It’s a Commons If You Want It

This article originally appeared on Bollier.org and is republished with permission.

On March 15, the Slovenian artist Marjetica Potrč and collaborators officially launched a new exhibition, “The Commons,” in The Hague. The artwork consists of the remnants of an old dune forest and a modernist office tower built in 1969 that is nearby. You might wonder, This is the commons?!

As the flyer for the exhibit notes, the exhibition “takes the two sites – one of part of nature, the other a cultural artifact – and mirrors them by constructing a platform in the woods that is the same size as the footprint of the tower. This physical platform is intended as a conceptual platform for the exchange of knowledge by participants and visitors to the exhibition. From April to August [2013] workshops, lectures, fairs, and an open public court on topics related to the common interest and the local environment such as sustainability, peace and justice will be programmed. Together with visitors and locals alike The Commons [will] experiment and work out ideas for the functioning of a ‘commons’ in current times.”

I haven’t visited the site, but it strikes me a bold, provocative work. By dramatizing the commons in a very physical way, and connecting it to the past while pointing to a future that we must build ourselves, the exhibit helps us to engage with the idea of the commons as a living social organism. What’s especially exciting about this project is that it may lead to an actual conversion of an empty office tower into a local commons!

By the end of the exhibit, in August, a broad group of sympathizers, commoners and future users of the building hope to develop a plan to acquire and maintain the property. It will include a business plan, organizational and management structure, and plans for the sustainable use of the tower.

“The Commons” is the work of Potrč and the Paris and Rotterdam architects Ooze (Eva Pfannes and Sylvain Hartenberg) in collaboration with curator Theo Tegelaers (TAAK), Henriette Waal and Christiaan Bakker (Sandberg Instituut/Master Vacant NL) and the assistance of Lucia Babina and Sven van Asten. There is a Facebook page for The Commons project, which presumably will expand as more people visit the exhibit.

Potrč is a major international artist and architect who, as Wikipedia informs me, works at the intersection of intersection of visual art, architecture, and social science. Wikipedia also notes that “her work documents and interprets contemporary architectural practices (in particular, with regard to energy infrastructure and water use) and the ways people live together.”

Here is Potrč’s statement introducing the exhibit:

“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. Rights and responsibilities are redefined, that’s the price we have to pay for freedom (as the gardener who joined us at The Public Space Society in Zurich said) as we reimagine our role in the governance of cities and seek genuine coexistence, instead of gated communities and ghettos, in the difficult times ahead. This is about more than dealing with climate change; it is also about rediscovering a citizenship where the citizens themselves participate in shaping and governing their environment. It is about redefining relationships with the world and with the earth.”

Like any living commons, it is hard to know how this one will evolve and flourish (or fail). But it is a brave experiment that deserves watching. Will it change perceptions? How will people respond? Will the commoners succeed in turning an empty office building into a commons? I’m grateful that a group of artists is trying to provoke some experiences and feelings that cannot be fully conveyed in words alone – and that may provoke some real change.

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