Crafting the Commons

Lead Research Organisation: Nottingham Trent University
Department Name: Sch of Art and Design


This network will creatively interrogate intersections between contemporary concepts of the commons and 'disruptive' craft initiatives - community-oriented activities which radically challenge the structures of industrial production and consumer culture - in order to cross-fertilise design and commons scholarship and influence future practical activity. It builds on recent work to extend theories of the commons beyond land-related contexts to embrace a diverse array of tangible and intangible collectively shared resources. Despite many resonances between the two fields, craft (understood here in expanded terms to encompass diverse making, repair and sharing practices) has yet to be examined through a commons lens.

The network will inform the development of a major touring exhibition by Craftspace, an Arts Council-funded organisation which works to demonstrate the progressive role of craft in civil society. The exhibition, which will launch at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) in Birmingham in September 2020, will comprise work by twelve makers that explores commons concepts and narratives, including three projects developed in collaboration with community groups in order to incorporate a broader range of voices into the debates. The exhibition will inspire diverse making communities to rethink their practices from a commons perspective and highlight the transformative potential of commons thinking to cultural organisations. Further dissemination activities including a blog, podcast series, exhibition catalogue, leaflet and journal articles will make the network's findings available to academic and lay audiences.

Academics with expertise in craft/design and commons will participate in the network alongside the exhibition's curators and commissioned makers. Two international academics and two international makers will take part, bringing alternative cultural perspectives. Together, the participants will explore emergent academic research on the ideas, stories and politics of the commons to examine existing community-based craft initiatives and prototype experimental craft-as-commons practices.

In summary, three research questions will be investigated:
- What forms of commons can be created or animated through craft, making and repair?
- What are the political dimensions of these practices, and what is their transformative potential?
- What mythologies and narratives are drawn on in the creation of these 'craft commons', and how are these translated into social and material practice?

Network members will come together through a series of events and research activities:
- Event 1, an intensive theory retreat in Amsterdam incorporating two context-setting visits, will generate 'commons stories' to kickstart activity.
- Event 2, a workshop at New Art Exchange in Nottingham, will introduce key concepts of the commons and make initial connections to disruptive craft practices.
- Academics will undertake field visits to five community-oriented making, repair and sharing initiatives including a makerspace and a tool library.
- Pairs of academics will visit the socially engaged community projects commissioned for the exhibition, while four Skype meetings will connect academics with the makers producing individual commissions; in all cases, the academics will act as both resource and observer.
- Event 3, a workshop at Jigsaw, an autonomous social centre in Dublin, will provide space to discuss the research activities to date and to prototype experimental ideas for 'craft commons' via a social design jam.
- Event 4, at MAC in Birmingham, will incorporate a final reflective workshop and a sharing day with 80 bookable places, coinciding with the launch of the exhibition. Presentations will share stories from the network, while discussions will consider the issues arising from this work and the ways in which attendees could apply commons ideas within their own practices.

Planned Impact

The involvement of craft development organisation Craftspace in this network, the close links between the network and the major touring exhibition, and the project's focus on creative practice and community engagement all offer significant opportunities for impact.

Craftspace will be directly impacted through the participation of Deirdre Figueiredo MBE (Director) and Emma Daker (Exhibitions & Projects Development Manager) in the network. They will develop their understanding of commons concepts and benefit from structured opportunities for reflection, shaping the curation and interpretation of the major touring exhibition and filtering through to the organisation's practices more widely. Previous research collaboration has influenced Craftspace's inquiry and evaluation methods, informed programming strands and improved the articulation of its work. While Figueiredo has prior experience of academic research via the AHRC Connected Communities programme, Daker will gain her first experience of such activity, strengthening the organisation's capacity for future research collaboration and supporting its resilience strategy. Partnering with academics from different disciplines will broaden Craftspace's networks, further building opportunities for the future.

A second group of beneficiaries comprises artists, makers and designers with interests in social engagement and activism. While expressions of interest from makers indicate enthusiasm for commons concepts, they also show a need for more in-depth engagement with conceptual thinking regarding the cultural politics of the commons. Makers will thus be supported in developing this conceptual expertise through engagement with critical scholars working in this field. In previous projects, Craftspace has found that a focused space for critical exchange has impacted the quality and depth of the work made. It is anticipated that the reflective space, support for critical thinking and networking opportunities offered by the project will also indirectly shape future projects. The various dissemination activities will enable a much wider community of artists, makers and designers to also develop their understanding of commons concepts and learn about diverse examples of craft-as-commons. Some within these groups will be inspired to actively explore commons ideas within their own practices - whether professional or amateur, individual or collaborative.

In developing their knowledge of commons ideas, other arts professionals such as curators and writers will gain a new theoretical lens for framing creative and cultural activity. While some links have been made between visual art and commons, including the Pavilion of the Common (Venice Biennale 2017) and the Open Field project (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), the resonances between these fields remain underexplored. It is anticipated that the exhibition will act as a catalyst, inspiring others to explore commons concepts in further projects. Jessica Litherland (Producer, Visual Arts & Media, MAC) will be directly impacted through her involvement in the network.

Finally, community-oriented organisations of various types (including the participatory project host venues) will be impacted through the network's activity, primarily by contributing to an understanding of the politics of their practices, and their links with broader movements. Independent making, repair and sharing initiatives such as those studied via the field visits will potentially gain new ways to contextualise, validate and organise their work. Established cultural, arts and heritage organisations and community asset-building initiatives such as Active Communities in Birmingham will potentially be able to apply research insights within their work. At a time when local authorities are forced to make cuts in provision, the ability to advocate for the intrinsic value of collectively owned cultural assets and reimagine options for their stewardship is crucial.


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