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Art and the Commons


by Chris Desser

Art can help us reclaim a wholeness of mind and emotion,

breaking down the boundaries of culture and consciousness.

This is a valuable step in reclaiming the commons.

Can works of art help us see the world anew and help us glimpse the ways in which human beings are truly connected to each other and to nature? Can they help us slip the shackles of old habits of thought, and help us develop more integrated forms of feeling and thinking?

It is perhaps an inescapable part of the human condition to "divide up the world" into mental categories. The categories may be immensely useful, but they are also partial and misleading. Philosopher and scientist Jacob Brownowski has described the process of science - the process by which we gain empirical knowledge - as that of decoding a "completely connected world." This decoding requires dividing that completely connected world into what is relevant and what is not relevant to the matter at hand, in order to create a meaningful context for study.

But this division, Bronowski warned, does violence to the actual, organic nature of the real world. We must always bear in mind that we are "certainly not going to get the world right, because the basic assumption that [we] have made about dividing the world into the relevant and irrelevant is in fact a lie." Thus, we must be careful of the actions we take as a result of our often-necessary world-dividing activities.

Amy Balkin,
Amy Balkin, "PUBLIC SMOG", a DIY public park that posits a speculative model for a counter-future of climate justice, 2007.
The creative personality, according to Bronowski - whether an artist or a scientist or an activist - is "one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change." She understands that the world she paints or studies or acts on is but a fragment of a connected whole. The integrity and truth of her creative act - her survival in fact - depends upon operating and acting within the truth of that connection.

To the extent possible, then, our actions must arise out of an integral structure of consciousness, one that moves from the connections we are able to see - while bearing in mind that there are certainly connections we are not yet aware of. If we return to a linear way of thinking, one that ignores the completely connected world, as Brownowski warns, we will get it wrong. Alas, we frequently do.

The Commons and Integrative Thinking

To me, the commons provides an overarching organizing principle that can help begin to heal some of the artificial divisions that we have imposed upon the world and ourselves. It is a conceptualization that can help us create the world we want to live in. It is consistent with the emergence of an integral structure of consciousness, a way of thinking that is fundamentally connected and relational.

Eric Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist who studies memory and how it works, has said, "It took us a year to realize what should have been obvious from the start: the cellular mechanics of learning and memory reside not in the special properties of the neuron itself, but in the connections it receives and makes with other cells in the neuronal circuit to which it belongs."

His point is that memory exists only within a field of relationship. Solitary, disconnected neurons, isolated from the larger system of the brain, could not be the repositories of memory. Memory, Kandel realized -- and I would extend this to consciousness itself -- exists not in a place, but in the connections. Memory, consciousness itself, seems to be a sort of personal commons.

Our "personal commons," in turn, blend into the memories of everyone else, giving rise to a kind of cultural commons. The "commons" refers to all the things that we inherit and create jointly for universal use. They are the things that we inherit or create that we must protect for the benefit of generations to come. The commons include gifts of nature like topsoil, biodiversity, DNA, the sun, the wind, oceans and rivers. They include civic and social inventions like roads, museums, blood banks, sidewalks, medicine, jazz and social insurance. The commons includes many inventions of the mind and culture, too, such as mathematics, democratic governance, law, languages and art and jokes.

These lists are merely suggestive, not exhaustive. To function as commons, resources must be accessible to everyone in a defined community, and governed with fairness and the future in mind. A resource should be treated as a commons if it belongs to all of us - which itself may be an important moral and political question.

There is a functional reason for treating something as a commons, too. To privatize a resource and treat it as capital or sell it in the market - a process often called "enclosure" - can impede the liveliness of a resource and limit its evolution and development. Too much development can destroy an ecosystem; too much copyright protection can shut down the sharing and re-use that creates culture; too many patents can thwart new scientific research.

Not everything comprises the commons in the most encompassing sense. But those things that are essential to our existence - physically, spiritually, and intellectually -- certainly belong in the commons. Natural resources and realms of knowledge, for example, need to be treated as shared wealth available to all. Enclosing these resources is not only inequitable, it is ultimately self-defeating because it can imperil their physical or cultural survival, and preclude the possibility of their evolving or adapting.

This is perhaps a good analytical tool for helping evaluate whether a given resource should be managed as a commons: Does enclosure destroy the sustainability of a resource? Even if we ignore this rather extreme standard, rules for collectively managing and sharing resources are needed to ensure that they can remain open and available now and in the future.

The meaning of ownership of cultural expression has become quite complex in recent years. The art world, for example, is hotly debating the ethical rules for acquiring, owning and exhibiting antiquities. Who is the proper owner of a work - a museum that once "discovered" and seized an ancient sculpture or vase, or the modern nation-states that now represent the people who live where a long-deceased civilization once flourished?

