination of poverty, and the flourishing of human habitat and human potential.
RC: Let’s all drink to that!
Many thanks to Professor Jeremy Strong and Dr Penny Travlou for their feedback and notes on this text!
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