This is the text of a presentation I gave yesterday at ECF’s Idea Camp

This is Sweden’s highest ranked male tennis player.

Sweden's highest ranked tennis player


In fact it’s not, it’s me.

But you could be forgiven for being mistaken. Sweden, despite producing Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Catarina Linquist and some of the best wheelchair tennis players, Sweden doesn’t have a player in the top 150 tennis players in the world.

What Sweden is good at is handball: here’s the Swedish Handball team playing Denmark during the 2012 Olympics.

They later won a Silver medal at the 2012 Olympics – one of their best performances at the games.

What could these videos of me playing tennis last week, and the Swedish handball team possibly have in common?

Well the answer is that we are both playing sport in venues that were built for the London Olympics in an enormous specially designed park covering 2.5km not far from where I live in north-east London.

The games ended three years ago and the park opened to the public last year. The ‘official’ story is that this park, prior to its transformation was built on a contaminated, uninhabited, post-industrial, empty wasteland. Apart from the contamination part, this is not true. There were 209 light industrial businesses employing close to 5000 people on the site – all of whom were relocated. But it wasn’t just small businesses. There are also two stories that are fading from memory.  

This is the only video I could find of the Clays Lane Housing estate, which until shortly before the Olympics was a disorganised housing cooperative, providing cheap accommodation, largely to single men. The estate had a compulsorily purchased by the London Development Agency, and they were mostly moved into insecure, privately rented accommodation. To my knowledge they were not rehoused in the new housing created in the Olympic village after the Olympics.

Here is another story from that time.

This was an allotment site, not different to the site near Subtopia which had been in place for 80 years. Allotments are treated as something close to a common good in the UK – most are managed by the council, or by charitable trusts and their allocation is determined by waiting lists, rather than ability to pay.  

I wanted to raise these two examples because the London Olympic Park was a profoundly depressing way to build the city. Much has been dug up, replanned and rebuilt by a combination of extreme public and private power – but it has left a park which is a bit empty and lifeless.






And now that the Games are over, no attempt has been made to return the forms of cooperation and friendship that was there in the first place. The allotments and the co-op seemed to have what the park today is missing, but they weren’t given a chance.

I was initially sympathetic to the Olympic project, but I ended up thinking it was the closest I could get to living in a totalitarian state. Change without citizens.

How did we end up here, so profoundly mistrustful of people?

Yes the Olympics are an exceptional mix of political vanity, money and power. But there is something deeper at work here: for all that the ‘hope’ that the Olympic Games embody’s, the project was delivered with a very pessimistic view of people. A belief that they cannot look after things themselves and will destroy the resources on which their survival rests.   

These ideas were crystalised in Ecologist Garrett Hardin’s – essay titled ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ which he published in the journal Science in 1968. The fact that the paper has become part of popular culture might lead you to think that it was based on empirical research, but this was not the case.  

But his essay was a wrong idea at the right time and was published just as politicians in England and the United States who believed that private enterprise was the best way to organise societies were emerging. 35 years on we are in the world of their creation. But of course today there are plenty of – anti-Hardins – who think differently about people and question whether the assumptions of much classical economics are the best starting point for organising all human activity.

First you’ll see Elinor Ostrom – a nobel prize winning economist who dedicated her life to showing that people can and have always found ways to manage common resources without destroying them. Then two people who are less meticulous but more effective at popularising the idea that markets and their underlying ideas should be challenged more often; a Canadian essayist Flora Michaels & super-philosopher Michael Sandel

Perhaps this fear of an all pervasive ‘monoculture’, is why contemporary artists are attracted to work in public space. I was quite intrigued by the title of this book – ‘Living is Form’. It is a review of what is called ‘socially engaged practice’ in contemporary art. As the title suggests, this is about artists who rather than using paint, plaster and ink, take social relationships and behaviours as their working medium: Living is their form.

Here is one well known example.

This work – often in public space – encourages audiences to look at people and see them in many different ways – or at least in more ways than governments and corporations do when they talk to them in public space (i.e. as subjects or consumers). These are artists who want to liberate people from dominant narratives.

