Issue 4/2013 - Kunst der Verschuldung

Artists as Commoners in the Years of Indebtedness

Daphne Dragona


This „strange sensation of living in a society without time, without possibility, without foreseeable rupture, is debt“ writes Lazzarato (2011: 35). Debt relies on promises being made between debtors and creditors which establish power relationships not only for the present but also for the future. What is really being borrowed therefore is not money but time and for this reason indebtedness is connected to temporality as well as to morality. But what happens when indebtedness concerns the many and not a few? Over the last few years, more and more individuals, populations and countries are judged on the basis of debt. Indebtedness now ‚cuts across the whole of society’ as Lazzarato mentions, being abstract, diffused and deterritorialised. And while it might seem impossible to confront, this very condition makes one thing clear; that new solidarities and new co-operations are needed in order to find new modes of living and being and to face not only the economy of debt but also the morality of guilt and fear (ibid: 162, 164). On the other hand, as Graeber puts it, how to speak about morals and debts when language itself is shaped by the market? How to stop or to ignore the calculation of debts and credits? If debt is the ‚perversion of a promise, corrupted by math and violence’, what – if any – are the mechanisms that can confront it? (2011: 391)

At the other side of today’s progressive indebtedness lies the continuous strengthening of the contemporary commons. The older and newer forms of common wealth that are being introduced anew in today’s metropoleis are seen by the city inhabitants as a way to confront the asymmetries of indebtedness and to counterbalance its effects. This does not come as a surprise. As Massimo de Angelis writes, the emergence of the commons is to be expected when questions of livelihood come to the foreground. Such was the case in Britain during the crisis in the 80s when an increase in squatting, alternative markets and local exchange trading systems was noted and the situation in Argentina in 2001 was similar (De Angelis 2010).

When the myth of growth is abandoned, a need for new networks and services becomes apparent in order to enable new forms of wealth distribution and guarantee its sustainability (Berardi, 2011: 119). And so it happens today in most countries hit by the financial crisis. The numerous self-managed parks and agricultural areas, the collectively run cultural spaces and kitchens, the exchange economy markets and the urban mesh networks are distinctive examples of forms of contemporary common wealth that one can find in metropoleis today. The list is wide and growing, it is diverse, multifaceted and such that no one can pretend not to see that a new bottom up movement is actually being formed. Inhabitants around different countries turn towards the commons in order to apply a new model for living and sharing resources and ultimately to produce new forms of life (Condorelli 2009, Hardt 2012: 52). To a great extent, as Bifo clarifies, this is based on necessity, not on will or voluntarism (ibid: 118). The commons constitute a response to the impasse of post-Fordist capitalism.

Within this context, in the years of indebtedness – but also of connectedness –, a great number of artists in collaboration with theorists, programmers, cultural workers, skillful users and competent citizens have started developing their work and research on the basis of the commons. Their work, which varies greatly, touches upon different aspects of the common wealth. Detached from the market and close to the multitude’s needs and desires, their practices seem to play an active role in the formation of new ways of producing and sharing. But to examine the significance of art in relation to the commons, it is necessary to revisit the very framework of the commons itself.

When art turns to the commons…

Common wealth, or the commons as a notion, covers a broad spectrum of resources, practices and ways of sharing and being. They can be associated to natural resources, reclaimed public spaces, cultural or digital resources and accordingly be limited or unlimited, scarce or abundant. Contemporary commons in particular, as Hardt and Negri clarify, are to a great extent artificial. Next to the natural commons like the air, the sea or the forests, now appear the codes, the languages, the social relationships, the information, the knowledge and the affects (2009: 250). Commons are therefore not only what every generation inherits from the previous one and should safeguard for the next one, but also what generations produce together and share. The home of the commons for this reason is no other than the contemporary metropolis. As a ‚living dynamic of cultural practices, intellectual circuits, affective networks and social institutions’ (ibid: 154), the city provides the space for different commons to be formed, co-exist and interact but it also provides opportunities for their appropriation and enclosure (Harvey 2011). Endangered by their interaction with capital as well as by frictions appearing among its defendants, the commons can also be vulnerable, unstable and always in the process of becoming. There is no static or generic form of them and they are totally dependent on the communities of commoners producing them, sharing and sustaining them (Pasquinelli 2009: 153, Stavrides 2010).

Artistic practices are to be examined within this exact context. Through workshops, participatory events, reading groups, modes of collaborative action and organizing, online platforms and networking tools, many artists and art collectives in the last years have been building or joining communities that turn towards the commons, sharing their norms and adopting their logic. In the part that follows a brief identification and categorization of artistic practices is attempted and as the scale is quite broad, one can possibly reflect on the commons themselves through them.

