‘One for all and all for one’ – Commoning in Crisis

Map embroidered with the word 'home'
Image credit: Craftspace

Each member of the Crafting the Commons network has been invited to write a post for the blog, capturing their thinking about commons and commoning as the project unfolds. This post is by the Director of Craftspace, Deirdre Figueiredo MBE.

Craftspace is the main non-academic partner for the research network, and is creating the associated We Are Commoners touring exhibition. 

Craftspace is a charity creating opportunities to see, make and be curious about exceptional contemporary craft. We are based in Birmingham and work collaboratively regionally, nationally and internationally. We build relationships between artists, people and organisations and encourage the sharing of ideas, skills and knowledge. We have 30 years’ experience and continue to learn, push boundaries and challenge ideas. Craftspace initiates artistic programmes which stimulate creative excellence, critical thinking and understanding of contemporary crafts in the widest social and cultural contexts.

When we began writing this blog post in mid-March the focus was around thinking about the portability of craft skills in relation to an idea of the mobile commons. Then COVID-19 caused immediate, unimaginable and unprecedented disruption to all of our lives. Both the virus and craft skills are portable/mobile, universal, cross freely over borders and are passed/shared between people. One causes destruction and the other is life enhancing. Kenrick’s words come into sharp focus as the world undergoes a severe wake-up call: “Wherever and whenever people find ways to ensure that our well-being ensures the well-being of others – and to refuse the logic that asserts that our well-being depends on exploiting (human and ecological) others – then we are re-asserting Commons processes and resisting processes of Enclosure which now threaten us with extinction.”

The notion of craft skills and tacit knowledge as a portable form of global commons is positive, especially in recent times of mass migration. Whilst a doctor may find their professional qualifications redundant on arrival in another country and therefore not be able to work, a maker can be immediately productive and resourceful. They can also tap into social making, collective movements and reciprocity of exchange that locates craft within historian Peter Linebaugh’s term ‘commoning’ which in modern times is about activating the power of social cooperation to get things done.

It’s impossible now to write anything without reflecting on the global consequences of a pandemic which is testing capitalist systems and values, with their exploitative forms of enclosure, to the limit. The requirement to ‘stay at home’ and shut down of the economy has exposed the glaring inequities, vulnerabilities and erosions of public resource which tip millions into a precarious existence. At the same time people in local neighbourhoods are drawing on wells of resilience based on ancient muscle memory of ‘how we used to do things’, and re-surfacing as community co-operation through COVID-19 mutual aid groups. It reminded me of Commons Animateur Julie Ristau’s writing which describes how “the act of commoning draws on a network of relationships made under the expectation that we will each take care of one another and with a shared understanding that some things belong to all of us—which is the essence of the commons itself. The practice of commoning demonstrates a shift in thinking from the prevailing ethic of ‘you’re on your own’ to ‘we’re in this together’.”

The social distancing measures came into place just as the artists’ residencies for ‘We are Commoners’ exhibition were about to start with participatory workshops. Artist Alinah Azadeh is working in Balsall Heath, an ethnically and socio-economically diverse neighbourhood in Birmingham. Our partner St Paul’s Community Development Trust has been embedded there for hundreds of years – a symbol and anchor of commons and commoning. We have aligned Alinah’s project with a new ‘share shack’ initiated by The Active Wellbeing Society (TAWS). It is a physical making/workshop space with a library of things attached. It has now been put on hold as the space has been temporarily re-purposed to store food to be distributed to families in need. Alinah and Craftspace together with partners and community allies are re-configuring the project to be partially delivered online until such time as we can reconvene in person. Whilst challenging this is also an opportunity to create a multi-dimensional resource. Alinah proposes “an alternative library, emotional lexicon, resource for commoning in crisis – things made together/collectively but apart. It will explore and highlight the underlying qualities and human values we need to cultivate among and within us such as; care, generosity and co-operation, which are not easily measurable or ‘useful’ (like the tools for loan in the Library of Things). However, they form an emotional lexicon of commons thinking and actions which are crucial to the personal and collective social health on which a commons-based society depends to get through a time of crisis like this.”

Alinah hopes to “focus minds, hearts, hands and to materialise apart/together whilst reflecting, boosting connection, supporting well-being and encouraging social activism – by making pieces for others or for public eyes.” She hopes this online dimension will trigger further acts of commoning – both creative and social. In the form of a series of show and tell film clips people will be invited to create things “to combat loneliness, to help you face fear, feel safe, soothe grief and process loss, that can foster self-care, that enable you to listen more deeply, that encourage generosity, to soothe a broken heart, that remind you to be gentle, kind and courageous, that help you to dream positively into the future, to experience hope, to be resilient, that help you tell your origin story, remember where you came from and treasure what you have. The first two in the series will focus on cultivating courage (crafting fear into courage) and transforming loneliness or solitude into connection and co-operation.

In this network Craftspace is paired with Leila Dawney, so we ran these ideas past her to gain her perspective as a commons thinker. She sent a thoughtful and encouraging response; “I like this idea! As I read it, it’s about making, and supporting, a space for sharing ways of coping with difficult times, and creating a commons of ‘getting through’ – it draws on existing knowledges and strategies and supports the development of new ones. In addition, the making provides a tangible object that materialises this ‘know-how’.”

Elsewhere makers with studios at Cockpit Arts in London, whose livelihoods have been severely impacted, have joined together in a collective effort to use their skills for mutual benefit. They are using commonly-owned, time-honoured and universal craft skills to sew vital scrubs and masks for their local NHS primary care units. Whilst networks of Makerspace communities around the country harness open-source tech available through the digital commons to 3-D print visor headbands for frontline NHS staff.

Our conversations about our exhibition We are Commoners, which opens in September, are necessarily turning towards the narrative of recovery and of utilising the exhibits and associated events to find and process meaning out of trauma and loss. Now more than ever we need ‘The Commons’ to rebalance our ways of being, living and working. As Kenrick asserts: “the ability to think in a Commons way is an important skill for rebuilding political, community and personal resilience.”

Lisa Falaschi
[email protected]