This absurd video by a Czech architectural collective in the Doc Next Network Media Collection plays with that idea.

This performative, public work has many less cerebral cousins, nephews and great aunts in art and action which prosecute ‘unexpected’ acts in public spaces. Here’s a local example from Botkyrka.

So this is a long way of saying that public art and creativity in public space can be a kind of ‘sonic commoning’, because it challenges the pessimistic messages about people, which seek to dominate public space and challenges the norms of ‘top down’ regeneration. This book Living is Form, is really just a highbrow edition of adbusters.

This talk is slowly turning into an exploration of where we could look for the energy to build the city with the commons. And perhaps if lone artists are at one end of the spectrum, mayors and civic leaders are at the other.

In the media resource we have started to assemble examples of political leaders around the world who are starting to look more concertedly at helping citizens to help themselves: Mayor Ridwan Kamil in Bandung is a philosopher architect Mayor who uses social design and collaborative architecture. Mayor Park Won Soon in South Korea is a life-long activist and human rights campaigner who campaigned for election under the slogan, ‘The citizen is the mayor’ in Seoul. Manuel Carmena in Madrid and Ada Colau – Mayor of Barcelona have recently been elected in Madrid and Barcelona on a promise that they will do politics differently. Across Poland a number of different mayors have introduced participatory budgeting in recent years.

And I briefly wanted to introduce Antanus Mockus who was the mayor of Bogota 1993-1998 and 2001-2003 – his policies included recruiting mime artists to ridicule bad drivers, instituting a women’s night in the city and using female police force for patrolling public spaces and events. I have cut it with some extracts from Recetas Municipales a film which shows candidates and leaders from Spain’s municipalist parties.

It’s probably false opposites, but does the Commons in the city want leadership from a grand commons, philospher leader- designer maverick, or a delegating consensual creator of political participation, debate and decision making?

Inbetween artists and mayors there are of course many different actors who are trying to open up common spaces in the city. And that’s probably where you all come in. Building shared resources in cities means creating institutions that can guard and cultivate them. There are plenty of examples in the media archive and in the Build the City Media resource. Check out the stories of – Open Jazdow, Park Slope Food Co-Op, Autonomy on two wheels. But, to continue the sporting motif I wanted to show this video. I don’t know what they are saying, maybe we can guess together.    

From a British perspective this is interesting. In 1999 in response to the relocation of their club to Milton Keynes – a small town in the middle of England, Wimbledon supporters started their own club AFC Wimbledon. In 2006 Manchester United Fans disaffected by a leveraged takeover, left and set up their own club FC United. In 2010 after a succession of fines, and a period of administration Portsmouth fans bought a controlling stake in their club. And the device that these groups have used is called a supporters trust – a co-operative which anyone can join for a membership fee. This money is often used to buy shares in a football club and give a club’s supporters a say in how a football club is run. In the last ten years, nearly 80% of clubs in the professional leagues have started such a trust. But what is a social struggle in Britain is common sense in Sweden, where at least 51% of a football club’s shares have to be retained by supporters. It’s funny that in Sweden there’s pressure to get rid of this rule – presumably because there is something appealing about English football when viewed from a distance – but really football supporters in England would rather their football was run as it is in Sweden.

This could have 3 different outcomes. Will football in the UK naturally reform itself, without the need for a law or regulation that says that 51% of football clubs should be fan owned; will the rising tide of fan ownership in football clubs lead to a breakaway from the other clubs because their ability to compete is based on different rules; or will there continue to be an ongoing clash of ideologies in English football? It’s a drama, it’s interesting to watch and maybe indicative of what might happen to different attempts to create common resources in cities.

And as a footnote to this I wanted to mention how much I like watching videos of people singing at football.       

Singing at football is often stupid sometimes, but everytime people do, they suggest that what they are a part of something that shouldn’t be thought of as a commodity. Treating football as a business is absurd as expecting customers of Tescos or ICA Maxi to sing at its board meetings.

