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Arts, Culture, and Commoning: A New/Old Path to Collective Transformation

The commons involves an identity shift... different roles and perspectives. We can escape from capitalist value chains by creating value networks of mutual commitment. It is by changing the micropatterns of social life on the ground with each other that we can begin to decolonize ourselves from history and culture.
David Bollier (1966–) and Silke Helfrich (1967–2021), authors and activists, Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons

If the tragedy of the modern economy is that it has succeeded in separating us from one another and from nature, the tragedy of the contemporary theatre is that it has limited the imagination around how work is produced, who has access, and what constitutes artistic excellence. It perpetuates racist, patriarchal, ableist power structures and systems that are not conducive to collaboration or artmaking, but which are best suited to continued marginalization and inequitable practices. But, there’s a movement afoot in the theatre. It is not the first of its kind, but it is of this moment, when there is a bottom-up groundswell of artists and cultural workers producing work outside (and in spite of) the marketplace, creating sovereign models beyond traditional non-profit structures, and building new artist-led infrastructures and networks rooted in care and interdependence. These initiatives are growing out from the cracks and fissures of a calcified market economy and a commercialized not-for-profit theatre sector, driven by a desire for more liberatory, humane, equitable, and relational ways of being and doing.

HowlRound is devoted to sharing knowledge and experiences between theatremakers. We do this in hopes of creating more resources and more opportunities for each other to claim the power and possibility to change the way theatre is traditionally made to better serve us all. We can have this conversation in this way because HowlRound has structured itself as a digital commons. We acknowledge that theatre does not exist in a bubble and that the larger context for theatre is one of tremendous cacophony and chaos. One where modernity and capitalism—its attendant institutions and infrastructure—have largely failed us. We must create new/old pathways forward. We believe that approaching our work through a commons-based framework can help enable the kind of systems and culture shift we need to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable theatre field and world. With this belief in mind, we devote this week on HowlRound to exploring the intersection between theatre and commoning.

We acknowledge that theatre does not exist in a bubble and that the larger context for theatre is one of tremendous cacophony and chaos. One where modernity and capitalism—its attendant institutions and infrastructure—have largely failed us. We must create new/old pathways forward.

What Do We Mean by Commons?

Commons, according to David Bollier, are living social systems through which people and groups meet their needs in self-organized and collaborative ways that are less dependent on the marketplace and cash exchange. In a commons, a distinct community governs a shared resource and its usage. For many, it’s more about the verb than the noun, the doing more than the thing. Commoning is learning together how to co-create to meet shared goals and uphold shared values. Results, efficacy, and excellence co-exist alongside an unfolding process that promotes holism, the well-being of the other and the natural world, decentralized decision-making, grassroots activity, and dynamic sharing between peers and members of a community around infrastructure, material goods, knowledge, skills, and ideas. A commons orientation asks us to steward the resources we hold toward a greater collective good. It also asks us to acknowledge our interdependence and to build relationships with an eye toward collectivity, equity, fairness, and mutual benefit. Examples of commons include ​​food cooperatives, CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture), time banks, community gardens, and alternative and local currencies, to name a few. But in the words of Bollier, “the commons are as old as the human species and as new as a lot of internet systems. Cooperation and self-governance are ancient human traditions, but also new and constantly evolving.”

Many have gravitated to the commons as a powerful framework, while others find it abstract, alienating, and inherently Eurocentric given its property-specific origins in medieval England. In The Commons in History: Culture, Conflict, and Ecology, Derek Wall shares that Marxist historian and scholar Peter Linebaugh, who coined the term “commoning” to denote the practices that construct the commons, has argued that “there were connections between the British radical commons tradition, indigenous land rights, and slave rebellions.” Many commons theorists assert that the original commoners are in fact Indigenous peoples who stewarded the land with care for thousands of years before colonization. In short, regardless of origin, there are many paradigms, practices, and lifeways that break the death march of (white) modernity.

It’s more about the verb than the noun, the doing more than the thing. Commoning is learning together how to co-create to meet shared goals and uphold shared values.

