Decentralised commoning and collaborative research modelling

As outlined in a previous post on this blog, one of the core themes of the 2019 CSNI Summer School was collaborative research. The afternoon presentations and discussions included a few current research projects at CSNI, carried out in collaboration with arts organisations, including Rhizome, Serpentine Galleries, and the Triangle Network coordinated via Gasworks.

The opening talk for the afternoon presented an alternative look at how collaboration and research can be articulated, outside the academic context, through a focus on peer-to-peer networks, local communities, and radical friendships. Ruth Catlow, a writer, artist and founding co-director of Furtherfield,  gave a talk on the multifaceted understanding of collaboration within the London-based arts organisation.

Based out of Finsbury Park, a public park in North London, Furtherfield has been operating at the intersection of global networked culture, local activism, art and technology, since the mid ’90s. The aims of the organization, as stated on the Furtherfield website, focus on the critical engagement with networks (both online and offline) and the development of a commons culture rooted in the philosophy of open source technology. But more than that, there is a distinctive emphasis on play and playfulness, a sensitivity to the (physical) locality of the organisation, and a view on collaboration that involves co-creation and joined imagining.

Catlow spoke about two distinct concepts developed in the context of “decentralising and commoning the arts” – DIWO (Do-It-With-Others) and radical friendships. The DIWO concept and approach was an evolution of the earlier DIY/punk aesthetic and ideology. Instead of an emphasis on individualism, however, DIWO privileges meaningful collaboration and cooperation. Catlow spoke about the first formal manifestation of DIWO as part of the Frutherfield programme – an exhibition of email art facilitated via an open call for submissions to the Netbehaviour email list in 2007. Every email submission became an artwork in the online exhibition and a part of the larger collective DIWO project. Extending the ethos of the DIWO approach, Catlow then spoke about conceiving Furtherfield as “a community of radical friends”. Radical friends become “partners” – engaged in building “living systems of care” and developing “theory, practice and transnational infrastructure for P2P, commons, and open cooperativism”. This way of framing collaboration and friendship in the context of infrastructures and networks poses a stark contrast to the common (ab)use of the term “friend” on corporate social media platforms. But it is also distinct from other frames of reference used to describe research partnerships for collaboration with/in communities or organisations.

Research within Furtherfield’s “decentralised commoning” framework operates across multiple levels. Unlike the more traditional academic paradigm of an individual post-graduate researcher being embedded in a community (or organisation) to produce a concrete artefact of knowledge in the end of a 3-4 year period – an artwork, a thesis, a publication – Furtherfield’s research initiatives operate on a many-to-many basis. Fieldwork, theory- and practice-building are developed throughout the year via an annual lab and three original project commissions per year, alongside numerous events, workshops, talks, and seminars bringing together project participants and producers, as well as the local community. Research is informed by and feeds into an intentionally accessible programme which addresses the ethical questions surrounding innovation and cooperation in natural (public parks), social (local communities) and networked (online) environments. There is a strong emphasis on participatory activities – aimed at engaging the public from the multi-ethnic, diverse neighbourhoods surrounding the park in North London, as well as the wider online audience.

Furtherfield’s current programme – Citizen Sci-Fi (2019–2021) – is concerned precisely with this idea of facilitating “crowdsourcing” wherein communities can envision together new public space futures. In the context of the 2019 theme of the programme – Time Portals – Catlow presented a new work by artist Elsa James, Circle of  Blackness Hologram. The work commissioned to be broadcast as a hologram inside the Furtherfield Gallery, involved the artist conducting historical and ethnographic research in the local area in order to revisit the life of a historical black woman who lived in the area 150 years ago, and to then reimagine her life 150 years into the future. Catlow also discussed the projects Future Fictions and Jason and the Argonauts, as examples of artistic research into the needs of different local communities towards co-creating work that playfully speaks to current concerns while envisioning science-fiction stories together. The focus of these projects and the artwork commissions, as Catlow highlighted, is on the diverse activities and events – or “fieldwork” – that happens throughout the duration of the projects, and less so on final, fixed objects to be displayed in the gallery.

Besides presenting an innovative approach to what forms gallery exhibitions and art commissions can take, in order to be accessible and relevant to diverse communities, Catlow’s presentation of the work and vision of Furtherfield, also points to alternative strategies for conducting research, fieldwork and developing “theory and practice” within a radically collaborative model.

Lozana Rossenova