Danger Mouse, The Grey Album
Danger Mouse, The Grey Album", artwork by Justin Hampton, from Wikipedia, 2004.
Another example of disputed ownership is The Grey Album, by DJ Danger Mouse, a remix album that took a multitude of unauthorized samples from the Beatles' White Album and combined them with rap lyrics from Jay-Z's Black Album. EMI, copyright holder of the Beatles' albums, ordered Danger Mouse to cease distributing the album (though it continues to be available on the Web). Yet the creative achievement of The Grey Album is undeniable; it was hailed by critics as one of the best albums of the year even though it was totally illegal to distribute it.

Of course, artists have a right to protect their works and to sell them. And people have a right to own art and display it in their homes. But there are inevitably tensions when we put a culturally significant artwork into a tight envelope of private property rights - because the vitality and meaning of any artistic work inheres in it being part of a larger culture.

Consider the social significance of a painting like Picasso's Guernica . It would be a wonderful thing to own, and the law certainly sanctions its private ownership. But the power and significance of that painting comes from its installation in a public place, the United Nations. The image affects countless thousands of people, and is a constant reminder to the people charged with creating a peaceful world of the horrors of war.

Artworks that Point to the Commons

I would argue that we need a continuum of laws and ethical rules for determining what should be available to all - and what should be legally sanctioned as private property to protect the artist's economic and creative interests. But to make wise decisions - to take proper account of the commons -- we need to understand how artworks are indispensable tools for helping us see the world whole. They can help us integrate our consciousness with emotions and insights beyond our immediate grasp. Artworks can be instruments for developing a commons consciousness.

A good example is a public art project called Tevereterno, which its creator, Kristin Jones, describes as "a multidisciplinary art project beginning in Rome : for the revival of rivers internationally." As Jones describes the project on her website:

In the center of Rome , suspended between sky and water, a river arena beckons. This symbolic site, immersed in history yet isolated from the city, is the inspiration for visionary collaborative projects that bring artists and the public together for greater environmental awareness in the urban context.

TEVERETERNO (Eternaltiber) is a symbolic project, a resonant vision for rivers in an urban context. The City of Rome, where Western Civilization began, and its source the Tiber River, are the inspiration.

Motivated by the conviction that art is a potent catalyst for environmental awareness, TEVERETERNO aims to establish a vibrant river piazza: The Piazza Tevere.

Here innovative contemporary art will bring the river to life by drawing the public to a new experience of the Tiber . Each year, an evolving program will invite international artists to create site-specific, multi-disciplinary installations inspired by the river.

The vision is optimistic: it begins with a single drop of Tiber River water, and is founded in the hope for rivers worldwide.

Each year, an array of new multi-disciplinary projects spanning environmental, artistic, and educational interests will activate the river site. Invited participants will consider and interact with the context and dynamic elements (air, water, light, sound, stone) to create innovative works that transform the entire space. The public becomes an active participant; their experience is part of the work.

TEVERETERNO operates outside the traditional context of gallery, museum or theatre. Each program creates an intense, visceral experience of the present, amplified by the eternal flow of the river.

Kristin Jones,
Kristin Jones, "Tevereterno", A multidisciplinary art project beginning in Rome: for the revival of rivers internationally, 2007.
Jones did not set out to create art of the commons, and indeed, she never uses the word. But Tevereterno is a magnificent manifestation of a consciousness working from that place. Tevereterno exists in the commons because it is about engaging ordinary people to join in preserving a timeless piece of nature, the Tiber River , while invigorating their shared culture. The project uses classical motifs and images, particularly the she wolf, which is deeply embedded in the history and identity of Rome and Romans. The project is collaborative and interdisciplinary and it evolves over time.

Another fascinating conceptual work of art that grapples with the commons is Amy Balkin's Public Smog. The idea of the piece is for the public to create "a park in the atmosphere that fluctuates in location and scale. The park is constructed through financial, legal, or political activities that open it for public use." By purchasing and retiring emission offsets in regulated emissions markets, for example, the public can make the atmosphere inaccessible to polluting industries and help create "a park" in the air. Balkin writes on her website: "PUBLIC SMOG only exists through use and continual action. Passive use such as breathing is encouraged, as are activities for taking back the air. Add your ideas, events, or activities to the database by sending an email to: info@publicsmog.org."

My own current project, "A Catalog of Extinct Experience," is a collaborative multimedia installation about the experiences in the natural world that are extinct or becoming so. Seeing stars in the sky and being able to drink water directly from a stream are two examples. In our increasingly urbanized world, most kids have never felt dirt under their feet; they have never experienced a world not built almost entirely by human hands.

