Common Field – Finding a Form

How do groups of people who come together around a shared purpose organize themselves? The purpose might be to hold an annual community feast and holiday celebration, or to exchange knowledge about how low-income communities can gain more control of their own futures, or to manage a common resource like a cooperatively-owned apartment building. It can seem that only a few organizational structures are available, and, indeed, it often makes sense to fit our activity into commonly-used legal or financial frameworks. But doing so can also seem to require the twists of a contortionist,  take huge amounts of energy, or risk losing the original purpose. Are there more choices?

I recently had a chance to consider this question when the Temporary Art Review invited me to write an essay in response to a gathering that brought together artist-centered spaces, organizations, and organizers from across the country. The meeting I attended was one of three that operated under the name “Hand-in-Glove.” The three together have generated momentum for a new national network called Common Field. 

As I reflected on my experience at the gathering and on the emergence of the network, I was impressed by the struggle and soul searching around what form Common Field should take. This questioning triggered my essay in which I consider whether the ancient form of the Commons might be a useful organizing framework. The essay, “Finding a Form,” was published on November 23, 2015 and can be found at the Temporary Art Review here and also below.

Finding a Form

On site HIG photo

Common Field
is a new network connecting the visual arts organizing field – experimental, noncommercial contemporary arts organizations and independent organizers in the US and beyond. It broadcast its official launch across the internet by email and social media, and invited broad membership on November 5, 2015. The network recognized itself and came to life through three national gatherings, all presented under the name, “Hand-in-Glove” – 2011 in Chicago, 2013 in New Orleans, and 2015 in Minneapolis. Common Field was officially launched at HIG in 2015, and this became both the third HIG and the first annual convening of Common Field.

In mid-2015 I was invited to serve on the Common Field Council, which gave me the chance to attend the event in Minneapolis. Although plans for the network were well underway by the time I got involved, I’ve had the opportunity to witness and participate modestly in its formation.

A caveat before proceeding: My focus here is the organizational form of Common Field because these forms are one of my own obsessions. Much more can be and is being said about Common Field, both the convening and the network – about the art and the people, about the purpose and content that makes the form even worth considering. Of course, purpose and content should resonate with form, each giving rise to and informing the other over time.

-Anne Focke

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Our desire was to support “a process and practice that is decentralized, non-hierarchical, rooted in trust, and committed to the support of new and vulnerable practices.”     

– Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson
Lead organizers, Hand-in-Glove 2015

Like other groups in my life right now, Common Field struggles to find or articulate its form. Is Common Field an organization? A network? A process? An organizing platform? An idea? What form would be most useful? What form does it have already, or even what form did it have before it was “Common Field”?

Before I dig more into its form, I borrow something about who Common Field is from Colin Kloecker and Shanai Matteson, lead organizers for Hand-in-Glove 2015. With HIG, they said, they wanted to reach a field that encompasses “alternative, experimental, noncommercial, unidentified, under-recognized, radical, tenuous, precarious, resistant, vital, emergent, artist-centric, artist-run, artist-led spaces and organizations, projects and practices, ideas and commitments.”  It’s a field full of commonalities and differences, testing its boundaries, trying out its various relationships, and beginning to see itself in new ways.

However its form is defined – network, platform, organization – Common Field knows, collectively and intuitively, that it encompasses an energetic field of people and organizations that resonate with each other, even while bristling at some of each other’s unspoken assumptions. Everyone who attended HIG in Minneapolis saw, heard, and felt the presence of that field, powerfully. At times, attempts were made to articulate what it is we hold in common and how we want to hold it.

The nature of Common Field’s form is clearly on the minds of the people who have been its main stewards so far, but everyone in attendance at HIG was encouraged to consider what shape it should take, both in a session set aside for this purpose and throughout all three days. In a welcome to the whole group on the first evening, Common Field co-directors Courtney Fink and Stephanie Sherman told us that Common Field aspires to be “a network that suits our times – one that is experimental, includes both the emerging and the established, is held together with common threads, and is easily collaborative and inclusive.” Many discussions and questions about that aspiration were raised during the course of our time together.

What is this field? What do we share? What are our self-definitions? What I heard at HIG was usually full of ambiguity and questions. The “field” is hard to define, which is both a strength and a weakness. How can Common Field reach and include people outside formal nonprofits – collectives, informal groups, artist projects, social ventures, commercial entities? Can the structure we create be fluid rather than institutional? What’s the balance between sufficient management and letting the energy find its own shape? And, how can we balance the value of leadership with the desire for decentralized power?

The need to push back against or move beyond the institutional systems and structures available to us was palpable. I could also hear it in the desire for a light-weight structure that can shift and move easily, one that is more horizontal, inclusive, and collective. Common Field itself is not incorporated at this point, but operates as a fiscally-sponsored project, which for some makes it feel less pinned down, less constrained. “We want simple structures that engender trust.”

