Thursday, July 22, 2010

Commoning, Somatics, and Aesthetic Practices (Notes/Workshop)

The following are two approaches I took in the form of "notes" and workshop prompts before my talk this past Sunday with Nonsite Collective. I am posting them for the record in hopes that I might eventually also find the time to collate some reflections upon the meeting, which I found tremendously convivial and productive. Thanks to all who attended and to those instrumental in organizing: Tanya Hollis, Taylor Brady, Michael Cross, and Rob Halpern.

I. Somatic Commons and the Poetics of Political Form

The following are some notes which I would like to consider towards a conversation about aesthetic practices and what myself and others around the Nonsite Collective have been calling the “commons.”

First of all, what is the commons? Historically speaking, the commons is a concept deriving from early English law, which designates that property should be held in common for the use and benefit of all. As such, the commons contains an early articulation of later day communisms in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If the commons has ever existed, it has done so tentatively, and with a good deal of antagonism. The formalization of the legal concept of the commons occurs around 1215 with the signing of the Magna Carta—the English constitution—and its accompanying charter, the Charter of the Forest, which founds agreement about land use. Even though precedent exists for the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest, these documents only come into existence through the need for a check of powers, namely the powers of King John who at the time found himself at war with his barons. Much of this is documented in Peter Linebaugh’s invaluable book, The Magna Carta Manifesto, which makes a case for the charters as crucial legal documents for the protection of individual and collective liberties from expropriation.

Why is it important to return to the founding moment when the commons was set into law? Discovering the history of the commons has become important for my own thinking because it sheds light on global processes which amplify those of the early 15th century onwards, namely “primitive accumulation”—what Marx calls “the expropriation of a free people” in the 27th chapter of Capital Vol 1. If the 15th -18th centuries constitute a frenzied grab for resources—a grab for commodities in the form of the bodies of an erstwhile European peasantry and native Africans; a grab also for lands which would yield enormous natural resources coupled with industrial farming practices, manufacture, and hegemonic maritime power—we are still in the throes of such a process. What, barring a total revolution against Western economic forces, could lead to a re/instatement of the commons as one of the few precedents within Western law for usufruct—the common use and enjoyment of shared properties by all?

Recently, I was quite moved by two talks given by Fred Ho and Sylvia Federici at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Counsel on Governor’s Island as part of Robert Kocik’s and Daria Fain’s “space residency,” The Commons. Fred Ho discussed his choice for a lifestyle “off the grid,” which precludes (or at least drastically limits) the use of technologies such as automobiles, cell phones, lap tops, and the consumption of foods not produced through small scaling farming by his own hands or obtained through barter. Ho, who is the survivor of a cancer whom he was given a 1 in 30,000 shot of beating, attributes his health challenges to a lifestyle that through stress, toxic deregulation, and electro-magnetic contact cultivates cancer. In order to reverse the escalation of cancer in tandem with processes of primitive accumulation and expropriation (i.e., the staples of neoliberal development) one should seek to embrace a ludditism—life practices directly against the speedy, toxic lifestyles necessitated by capitalist competition.

Sylvia Federici, whose book Caliban and the Witch is a must read for understanding the ways that early capitalism emerges through the repression of women’s reproductive powers and relationships to land use, addressed ways that dance and movement research can explore somatic practices counter to those cultivated by neoliberalism. If capitalist economies tend to mechanize the body, disciplining the body to maximalize its labor power, than how can dance/movement research discover movements counter to this maximalization? Through dance, movement exercise, somatics (the experiential, non-medical discovery of bodily health and well-being), affects and movements emerge unpermitted by currently dominant economic forces. What would it mean for a larger part of the population to engage the body in such a way; from the ground up through meditation, feedback, and self-reflection on bodily working? Federici’s talk, as such, lines up in interesting ways with the discourse at Nonsite Collective taking place around “somatic practices” and disability. If we are all literally disabled by capitalism (unfacilitated, immiserated, dis-eased) than how can a renewed attention to the soma (that which issues from the body) result in a movement immanently counter to the movement promoted and induced by capital?

Recently, I expressed to Daria Fain feeling “stressed-out,” to which she replied: “You should take better care of yourself, because we all need you.” Fain’s words touched me because they express a logic of commoning—the verb form of commons, which signals an active process by which we may make our selves in common. On the one hand, one is uniquely their own person, and must take care for the self; on the other, this self is not one’s property—neither appropriate or expropriable—or is at least dramatically limited by the ways it can be appropriate for others within an economy not merely economic, but affective, social, and spiritual. What if part of our moral-social education was to think in such terms about the “self”: the self as being for common use and enjoyment; the self as that which may “raise up” others—make light or graceful?

For the past few weeks, I have been trying to define what a somatic “poetics” might look like. Or what it does look like based on a broad range of practices: CAConrad, Eleni Stecopoulos, Rob Halpern, Amber DiPietra, Bhanu Kapil, Robert Kocik, David Buuck, and many others. I think that “commoning” and “somatics” are intimately linked through a shared sense that the body is a commonwealth, and not merely a thing isolated from its ecology—the others who surround it and nourish it. Health is a common goal of commoning and somatics; so is wealth, wealth which is able to establish well-being between as many human beings as possible. A somatic poetics, for me, would then be an active making (poesis) of the body in relation to the social which promotes health, healing, awareness, knowledge, and well being. I would extend somatics to the various practices which would access and make active lyrical valuables—the qualities of a lyric prosody—in the interest of a critical project directed at forms of biopower—the way that the state administers the body in the interest of labor, reproduction, warfare, and governance.

