Furtherfield — imitation is of little use to commonists.

Kevin Rittberger

Originally published in German, as “Furtherfield: Mit Nachahmung fangen Commonistinnen wenig an” in springerin 4/2019

The connection to a place has a material-productive and a strategic-symbolic function, particularly for a concrete utopia that does not simply paint the image but examines real practices as germ forms. The example of the London project-space Furtherfield can serve to describe an ethics of place, which means networking local activists and hackers with one another and thus interweaving eco-social cooperation with progressiveness, localization with decentralization. The project, initiated by artists in 1996, is a self-proclaimed “(de-)centre for art and technology” in London’s Finsbury Park. Collaborative practices and “DIWO” (Doing It With Others) are just as constitutive here as the development of a digital and local culture of the Commons. Furtherfield can thus be understood as a “commonistic” germ form – commonism understood less as ideology (1) than as an “inclusion society” which is to be permanently further developed. According to Simon Sutterlütti and Stefan Meretz (2), this is based on a different structure of cooperation, as well as on material and social preconditions that allow people to create their own living conditions. Inclusion is thus not merely an ethical-moral attitude, but the condition for action can be shaped collectively by all commonists.

For commonists, helping to shape an ethic of the place means neither unilaterally announcing a re-rooting of those uprooted by modernity – that would be the neo-traditional gesture – nor rejecting the connectivity of digital nomads – that used to be the New Economy spirit – but robbing both entities of their exclusive peaks. It means cultivating “response-ability” (Donna Haraway). The concern for a commonistic place and the maintenance of a platform require the voluntary activity of commonists who, beyond the rules of abstract property, take care of the general availability of goods, resources, digital technologies, codes, etc.

Kevin Rittberger, Community in Progress II. Syntegrity, 2016 Theater Basel & Critical Media Lab. Foto: Samuel Hanselmann | FHNW HGK IXDM

The concern for the place is the concern for all commoners who can assert their needs in that place or on that platform and contribute according to their individual abilities. Exploitation and competition, property and profit, containment and exclusivity can be unlearned here by initiating and prospective commonists together. Commercial providers of the same goods, resources, codes, etc. are “out-cooperated” (Sutterlütti/Meretz) by countering their enclosures with “dis-enclosures”, as I would like to call these forms of collectivization of formerly privately-held resources. Dis-enclosures are dependent on the permanence and resilience of the Commonists if they do not want to be one-off projects. Dis-enclosures can counteract privatizations and employ a community concept that makes it possible to overcome the fetishes of growth and competition. Political state-transformation theories cannot think of this constituting process.

Commonists rarely begin with imitation as a repetition of dichotomies proven in capitalist modernity – such as individuality vs. collectivity, private enterprise vs. nationalization. They are interested in setting their own rules, designing their own stories, rituals, and exercise systems with speculative, dis-enclosing, and pre-mitative activities that contribute to preservation – and expansion! – of the commons are interested. With the concept of pre-mitation, I propose to regard the initiating moment of Furtherfield also as aesthetic moment.

Furtherfield interweaves digital communities with non-digital ones in a way that corridors emerge; corridors that connect places and between which decentralization prevails.

Furtherfield is also experimenting with blockchains with which the gathering groups of people can make life and business more democratic, more transparent and less hierarchical. In this way, blockchains can help to design trustworthy paths or corridors in the midst of the total exploitation desert called Big Data, but they are neither immune to (e.g. company-internal) hierarchies, nor do they represent applications far removed from the market. The question also remains as to who programs the so-called consensus algorithm and organizes trust in complex, knotted relationship networks. But commonists who have renounced cultural pessimism can live with the fundamental susceptibility of technology (here: blockchain) or cultural technology (here: self-organisation) to abuse of power. The possible self-organization of networked communities as basic units that reject bureaucratic centralism seems important to them. Corridors are important when left-liberal zeitgeist prefers the nomadic to the identitarian, but right-wing populist reaction time turns the need for rootedness into an absolute. Here, Furtherfield works with two strategies in one and the same place: Finsbury Park as an important public recreation site for its residents, which includes migrants from a great many countries, has its own cultural practices; these encounter the dis-enclosing strategies of the digital commonists – in the Community Media Lab Furtherfield Commons, in an exhibition space in the middle of the park, in an online magazine, and on a mailing list – and continue to develop cooperatively. The communities are permeable and enrich each other. The germ form of the other society becomes noticeable precisely in the penetration of the various practices that take place in one place. Each format creates an assemblage of people, technology and environment that benefits commoning as a whole. What is decisive is sustainable practice.

Furtherfield, as can be asserted with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and Deborah Danowski (3) thus constructs a “locally functioning folk machine” that slowly but effectively undermines established forms of rule and replaces them with a better practice in the sense of a network of peers. These (pre-)figurations of the future are recognizable and applicable from the outside as pre-mitative practices. For an aesthetic of commoning, this means the following: The mimetic capacity leaves imitation; the emulation of the old becomes obsolete, de-learning and re-learning intertwine, pre-mitation is created and makes transformational processes visible, so that from now on imitation would also be possible again: as imitation of the new. And so commoning does not only mean the self-administration of the resource or the platform, which, whether “rival” or “not rival”, is open for use by as many people as possible and does not exclude anyone through an abstract concept of property (or license). What is also decisive is the symbolic, performative and aesthetic quality of the gathering bodies in one place, including those that are not (yet) present, those that are still excluded, but for which corridors are created: Access authorization, residence permit, work that secures their livelihood and, last but not least, care community.

The initiators of Furtherfield, Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett, refer historically to Marx’s concept of “original accumulation” and the enclosures it entails. Their reference back to the “levellers” is decidedly directed against these enclosures, which to this day take place worldwide and are constantly imitated by neoliberal governments and transnational corporations, whether shock-like or reformist. Furtherfield creates here a place of counter-movement. The practice of permaculture, for example, is no less relevant here than the insight into global value-labour chains and areas of use of drones, the cultivation of corresponding peer-to-peer practices, and the self-understanding of peers beyond discipline or field of activity. For Furtherfield, digital commons help to hack social reality, while the regularity of the commons (à la Elinor Ostrom) can also help to protect open access through reciprocity from being commercially enclosed. Uncompensated cultural practices can thus be made usable again, and digital practices do not disappear somewhere in cyberspace, but link as relevant empirical values back to social practices and the possibility of resistance against hegemonic exploitation systems. The site and the platform Furtherfield succeeds through stability and resonance in outgrowing the utopian precondition and in manifesting itself as embodied or within the assemblies of physical bodies.

1 Vgl. Nico Dockx/Pascal Gielen (Hg.), Commonism. A New Aesthetics of the Real. Amsterdam 2018.
2 Vgl. Simon Sutterlütti/Stefan Meretz, Kapitalismus aufheben. Eine Einladung, über Utopie und Transformation neu nachzudenken. Hamburg 2018.
3 Vgl. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro/Deborah Danowski, In welcher Welt leben? Ein Versuch über die Angst vor dem Ende. Berlin 2019.