Such experiences provide an essential perspective on our place in the universe - on the one hand, how small we are, and on the other, an awareness of the significant consequences of our choices and actions. These experiences offer a visceral sense of the interdependent and interrelated nature of existence that is common to every human. They have been central to my own personal development, and should be available to others. It is my hope that The Catalog of Extinct Experience will catalyze the action necessary to re-integrate our bodies and our consciousness with nature, and in so doing, promote integrative thinking and a concern for the commons.

Integrative thinking -- commons consciousness -- is not only reflected in collaborative or environmentally oriented art. The paintings of Joy Garnett spring from such a place. Her paintings are based on photographs culled from the Internet, an artistic practice that has entangled her in copyright disputes and debates about the necessity of appropriation in creativity.

Garnett describes her work as depictions of "apocalyptic scenes that evoke romantic landscapes. My sources include military archives, journalistic photographs, tourist snapshots, scientific and pseudo-scientific artifacts, news images of current wars, and the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the recurring California wildfires. Pulled from their contexts and reinterpreted as paintings, the true implications of these images become more elusive. Completed in a single session, the paintings strike a visceral chord while examining the grey area between the mass media's packaging of current events and the open-ended narratives of art."

Garnett regards the re-contextualization of images as indispensable to revealing their meaning. But this practice has provoked at least one photographer, Susan Meiselas, to threaten legal action against Garnett for appropriating her copyrighted photographs. Again, the tension between property rights and the cultural commons is made manifest through art. (For more on the issues raised by artistic appropriation, see a blog post by artist Christopher Reiger at his blog, Hungry Hyena.

Emily Jacir has performed one of the more imaginative uses of art to emphasize our common humanity in the artificial and dangerous borders. Jacir asked Palestinians from around the world, "If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine , what would it be?" She then used her American passport and its accompanying "freedom of movement" status to realize the desires of people who have limited or no access to their own nation.

Jacir's exhibition documented the artist's fulfillment of Palestinians' requests in text, photography and video. The presentation is simple and straightforward: photographs of a visa denied, a family separated, a bill paid, an historic district obliterated. A text in Arabic and English records each request and its outcome. (Some requests have been impossible to fulfill).

There are undoubtedly many other artists whose work is helping to promote integrative thinking and commons consciousness. I think of the layered paintings of Julie Mehretu (and here) the integrative expression of Andrea Zittel, and the imaginary maps of Benjamin Edwards. To me, these works seem to arise out of a consciousness of the commons.

Art and Our Mental Organization of the World

Whether making art or engaging in the practical, day-to-day work of social change, there are critical moments, and needless to say, this is one, where it is wise to step back and consider our work in the most capacious context. Massive global change is upon us - the already felt impacts of global climate change; the depletion of global fisheries; increased desertification in Africa ; and the surge in immigration activism in the U.S. and Europe are but a few significant indicators.

Our responses to this must come from all social sectors and disciplines, and from all realms of human endeavor. Will we meet this change with regressive and fascistic means and methods, or will we design open and integrative solutions?

Kate Weigel, Tuscany, near Gaiole in Chianti, Italy, 2007.
Kate Weigel, land use patterns in Tuscany, near Gaiole in Chianti, Italy, 2007.
This moment in history calls for nothing less than a huge shift in perception from one that sees the world in polarized, linear terms to one that operates from the commons perspective of interrelationship. Robert Irwin put it this way in Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees:

What we're talking about is changing the whole visual structure of how you look at the world....The implications are very rash... in time they have the ability to change every single thing in the culture itself because all of our systems - social systems, political systems, all our institutions - are simple reflections of how our mind organizes. So we're talking about a different mental organization, which ultimately, in time, has to result in different social, political and cultural organizations because they're the same thing.

What I hope to do today is invite you, as powerful communicators - as instruments of change - into this conversation about how a commitment to the commons. The very essence and energy of our consciousness and work can liberate us from the false distinctions and divisions that may have been necessary in the past, but are anachronistic today. And I hope that the examples I have offered today - and there are numerous others - make clear that swimming in the sea of consciousness and connection does not condemn one to abstraction. Kristin Jones' "Tevereterno" is an excellent example of that. Emily Jacir's installation shows how an artist can craft something with precision so that the viewer/participant can viscerally feel, as well as intellectually understand, the inherent and intended connections.

Our success now requires that our efforts emanate from a completely connected, integrative consciousness, and must be directed towards the preservation and enhancement of a completely connected world. Richard Rorty said, "that a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change." The need to speak differently has never been so urgent; speaking differently is what artists do best.


This essay first appeared in OnTheCommons.org and is based on a speech that Chris Desser gave to the California College on the Arts on March 10, 2008. Chris is a fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, a think tank focused on developing the concept of The Commons and an overarching analytical structure and its implications for organizing across sectors and disciplines. She is the founder of Women's Voices. Women Vote, co-founded the Muir Investment Trust and has served on many boards, including the board of greenmuseum.org.

© 2010 greenmuseum.org