Krystel Khoury and Mario Corbi. Photo by Constanze Flamme
Krystel Khoury and Mario Corbi. Photo by Constanze Flamme

Commons as culture, Culture as commons

Krystel Khoury (Arab Theatre Training Centre in Amman, Jordan) and Mario Corbi (L'Asilo in Naples, Italy) have been working on com(.)com, a pilot research project exploring micro-scaled civil and artistic communities re-questioning hierarchical political systems. Krystel's essay below is part of a publication in com(.)com along other texts.

A page from the com(.)com publication. Design: Greta Khoury
A page from the com(.)com publication. Design: Greta Khoury

Increasing awareness

What kind of society do we want to build up together and advocate for in our current times? As simple and naive this question might sound, as complex it has become to answer. The 100% profit businesses with nor social responsibility nor awareness towards ecological degradation that are popping up and developing, are putting in danger our planet and threatening the future of all species, including us. Re-questioning our relationship to natural or produced tangible and intangible resources and how we are managing them has thus become an urge and perhaps a starting point for brighter possibilities. As an anthropologist and cultural manager who is keen on understanding the common values of humans and on being part of purposeful projects that carry a transformative aspect, it became clear throughout this collaboration that my interest in “commons” as assets belonging to no one and accessible to all for the benefit of all, has always been present but unarticulated.


Culture of commons

When I was first invited to think of “commons”, my first reaction was to dig in my memories for an experience of sharing collectively something with others. Doesn’t the awareness towards “commons” start here: when you live an overwhelming experience that makes it clear that you are part of a whole and that what is surrounding you belongs as much to you as to your neighbor beyond possessiveness, that you are as much fully responsible of taking care of it as any other human being on this planet? Doesn’t it start when you grasp that this responsibility implies a way of being and behaving that shapes the space you live in a certain way, because responsibility operates as an extension of yourself and how you relate to the outer space and to others in an inclusive way?

BEIRUT, 2018

Jnaynit Al-Sanayeh
Five minutes walk from our building where I grew up and was raised, is a garden. As a teenager in Beirut, I must have been lucky. In a city sinking under cement and on-going building construction sites, my walking routine from school back home included crossing next to this small garden. Regardless of the season, I could see elderly playing backgammon or cards, children running, people jogging, walking or simply chatting, sitting on benches. In fact, Jnaynit Al-Sanayeh – created by the Ottoman administration in 1907 is the oldest public open-air space in the capital. Years later, I understood what was making it so special to me, other than for it being one of the few green spots in the city with its more than 100 years old trees. It was its magnetic power that attracted all its surrounding including birds and cats. It gathered the neighboring residents and belonged to all.

Burj el Murr
Not very far from the garden, if you continue on Spears Street towards downtown, stands what was till the nineties the tallest construction in Beirut. An unfinished monolith from the 70’s destined to be the Trade Centre of Lebanon. A thirty-three floors tower in concrete. Snipers’s nest, horrific stories of execution. An icon of Post-war Beirut. Abandoned. Not fitting anymore the security standards to be used and too solid to be imploded. Overlooking the city, Burj el Murr – although carrying the family name of its owner – belongs to no one in particular except maybe to the dead and lost souls. It belongs to the city and to the memory of its inhabitants.

These two landmarks characterize the district I grew up and was raised in to the extent that one of them gave the district its name: Al Sanayeh. They have shaped my emotional relationship and belonging to my neighborhood and to how I started experiencing my city. By belonging to all or to no one, they give this urban area its identity. Not only, they are part of what distinguishes it, they have become part of the culture of the residents of this area. As much they inhabit our daily walks, as much they are inhabited by our presence passing by them. They become alive only through our physical connection with them. By forming “a fabric of relations that is built and rebuilt and renegotiated over generations”, like Dougald Hine’s puts it, these spaces can be referred to as « commons » beyond being public or private.

BEIRUT, 1989

Al malja’
I must have been 6 years old.
I have only but few live memories of my childhood. If someone asks me to recall spaces, I can count some simply because I have seen myself there in pictures. The first space having left an emotional imprint on me though and that I remember is our building underground floor that served as a shelter. For that one, there is no picture except a black and white photo taken by a Reuter’s journalist reporting on my mother’s painting activities with children on the shelter walls. There, we could see my siblings and I holding paint brushes. Al malja’: the shelter. It felt comfortable there. Not because I felt protected. No. Its walls were still exposed to rockets. It felt unique because all the neighbors did not only have to share it at some point but to expressively come up with ways of self-organizing how to share it.

I could related this active way of dealing in regard to a shared space to the existence of the “building committees” in Beirut and elsewhere, where tenants gather in informal meeting groups to discuss collective issues related to the building management of common areas (escalator, entrance, common corridors etc.). They usually used voting to reach the most suitable decisions. They set up together rules to manage the common spaces they share – calling for legal counselors if necessary. In that sense, the ones interested in taking part in such meetings and committees working towards equitable access, use and sustainability become active “commoners”.

If we think of culture from an anthropological perspective as the dynamic and evolving socially constructed reality that exists in the minds of social group members, those examples illustrate the existence of a culture of “commons”. This culture – shared set of (implicit and explicit) values, ideas, concepts, and rules of behavior that allow a social group to function and perpetuate itself, is in this context produced genuinely regardless of the legal status of the space (private or public): gardens, shelters, buildings etc. Commons as ‘culture’ can emerges in all kind of space where awareness towards collective and communal management including principles of inclusion, sustainability, horizontality and accessibility of shared resources is taking place. However, for a commons to arise, increasing awareness and understanding this philosophy that is based on solidarity needs to be cultivated, encouraged, spread and experienced through more tangible ways and practices.

Culture as a commons

In that regard, cultural work can be seen as one of these experiential ways. By aiming at creating different envisions of the world we live in through aesthetic and creative forms as well as original forms of expression, and opening doors for dialogue that shapes minds and beliefs, it carves a space where common-based values can be conveyed, practiced and/or applied.

Indeed, more and more artists, collectives and cultural workers emphasize in their creative work on blurring the lines between art-making, personal activism and community involvement. They experiment new artistic strategies that expand art into public life and re-question its role. By doing so, they are producing “culture” and operating never ending shifts in understanding what it means and what it covers. Whatever they are creating, they are doing it with an increase awareness of how beneficial it can be on the community be it of viewers or participants. It grows out of the belief that culture is to be shared rather than owned, and thus needs to be preserved and accessed freely for the benefit of the human community.

To acknowledge that whatever is culturally produced, tangible or intangible (knowledge, ideas, images, languages) is a cultural good that reflect or symbolize some aspect of the common «identity» of a community is a way to start developing a commons-oriented approach to culture. This understanding embraces consequently the relational dynamics activated throughout the process of production and subsequently affects the forms of management practiced by cultural groups of creators or cultural professionals, within cultural spaces and organizations. It implies putting at the core of the cultural work dynamics the values of exchange, collaboration and stewardship that in reciprocity would inform the artistic practice itself in so many original ways.