culture

This piece by Michael Peter Edson, is part of our celebration of the online release of Patterns of Commoning, an anthology of essays about notable commons from around the world. Edson's essay was originally published in the book, edited by me and Silke Helfrich and now freely accessible at patternsofcommoning.org. All chapters are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

 

Edson is a strategist and thought leader at the forefront of digital transformation in the cultural sector. Formerly with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Edson is now Associate Director/Head of Digital at United Nations Live Museum for Humanity, Copenhagen, Denmark.  The opinions in this essay are his own.

By Michael Peter Edson

 

It was usually a note in the newspaper, a few pages back. Or, if the blaze was big enough and a camera crew arrived quickly, a feature on the evening news. It seems like house fires were more common when I was young, and the story was often the same: “As they escaped their burning home,” the newscaster would say, “they paused to save a single prized possession…” And it was always something sentimental – not jewelry or cash but a family photograph, a child’s drawing, a letter, a lock of hair. Ephemera by any measure, and yet as dear as life itself. Museums are simple places. Libraries and archives too. Collect, preserve, elucidate. Repeat forever. We don’t think about them until the smoke rises, but by then it’s usually too late.

When Hitler ordered the destruction of Warsaw in 1944, the army tried to set the national library – the Biblioteka Narodawa – on fire, but the flames smoldered.[1] It turns out that the collected memory of a civilization is surprisingly dense and hard to burn, so a special engineering team was brought in to cut chimneys in the roof and holes in the walls so the fire could get more air. Problem solved. Museums, libraries and archives are simple places, but once the flames take hold they burn like hell.

A new anthology of essays, Build the City: Perspectives on Commons and Culture, powerfully confirms that the “city as a commons” meme is surging. This carefully edited, beautifully designed collection of 38 essays shows the depth and range of thinking now underway.  The book was published by Krytyka Polityczna and the European Cultural Foundation in September as part of ECF's Idea Camp convening

Thinking about cities as commons is so compelling to me because it gives a structured framework for talking our moral and political claims on cities. It helps makes our entitlements as commoners visible, as well as the scourge of enclosure – two concepts that are not particularly welcome topics in respectable political circles.

The essays of Build the City celebrate the idea that ordinary people – tenants, families, artists, the precariat, migrants, community groups, activists – have a legitimate role in participating in their own city.  The metropolis is not the privileged preserve of the wealthy, industrialists, investors, and landlords. It is a place where commoners have meaningful power and access to what they need. In developing this theme, this book is a timely complement to the Bologna “The City as Commons” conference in November.

You can download a pdf of the book here – or you can order a hard copy here. Besides ECF and Krytyka Polityczna, the book is a collaboration with Subtopia (Sweden), Les Tetes de l’Art (France), Oberliht (Moldova), Culture2Commons (Croatia) and Platoniq (Spain), all of whom are partners in the action-research network Connected Action for the Commons.

If there is one recurring theme in this book, it is that commoners must devise the means for more open, inclusive and participatory models of democracy in cities – and that art and culture projects can help lead the way.

“Cultural initiatives that challenge the extremely individualized model of the world are worth closer attention,” writes Agnieszka Wiśniewska, a Polish member of the “Connected Action for the Commons” network, “as they may help us re-esetablish social ties and our trust in others.” The real challenge, then, is how to devise effective new structures that can empower commoners in improving governance, building social connection and democratizing power.

I always appreciate it when interviewers force you to articulate things that lie just below the surface. That’s what happened when Cat Johnson of Shareable recently talked with me about Patterns of Commoning, the new book that I co-edited with Silke Helfrich that profiles dozens of notable commons around the world. Here is an excerpt:

Shareable: In the book, you and Silke focus on what is described as the consciousness of thinking, learning, and acting as a commoner as the heart of the commons movement. What does this mean to you?

It means breaking down some of the dichotomies that we take for granted, such as between public and private, between collective and individual, between rational and nonrational. In the commons, they start to blur.  You have to start talking about the commons as this organic whole, and not as this machine you can break down into parts or dissect. It’s a living organism and that’s precisely what needs to be studied: its aliveness.

