Working for the Commons: A Conversation with Binna Choi of Casco Art Institute
Earlier this year, Utrecht-based space Casco announced a reorientation of their program around a new modus operandi, beginning a year-long shift of both the language and name of the organization itself from “Casco Office of Art, Theory, and Design” to “Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons.” This distinct evolution activated the idea institution in both language and practice as inextricable from its mission, inscribing an altered ethic towards the commons into both its daily practices and long-term horizons. Action is more than implied – it is imperative, as the organization stated in their announcement of the shift: “With this change we aim to act on our political-aesthetical intentions and face their urgencies with working for the commons as the guiding imperative for all Casco operations.”
Working for the Commons operates as a kind of manifesto nested into a name, the commons becoming a value system that precedes and exceeds capitalist relations among individuals, institutions and their publics. Speaking with Casco’s Director since 2008, Binna Choi, we consider what an art institution for the commons consists of, new habits of working together within and beyond institutions, and how Casco, among an expanding network of commoners, could contribute to collective actions in order to radically change our way of working and living.
James McAnally: First of all, what prompted the shift from your long-term research on the commons to a reconsideration of the organization itself as “working for the commons?” What does changing your name indicate that wasn’t possible simply as a program, or long-form series as you’ve engaged in the past?
Binna Choi/Casco: Our team had a desire of sharpening focus – and clarity – in our programming that would enable us and our public to have more time for “deep understanding” as we called it: deeper relations to beings and things “we” create and encounter – and reproductive labor, instead of keeping our habit of working – an ongoing production and event cycle – experienced in our psychosomatic experience of “being busy,” while thinking of what the institution of the commons could be. This process of reflection has been progressing with Site for Unlearning (Art Organization), a collaboration between our (shifting) team and artist Annette Krauss during our program Composing the Commons (2013-2015). At the point of concluding this program, which entailed inquiring and imaginative projects by artists and/or group of transdisciplinary practitioners of mapping the definitions, issues and strategies around the commons, and growing networks, we also came to recognize the commons as a vast field of research and practice where a number of urgent issues of our time around racism, fascism, fundamentalism, capitalism and above all ecological crisis converge. The commons could function as a common denominator with which we see these respective struggles in relation to each other and their common cause. So, in fact, we may only continue to work on the commons. In other words, we pursue “deeper understanding” of the commons, including our investigation and practice of Casco as a commons, a site for commoning or an institution of the commons.
JM: What does this shift signify in concrete terms? How does the organization change under this framework?
BC: You mean, how does an art institution of and/or as the commons operate? Let me start with this. Commoning is often misunderstood as an organizational form with no hierarchy or simply as co-owned resources. Yet I think it’s more complex than that. Working collectively, for example, cannot simply be associated with complete horizontality – or flatness of structure – and non-hierarchy. Also this does not mean the withdrawal from the public such as public funding, publicness, public presence and so on. I would say rather that commoning should be at the core of the public. For example, “gemeente” – city council in Dutch – derives from “meente,” which translates as the commons.
In this regard, we are going to keep our “institutional” structure, including fundraising from public foundations, and would like to care even more for our “publics.” Practically, we will further “institute” our organization – after all we put an emphasis on this aspect through the name “Casco Art Institute.” We are going to write and publish a “protocol” for use and maintenance of Casco. We are further “specializing” positions in the organization, including the creation of new positions like “head of diverse economy” and rearticulating some of our existing positions into “deputy director” and “correspondent & editor.” With specialization, however, I mean that each person has a stronger focus and hence equal weight in the organization. With protocol, I mean that we are prepared for us to share our knowledge and responsibility amongst ourselves – which is unfortunately not common either – as well as other commoners outside of the institutional-organizational circles. Furthering instituting is hence only to serve further commoning. The strengthened organizational power is in turn to support the mentioned commoners outside the organization- consisting of volunteers, artists and other practitioners who come to research, experiment and make projects and activities or simply share our infrastructure and facilities for gatherings. We do not envision that Casco will turn 180 degrees from an institution to collective. In fact their exclusive distinction is not relevant for the commons in my view.
Next to this, we will facilitate each of our “institutional” team and the commoners to care about a focused project and cultivate conditions for “deep understanding” instead of one or two curators/director pursuing the concepts of all the projects and them being “materialized” by others. Each project will have more autonomy and its own body once it’s launched. Plurality and multiplicity are something that we envision, rather than one mega project, while all fall under the practice of commoning and contributing to the commons, in the way, for instance, each own’s learning process will strengthen the eco-system as well as institutional infrastructure as the commons. Commoning here comes with a finer form of instituting in service of decentralization or rather plu-centralization.