Fan owned football clubs self-identify as ‘punk’ – but they’re probably not as punk, as Mediterranean Europe is punk. These football clubs have legal structures and systems of accountability, relationships with local authorities. But elsewhere things are more off grid. In Brazil since 2005 the Off-Axis network has created a parallel economy with its own currency which supports music, art and theatre.  

Another example of this is the Calafou Integral Cooperative & Enric Duran – a catalan activist who defrauded banks across Europe to fund a radical newspaper and number of radical enterprises in Catalonia. I like this footage of him because he looks similar to another rather well known outlaw.


But how viable is this as a model for building the city. The allotments that I mentioned at the beginning were created by a Victorian philanthropist and bequeathed to East Londoners.

And so I wanted to end on the example on the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regulation of the Urban COmmons – a 30 page regulatory framework outlining how local authorities, citizens and the community at large can manage public and private spaces and assets together. It’s a sort of handbook for civic and public collaboration, and also a new vision for government. It hints at how some of the different elements come together to build a different kind of city – if only there had been one for the London Olympic Park. Perhaps there can be. 

This a talk I gave in Seville at the Caring for the City Reclaiming the Commons Hackcamp at Zemos98 in April. The aim was to explain the idea of the commons using film, video & audio visual media. It splits into three parts – the meaning of the commons, who the commons needs to be reclaimed from and how the idea of ‘reclaiming the commons’ has been expressed in Doc Next Network’s Radical Democracy project so far. It’s broad brush stuff.

This is the BBC’s most watched piece of fictional media. It had its 30th anniversary this year. It’s based on the ups and downs of people in working class East London. Much of day-to-day life is organised around a pub called The Queen Vic – it’s where people fall in love, fight, celebrate, give birth and where stories about who is doing what with who are overheard.

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This is a story about what happened to real life pub on the other side of London last week.

Things like this don’t happen in Eastenders – which is funny because alot of implausible things do. Although popular, Eastenders isn’t a particularly accurate representation of life in London today. Communities in London are more fragmented, more ethnically diverse. They don’t speak as much English as they do on Eastenders. And they’re probably less violent too. Apart from anything else the real Eastenders wouldn’t be able to afford to live in houses like those in Albert Square, or if they did they would probably be sharing bedrooms and on insecure tenancies.

London’s favourite television programme tells us more about ourselves and our need for community and common space (possibly in a time in which it is threatened) than it does about the reality of life in London.

So what really are the Commons?

This is the page from the Oxford English Dictionary of Sociology where the entry for the commons should be.

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Without a definition to hand, I have put together some clips from youtube of thinkers explaining the commons. First comes Elinor Ostrom – the first woman to win the Nobel prize for economics, explaining the difference between ‘common pool resources’ and the ‘commons’.

This is Jay Walljasper an American writer and commons evangelist, listing resources which could be included in the commons.

And this is post-marxist political philosopher Michael Hardt.

Maybe for our purposes this is the important point to gather here. That the commons are resources which are not controlled by a monopoly of state or private power. And they have to be accessible too. This is a more concrete definition of the commons from the International Association for the Study of the Commons.

But this is all very cold and mechanical.  ‘Reclaiming the commons’ refers to a ‘spirit’ as much as it does to a technical concept. Commons are one of the best words we have for the shared life and a belief that better, more interesting, healthy, cohesive places are those which are accessible and used and shaped by a range of different people. That the presence and ideas of people, of all kinds are what make for great places.

To express this I have made a video using the The Kinks’ God Save The Village Green Preservation Society. The lyrics are a homage to English customs and habits which reflect a certain idea of what it means to be British – a national cultural commons of a kind. I haven’t been able to include the video here, but a similar effect can be achieved by watching this video of speakers corner 30 years ago with the volume turned down, while playing the song below.

God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.

We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society.

God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties.

Preserving the old ways from being abused.

Protecting the new ways, for me and for you.

So there’s the Commons as a concept and also as a spirit, but since this is about reclaiming the Commons I thought we should look at whom it might need to be reclaimed from.

Reclaimed: From Whom?

This is Garrett Hardin who wrote a famous paper in 1968 called the Tragedy of the Commons. Here he is.