All the while, of course, in the world at large, a debate is being waged about whether power should rest with government or with the market. Many are beginning to express the belief that these two don’t offer enough choices and that we need new systems. This search for options is certainly not exclusive to the arts or to artists’ worlds.

The commons as an option

Other systems are available. Lately, I’ve been learning about the commons as another way to manage and govern resources, and, here, “resources” should be understood broadly, as natural resources like water and air or intangible resources like ideas, knowledge, and imagination. Whether the commons works as a pattern or form for Common Field is unclear right now, but the opportunity to try it out is intriguing. And, of course there’s the shared name.

So I offer a short description of the commons, a few of its principles, and some brief examples. I can’t cover the ideas in much detail here; it’s a huge field of study with thousands of functioning examples. Maybe there’ll be just enough here to see whether the idea fits and is worth taking further.

In a search for a succinct description of a commons, I turn to David Bollier – an author and activist who has spent many years exploring the commons as a model for economics, politics, and culture. He has this to say:

In essence, the commons is about reclaiming and sharing resources that belong to everyone, and it is about building new social and institutional systems for managing those resources in equitable, sustainable ways.

Although the commons is also an ancient form, Bollier stresses that it’s “a living reality.” Around the world, “people are managing forests, fisheries, irrigation water, urban spaces, creative works, knowledge, and much else as commons.”

A one-sentence definition of the commons from Bollier is one that I keep going back to: “The commons is a resource plus a defined community and the protocols, values, and norms devised by the community to manage its resources.” It’s a definition that makes more sense the more I learn.

The commons has many manifestations and definitions. There is no standard model for what a commons looks like. Each one runs in its own particular way, and across the world the commons takes thousands of forms. Though it’s not a cookie-cutter approach, there are a few principles that allow a commons to be effective and reliable.

A key set of principles for the commons was described by Elinor Ostrom, a political scientist who received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009 for her work on the commons. Her life’s work showed that commons are viable, sustainable social systems for managing collective resources. A few of her principles are:

A commons must have clearly defined boundaries, for both the resource and the membership.

Collectively, the people of a commons must be able to develop their own rules and protocols for managing the resource. 

They must also be able to devise systems to monitor how the resource is used and to identify and punish people who violate the rules.

A few of the places in today’s world where Bollier identifies active commons include: Traditional communities in Africa have developed their own “bio-cultural protocols” to help legally defend their lands and ways of life from neoliberal trade policies. Lobster fishers in Maine work together to ensure that no one over-harvests lobsters in a given bay. Community-Supported Agriculture farms and permaculture communities blend their agricultural practices and social ethics with the imperatives of the land. There are land trusts and community forests, and urban gardens and the Slow Food movement. The much newer digital world has spawned many commons. Examples range from Linux and thousands of free, open-source software programs to the burgeoning world of more than 10,000 open-access scholarly journals, whose articles are freely available in perpetuity and not restricted by paywalls or strict copyright control.

One of my favorite examples is Wikipedia, where information is the resource that’s managed and, as it states on the policy page of its website: “Wikipedia policies and guidelines are developed by the community to describe best practices, clarify principles, resolve conflicts, and otherwise further our goal of creating a free, reliable encyclopedia.” I especially appreciate the spirit of its guidelines in this sentence: “Policies and guidelines should always be applied using reason and common sense.”

Why might Common Field think of itself as a commons?

Common Field already has some of the characteristics of a commons. David Bollier’s one-sentence definition provides helpful starting points.

A commons manages a resource. Common Field has a valuable resource in the knowledge and experience of its members, in their desire to be engaged and to share what they know, and in the imagination they bring to their work. It has a community that feels ownership of it – its members, council, co-directors, and probably its funders and supporters as well, The space that connects us is also a resource. A HIG panelist, Sam Gould, proposed that “we need spaces between ourselves where we can recognize each other and then look outside ourselves.” And at the end of the conference, Satinsky said to Kloecker, “we need to do something with this energy that’s emerging.” So they quickly worked together “to create an open space for small, unpredictable, urgent conversations” on the final day. Continuation of this kind of open space is also a resource that deserves careful management.

A commons has defined boundaries. The most recently circulated (10/5/15) description of Common Field says it connects “the visual arts organizing field,” that is, “organizations and organizers who do this unusual, hybrid, often under-the-radar work.” The community could also be defined by the lively list of adjectives in Kloecker and Matteson’s description early in this essay.

So far, the boundary defining Common Field’s membership is loose. The question of who is included was raised regularly during Hand-in-Glove and in small conversations during, before, and afterward. I repeatedly heard an argument for being inclusive. Steve Dietz, on the opening night said, “Monocultures are death.” And Martha Wilson, a Council member noted, “We need a discourse around difference, we need to navigate with differences.” In a post-conference letter to Common Field’s Council, Kloecker and Matteson wrote, among other things, of an underlying weakness of the field: “the people in this room do not represent the whole” and in many ways are homogenous – majority white, urban, college-educated, and so on. Their strong belief is that the whole is larger than those represented so far. In putting together the HIG program, they wrote, “Our best aspiration was to hold open that emergent space – that non-hierarchical, transparent space, committed to its values, open to changing, vulnerable, and aware of its own power and privilege.” In this, they propose a major challenge, and it’s one that’s all about boundaries.

