’Study of/as Commoning’ is one of the outcomes of a research project realized by a group of artists, architects and social theorists at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (2014-16).1 In times of ongoing environmental crisis, violent land grabbing and the aggressive financialisation of space, time and subjectivities, combined with global migration flows, and increasing border aggressions, the research group explored the possibilities of approaching commoning as both the subject and means of collective study. The group was largely inspired by the extensive debates in social sciences, arts and politics surrounding the commons, all of which claimed new entry points for a radical repudiation of neoliberalism. They envision alternatives beyond capitalism and other forms of domination. The creative insights and energies developed in and around these debates articulate and build on existing struggles that challenge accumulation and exclusion. As such, debates on commons often aim to counter the growing retreat from radical visions for alternative futures. In contrast to dominant accounts of political trajectories, in which a capitalist and deeply financialised reality is proposed as the best of all worlds, the commons debate insists that another world is possible.
We approached the commons as a particular form of relationship: the desire for an alternative way to relate and be with each other. Early on, these thoughts directed our focus to our study group. How should we deal with our own relations and the hierarchies put in place by the institutional framework of the project? How do we relate to each other, to research, funding policies, the state and university laws? Once we acknowledge that the foundation of this research group is built upon inequalities, how do we change the way we relate to each other within and with regards to the colonial project of the university? How can we study together if the very basis on which we come together is exclusion and dispossession?
With these questions in mind, we take this contribution as an opportunity to further reflect on the wearisome challenges and, in many instances, frustrating impossibilities, of doing justice to a methodology that takes commoning as subject and a means of study. It was the latter, which sparked fulgurous imagination as much as heated debates and, at times, painful uncommoning. As the project involved eight core-researchers, some co-researchers, and many more contributors, the group was organised (or disorganised) around a series of conflictual axis, including institutional hierarchies, geopolitical positioning, financial in/securities, bodily dis/abilities, genders and sexualities, as well as state and institutional policies. As the project engaged in a series of cooperations, all of which were fundamental to the project’s orientation, many of these new relationships were caught up in the drive towards uncommoning that organises the world outside of our immediate research project. In this light, two pressing questions drove the making of this text: how did our study of and as commoning itself produce, reproduce and dismantle — or even block — commoning? And more concretely, who was/were the envisioned subject(s) of these commoning processes?
These questions moved to the centre of our debates as we reflected upon and began documenting our research at the end of a two-year funding period. These discussions and reflections were published with Sternberg Press in 2016, in the book Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Research and the Utopia of the Everyday. In the time since, with the benefit of critical distance and having received feedback on our book, we felt the urge to return to some of the issues and further reflect on our collaboration and methodology. Parts of this essay, therefore, are taken from our previous publication, while others are new or adapted. The respective sections are labeled accordingly.
A Struggle Called Commoning
In contrast to the more general debates surrounding the commons, this project asserts that the promise of the commons does not imply that coming together will be free from friction. On the contrary, commons are made against, as well as within, a multiplicity of existing fields of power, so that power relations may be negotiated rather than simply reproduced. As different dimensions of power organise the overdetermined terrain of the social, social movements are often caught between competing agendas, as well as in the gap between their declared aims and the complexity of everyday life. In our research, we called this struggle commoning. This understanding of commoning is based on the premise that commons are most productively considered a triad: as shared resources, as a community of commoners, and finally as a process of actively engaging in the negotiation of rules of access2 and use. As Peter Linebaugh argues, commoning is a verb, a social practice: commons are not yet made but always in the making; they are a product of continuous negotiation and reclamation.3
For two years, members of the research group spent many days sitting around a table discussing commons and their manifold potentialities and limitations. We organised a wide range of events, including an international summer school called “Commoning the City”4, where we tried to collect and debate the experiences of commoning in different geographic, cultural and political settings, while at the same time engaging in a process of coming together. In the context of these projects, we tried to counter an often-too-cerebral approach to commoning by bringing affective experience and our bodies into contact with our thoughts and ideas. To this end, we embarked on collective journeys that included walking forward and backward, listening in common, joining guided tours, building fragile stick constructions, experimenting with reading, making zines, cooking, learning and unlearning. Soon after this event, thousands of people seeking refuge from war, persecution and poverty started to arrive in or near to the city of Vienna. In the public perception, an ostentatious ’culture of welcoming’ slowly turned into a decisive anti-immigration stance supported by a political system that thrived on populism and racism. Our theoretical and artistic reflections on commoning were now forced to confront the effects of aggressive un-commoning. As global economic discrepancies accelerated in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and as the city of Vienna, itself deeply implicated in the growing divide between the Global North and South, East and West, we had to face disturbing questions about the relationship between our privileges, the rhetoric of commoning and the persistent conditions of colonality. What was the meaning of a study on commoning in the light of such aggressive forces of division, violence and domination?
Once these questions were raised, many of the tensions shaking the constituency of the world around us also began intruding upon the everyday of our research. Who were we as a group? The project was supported by public funding from the City of Vienna (WWTF) and was situated in a public art university, the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. How could we possibly engage in a debate on commoning from this position of privilege, relying on benefits which fed visibly and invisibly on the distress of others? How could we deal with the uneven distribution of resources and privileges within our group, the anger and frustration with the precarity of some and the affluence of others, different immigration statuses and abled versus disabled bodies?