Conventional, modern science refuses to explore aliveness, and instead has a lot of reductionist categories that don’t really get to the essence of, not only what it is to be a living human being, but a living human being on a living earth. I think the commons wants to speak to those kinds of concerns and, not surprisingly, it won’t fit into a lot of the conventional, intellectual boxes that academics, in particular, like to use.

A point in the book that I find very interesting is that policymakers and experts can’t design and build commons in a top-down fashion and expect them to thrive. Commoners must do this work themselves. What distinguishes an organic commons from a manufactured one?

The institutionally sponsored commons cannot have the same bottom-up sense of commitment, ownership, co-creation. To that extent, they will be subjects in somebody else’s drama with outside directors, as opposed to expressions of a creative upswell from people themselves, that serves their interests, their needs, their inner lives.

If the culture industries wonder why people have so little respect for copyright law these days, they need look no further than the Warner Music Group’s claimed copyright of the song “Happy Birthday.”  It’s a grotesque mockery of the avowed principles of copyright law and a scam on the public that has persisted for decades.  But with a revenue stream of $5,000 a day, or $2 million a year, Warner Music is not about to stop charging people for the right to perform “its” song.

Thanks to a courageous filmmaker, however, this travesty may soon come to an end.  Jennifer Nelson had been making a documentary about the “Happy Birthday” song when Warner said it would cost her $1,500 to use it in her film.  Nelson filed a lawsuit two years ago, a remarkable challenge in itself to the usual legal bullying by copyright owners. After all, who has the money or stomach to battle large corporations with well-paid lawyers or to lobby Members of Congress whose minds have already been made up by campaign contributions from music, film and publishing companies? Most TV shows simply forbid their hosts and performers from singing "Happy Birthday," and various restaurants have come up with their own alternative songs, lest they incur licensing fees.

It now appears that Nelson’s legal team has uncovered hard evidence that the copyright to "Happy Birthday" has been invalid for years.  In a storage facility used by the University of Pittsburgh, lawyers found a 1922 songbook that contained the lyrics of “Happy Birthday” in a song entitled “Good Morning and Birthday Song.” This is significant because there was no copyright notice on the song in the book – a requirement for copyright protection under the law at the time – and anything published before 1923 has entered the public domain and is free for anyone to use.

Burning Man as a Commons

The Burning Man festival held every year on the desolate salt flats of Nevada is usually associated with the culturally avant tech crowd of the Bay Area – an image that is accurate as far as it goes. But the event is really much richer in implication than that. Burning Man is a rare space in modern industrial culture that actually invites people to give expression to some of their deepest artistic impulses and cultural fantasies while requiring them to show significant self-responsibility, cooperation and social concern. It is an immersive enactment of a different spirit of living that actually carries over into "real life" after the event itself.

Burning Man is a one-week commons of 60,000-plus people that has occurred every year since 1986. The event is, as Peter Hirshberg puts it, “a pop-up city of self-governing individualists.” That’s the title of his chapter in a new book, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond:  The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society, which I co-edited with John Henry Clippinger of ID3.  (The chapter -- copied below -- is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonComercial-ShareAlike license 3.0 license.  The book is available in print and ebook editions, and also at the ID3 website.)

Hirshberg is a former Apple executive and tech entrepreneur who is now chairman of Re:imagine Group and cofounder of the Gray Area Center for Arts and Technology in San Francisco.  He’s also been a Burner for years. 

When Hirshberg told me more about Burning Man (which I’ve never attended), I was astonished when I first read the “Ten Principles of Burning Man,” which cofounder Larry Harvey wrote in 2004 to convey the cultural ethos of the encampment.  The ten principles have enormous moral and social appeal and serve as a functional blueprint for a better way of living. The principles (discussed at greater length below) call on all Burners to honor radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. 

As you will see by reading Hirshberg’s chapter, the Burning Man principles are not idle abstractions; they are a lived reality for one week in the desert under extremely harsh natural conditions (heat, blowing sand, no water, only the stuff that you’ve brought along). The ten principles of Burning Man are a wonderfully vivid, passionate elaboration of some of the core design elements that sober-minded social scientists often ascribe to the commons. 

Burning Man helps us remember that design principles of commons need not be MEGO experiences (“My Eyes Glaze Over”). They are the essence of what it means to be fully human.

