«The City as a Commons» conference in Bologna. Or: phenomenological flânerie as urban commoning pedagogy? (part two)

Originally published on the Schumacher College Blog on January 15, 2016.


The first day in Bologna ended with a conversation between David Bollier (an independent scholar, and co-editor, with Silke Helfrich, of «The Wealth of the Commons» and «Patterns of Commoning») and Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation, which bore a distinctively «strategic» flavour. Specifically, they grappled with the tension between the commons as infrastructures that ensure open cooperation – i.e. productive coordination between an open set of contributors/users, as opposed to a fixed constituency – and the need to ensure that the value generated through such a process of mutuality does not end up being harvested by capitalist firms, but can actually resist enclosure and act as the catalyst for further commoning experimentation. In other words, what Bollier and Bauwens seemed to advance was the hope for «meta-networks» that enable synergies between different commons-based initiatives, making the whole ecology of commons-based production mutually reinforcing and, therefore, more resilient.

Commoning is something the body does!

Silke Helfrich sharing her vision for the (R)Urban Commons in 2040 in Bologna
Silke Helfrich sharing her vision for the (R)Urban Commons in 2040 in Bologna

The importance of a vision, of the sort proposed by Bollier and Bauwens, was at the same time brought down to the level of everyday practice in the opening keynote of Day 2 on «Imagining the (R)Urban Commons in 2040», which was delivered by Silke Helfrich (who is Bollier’s co-author on the two volumes on the commons mentioned earlier). In her presentation, Silke reminded the audience that, yes, commoning is in part about institutional design. But it is about design in tandem with practice on the ground. It is through a combination of the two that commoning needs to take root in the material life of individuals and communities as primarily an embodied experience. For this same reason, she underscored Ezio Manzini’s suggestion to regard commoning as design dealing with fluid form and which, therefore, has to work with the kinks and unpredictabilities of concrete predicaments, and nurture an ability to find freedom in relatedness to who/what else is already available.
In this sense, there was a hint of something «permacultural» in her approach to the commons, insofar as her vision had less the flavour of a grand utopia. Instead, it felt more like the narration of a process of mutual recognition and reciprocal implication between a constellation of different experiences, brought together by the attempt to re-think, in a participatory manner, the use of what resources may already have been at hand (this stress on starting from the existent is what I found akin – but not exclusive – to the permacultural approach to design). The process just described – in Silke’s view – could coalesce into a kind of con-federation of independent initiatives, thereby blending autonomy with conscious participation in a larger ecosystem of urban commoning practices.
What I took away most vividly from her contribution was precisely the importance of nurturing an embodied appreciation of openings for alternatives, that can be found by parsing attentively the grain of everyday experience and actively re-thinking use in the process.

The commons as performance of space

Performing cinema «out of the box» in a park
Performing cinema «out of the box» in a park

How this could actually be done in practice became more apparent to me in what I thought was one of the most fascinating panels of the conference, on «Art, Performance and the Commons». Alanna Thain, a professor of English at McGill University in Montréal, approached commoning as a question of developing «alternative techniques of togetherness». Her presentation offered a glimpse into the way she had engaged such question, through experimenting with a bike-powered cinematic projector – «Cinema Out of the Box» – which could be carried and activated anywhere using a bike as its source of energy. In this sense, impromptu screenings in spaces that were not explicitly conceived as cinemas (e.g. public parks, woods, or even cemeteries) confronted her students and her with a series of interesting situations and realisations. Specifically, they disclosed interesting possibilities for «stretching» and «tweaking» what forms of collaboration and joint action spaces can afford and accommodate, beyond those they are assumed to be cut out for. For instance: can a public park house a cinematic projection? Can a cemetery? Should one ask for permission in either case? (Alanna and her students only chose to ask in the case of cemeteries) And how is the cinematic experience different when it has to accommodate itself alongside other concurrent modes of inhabiting space? Take the noises … or people’s unexpected reactions to the discovery of a «cinematic body» in their midst (or their lack of acknowledgment of it)?
In all these instances, the «Cinema Out of the Box» turned out to afford a «slow pedagogy of emergent experience», due to the improvisation outside of the bounds of received architectures of space: noises, as well as people moving and leaving, all became part of a different kind of cinematic experience. In this sense, Alanna’s experiments conveyed for me the sense that

at a foundational level, what commoning entails is this: a careful attending to the possibilities of space, parsing it for overlooked niches, where new streams of collaborative action may perhaps take root.

