a hopeful art practice: the commons

In my last blog post on a hopeful art practice, we looked at a work by the sculptor Joseph Beuys called “7000 Eichen”.

Joseph Beuys was invited to make his work as a contribution to the 1982 contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, “Documenta 7”. From the beginning of the project, he made it very clear that he did not want to create a piece of work for a gallery or museum setting. I want, therefore, to pay attention to how the work was “set”: to the space of it, and that which is around and between. “7000 Eichen” is not only trees and stone markers, but is part of the city of Kassel. And Kassel is not only land and infrastructure, but is also citizens, visitors and civic conversations.

In a documentary about the project, Hans Eichel, Mayor of Kassel in 1982, draws attention to the discussions, arguments and co-operation that came about through the project, and says that in his opinion the first success of the work was that it started discussion among citizens. Although it is an artwork submitted to an exhibition,”7000 Eichen” doesn’t appear in art spaces – it shifts our attention entirely away from art objects, to city and civilisation. The work created conditions in which citizens had to engage in the difficult work of collective decision-making and co-operation, and it focussed attention on that which is held in common, or in other words, between us. This leads in turn to questions which are political. What is a city? What is a forest? What is the ecological habitat of the human being? By symbolically bringing together and overlapping city and forest, Beuys was unsettling the categories. And the work is hopeful because asking these kinds of questions can be spacious: he is offering an opportunity to discover alternative answers to them.

According to my dictionary of word origins, the word “politics” comes via words Latin from Greek, meaning “civil administration”, and further back from the Sanskrit “pūr” or “stronghold, fortified place.” Politics thus derives its meaning from a word for city, and from a particular historical city structure: the fortified keep. This gives a clue to concepts underlying our ordinary usage of the word politics, which imagine it as a battle of competing interests around the allocation of scarce resources. And with ideas of scarcity, we see where “economics” comes in to our understanding of politics.

Botanist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer draws on her Potawatomi cultural heritage to offer alternative ways to think about economics. In an essay about about abundance and gift economies, she first sets out the mainstream ideas: “My son-in-law teaches high school economics, and the first principle his students learn is that economics is about decision-making in the face of scarcity.” What comes into view is that a narrative of scarcity is folded up into our ideas of economics, and hence of politics. The question which Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses is of whether a world-view based on scarcity is a true (or desirable) basis for our civilisation, and what alternatives we may have.

Owen Griffiths is a Welsh artist who seeks and builds long-term collaborative relationships or what he calls “sustainability structures” with grass-roots community organisations, cultural institutions and local authorities. Speaking about his work in a talk in 2020, Griffiths said that he uses the provocation: “imagine if all land surrounding us was a commons”. An example of his work is an ongoing urban garden project in Swansea, GRAFT: A Soil Based Syllabus, which is in collaboration with the National Waterfront Museum, schools and local authority, and which he described as being part of an “archipelago of local civic landscape work”.

The project is about gardens, food and community engagement, and offers a demonstration of art as a way for people to collectively create change. In his work, Owen Griffiths is asking us to articulate what we imagine our commons to be; and to imagine what our commons might become. In the case of “GRAFT“, this includes re-imagining Swansea city and museums (the city infrastructure and “cultural sector”) as actually being something that we hold in common.

Thinking in terms of commons causes an ideas shift which moves “resources” away from scarcity and exploitation, and in the direction of abundance and shared goods; and moves “politics” away from military power structures and scarcity economics, and in the direction of co-operation. Ideas are able to emerge which might have seemed surprising from a point of view grounded in scarcity. What is especially hopeful is that, instead of being a site for anxiety, that which is between us becomes a place where responsibility, abundance and joy are visible.

If you’d like to see more of his work, Owen Griffiths has curated an exhibition in the Glynn Vivian gallery, Swansea, as part of his “land dialogues project”, which will be on until 18 September 2022.

Sources & resources for further research and reading:

Beuys, J. and Kuoni, C. : Joseph Beuys in America : energy plan for the Western man : writings by and interviews with the artist. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

Stiftung 7000 Eichen : 7000 Eichen : Stadtverwaldung statt Stadtverwaltung. Ein Kunstprojekt in Kassel.

Der Feldweg (2017) Joseph Beuys 7000 Oaks / Documentation.

John Ayto : Dictionary of Word Origins. Bloomsbury, 1990.

Robin Wall Kimmerer: The Serviceberry: an economy of abundance. (2021).

Owen Griffiths: GRAFT: A Soil Based Syllabus.

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