Burning Man: The Pop-Up City of Self-Governing Individualists

By Peter Hirshberg

When friends first started telling me about Burning Man in the 1990s it made me nervous. This place in a harsh desert, where they wore strange clothes or perhaps none at all. Why? Whole swaths of my San Francisco community spent much of the year building massive works of art or collaborating on elaborate camps where they had to provide for every necessity. They were going to a place with no water, no electricity, no shade and no shelter. And they were completely passionate about going to this place to create a city out of nothing. To create a world they imagined – out of nothing. A world with rules, mores, traditions and principles, which they more or less made up, and then lived.

Poetry of the Commons

I’ve always thought that the commons, in its attempt to achieve a holistic balance of relationships, is profoundly aesthetic and ethical.  It aspires to a certain dynamic but disciplined shapeliness.  How wonderful, then, to encounter Harris Webster’s Japanese-style poetry about the commons, inspired by his reading of The Wealth of the Commons:  A World Beyond Market and State!     

A few years ago, Webster, a retiree living in Montpelier, Vermont, heard a presentation on the commons by University of Vermont professor Gary Flomenhoft.  Then he read a number of pieces on the commons in Kosmos journal and discovered The Wealth of the Commons.

Webster has a hobby of writing tanka poems, a genre of classical Japanese poetry akin to haiku.  He had developed a taste for Japanese poetry in the course of several exchange visits with the prefecture of Tottori, Japan, as the representative of the Japan-American Society of Vermont.  Webster decided that he wanted to capture the essence of some essays in The Wealth of Commons in the succinct, austere style of tanka. (Links to the original essays are embedded in the authors' names and essay titles.)

I hope you enjoy this wonderful poetic experiment as much as I do! 

Introduction

Question: Should earth’s people share

our earth’s seven seas?

Answer: When some Somalians

lost their share of fishing grounds,

they became pirates.

 

Good church members are stewards

of the church commons,

its resources  and culture.

Earth’s people should be stewards

of the earth’s Commons.

 

Unknown Elinor Ostrom

won a Nobel Prize

for research on the Commons

throughout our wide world.

May it be well known world wide!

 

The Commons looks at the ‘whole.’

resources, people, and norms,

(oceans, fishermen, and rules,)

nested together.

Do markets and government?

 

Do people value

good soil and fresh air?

Of course , but they are not priced,

advertised or for sale.

Is that why they’re uncommon?

When I pump gas in my car these days, there is a video screen on the pump that abruptly turns on and starts shouting an annoying advertisement in my face.  It is so loud and obnoxious that it takes great restraint to not smash the damn screen with my car keys.  (For the record, the gas station is a Cumberland Farms convenience store.)

Thanks to architecture professor Malcolm McCullough of the University of Michigan, I now have a vocabulary for talking about such vandalism against our shared mental environment.  It is a desecration of the ambient commons.  The ambient commons consists of all of those things in our built environment, especially in cities, that we take for granted as part of the landscape:  architectural design, urban spaces, designs that guide and inform our travels, amenities for social conviviality.  Professor McCullough explores these themes in his fascinating new book, Ambient Commons:  Attention in the Age of Embodied Information (MIT Press).

Not many peole have rigorously thought about how new information technologies are changing the ambient commons of cities.  Nowadays media feeds are everywhere -- on building facades, billboards, hotel lobbies, restaurants, elevators and even gas pumps.  About three in five of us carry around smartphones, which have radically changed how we navigate the city.  GPS and Google Maps are a new form of annotated “wayfinding” that makes signage and tourist guidebooks less necessary.  The Internet of Things – sensor-readable RFID tags on objects – make the cityscape more “digitally legible” in ways that previously required architectural design. 

It has reached such a state that many retailers now use sensors on our smartphones to track our movements, behavior and moods during the course of browsing stores.  Retailers want to assemble a database of in-store customer behavior (just as they collect data during our website visits) so that they can adjust product displays, signage and marketing in ways that maximize sales.  This was described by a recent New York Times article and accompanying video, “Attention, Shoppers:  Store is Tracking Your Cell."   

The explosive growth in the “number, formats and contexts of situated images” in the city means that we now experience a cityscape in different ways.  We identify our locations, find information, connect with each other and experience life in different ways.  The embedded design elements of the ambient commons affect how we think, behave and orient ourselves to the world. 