This sense was brought down to an even more elemental level – to the body’s relationship to space – in the suggestions advanced by Mexican philosopher and dancer Mayra Morales. Specifically, Mayra was concerned with the potentials disclosed by a process view of the body. She suggested we take the body not as a fixed, bounded entity, but rather as a process of «bodying» amidst currents of ongoing movement – what she called the «ongoing composition of pushes and pulls» – so that «the body» as discrete form really becomes just a discernible passage in the co-creative dance of motion in space. If that is so, this liberates potential for alternative directions of «bodying» to materialise. In other words, if the body is a negotiation amidst current of ongoing movement, of pushes and pulls, then this means that, at any one time, there is a myriad of alternative compositions of space that could be accessible, if only one hesitated enough to attend to them. This virtual field of innovative directions in the bodying of bodies, Mayra called the realm of the «hallucinatory», even though I find it easier (you be the judge!) to think of it as the ephemeral moment where the «adjacent possible» makes itself accessible, i.e. where matter invites unexpected possibilities for engaging with it (think of the «invitation» of a bench, as a virtual possibility in the differential bodying of your stroll, in its here-and-now). Developing a relationship to this realm of experience-in-its-occurring entails – as Mayra argues in another fascinating paper on the politics of moving and not moving that I stumbled upon while writing this blog – a «practice of action-non-action», which

can indeed aid to generate new forms of life and therefore new geographies of creativity. But we are not to generate them, we are better to attend to them and to non-do, in order to open space for them to manifest and self-organize themselves. Geographies of new territories yet unexplored.

To bring this back to bear on the commons, perhaps the final speaker on the same panel – Eleonora Diamanti – put it in a way that ties it all together nicely for me (this is what I wrote down on my notebook, so the quote may differ slightly from what she actually said): «Spontaneous occupation of public space, even as ephemeral artistic performance, helps re-design the city as a commons».

Getting lost … or retrieving alternative ways of composing the city?

Bologna, Piazza del Nettuno by night
Bologna, Piazza del Nettuno by night

This much, then, is what I took with me at the end of a marvellous, if intense, two days. At the end of the conference, I shook hands and traded cards as is customary, and finally took to strolling through the crowded streets of Bologna – aided by an agreeable Indian-summer-like temperature – joining a collective body of other people enjoying their Sunday walk. By the time I reached Piazza del Nettuno, however, it was a quarter past seven, just fifteen minutes before a coffee shop – which I had carefully eyed during the previous days – was due to close for the evening, meaning no new beans to feed my coffee-collector body. So I picked up the pace, now pushing through the alleys with the drive of a Man With Something to Accomplish, swinging my arms vigorously as though holding walking sticks, dodging the flows of other bodies that seemed to force me down to a stroll, when I was really trying to get something done! There it was, a corner away. Zip and … no. Shut … it had been shut all day …
My coffee-bodying suddenly began dissolving in a cloud of disorientation, undone by infinite possibilities: what is Bologna making of me now? Bologna, I was to find out, would be calling out my number: 54/46 that is (a number that calls me out, as aficionado of what is one of my formative movies … if there is such a thing). Blasting from a speaker mounted on a shopping cart, it gathered me in Via Ugo Bassi, and had me join ranks with the flow of a protest-bodying. And in the larger flow of the protest-bodying I morphed into a Toots-and-the-Maytals-bodying, being swayed and vibrating in song, tempoed by punk boots stomping on the cobble-stoned alleyways. And the protest bodying bodied forth (and I with it) gathering steps and music, but also cheers from windows that opened above our heads, and other heads peering through the windows, and the waving of comradely fists, and even a flag of Albania.

My protest-bodying in Bologna: «The event activates us into an ecology of new forms of living. We stop wanting. We practice letting ideas go. We stop working and it starts working! It works in action-non-action. That kind of working of the imperceptible» (M. Morales).
My protest-bodying in Bologna: «The event activates us into an ecology of new forms of living. We stop wanting. We practice letting ideas go. We stop working and it starts working! It works in action-non-action. That kind of working of the imperceptible» (M. Morales).

Thirty minutes of receptive flânerie had me experience letting go and being won over by the pushes and pulls pulsing through Bologna, so that in the end

I was left with a now-embodied sense that a careful attending to experience as it unfolds moment by moment – a kind of phenomenological stance – could indeed afford access and visibility to the many possible forms of life thriving simultaneously in a city, including as the bodying forth of a commons.

And that much, for me, has been a fascinating find since, so much as to colour – as you will have probably noticed – the entirety of my experience of this fascinating event.