We steered our study discussing the commons as a pool of shared resources, having in mind Marx’s account of primitive accumulation and the massive waves of enclosure in the woods of London, as well as David Harvey’s contemporary variation poignanty called “accumulation through dispossession”5. We discussed Silvia Federici’s manifesto 'Wages Against Housework’. ('They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work')6 co-published in the 1970s. The essay questions the Marxist basis of political economy and insisted on the necessity to expand the concept of primitive accumulation to include not just the appropriation of land but also of women’s bodies and their reproductive labor.7 We recognized the necessity of linking discussions on commoning to the long history of colonised lands and bodies, as well as how accumulation in global capitalism has always relied on the social production of race.8 Just as important, we agreed that the commons cannot be reduced to a physical space, and that establishing the commons as a viable discourse and form of living means embracing the day-to-day negotiation of social relations. Building on these premises, we wanted to explore what it means to common; in other words, to come together as an equivocal, nonessentialist, and highly unstable ‘we’.
The Commons Within the Arts
Looking back upon the genealogy of the concept of the commons within the context of the arts, we came to realise that in the course of the last decade the commons had become a central reference in the programming of alternative project spaces (e.g., Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, Utrecht9) and also major institutions (e.g., ifa10) or mainstream art events (Vienna, Art Week). In the context of extensive cuts to state funding and many art institutions’ uninterrupted politics of colonial acquisition, the interest in the commons in the arts risked perpetuating exploitative work relations in the name of the commons (and its alleged political high stakes). With these pitfalls in mind, the research project defined commoning the subject as well as the intended means of our study. We approached commoning as a possible methodology, a modality of social relations, and a collective state of mind that framed our working together. As such, the research confronted the complex double tension between the study of commoning and study as commoning. While the study of commoning explores more or less conventional paths of research, the latter calls for their undoing. Study as commoning challenges the dominant division of subject/object that continues to structure the foundation of Western thought. It reflects on the challenge of allowing ourselves be dispossessed and repossessed by the ideas and actions of others as we study in common.
Study and Commoning
Our reflection on the many elements, dynamics and effects of study as commoning focuses on a series of crystallisation points with the potential for movement and transformation, as much as for conflict and uncommoning. In this contribution, these reflections manifest themselves in the format of a homonymous series of fragmented conversations titled Study as Commoning. These conversations (reproduced here, with yellow background) provide a self-reflective perspective on a group’s attempts to engage in commoning. These fragmented conversations and disjointed exchanges illustrate how eight researchers from different disciplines reflect on and work through the conditions, modalities and implications of a group’s multiple attempts, and failures, to come and study together.
In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Studies (2013), Fred Moten and Stefano Harney propose and develop the concept of study as a mode of thinking and doing with others, located outside of the thinking and doing that the institution requires. They explore a being-in-common that seeks refuge in the institution’s basement, in its hidden, unreachable corners, the so-called undercommons.11 Affected by the book’s claim of an expanded notion of sociality, we approached Harney in an early phase of the research to walk with us into what Jack Halberstam, in the introduction of their book calls ‘a wild place’.12 As Moten and Harney’s writing asks us to pay attention to the conditions under which we live and work, including the condition of academic labor in institutions (such as their distinct politics of indebtedness and ‘calls to order’), Harney became an important witness to our many attempts to work with and against the conditions of coming together. ‘To become the site for collection, to be collective by collection is to cease to be the collector; that is, to cease to be the collector of oneself as the pretense for collecting other’, Stefano Harney wrote in his generous introduction to our book, Spaces of Commoning. Artistic Research and Making of the Utopia of the Everyday.13
During our collective studies, we continuously made use of artistic practices to explore the connection between commoning and the utopia(s) of the everyday. Utopia, as the Western modernist projection of absolute difference, is often used to mark an innocent beginning, where society can start again from scratch. Yet this notion of utopia as radical difference and absolute beginning conceals the presence of many violent inscriptions, including that of settler colonialism, and it enables what Karl Hardy describes as the refusal to become unsettled by the accountability to anticolonial critique.14 By contrast, the concept of a ‘cruising utopia’, as proposed by José Esteban Muñoz, suggests that we ought to emphasize movement and deferral. Following on from this idea, the utopia(s) of the everyday offers neither an always-delayed future nor a coming together in an idealised space — rather it is a relentless challenge to the everyday. It is within this tension that we hope to find guidance for the practices of commoning. This is closer to what feminist scholar and activist Silvia Federici calls a ‘commoning with a small c’15 — the often invisible everyday gestures, sonic registers, and visual cues involved in relating. As such, the utopia(s) of the everyday also provides an analytical and artistic approach for reflecting on our own attempts to come together — the aims, the longings and frustration.
In addition, ‘Study Across Time’ and ‘Study Across Borders’ can be read as a documentation of our study process and our endeavour to come to terms with the challenges of commoning in specific social, space and time-bound situations. Trying to compensate for the project’s more homogenous social composition, the group engaged in longer-term cooperations with a range of different groups and individuals from different fields and geopolitical settings. In an attempt to cross time, our speculations were guided, sparked and also tamed by the generous input of different historians and activists. When attempting to study across borders, we were generously invited to engage with students and staff members of the Alle School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Working along the fault lines of these cooperations and encounters, these subchapters are a modest attempt to address the insufficiency and also indispensability of commoning in our search for how to relate differently.