First of all, in countries struck by crisis such as Greece and Italy, artists’ initiatives have been decisive for the strengthening of what could be addressed as cultural commons, that is the cultural and artistic practices shared locally or globally through communities or transnational networks. If in the cultural commons there is a fear of underproduction instead of exhaustion, due to the lack of support in the cultural sector, then in times of indebtedness this possibility is intensified (Bertacchini, Bravo, Marelli, Santagata 2012: 17). Occupied theatres, collective artistic initiatives, shared spaces have come as a response to that. Well known examples are the Teatro Valle in Rome or the Embros Theatre in Athens, both spaces that have been occupied by arts and theatre collectives as an act of re-appropriation of culture.

Secondly, several artists, also before the crisis, have focused on the structures of the economic system and proposing actual alternatives. Kate Rich’s Feral Trade, is one of the oldest examples. Since 2003, the artist has invited individuals to exchange food products while using the mobility of friends and people around the world. In another direction, Christian Nold developed the Bijlmer Euro, a parasitical local currency which, when added to real money via RFIDs, adds local value to the euro notes circulating within a particular area and it builds stronger bonds among community members.

Thirdly, many artists or art collectives have been behind initiatives related to the sharing of knowledge and information. A great example of this is the network of the Public School which is active in different cities around the world such as Berlin, New York, London, Vienna and others. Set up by Sean Dockray in 2007, the Public School is a rhizomatic network of knowledge run by the people for the people according to their interests and needs. Similarly the Platoniq network set up the Bank of Common Knowledge, an open platform for people who wanted to exchange services, while the Hackitectura collective and in particular Pablo de Soto have run Mapping the Commons workshops to document different forms of common wealth which can be found in today’s metropoleis.

Furthermore, several artists in the times not only of debt and crisis but also of progressive decrease of the earth’s natural resources have focused on issues of autonomy and sustainability. Valentina Karga after completing 30 days in the garden in Berlin 2012 where she lived only from what she could produce and exchange while composting her waste, opened up the project in 2013, inviting students from UDK to try it themselves as a form of game-like experiment. Artist Shu Lea Cheang last year also invited inhabitants of Berlin to adopt their own composters while Åsa Sonjasdotter is studying through open workshops and events how the cultivation of different varieties of potatoes –possible in the past through the collaboration among farmers – is now threatened by EU legislation.

However, an area where the contribution of artists seems to play a crucial role is that of the so-called digital commons, related mostly to the web but also to technological infrastructures. Confronting the oxymoron of the networked space, where sharing and openness are followed by exploitation and control, numerous artists have developed tools, platforms and structures that are decentralized or distributed and empowered by all. Projects such as the Fluid Nexus by Nicholas Knouf which allows mobile messaging without a centralized mobile network, Netless by Danja Vasiliev, which proposes an anonymous parasitic communication network beyond the internet and Telekommunisten’s Dead Swap which encourages a game-like hand to hand exchange of information via a simple USB stick, all point towards the possibility of a future where common wealth will be circulating beyond the fear of surveillance and the exploitation of the market. In a similar direction a growing number of open platforms for the web are provided by artists. Such as the Open Source Cinema of Brett Gaylor, which enables users to upload and remix videos online, the puredyne platform of the GOTO10 collective, which provides a live multimedia desktop environment or the Upstage by Avatar Body Collision which provides an open source platform / stage for cyberformances.

Finally, art itself appears more and more as a common through works that are not only participatory but also open to continuous development and change. Such a case is Anders Weberg’s P2P art platform that invites people to contribute to the formation of an ephemeral common artwork or the Open Source Embroidery project run by Ele Carpenter which is based on the open collaboration between people with different skills and knowledge, connecting coding to needlecraft work. Last but definitely not least, it is worth mentioning Ruth Catlow and Mary Flanagan’s ongoing collaborative platform game. Play Southend is being built by the people for the people with the aim to address the local problems of Southend in Essex and assist inhabitants in taking decisions together and acting in order to shape the future of their town.

Taking into consideration the examples mentioned above, it could be argued that a new form of creativity is emerging with its own distinctive features. It includes works that seem to be direct, understandable and reachable, that claim no authorship or uniqueness, the power of which lies in their distribution and diffusion. The projects might not even be presented as ‚art’ and their creators respectively might avoid introduce themselves as artists. In the case of the commons, it looks as if art can only be rhizomatic, participatory and collective in order to form a counter-proposal for a society in debt and a world in need.
But then yet again, why is art as such really needed? What is its special role in times when the commons are blooming? Why does it need to be differentiated?