Then, we anticipate that an annual assembly would be a crucial moment for all the commoners to come together and share about their projects in process and practice. We don’t idealize the assembly to be where decisions are made in consensus. Rather, it will be a field of gathering, sharing, and collective experimentation, while institutional decisions are made understood and adoptable. Who knows in a long run – this could be an important moment for decision making too! We would just like to take a gradual step in this direction.Two exhibitions we will organize in our main building would be conceived as a form of assembly too, instead of a curator’s oeuvre. In fact, many exhibitions are already a kind of assembly but approached as if they are singled authored or an artist-curator binary. One exhibition in particular would be an open field of things brought by the commoners – so serving the purpose of the annual assembly taking place.
Next to this, we will encourage exhibitions or other forms of presentation outside of our institutional premise – in other non art specific contexts where a project’s subject matters. This would multiply meeting points for the commoner and new potential commoners, while enlarging contact zones with the public.
Lastly, we also set a tri-fold parameter for planning, composed of “Action, Body, Kirakira”:
In terms of action, for every project, we consider the action goals it aims at realizing over the course of a given period of time. Art may be non-active, autonomous, object based, sensual and contemplative: on that level itself art is potentially transformative and fills an important niche in society. Next to this, however, we are interested in bringing art to be more proximate to social change and to position an art that that projects futures. Again, this binary distinction is not so interesting or relevant – why not rather overlap them, with myth-creating as active as raising a flag on the street. In any case, what this action requires is to try to be specific in your goals and “strategize” as much as you can. This in turn would allow more time to care on what we call “body.”
So, speaking of body, when taking action and developing projects, we take care to maintain the relations of a body of “people” and consider every position and perspective that works on the project. Commoning Casco is not possible without those who eventually form Casco’s ecosystem – notably “commoners,” nor is it possible without the organizational, institutional body. Traditionally speaking, this is the area of concern about labor, which we want to subject finance to as well.
Finally about kirakira. While we work by planning and manage by caring, we also leave a space for encounter, discovery, and improvisation. Where the unexpected — or “the magic” — happens. The process of working together is often prone to these kinds of unforeseen moments, providing new insights and modes, showing unimagined options and possibilities. Let us welcome and host these kinds of “kirakira” (“twinkle, twinkle” in Japanese, “approximately” in Indonesian) moments/spaces.
JM: The inherited idea of the institution is individuation – you have to decide to work differently. It’s interesting that you mention further “instituting” in order to actually facilitate further commoning. What “rules” or guidelines have you set out to practice the commoning of the institution, or to maintain an intentional ethic within your activities?
BC: Capitalist instituting is based on individualization and never-ending competition that propels an extractivist approach to our bodies and relations. Distinguished from it, instituting in general is about dealing with rules – not LAW! – through which a collective works together (by writing, practicing and rewriting), in which we consciously build and unbuild a routine or a habit, as Agamben showcased through his interpretation of Franciscan community (The Highest Poverty), or what Mary Douglas speaks about in her text How Institutions Think.
In this regard, we have one particular habit or rule of weekly collective cleaning of our office as a basis for this institution according to the commons, which we started in 2014 as we were engaging with the above mentioned Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation). This is to keep us embodying the value of reproductive labor also in solidarity with domestic workers who fight for the recognition and respect for their works all around the world. We will continue this and hopefully expand on it, for instance as we did not manage to build up a cleaning practice of our “digital space.”
Besides, a new effort is to write an ethical principle. The following points are few principles that we have for now but in the coming months, we are going to further work on these to amend and continue to add to them. These initial principles are what we wrote together while Staci Bu Shea (curator at Casco) was in charge of articulation.
– Decentralization & shared-governance: Our new mode of governance at Casco implicates our team, former team members, as well as our respective communities and constituencies that continue to develop and solidify. In this process, we give space for a collective decision-making that empowers those involved to be self-organized and accountable with the recognition of hierarchies and skills. Yet collective decision-making is not necessarily consensus-making but composes a space for mutual understanding and respect.
– Tango or slow dance between desire and capacity: All too often those working in the arts and the cultural sector experience a burn out from working on an intensive project or multiple projects at once. While it is evidence of enthusiasm and commitment, exhaustion is rarely generative for long-term engagement. While “working for the commons,” we are devoted to methodologies that assist in our self-management of desire and capacity. Even if it is never finite and always evolving, this means that one’s desire and capacity must be named and sized accordingly. It is an exercise in self-care and self-limitation as well as mutual care, collective well-being, and responsibility. We look out for each other in the ecosystem during this process. In this light, we celebrate not only one’s strengths but also vulnerability and the ability to acknowledge one’s own limits. We encourage taking small, concrete steps for achievement, instead of having big, abstract ambitions.