Whatever the particular name—the commons, solidarity economy, localization, gift economy, economies of happiness, and so on—in this series we seek to make visible and honor manifestations of this work. We are deeply interested in the livingness (or life) of these practices as much as their functionality. We want to converge around the experiential, the poetic, and the practical—the wide continuum between the spirit and the technology. This movement itself is not a monoculture; it is highly diverse and eclectic. Some projects are small-scale and highly localized. Others may be so far from conventional centers of art and culture, and made up of such wild coalitions, they may not even be recognizable as theatre. Rarely are these efforts featured in the press; however, these highly adaptive outcroppings are changing ways that work is created and produced and who has access to it to begin with.

How We Got Here

We—Jamie and Matthew—have been diving into the possibilities of this work and organizing with others who share our interest in a loosely fashioned working group devoted to Arts, Culture, and Commoning since 2017. (See our 2018 essay, “The Promise of the Commons” for more on this group).

Several people sit in a circle together on the floor.

Participants in small group conversation during the Deaf Theatre Action Planning Session, a convening produced by Tyrone Giordano, DJ Kurs, Patty Liang, Alexandria Wailes, Ethan Sinnott, and Rachel Grossman in partnership with HowlRound 15-17 March 2019 at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Jamie Gahlon.

I, Jamie, come to this work with a deep interest in commons-based approaches to theatre and performance. Over the past decade, I have been tremendously impacted by the philosophy of the commons and the practice of commoning through my work as a co-founder of HowlRound. And while I recently studied this topic for my master's in performance curation, this is neither a purely conceptual nor academic exercise for me. Co-creating a digital knowledge commons that relies on commons-based peer production as its primary means of creation has been a formative, first-hand experience—as has supporting the commons-based organizing efforts of the Latinx Theatre Commons. In both cases, I have seen how a commons-based approach can help cultivate a space that is highly creative, collaborative, democratized, diverse, accessible, responsive, and very much alive. A commons-based approach creates a kind of practicing and being in deep relationship to each other that we so desperately need. Theatre is innately collaborative and social; it only exists in relationship to an audience. I would argue that, because of its communal nature, theatre is uniquely suited to animate the spirit, theory, and praxis of the commons. Theatremaking depends on cooperation, collaboration, and interdependence—attributes at the core of the commons. The complex systems of mutual support that create the conditions required for any show to go on also create many of the same conditions that are precursors for commons. In other words, I believe theatre needs the commons, and the commons needs theatremaking.

A commons-based approach creates a kind of practicing and being in deep relationship to each other that we so desperately need.

I, too, Matthew come to the commons from over two decades as a member of Double Edge Theatre, co-leading development of laboratory ensemble practice connected to place. This work began with my mentorship under Double Edge founder and artistic director, Stacy Klein, and co-artistic director, Carlos Uriona—an encounter which fundamentamentally changed how I see the relationship between theatre and life. What Klein calls “living culture,” a holistic pre/post-capitalist vision of theatre, contains this commoning spirit. I learned of the rich tradition of laboratory theatre, a form that rarely exists outside of government sponsorship in Europe. Back in the first decade of the 2000s in the United States, a long-term devised ensemble work in a rural place was considered impossible, impractical, and quixotic. Success (and thus reward) meant that work must happen in major markets, put butts in seats, get a New York Times review, and so on. In that reality, art, and thus life, was somehow governed by the marketplace, its tastemakers, and technocrats. Accordingly, to engage in community meant giving up artistic excellence. Thanks to a spirit of collectivism, we began to explode the potential of our art and our survival. We didn’t call it “commoning,” but we realized that in fact, that’s what we were doing on multiple dimensions at once. We found simultaneity creating original indoor touring works, outdoor spectacles on our farm, and community spectacles in public sites around the world while growing ourselves as individuals, administrators, farmers, and members of an ensemble and a community. We were learning how to become an autonomous artistic community, a solvent organization, while deepening interdependence with our local, national, global community, and the natural ecology. Our ability to thrive as artists became a reality by forging an incredibly resilient alternative, commons-based mode of self-production.