To promote a commoning (and not just a commons), which is to say, an active process by which the commons is continually reconstituted—translated, transvalued, transformed—I think that an attention to somatics across the arts is necessary. Aesthetic practices, if they can do nothing else, have the power to empower the body and activate potential. These potential reside in movement, visuality, language, and phonic (which is to say, sound-based) substance. To create out of conditions of movement, vision, language, and sound would found a commons—it would create common sense by retuning the senses in relation to central nervous system/brain. For language arts, prosody is essential for establishing a somatic relation to commons. Prosody as the mainline to the mind-body singularity; prosody as that which is beyond meaning, yet remains deeply involved with the senses, feelings, and is essential to conveying information. Prosody, which forms a thin line between communication and the non-communicable—the non-communicable as topoi or index for where the commonwealth is also produced. The ineffable as an extension of wealth/health.

A short outline of what somatics can do to enact commoning:

--provide tools for bodily awareness, knowledge, feedback, processing in order to effect structural (bones, muscles), neural, and chemical changes in the body;

--call attention to relation. The way, for instance, certain language usages or movements extend ill of good health in relation to other bodies, sites, legal and social practices.

--enframe certain sites as they contribute to the ill or good health of the commons.

The Gulf right now offers a tragic site. How can sites, a la Earthwork “remediations,” become places where the body overcomes and challenges toxic deregulation/the wholesale destruction of ecologies?

Extend this list indefinitely!

If the problem with communisms historically have been that they have projected a new state—that they have dealt, at least in the West, with large systems (totalities) rather than local relations and particulars, why not start with the body as host to the commons? Couldn’t that possibly prevent the tendency towards both systematization and bureaucracy that worked against communisms in the 20th century? Would it also be a way of eschewing spectacular forms of violence that we have encountered in both capitalist and socialist systems alike? Following Martin Luther King, Jr., what would it mean to make our bodies “the case” for strategies of non-violent social transformation? Somatics in performance and practice might seek alternative modes of violence and non-violence at the level of bodily processes—the body as first ethics, where ethics and aesthetics are synonymous categories of human endeavor; embodiment as a pure means. The soma as first politics—self-government extending to self-organization among all. Anti-hierarchy; emergent democracy. What Fred Moten calls the "poetics of political form" would extend somatics by establishing an active relationship between “making” and the forms of a politics to come.

To the question of modeling or what, elsewhere, I have called “allegory” or “enactment,” I want to address Moten’s work in particular, anticipating it as a point of departure for thinking about commoning in relation to somatics.

Moten’s work, after that of both white European and Black avant gardes in the 20th century, presents a radical discourse of the senses where, to paraphrase Marx, the senses become theoreticians.

But Moten tells Marx slant in his book Hughson’s Tavern, appropriately named after the rebellion by African slaves, Irish, West Indians and other “others” in colonial New York City, 1741. A direct expression of the commons, if we take the commons to be an expression of a democratized multitude; a direct expression of what Moten also calls the “Black Radical” aesthetic tradition—a tradition irreducible (yet historically particular) to skin color, that at once engages productive antagonisms for collective democratic expression and performs resistance to the reduction of human beings to commodity forms (i.e., slavery).

where the theoreticians will become senses in their practice

where the theoreticians will not be seeing, hearing

where the theoreticians will sear, the theoretician is a seer

where the theoreticians will be seen and heard in their practice

where the theoreticians will touch themselves

where the theoreticians will become sensual in their practice

where the reverse will always be in excess

where the sequence is for nono and maxine

where reading and recite this scene to John Gwin, my daddy

where they go plot paradise, blue bolivar, boll and marvel

where mask and boll and cut and fry and groove

where the senses will become theoreticians in their practice

--from Fred Moten’s “where the blues began,” in Hughson’s Tavern

Moten’s work, to my mind, embodies the problem of (the) theoreticians becoming sensual in their practice (and vice versa)—Moten’s poem in fact enacting a kind of chiasmus of “theory” (which is to say, conscious self-reflexivity) with “sensuality” (the sensual experience of an objective surrounding). The original site of this chiasmus is the revolutionary environment around John Hughson’s tavern, where people of various racial and cultural backgrounds worked collectively to achieve their freedom, and where, consequently, the Blues was “born” by John Gwin, the revolutionary Black leader instrumental in leading the rebellion around the tavern.

The discourse of the senses—and the doubling and redoubling of the senses in synaesthesia—attract me as a prosody for commoning, where aesthetic practice may touch a thinking about what we are doing, and where sense and nonsense, communication and the ineffable, legibility and obscurity found an immanent (common) sense of being in common. The Blues, therefore, as an extension of African-American arts does philosophy where theory and practice cannot be extricated—where, that is, they form a revolutionary chiasmus. Polysemy and paranomasia play to the tune of revolutionary excess.

