Instead of a Conclusion 

Commoning, Impossible and Indispensable 


The research project taught us that the pursuit of commoning is an impossible task. It is impossible because of the assorted strains and difficulties of crossing what Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls the abyssal line that divides social settings, cutting across, in many and generally violent ways, different attempts of coming together. But, we would also argue, in many cases these impossibilities are routines of thinking and doing. Believed to be impossible, such attempts are re-established in order to legitimize the ongoing (dis)possessions. 


In this project, the abyssal line manifests in visa applications and language barriers, in the exclusionary mechanisms and predetermined hierarchies performed by Austrian law and politics that subtly, or not so subtly, frame the conditions of this research. But the abyssal line is also with us as it structures the way we think and act, or neglect to act. It organises the encounters within and outside of the group based on what is here and what is always already elsewhere. 


Guided by Moten and Harney’s idea of the undercommons, we never truly expected commoning to ‘work’ within an educational institution. We rather hoped to catch glimpses despite of the framework. Two years of working together taught us that we, as individuals, often weren’t able, or willing, to unlearn, give, up, build new, change and break free from the institution. At points, we simply didn’t want to, meaning there were many instances in which there was no ‘we’ but a gathering of individuals who were in conflict with each other. These conflicts did not unfold along a stable dividing line; in other words, they were never ‘just’ about money, language or who was taking advantage of the group, but they marked the impossibility of presupposing a ‘we’. It is these conflicts that the ‘Study as Commoning’ excerpts reflect on.


Looking back upon the project’s evolution, the beginning saw little self-reflection or transformation of our institutional affiliations, needs and desires. Originally, the project was designed to question the commons and explore how artistic practices evoke commoning, including questions of social justice in general. Soon we felt the urgency to address our own way of relating to each other, to a broader research context and to our research in general, but we struggled with how to make this happen, and how to look at us as the subject and object of research without reaffirming our centrality. We continue to struggle with this, even today, at the very moment of writing this contribution. How to reflect on the whiteness of Western institutions, on the privileges that shape those who are working in them, on Western knowledge systems that define (some of) us? And how to engage with all these questions without re-centering those of us who are privileged Western subjects? 

‘This problem is the failure to acknowledge the permanence of an abyssal line dividing metropolitan from colonial societies decades after the end of historical colonialism. Such a line divides social reality in such a profound way that whatever lies on the other side of the line remains invisible or utterly irrelevant’, writes Boaventura de Sousa Santos in Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide.1 Our engagement with research started to teach (some of) us exactly that. It challenged (some of) our ignorance and forced (some of) us to confront omissions. The project, too, initially refused to think beyond the commons as a Western framework and take into account the many invisible violations that commons in the West generally depend upon. Such a list is long, but includes the ignorance of other ideas, the exclusion of other bodies (e.g., through Schengen), the extraction of other resources (e.g., coltan, used in the computers we use to convey our ideas), the appropriation of other land (e.g., to grow the cotton we wear as we write this text).  



The study of commoning as subject and means flourished in some of its objectives and failed in others. In many instances, we were lacking tools, techniques and experiences for moving between heavy institutional structures, everyday routines of thinking and doing, and the desires to do differently. Still, we would like to share a set of challenges listed here in alphabetical order to make some features of our struggle transparent, and to articulate small achievements and failures, so others can build on, refuse or add to our experiences of studying together: 


Accessibility: It is important to find ways to share both the process and products of the research. While realising a research project, it is important to keep in mind multiple forms of public and provide open access to the insights gained and developed. 


Beneficiaries: In the context of a research project, it is important to ask: who is able to submit a research proposal? Who benefits from it? Who writes the outline of such a project? Who can participate? In the everyday life of our project, we failed to regularly address questions of the research’s beneficiaries: who will be included, whose language is spoken, and whose knowledge appropriated? Only some of the researchers addressed the danger of implementing diversity politics that only benefit Western and Eurocentric institutions. We need to meaningfully engage with questions of accessibility, refuse diversity tokenism and ensure leadership and funding for those whose knowledge is ordinarily exploited by Western institutions.