“We move around with and among displays,” writes McCullough notes.  “Global rectangles have become part of the [urban] scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere.  Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented.  Sensors, processes and memory are found not only in chic smartphones but also into everyday objects.”

Happy 100th Birthday, Woody Guthrie!

It is time to pause and celebrate the improbable, wonderful life and career of Woody Guthrie, born a century ago today.  Could such a voice of ordinary people ever make it as a songwriter/performer today?  It’s remarkable how the “Oklahoma cowboy” drew together the strands of American folk music, hillbilly lyrics, cowboy songs and countless other regional influences to create songs that sound as if they had existed from time immemorial.  In a way, they had.  He was often renovating folk tunes that had already endured for generations and giving them more timely, politically inflected lyrics:  derivation as original creativity.  He sang about dignity and social justice; he sang about hard personal truths and political struggle.

Guthrie himself said, “A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be who’s hungry and where their mouth is or who’s out of work and where the job is or who’s broke and where the money is or who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is.”  In today’s media-saturated world, in which posturing and PR optics drive talent to become facsimiles of the authentic (but never the real thing, lest it be caught by surprise in an unflattering light being all-too-human), Guthrie was the unvarnished, plain-spoken real thing. 

Out of that stubborn authenticity came a raw eloquence that could not be suppressed.  When Irving Berlin wrote the sanctimonious “God Bless America,” which went on to become a hit, especially as sung by pious conservatives like Kate Smith, Guthrie set out to write a song that would not be so darn complacent about America.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of touring an incredibly vital cultural commons in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island.  My host was Bert Crenca, the artistic director of AS220.  Nearly everyone knows AS220 as one of the most happening places in the city.  It offers everything:  rehearsal spaces, poetry slams, live music, dance performances, figure drawing, affordable work studios, a print shop, specialized art equipment, cheap apartments for struggling artists, and more. 

What may be less appreciated is that AS220 is a self-sustaining creative commons (lower case).  While it has all sorts of interactions with the market, government and philanthropy, it is really an unheralded model of a commons for producing and enjoying the arts.  It is financially self-sustaining, independently managed, and grassroots-responsive.  It is dedicated to art made by and for the people.

The “AS” in AS220 stands for “Artists’ Space”; 220 was the initial address of the distressed building it originally occupied in 1985.  AS220 quickly outgrew that space and in 1992, with help from the mayor’s office and tax breaks normally used by commercial developers, acquired a 21,000 square-foot building in a blighted, drug-ridden part of town.  In 2006 and 2008, AS220 bought two additional buildings nearby that have allowed the sprawling Providence arts community to grow even more.  Now in its 27th year, AS220 has a budget of $2.8 million, 50 employees and hosts dozens of art projects in the three downtown buildings that it owns.

Calling AS220 a “nonprofit organization” fails to capture its real achievement or inner logic.  AS220 has been able to create its own commons for the arts largely because of its ingenuity in acquiring three downtown buildings.  This has allowed it to generate its own revenue streams that help it protect its autonomy and take greater risks.  AS220 rents out street-level spaces to restaurants and shops that share its funky, creative ethic, which in turn has enabled AS220 to leverage that money to develop a more diversified funding base:  membership fees to use studio equipment; fees for art classes; contract work for printing and computer animation; and of course the sale of artworks.  AS220 also rents out cheap studio space and artists’ apartments, covering its costs while advancing the arts. 

The Founders as Mashup Mavens

For pragmatic activists fighting the good fight against expansive copyright laws, the focus is usually on the here-and-now — how the law prevents us from sharing our works online, how it criminalizes all sorts of everyday activities, how it sanctions monopolies that charge ridiculous prices and stifle competition.

But imagine for a moment if we could learn what the nation's Founders actually thought about the cultural commons as they went about crafting copyright and patent law. Imagine our surprise at learning that Benjamin Franklin was not just an iconic entrepreneur, but in fact America's "founding pirate" deeply committed to collaborative invention and the open sharing of knowledge. Consider the pleasure in discovering that Shakespeare and Shelley, Emerson and Thoreau, and Madison and Jefferson, are all grand figures in a little-known pageant of political culture. Each makes the case, from his writings or his life story, that creativity and culture properly belongs to the commons.

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