In our contemporary experience of culture and its institutions, it may be useful to explore and activate terms such as the commons, generosity and gift, all of which could serve as a foundation for exploring how values emerge, are shared and disseminated to a wider public.What impact do we have as artists on the social imaginary? For a great majority of people art still functions as a form of decoration, a sanctuary, or a financial asset? How do we help to extend such limited perception by encouraging thinking of art as a critical practice, a source of self-knowledge and reflection and not merely as a tool to be employed to cure social and moral ills. As an artist and academic (Professor of Art in the Public Realm at Konstfack in Stockholm 2003-2013 and Chinese University of Hong Kong 2014/15) I’m interested in what kind of support structures can be developed to make a public for art rather than to make public art? The main difficulty lies in creating a context for engagement through art rather than its passive consumption. A context in which a different experiences and values emerge out of specific situations and encounters, rather than being administered. Fostering mutual interests takes time and unlike industrial processes cannot be fully regulated or controlled. We need to experiment creating inclusive environments where dialogue is often more valued than designing the outcome. Using art for branding purposes invites some serious questions and has enormous limitations. While helping create economic value it destroys and robes it of its autonomy. Popular demand for increasing entertainment value of art is not really worth struggling for. There is a difference between thinking of art as a privileged site and an elitist domain and protecting its reflexive and critical capacities. It is our responsibility as artists and citizens to create situations, objects and relationships deemed relevant in ways other than for market consumption. Artists are the agents in a wider political arena driven not just by competition but also by uninhibited acts of generosity. To paraphrase what essayist Wendell Berry has written, “We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have identified to be of value, but they defend what they love.”[1]

Perhaps one of the outcomes of our art practices might be a well nourished cultural and knowledge commons and a just civil society. Instead of thinking in terms of top down and bottom up tendencies as oppositional there might be another way out. It is by attending to the model of the commons and recognising both its full creative potential and its relationship to ownership of culture that we may begin to approach the complexities of addressing more sustainable formal and informal structures. The commons and the nourishment of the public sphere is one possibility for art to assert itself as a resource, which we must value in ways other than determined by the markets. This new paradigm allows turning our attention to experiences and values, which we hold in common and which are not reliant on our purchasing capacity.

“The great virtue of the commons as a school of thought is its ability to talk about the social organization of life that has some large measure of creative autonomy from the market or the state. The commons is not a manifesto, an ideology, or a buzzword, but rather a flexible template for talking about the rich productivity of social communities and the market enclosures that threaten them. From land ownership and access to information; from legal enclosures to expropriation of immaterial production, we are made aware of the fragility of the rights that we hold over what is most precious to us our own creative work. The breadth of interest in the commons is reaching new levels, which suggests that it is serving some very practical needs in culturally attractive ways. It also enables a new set of values to be articulated in public policy discussions. It offers useful tools and a vocabulary that can help various constituencies reassert control over their community resources. Privatize the commons and you begin to stifle commerce, competition, and innovation as well as the means to address social and civic needs. To defend the commons is to recognize that human societies have collective needs and identities that the market cannot fulfill by itself.”[2]

Artists construct, comment, and critically address the world around us, whether through research, writing, making exhibitions, or collaborative projects inside and outside of art institutions. It is often an intervention into the existing set of relations that makes another world, read, another set of values, possible. Artists’ engagement in social life consists of active participation in re-organising the institutional mindset and not solely providing the artwork for enjoyment or consumption. Each project requires finding sympathetic partners who can give proper attention to the exploration of new models, which can drive and inspire meaningful endeavors. Collaboration allows for greater freedom and connects different kinds of expertise, local knowledge and experience with a wider cultural commons. How can we successfully contribute to a culture that is made in public if not by opening up more contentious lines of communication and nourishing a sense of belonging? Many people see the commons as a useful template for asserting certain political claims. To talk about the airwaves, the Internet, environment, science and culture as commons is to declare, in effect, that these resources belong to all humanity and that we therefore ought to have a say how we produce, distribute and share them. To talk about the commons in the context of public art is to recognise the relationship between ownership of culture and creation of the public as its stakeholder.

[1] Wendell Berry, Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (New York: Perseus Books, 2000) p.40

[2] David Bollier, In: Understanding Knowledge as a Commons, eds C. Hess & E. Ostrom, MIT Press, 2011, p.30

Introduction to a talk at the Forum on Public Art Shanghai University, China. January 7th 2015