– Transparency and opacity: We take both transparency and opacity as very different conditions or states, but as equally generative. A large portion of Casco’s vision involves an open and transparent approach: in collaboration, problem-solving, exhibition presentation, budget sharing, and other internal matters. Historically and still today, many institutions do not practice transparency as it would inevitably reveal malpractice or systemic injustice, hence we find transparency a crucial part of commoning. However, as much as we value transparency, privacy remains important to us. Opacity can also be used as a tool for thinking through problematic issues, self-determination, or simply the sticky, uncomfortable, and vulnerable parts of what it means to be human. We value an ethics of thinking through how the two function.
– Intersectionality: To exist is to be amongst a web of power relations. We take intersectional analysis as an important part of working for the commons. Coined by Black scholar and activist from America Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and inspired by the work of women of color before her, intersectionality concerns the interconnected nature of identities such as race, gender, class, ability, orientation, legal status, age, etc. This is crucial to our work, both as a team and with the public, because if we place the experiences and interests of marginalized people at the forefront of change and social movements, we can more actively address the barriers faced. This involves how we form our team, work as a team, how we think about artistic practices and projects, and how we can think further about our differences-in-common. “If it’s not intersectional, it’s not feminist!”
JM: In our previous conversations, you have spoken about working both within and outside of the art world as a strategy. Does the art world allow for commoning in ways other fields may not? Alternately, what do you feel are its limitations that prompt working outside of art?
BC: What does art do for practicing the commons? How do we imagine the commons, what are the images of the commons? These are the questions we put forward while working as one of the partners for the biennial conference by International Association of the Study of the Commons held last July in Utrecht called “Practicing the Commons: Self-governance, cooperation, institutional change.”
Our provisional answers, which are also gathered through the “banga” – study meeting – of Arts Collaboratory which we are part of – next to the conference, are that art, its sensibility and its imagination, offers an openness, opens pre-existing “boxes” of thinking and doing, so it can be contributing very well to the environment of desiring changes: art per-form, art touch. During this conference period, for example, next to the exhibition at Casco that provides different perspectives and ways of looking at organizational matters (taking Casco as an example) and possible images and visual narratives of the commons, we organized a 3 day long childcare program with artists Aimee Zito Lema and Merel Zwarts, nicknaming it as a mini-conference “Commons for Children.” Apparently a childcare program for academic, intellectual conferences is very “new” let alone that the forms of play these days are also very individualized and driven by commodities.
There’s also a tendency of art becoming for its own sake. Art history, theory, criticism all are relevant but when they become gate-keepers of the disciplines or authors, they no longer function towards commons. This is one reason why it’s furthermore important to situate art in non-artistic contexts. This implies that we also be open to forms of art, beyond aesthetically refined objects, towards imagination and things. By becoming “Casco Art Institute”, we may broaden a space for experimentation – all “in the name of art” yet “working for the commons.”
In fact, you come to see the most value of arts when they are in and by another context of art. The specialized “field” of art is however equally valuable for studying relevant forms of art and experimenting on them. It just should not be closed and self-contained!
By the way, when we organized an exhibition as a phase for making the transition from Casco- Office for Art, Design and Theory to Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, it was an interesting experience how this announcement immediately drew attention and new connections with those who have been working around that notion, in and out of the field of contemporary art. This points to the broader field of practice working towards the commons, which we are joining and hopefully advancing.JM: You framed this shift within an exhibition framed as “the institute as artwork” and “exhibiting the institution.” What was the impulse to present Casco and its shifting structure within the context of an exhibition?
BC: It is similar to the logic of considering both action and body at the same time. To put institution only as a background support structure for art, we may only perpetuate our habit of operating in a representational realm. To put it positively, when we stage the institution as art, it could be an effective tool to bring that matter to “artistic” concern. It’s an additional, follow up work to the living and acting legacy of institutional critique, and further new institutionalism, and their limitations, in the West.
However, I would like to remark that we should not reduce ourselves to the purity and seamlessness between our practice and the intention, between present and future. Although it’s part of practice to recognize the contradictions and differences between them and try to diminish them, it would be only discouraging and fragmentizing solidarity work if black and white judgement is made based on the contradiction. Often those who make such judgement do so from the position that is not practicing and cynical. Furthermore focusing on intention, or focusing the linear perspective of temporality is not so helpful for the time we live in. It’s all too “humanistic” of those believe in the “modern.”Partly the exhibition was also meant to enable us to take time in the process of working on institutional change without being totally silent or not “showing,” which is considered to be the prime task of institution like us – in the Netherlands, Casco and other peer organizations are categorized into “presentation institution.” And to make this presentation an open occasion to share our thoughts and get feedback. Yet, exhibition making is costly, not only in terms of finance but labor and time. So it was not an easy balancing act, of course.