II. The Law as Aesthetic Material

Writing prompts:

1. What is the commons if you had to define it? (7 minutes)

2. In what ways do art practices with which you participate or are familiar help to nourish and maintain commons after your definition of the term? Give examples if you can. (7 minutes)

3. To what extent does art form a dialogue with the law and vice versa? Do you believe art to impact legal practices—why or why not? How? (7 minutes)

Bracket a word, sentence, or longer passage from your writing. Prepare to read aloud to the group. Follow up with conversation, questions, dialogue.


Aesthetic responses have been produced all along in response to the erosion/non-instatement of commons. In the form of poetry, music, popular songs, architecture, dance.

I am particularly interested in art movements deriving from the 60s/70s that may impact how we think about the reclaiming/creation of commons. Namely, live art as it intersects with practices of civil disobedience; Land Art and Ecological Art; Maintenance Art (i.e., art which explores labor practices and social services); Institutional Critique (art works concerned to show how a particular institutional dynamic functions, especially within art contexts); lastly, Digital Art and New Media, much of which pushes boundaries of copyright, ownership, and appropriation strategies.

A lot of work has been done on how the above art forms and discourses impact civic and public space. I will touch on just a few now, acknowledging there are many many more just as interesting and important, and that the aesthetic practices which I cite partake of broader cultural movements, social struggles, etc.:

1. Robert Smithson’s engagement with Central Park; also his insistence on intervening with various forms of industry. Smithson would talk to landscape designers, industrialists, was hired by an airport for two years. In his “Frederick Law Olmstead and the Dialectic Landscape” Smithson provides an explicit link between Earthworks and the maintenance of public, common space, arguing for a dialectic after Olmstead of “entropy” and “maintenance.” Smithson’s essay interestingly is a response to a Whitney exhibition of Olmstead’s notebooks for the planning of Central Park, and treats Central Park through a documentary history (not unlike many conceptual artists of the time).

2. Agnes Denes’s “Wheatfield” and other “remediation” projects (e.g., “Tree Mountain”).

3. Vito Acconci’s move to architecture from performances conflating private and public information, cybernetics and actual spaces. Acconci’s work, like Denes’s, is part of a moment in the 70s and 80s of public art commissions, and artists turning their hands increasingly to architecture and more civic, public art forms.

4. Art Workers' Coalition: a group of artists who in the late 60s and early 70s were able to close down museums and galleries (albeit briefly) in solidarity with struggles in Vietnam and other social causes.

5. Mierle Ukeles: who successfully makes visible the various public works and services that underpin social life (i.e., street cleaners, trash collectors, recycling facilities).

Given their remarkable investigations of public vs. private space, civic and socio-political responsibility, and challenges to the reification of art works, amazingly few of the aesthetic practices of the 70s until our present make visible the working of law as the law regards land use. While subjection by legal authority forms the bases of much art rooted in identity politics, I wonder why there is not more art deliberately aimed at drawing out the legal issues around land use and real estate.

Two remarkable exceptions:

1. Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates”

2. Amy Balkin’s “Public Domain” and “Public Smog”

Talk about these examples.

Two-fold project:

1. What would it mean to explore the implications of breaking/testing the law or occupying impossible legal positions ("indiscernible points," as Giorgio Agamben refers to them in his work about “bare life” and sovereignty)? For many people, like those stateless, immigrating, or experiencing unlawful legal detention, legal anomaly and impossible legal status is of course all too real. Where were the responses to Gitmo/Abu Ghraib and other extra-legal detentions in the 2000s by live and conceptual artists? Who is taking up work by groups like IRWIN who during the Yugoslavian conflicts of the 90s issued passports and made much of their work in regards to border crossing, the obtaining of visas, etc.?

2. Why, with few exceptions, do more artists not work with legal teams to strategize their work in relation to political and civil rights struggles? As Martin Luther King, Jr. tells us, a human made law that is unjust should always be broken in preference for a higher moral law of universal human rights. While activists are constantly having to contend with law in relation to their actions, why hasn’t an avant garde taken more of an interest in engaging the law? If art is what enframes, makes visible, models, mediates, points at possible worlds (worlds which may only exist atopically or metaphorically) and socio-political incommensurability/anomaly, then why isn’t the law a terrain in which artists have made more of their work?

Given that the commons has never truly existed, that it may have been a dream of the Teutonic people still unmanifest in our current world, how to explore the legal possibilities for a commons (or the lack thereof)? If commons is European and Western in its legal frameworks, what legal frameworks from other cultural traditions may allow us to foreground the commons as a possible behavior/world?

Given the hyper-litigious nature of our current (US/globalized) society, perhaps the future avant garde will be one more invested in legal problematics, what Rob Halpern refers to as the use of the law as “material.”

Writing Prompts:

1. What sites for legal performance/(non-)site specific works rooted in legal investigation can you imagine?

2. How can art generate a legal precedent for understanding ways that the commons could exist in our present? If the commons is a place designated in society for universal use and enjoyment, how to cultivate these spaces through your own aesthetic practice or other forms of work?

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