Hundreds of people walking together.

The Ashfield Town Spectacle photo by Bill Hughes. Courtesy of Double Edge Theatre.

What’s Ahead

Looking ahead to the rest of the series, we begin by drawing inspiration from some of the members of our Arts, Culture, and Commoning working group. First, you will hear from Richard Newman, co-director of The Hinterlands ensemble, about what he calls the “porous borders” between the radical art they create and the Hamtramck/Detroit neighborhood where they live and work. Richard traces the function of the outdoor ramp at their collectively stewarded performance space, Play House, as a kind of commons, a community gathering spot, and more. He asks if there can be a grief commons, acknowledging that perhaps there already is and we’re all living in it.

Next, we have a conversation between artist/activist/organizers Javiera Benavente and JD Stokely who speak to phases of knowing and not knowing. They are both in gestational phases of learning that will inform the shape of their respective vocations, and both are engaging art, creative process, embodied practice, justice, and ceremony across disciplines, communities, and generations. Their thinking and visioning about the intersection of arts, culture, and commoning is a liberating thought around what is important and how we build communities of practice.

Finally, we close with The Long Match–a two-part, two-day HowlRound TV event co-presented by HowlRound and Double Edge Theatre. "The long match"—inspired by the multiplicity of Indigenous technologies and traditions for carrying the embers of a fire over long migrations—is an organizing metaphor that aims to significantly widen the circle of participants and practices featured in this series, while also deepening the conversation on art, culture, and commoning. On Thursday 17 March, we will hear from Caroline Woolard and Marina Lopez, who will speak to the work of the Art.Coop project “Solidarity Not Charity—Grantmaking in the Solidarity Economy.” They will share what is emerging from their work since publishing this report and conducting co-learning sessions in Fall 2021. Additionally, they will invite into the conversation a handful of models and practitioners from around the world who are part of this movement. On Friday 18 March, we will close the series with a discussion featuring Jonathan McCrory (National Black Theatre), Olga Sanchez (Latinx Theatre Commons), Larry Spotted Crow Mann and Rhonda Anderson (Ohketeau Cultural Center), Stacy Klein and Carlos Uriona (Double Edge Theatre), Francisco Perez (solidarity economy activist, educator), and Abigail Vega (HowlRound Theatre Commons) hosted at Double Edge Theatre, moderated by Matthew.

A man carrying a torch stands on top of a small stone tower.

We The People, photo by Dave Weiland. Courtesy of Double Edge Theatre.

Conclusion

“The premise is not whether an idea or initiative is big or small, but whether its premises contain the germ of change for the whole.”
David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons

Culture lives upstream of economics and politics. During the decline of the Anthropocene, in this epoch of disaster and turmoil, we must acknowledge the primary role artists and cultural workers must play in reimagining and rebuilding culture. This movement is a commons-based artistic intervention that elevates the imagination, addresses the mythos for our time, and opens new spaces of collective power and possibility. And while we rush to name it and to diagram and replicate these models, it is perhaps most important to first encounter some of these practices. Commoning is just one of many powerful frameworks that can help us achieve more equitable, relational, and sustainable arts and culture practices. This week is devoted to seeing just a few manifestations of this movement we call art, culture, and commoning. Really, this is just dipping the toe in the river. We want to make these patterns visible. We want people to see the interconnectedness. We want people to feel the potency of this work and its potential for systemic change and collective transformation.

Thoughts from the curators

This week-long series of essays and conversations uplifts approaches to theatremaking that find confluence with the framework of the commons. Curated by Jamie Gahlon and Matthew Glassman, with members of the Arts, Culture, and Commoning working group, this week-long series amplifies artists and culture workers who activate collectivism, interdependence, and the role of imagination to catalyze systems change. These artists parse the ways their work opens up possibilities for theatre—and culture more broadly—to turn away from the market economy and toward collective liberation.

Arts, Culture, and Commoning

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