New Commons

I began writing this letter on May 25, 2022: the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, and the day after the mass school shooting in Uvalde, TX. Meanwhile, another wave of Covid, albeit a less lethal one, looms as summer nears, even as the now seemingly inevitable overturn of Roe v. Wade also threatens women in the US. As I consider this issue’s theme, New Commons, my first thought is to wonder if, in the US, the commons can be defined merely as a space where one might be gunned down—literally or figuratively. Everyone I know—including most collaborators on this issue—is exhausted. How can we come together in an optimistic consideration of the commons—what is shared, collectively—in a society locked in a state of cataclysmic stalemate? But we are, for better or for worse, facing these things together, and whatever resolution might be found, we’ll have to find it in common.

I expected this issue to delve into works that take up the commons (the resources, spaces, and values that are public, shared, or held in common for the collective good) as subject matter—as text rather than subtext. Instead, contributors responded to the issue’s prompt primarily by exploring how various artists, exhibitions, and practices have negotiated shifting reconfigurations of where and how the commons manifests—and in turn, how we might approach engagements therein. Perhaps the commons, in this time, has been relegated to subtext; perhaps the notion, now, feels too unstable to evoke directly. From within this feeling of exhaustion and despair, I turn to Silvia Federici’s words in the introduction to her 2018 book, Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, “The very sense that we are living at the edge of a volcano makes it even more crucial to recognize that, in the midst of much destruction, another world is growing.” 

With dramatic social upheaval comes the opportunity to ask—or re-ask—important questions. This issue is full of questions that lurk between the lines: What is a commonly held resource? What is common? What is shared? What is it to share? The pandemic, alongside varied social unrests, has reconfigured public space. Optimistically, the symbolic language of the commons might be reclaimed and re-envisioned through this disturbance. But how can anyone, even artists, present a coherent vision of a commons in a time so defined by conflict—and, as Federici asks in the essay “Feminism and the Politics of the Commons,” “How can we ensure that they do not project a unity that remains to be constructed?”

In this issue, contributors grapple not only with what is held as a shared resource but also with what the acceptable uses for those resources are. Such conundrums tend to coalesce around public parks, monuments, and memorials. To these public spaces, we can add the even more contested “spaces” of social media and online conferencing platforms. In their essay and we were dancing, danilo machado looks to two artists whose efforts toward access, equity, and joyous celebration activated two iconic gathering spaces of the early pandemic: public parks and Zoom. Remote Access parties’ radically inclusive practices and Levani’s activations of Socrates Sculpture Park offered Queer and Crip visions of unity within the fracture of lockdown.

What utterance can capture the collective experience of a fractured time? It is said that laughter brings people together, but humor often relies on what is already commonly shared: knowledge, culture, ideology. In Broken Hum(or), Dinah Ryan looks for her lost sense of humor and instead finds an argument for shared vulnerability, courtesy of an exhibition curated by artist Glenn Ligon.

How might the history, present, and future of marginalized people share space with those of the oppressor? In Refusing the Here-now—An Afrofuturist Period Room, Fugitivity, and the Undercommons, Re’al Christian interrogates whether—to whatever extent it is possible—the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new Afrofuturist period room enacts Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s concept of the undercommons. 

In Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, Chantal Mouffe writes “With the pervasive control of the market, the distinction between public and private has ceased to be pertinent, since even the public has become privatized. Every critical gesture is quickly recuperated and neutralized by the forces of corporate capitalism.” This observation lies in subtext beneath Andrew Woolbright’s essay Office Landscaping—A Genealogy of Corporate Critique, in which he traces a lineage of strategic interventions by artists into the aesthetics, structures, and methods of the corporate sphere. What emerges is a family tree that traces more than 50 years of fluctuating critical relations between artists and corporate capitalism’s logics.

What is a common experience? Is it within our power to conjure new commons, ones that can exist across space and time? Does a musical score create a commons by creating geography of communal sonic action? Geograpologies, an artist project by The Afield (a multidisciplinary collaboration between visual artist Anthony Hawley and violinist Rebecca Fischer), conjures such a space through the prompt of an experimental score and an invitation to create a geography of interaction. The pages of this project are positioned at the center of the issue such that the staple binding may be opened, and the pages removed for ease of use when performing the score. A QR code links to the project’s home on, where the work will continue to expand over the coming months. 

This issue’s glossary, by Courtney McClellan, mines the term “colloquial” and its resonances for jewels of kinship via difference. The colloquial occurs where one group’s commonalities distinguish them through characteristics that define their difference from others, like a code of belonging. The colloquial is the expression of a common knowledge, one that revels in the shared. But what is common knowledge? Historically, we would find the answer in libraries, archives, and in language itself. Contemporary attacks on education—on what can be called history—further fracture the notion of common knowledge. In Living Worth Repeating, Stephanie Bailey offers a close reading of Otolith Group’s Xenogenesis. After working to decolonize the archive, how might we then build a shared resource of historical poetics—new subjectivities, new worlds? Bailey’s essay dives deep into the possible answers that form Otolith’s rich and complex practice.

Theoretically, we are globally united—if only in our imaginations—by shared environmental and epidemiological crises, even as our daily lives became more atomized, isolated, introverted. We’ve tested a fundamental question about ourselves: When things get imbalanced, will we turn inward to protect our own, or will we take the broader interpretation of “our own” and turn outward, toward mutual aid? Of course, there isn’t one answer. But I wager that we all know a bit more about our own personal answer now, in 2022, than we did three years ago.

This issue’s reviews include Maxwell Paparella on visiting the US National Mall, which led us to our cover images, drawn from the public domain via Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress. Also featured are reviews by Mia Harrison on Simone Leigh’s Sovereignty in Venice, Logan Lockner on What is Left Unspoken, Love at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and Isis Awad on We Are but One, Pioneer Works’ retrospective of Breyer P-Orridge. 

Through this issue’s act of questioning, we hope our readers will be prompted to ask similar questions about their own notions of what is shared, what is held in common, and what expectations they hold for public resources. The questioning itself is crucial, particularly when it is done without pressure to arrive at a conclusion but to open a multiplicity of options for how to be together and share.

*Note: In our last issue, on the introductory page of the interview “War Inna Babylon, the Community’s Struggle for Justice Truths & Rights,” the featured image was incorrectly captioned as an installation view. It should have been credited: Us an Dem, dir. Rianna Jade Parker, ed. Daniel Amoakoh, UK 2021, 13 minutes [photo by Mark Blower].

Sarah Higgins
Editor + Artistic Director