Economic redistribution, or study with, rather than about: In our research proposal, the budget did not consider payment for co-researchers. But projects should also provide payment to students who invest extra time and energy. In a world that thrives on uneven wealth distribution, finding ways to think about fair payments among core researchers and all contributors is crucial. 


Free education, or supporting life: In the first year of the project, we had the opportunity to organise an international summer school. The summer school was free of charge, and during the ten days we provided food and drinks without cost for the participants. This enabled an important social constellation: we sat, worked and ate together. We are used to paying for the things that keep us alive; commoning has to re-evaluate this condition.


Mutuality of institutional cooperations: The decision to travel to Addis Ababa and collaborate with students and teachers of the University of Addis Ababa was motivated by the vision of using the project to support existing, but fragile, institutional relations between the Alle School and the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. The project has taught us that asking questions such as who can travel where is vital if we are to commit to the mutuality of this institutional cooperation. 


Intellectual property rights: In the course of the research project, we rarely talked about intellectual property. We avoided the question of how to deal with ideas that might enable some to secure professional positions, or realise new career steps, another project, or profit. In retrospect, as long as we are working under Western systems of law, it seems necessary to devise and agree upon contracts with each other. 


Shared knowledge: The initial project proposal was written by a small group of people, most members of our group joined the project at a later point. As a consequence, the aim and methodology changed dramatically between the start and end dates. After nearly one year of working together, we were able to reformulate our proposal. This entailed an in-depth negotiation of ideas and languages within a group of researchers from different fields.


Spatial redistribution, or the location of study: Our working space was located in a newly established temporary use project, where local artists and small businesses were invited to meet, work together and develop a common space in exchange for lower rent costs. However, the umbrella project — like most temporary use projects — was designed to nourish a vivid local cultural scene, ultimately enticing real estate investment. Thus, when thinking about how to support communal use and the right to the city, it is key to think about space not only in abstract but also in very specific terms — as the place we inhabit in our everyday life.


The ‘Study as Commoning suggests that, at times, commoning seemed an utterly naïve and impossible endeavour — particularly in light of the many hierarchies and undisputed privileges manifest in our research project. Does ‘Study as Commoning’ also suggest the indispensability of commoning? As hierarchies, inequalities and undisputed privileges shape our lives and we enable and enact them again and again, we recognize an obligation to work towards commoning.


In ‘Study Across Time’, looking backward sparked our imagination for a possible, alternative future, but the investigation was unable to counteract what accumulated as a largely invisible current of the Vienna settlers’ movement — the growing antagonism that would lead to a violent mass movement based on anti-Semitism. Nor could the aims of the settlers’ movement be reconciled with the violence imposed on colonial countries to ensure the supply of cheap commodities, land and laboring bodies. In many ways, the frictions that emerged in the first two studies could be investigated more fully in the third study, ‘Study Across Borders’, which explicitly engaged with the immediate effects of the abyssal line. It was here that the inadequacy of the concept of commoning became most apparent, but also drew attention to the urgency to develop new modalities of encounters in spaces divided by border. We learned that commoning is impossible for several reasons: first, because no support structure employed by a group of individuals is able to outweigh the violence of existing legal systems. Secondly, because the project is fraught with complicity: situated on the privileged side of the abyssal line, it often reaffirms, rather than challenges inequalities. Cooperations and, in effect, cash flows, rely on the invitation — and benevolence — of Global Northern partners, reaffirming hierarchical positioning in the South and North. The latter are reduced to objects rather than agents staking a claim in social transformation. Due to the legacy of colonialism, thousands of years of oppression will not be undone by ‘just being nice’, writes Nikita Dhawan following Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, nor will it be undone by moral imperialism or solidarity tourism. Instead, Dhawan poses self-doubt and modesty as important aspects of an ethico-political practice she calls ‘impossible solidarity’. Insisting on the necessity to confront an unresolvable dilemma, Dhawan writes: ‘Our speech is parasitical on the subaltern’s silence; however, our silence is no guarantee that the subaltern will be heard. Our solidarity efforts are indispensable and yet inadequate. We exist in this double bind, a working without guarantees, which bears within itself the necessity of its own critique, where the ethical interrupts the political.’ 2