… and the commons turn to art

„A common good“, Hardt and Negri remind us, „is something that must be constructed, possessed, managed and distributed by all. Becoming common is a continuous activity guided by the reason, will, and desire of the multitude, which itself must undergo an education of its knowledge and political affects.“ (Hardt Negri 2012: 64) Everybody should be enabled „to speak and think, to become informed and to participate“ Stavrides also mentions (2010: 23). But how is this will of „all“ today reached in years where we might be connected but we are not really unified?

Ranciere argues that it is the community of sensation that can resolve the paradox of being apart together (2009: 57); it is the sensus communis that through the arts builds awareness, motivates and activates people. This is also not far from Negri’s thought on the kunstwollen and the capacity of art to help a multitude to reach a decision by absorbing in it a mass of decisions, impressions and reactions (2010). What then needs to be considered when discussing art’s input, are the inherent elements of the affect and the sensible that assist in bringing people together and in building forms of resistance. And, in addition to this, it is important to realize that it is the same capacities, skills and talents that are needed both for artistic practice, economic productivity and political action (Hardt 2012). It all lies on activating the potentiality of the many; the question is how this is being used and which motivations it needs to follow? But then there is also something else; perhaps we stop looking for unicity in art, we should stop trying to identify what is special about it. Creativity today as Virno writes is diffused with no privileged center. It might be purposefully anonymous and impersonal. This new form of art might be one with a ‚unicity without aura’, its aim being to find the relation and balance between „the highest possible degree of communality or generality and the highest possible degree of singularity“ (2010).

From this perspective, creators whose work is based on the commons should ultimately be seen as contemporary commoners; that is the individuals who not only produce and share the commons but also establish relationships of solidarity between them and fight to reclaim the commons that have been enclosed. [Worlscher 2010] They are the ones who according to Hardt and Negri accomplish an „extraordinary task, opening private property to the access and enjoyment of all; transforming public property controlled by state authority into the common and in each case discovering mechanisms to manage, develop and sustain common wealth through democratic participation“ (2012). The making of the common is therefore a continuous process based on potentialities, skills and affects and artists’ acts should be approached as meaningful acts of commoning. To understand this, one only needs to consider the following:

Common spaces are created. Either online or in the urban environment, the territories that the artists create are new spaces of social encounters. The occupied spaces, the collaborative platforms, the databases of exchange or the networks of communicational all offer to users and inhabitants spaces beyond exploitation and control.

Tools of knowledge and collaboration are provided. The tools offered vary but generally it could be noted that they all aim to assist users to work with shareable knowledge, codes, ideas and affects and to become not only conscious of their competences but also confident to act.

A new ethos is encouraged. „Being with“ is no longer enough“; a „doing with“ is necessary (Hardt and Negri 2012). Alternatives based on collaboration and sociality are needed to spread and teach people how to make decisions, possibly based on criteria which are qualitative and humanistic (Boillier & Helfrich, 2013: 29). This new communal ethos can also be called a ‚DIWO’ ethos (Do it with others), as Catlow and Garrett note. [2012: 73]

New values are adopted. Staying out of the market, a new system and theory of value is embraced by the creators working on the commons. Encouraging forms of exchange economy and providing tools and knowledge freely and openly, a significant effort is made for social value to outbalance market value, for sharing networks to surpass zones of property.

Time becomes shareable, exchangeable, valuable. In common based projects, time is used as a currency or it is used collectively, openly, freely. As no market value is in use and only social and affective bonds unite its members, no debt, no moral and no guilt can be attached to it.

Closing thoughts

Keeping in mind the wide spectrum of artistic practices and the wealth of the commons they refer to, one could argue that ultimately what artists’ acts of commoning are seeking is autonomy and new modes of being and living. Autonomy, or rather out-onomy as Franco Berardi would call it, stands for an exodus from the domain of economic law and the dependency of economic exchange (2011: 109). These acts might sound like an allusion to what real resistance could be (Virno, 2010) but still, they do highlight the potentiality people have to provoke changes and confront imposed systems.

The artistic voice of the people, romantic as it sounds, might still be the voice of the people to come (Ranciere, 2009:57). Art has anyway always been experimenting, envisioning the future and looking for possibilities and alternatives (Berardi, 2012:46); and commons-based art does nothing else but following this path by consciously responding to the needs of its era. Participatory, open and independent, this emerging form of creativity assists the contemporary multitude by communicating the current forms of common wealth and by building awareness. Possibly in this way, a new transnational culture might be born, based on value and discourse communities, which will start from the commons in order to respond to the urge for sustainability and solidarity (Bauwens 2010).

This research has been co-financed by the European Union (European Social Fund – ESF) and Greek national funds through the Operational Program „Education and Lifelong Learning“ of the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) - Research Funding Program: Heracleitus II. Investing in knowledge society through the European Social Fund.




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