A commons has protocols and rules. The protocols, rules, and sanctions that the members of a commons develop are sometimes formalized in written documents; other times they’re maintained through trust. But regardless of the form the rules take and how they’re enforced, commons are governed by a system of community-created rules. The importance of rules was suggested when Dietz said, using slightly different language, “Powerful platforms are agnostic, but they are not free-for-alls.”

How are free-for-alls avoided? How do the protocols of any specific commons develop? As I understand it so far, people start by talking with each other. They build relationships and trust. Over time they negotiate rules to protect community interests. They build systems to identify and punish “free riders.” They cultivate cultural values and norms. It takes time.

My sense is that there are already common interests that Common Field holds and eventually might identify and protect through its own protocols, but these haven’t yet developed. As an intentional entity, Common Field is just beginning to recognize itself.

Protocols and rules might develop around answers to questions like these: How are the boundaries of membership drawn to be as diverse and dynamic as the field is, while still being finite? How are they enforced? What are the boundaries? How does the work get done? It takes real work to hold a network or platform together; the work is often invisible, but things fall apart without it. What are the terms of working together? What are rights and responsibilities of members, Council members, co-directors?

How might Common Field move forward as a commons?

An initial step might simply be for Common Field to reinforce and strengthen its commons-like traits, and to not too quickly adopt organizational assumptions from the market. All the questioning of institutions and structure that I heard in Minneapolis seems healthy in this regard. It’s good to remember, though, that there’s no “pure” model of a commons. Common Fields needs some of what the market offers, an income stream, for instance. Like most commons, it would probably evolve as a kind of hybrid. As Dylan Miner, HIG panelist, put it: “We have to push back on the oppressive systems we have now. We have to both address the practical need to live within the systems that exist and also re-imagine new ways to live.”

We can assume that the way forward won’t be clear. Like any other commons, this one would not be the same as others. “It’s OK not to have the answer, to show our vulnerabilities,” as Kloecker and Matteson said. “As a field we’re ready to embrace a lack of clarity.” Complex Movements of Detroit talked of both grounding their work in stories and in relationships and knowing that the narrative of revolutionary movements is complex. In the same discussion, Rosten Woo said that with his work he aims to “make it legible and visible” and “make it complicated.”

Developing as a commons won’t necessarily be any easier than adopting any other form of governance. It will require making new assumptions and will take time to nurture and work to maintain. Once we get the hang of it, though, it may be more familiar than we think.

• • • 

Whether or not the idea of the commons makes sense as a pattern for an emerging “common field,” I find it a useful lens when I look at the disarray of our current economic, social, and governing systems. Using what I know of the commons has been helpful at specific times when I’m trying to figure out which of several actions to take. Some of why the commons does this for me is captured by Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč excerpted from a statement for the opening of an installation in The Hague, “The Commons”:

I see The Commons as a new platform for addressing and reinventing what was called ‘public’ in the modernist period, during the postwar efforts to construct the social state. The old ‘public’ paradigm clearly does not work in our current neoliberal times. Public space, for instance, is being extensively privatized. For me, the current interest in The Commons reflects people’s desire and demand for a new social contract, a new citizenship.

A coda and thanks

First, I’m grateful to the Temporary Art Review for giving me the chance to try out ideas of the commons in the context of Common Field, a very real entity in the process of forming itself. And I thank everyone involved in Common Field for giving me the opportunity to play a part in its formation.

As we edited this piece, I was happy to discover that the commons was already much in the minds of both James McAnally, executive editor of Temporary Art Review, and of Common Field’s co-directors, Courtney Fink and Stephanie Sherman. In an email exchange, Stephanie raised many pertinent questions that go beyond what I could cover in this essay, but which should provoke much thought in the future: Can we understand the commons on a deeper conceptual level? How do the values and systems hold everyone in check and ensure that the commons serves the best interests of the field? How is “trust” defined here and what is its role? How do we respond to questions about “the tragedy of the commons”? With Common Field in mind, what are the practicalities of managing a commons? What structures do commons use to survive in our world today?

This isn’t the end of the conversation, and forums to discuss questions like these about the commons and Common Field’s form will continue. In a forthcoming issue of Art Journal, the context and birth of Common Field will be explored from multiple viewpoints, including an essay by James on the idea of “the common” in the life and future of Common Field. As with all commons, ours must be negotiated and defined, which will take time and many different voices to set its boundaries and shape its form.

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A few resources

9099 Logo-red_D, nick squared

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