In the publication accompanying their project Capital (2001) at Tate Modern and the Bank of England, Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska cite John Locke's classic justification of private property. Locke proclaims that man, by mixing his labour with what nature has provided, may exclude the common rights of other men. However, the ’Lockean proviso‘ at the end of the passage makes an important reservation: ’at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others‘.(1)
The passage points to the interest in the economy of value that has characterised the collaboration between Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska since 1995. Their research into value, exchange and commodity has queried our understanding of art, material objects and the power of their circulation.
The justification given by Locke also informs their project for International 04, The Commons. In this project Neil and Marysia's interest takes on a new urgency, for what is at stake is the possibility of creativity itself.
The Commons refers to the English tradition of common rights and land that came into being with the development of the manorial system in the Middle Ages: ’common‘ refers to that which is neither sovereign nor noble, but belongs to commoners. Common land is neither publicly owned nor does the public always have access to it; the commons therefore are a hybrid property, and much of Liverpool is built upon a former commons.
The artists propose to reclaim the ontogenesis of community when they define the commons as ’capital over which no one's right may be excluded‘. The proposed definition counters the appropriation of what nature has provided and points to the possibility of an inverse commons, exemplified on the world wide web, where the value of open-source software increases the more people use and refine it. Culture itself could be seen as such a ’commons-based peer production‘.
Global changes in intellectual property law suggested by the World Trade Organization would commodity creativity, concepts and ideas through patents, trademarks and copyrights. While such conditions of knowledge production would create economic prosperity for some, creativity would no longer partake in free exchange or circulation. In the cultural domain the enclosure of the imagination beckons the tragedy of the commons as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How can we negotiate ’regeneration‘ – public/private development, capital investment, and the instrumental use of culture and creativity on the one hand, and notions of the ’public‘ for such practices on the other? Through a series of distributed events The Commons initiates ’fieldwork‘ into the nature of cultural production; and in the city of Liverpool, which is reinventing itself as a city of culture, these are pertinent questions.
1: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1679), cited in Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, Capital, London: Tate Publishing, 2001, p. 11.