Live Feeds: dwelling + commons

Some Notes on our Live Feeds Research:

Part of our realization from the first two weeks of research is that the concept of the “commons” is crucial to the process of answering the core question of the Lab, how we confront comfort. Here are some notes on this, with more to come as we continue:

The Lab began with the issues of Global/Local + Gentrification as its conceptual framework for the first three weeks. This is a reasonable place to start, but one that also emerged from a deep set of assumptions that need to be unpacked and scrutinized. How useful are the concepts of global and local? What scales and forms of action are missed by seeing reality at these polemic scales? Does a focus on gentrification overly predetermine our framework for urban change? Does it deal well with the internationally distributed costs of our systems of comfort?

Our first three weeks have been a parallel research that took us in a direction other than focusing directly on gentrification, to research on the developing and testing of possible logics, practices and tools for uncovering, protecting, expanding, and most importantly, producing the commons.



What is the Commons?

This essay offers a good overview of the commons: Defending and Reinventing the Commons. In addition the work of Elinor Ostrom allows us a way to understand how commons and communities can be self organizing in powerful manners: link.

Last week, we conducted a fieldwork session out at Hunts Point to test some our initial, collectively generated ideas of the commons. The field work session was titled Co-opting Place and one of the participants wrote up a good overview of the process: here is a link to this. As part of this field work session we asked our participants and fellow researchers to read this essay by Ivan Illich: Dwelling. It is a wonderful piece of bracing writing that critiques the world of planners and architects. More importantly for us, Illich argues that understanding urban space in public and private terms fails to recognize that lived space is organized around the axis of dwelling + commons instead. It is well worth a read, and our group’s critical engagement with it is helping to shape our next phase of research.


A Multi-Species Commons:

We find that much of the important work on the commons has a very human-centric viewpoint. Commons are not something produced and maintained or invented by just one species (especially not us). Commons are forms of multi-species negotiations, enjoyments and battles. To get a great and pleasurable sense of this it is worth looking at Michael Pollan’s Book: The Botany of Desire or the PBS Documentary by the same name. Here is a review of the book that gives a great sense of his perspective. We are delighted by insights such as this: “Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rule,” Pollan writes. ”Without flowers, we would not be.”

Another book that lays out how complex and intertwined our lives are with our fellow creatures is Virginia Anderson’s Creatures of Empire.

We like to push this idea much further: the self is already a muti-species commons. We are not a singular organism. We are actually 90% other creatures by cell count. This matters greatly on so many levels from politics to basic health. (In regards to health take a look at this recent article on cancer. In regards to politics and social action we would suggest the work of Lynn Margulis and Dona Haraway but also this important article on the present status of the individual). Great and potent stuff.

“These shifts in perspective, occurring throughout cellular biology, can seem as dizzying as what happened in cosmology with the discovery that dark matter and dark energy make up most of the universe: Background suddenly becomes foreground and issues once thought settled are up in the air.”

Yes — we still have to figure out what an individual is…


The Commons Must be Made:

It is easy to fall into the trap that the commons is already out there. It is the air around us, and the fields we might have once walked in… The commons is not a set of neutral resources. It is always the actual negotiated dwelling place of creatures and things. It is something that is made. Today we have to both resist the continued privatization of the commons and invent future commons. What does this mean? One of our favorite examples is how a new commons of the street opens up with the invention of skateboarding. Public stairs and handrails emerge redefined through new practices and new tools. The documentary “Dog Town and Z Boys” is an excellent primer in the production of the commons. But so is the evolutionary history of how the wing developed or how the fin became a leg. But this will have to wait for another post on “Exaptation” and the production of the commons…. Emergence, surprise and the commons — delight and wonderment.

Trying to keep it simple, our research curiosity is: perhaps one way to begin the question of the commons is to ask “not what something is, but what can it do”?

As always we would love to hear from you and collaborate with you as part of our Live Feeds Program. Please be in touch.