JM: Inherently, working towards the commons assumes an outside to the institution. This is distinct from a movement such as New Institutionalism interested in experimenting with forms of institutionality and the public, and adds an additional prompt towards collaborative learning, sharing within networks, or attempting to provoke further commoning among multiple institutions, and many different publics. Casco seems especially interested in reproducing itself in a sense, through networks, publications, symposia and so on. How would you propose other organizations begin working for the commons? How does it expand outside of Casco? What is the horizon or endpoint of the process for you?
BC: Within the art world, there is so much competition among organizations – most directly due to limited funding resources and art’s dependency on outside funding . I think that cultivating a non-competitive culture and way of working together is an important step of “commoning”, whether you put it as an explicit goal or not of organizations. But how…?
Back to the Site for Unlearning (Art Organization), I think the state of busyness is something that our peer organizations, many of which appeared in late 90s and mid 2000s, are confronted with. Instead of networking for “united busy states”, we then would move towards interfering with the state of busyness for deeper understanding, reproductive labor, or something else – deeper thinking, acting, and imagination as Isabelle Stengers suggests. This would require us to ask what make us busy in concrete terms. Where we spent more time and less and why? If experimentation, critical thinking and risk taking are another common denominator for our works, I think this should be possible. As part of the 2016 Gwangju Biennale, Maria Lind and I organized an initial gathering of just over 100 small to mid scale art organizations under the name of “To All the Contributing Factors.” We hope this could be a seedbed for further collective thinking and acting. More actively, but in a smaller scale, there has been a collective attempt at this through the Arts Collaboratory network – a network of 25 art organizations, including Casco, yet mostly situated in so-called “global south,” by collectively engaging with self-analysis and developing a proposal that requires a change in the system of a funding that directly influences our habit.
To speak of funding, I think it’s crucial to address and engage with our work from a perspective of economy. Here I don’t mean how to better fundraise, as our governments are decreasing the art and cultural budget. The intense emergence of spaces like ours in the 90s speaks itself; we are very much part of the capitalist economy. Our way of working and producing also makes use of all the infrastructures and products produced on capitalist enterprise, whether we are non-profit or not. We may see ourselves as the antidotes, that’s fine, but then we could be far more radical to show very difference. And HELP public funders to recognize and value it by articulating these differences and the urgency of making difference.
Where’s the urgency? Isabelle Stengers talks about a “cold panic” in which while we all more or less know or hear about the planetary crisis and the speed of extinction of our commons, we don’t know quite what to do or we get a double message – we need to change our way of living, but at the same time we need to be competitive and competent. No panic, but I think we need to take action to change not only the forms of art that we need to engage with but in our forms of organizing, living, being. By the way, we do not need to compete in articulating this urgency, right?
This would let me speak of the horizon of the process you asked… J. K. Gibson-Graham – who theorized diverse economy or community economy based diverse forms of interaction and exchanges underneath the visible capitalist economy – talk about a temporary yardstick. Instead of change all at once, we see the change in duration. Unfortunately, I don’t feel we the earth have much time left. So by 2020, I want the new system of working – part of which I sketched out above – to get established to vividly see organizational/institutional team, our commoners, and network as the eco-system. Based on this eco-systemic structure, I hope Casco as part of that could contribute to collective actions in order to radically change our way of working and living, ahead of a possibly (even more) catastrophic situation on earth: or at least set a very clear attitude and practice to avoid the “barbarism.” At the same time, this lets us think thoroughly through what forms of art we would like to support and produce. This definitely indicates more performance – immaterially oriented, objects whose material process is in tune with the biological world, imageries that unfolds the entanglement of the earth, and so on; this would be an endless, laborious, thoughtful process of working, to speak the least.
Perhaps at this point, I have to say that the commons is a language that we at Casco and some others use for its merit. But we could meet and form collectivities without such notion too. Some say Gaia, others say social justice…
Header image is from the workshop “Towards a new visualization for Casco” with the Casco team, organized by David Bennewith & Bram van den Berg, 2017. The collage is by Staci Bu Shea and includes the photo of Faceless of History Visits Casco [2016/2017] by Cooperativa Cráter Invertido in collaboration with Vladimir Mainline.