Perhaps the first enemy of the commons is a way of thinking – a pessimistic view of human nature that sees people as fundamentally self-interested actors, incapable of cooperating – weighing up costs, maximising benefits accumulating as much as they can, for themselves.

These assumptions are similar to those that form rational economic man – an enlightened response to 17th century church dogma, which today has become a kind of dogma of its own. Flora Michaels recently wrote about the proliferation of rational economic man into all areas of day-today life in her book Monoculture.

‘It’s not that the economic story has no place in the world…But without..other stories we have found essential throughout history, we imprison ourselves. When the languages of other stories begin to be lost, we lose the value of diversity and creativity that keeps our society viable. We’re left trying to translate something vitally important to us into economic terms so we can justify even talking about it…we end up missing what it means to be human.’

This is a video from a T-Mobile flash-mob advert. Although the slogan says that life’s for sharing – it’s not entirely clear whether these people know that they are part of an advert or what they are really complicit in. Best watched with the sound off.


But some enemies of the commons are a bit more obvious to identify than an idea.

This is Recep Erdogan’s Turkey.

In Istanbul he has formed an unstoppable armada of government, corporate and media power to push development projects through across the city. In the next ten years there are 100bn of construction projects on the slate which will displace huge numbers of people, trees and buildings.

They include a new artificial bosphorus canal, a road tunnel and an airport which will use six times as much space as Heathrow. Despite the protests in 2013, a shopping centre in the style of an Ottoman fortress is still planned for Taksim square.


But the enclosure of the commons is often a more subtle business. It may include enterprise zones, business improvement districts, the quiet handing over of land to private interests. CCTV cameras,  subtle coding of public behaviours.

In isolated cases it may not seem so bad, but across a whole city, it can have a deadening effect.

Impatience with/Failure of Political Institutions

Whether you blame people or the politicians, parliaments and elected governments – the institutions of democracy – have never been in worse health. And this matters because democracy is the mother of all commons. Only 5 countries in the EU 27 produced a turnout of more than 50% in the 2014 elections – in Slovakia it was just 17% – political parties that reject the very institutions they were being elected to, did better than ever. Only a handful of turnouts in domestic parliamentary and presidential elections top 2/3rds of the electorate. Most countries are ruled by presidents, coalitions and parties that have a mandate from a very small proportion of the population.

Reclaiming the commons now

Symbolic power struggles – rather than being fought at the gates of factories or supranational organisations – are being waged over who controls housing developments, social centres and theatres. The act of reclaiming space seems to animate people across Europe – be that public space, space for decision making or just a space to call home.

Here are 8 examples of acts of reclaiming the commons, taken from videos submitted to Doc Next Network’s Radical Democracy Media Challenge.

The Sarajevo Plenum/2014

Artistic intervention reclaiming public space in Prague

A bicycle knowledge sharing commons in Budapest.

Paris Hope Area

A tenant struggle in Seville

Strike in support of free and open media in Hungary

A communal co-housing initiative for retirees outside Madrid

Gezi Park

As I mentioned before, Erdogan still plans to turn Gezi Park into a shopping centre. Making sure it gets built is clearly about more than creating somewhere for people to go shopping. Maybe that’s because these kinds of disputes (and maybe there’s a link to be made here to London’s New Era Estate) aren’t just about claiming a commons, they are also an attempt by those with power and those without it, to determine what passes as common sense.

Yesterday I presented a series videos as a part of Ruth Beale’s show which is part of Fig.2 at the ICA. These were mostly taken from Doc Next Network’s Media Collection and its Radical Democracy Media Challenge. It was supposed to fit into three parts looking first at the idea of sortition (replacing elections with a lottery based system), second at the rise of political parties in Spain that refuse to identify with left or right but express a clear desire to reclaim democracy and finally to point to the rise of Poland’s ‘Urban Movement’ which had been successful in demanding participatory budgeting in cities across Poland.

This is David van Reybrouck talking about his book ‘Against Elections’, which as far as I can tell isn’t available in English at the moment – maybe because his publishers would rather you buy his book about the Congo. Here is an article by Ahmed R. Teleb on Open Democracy which talks a bit about the thirst for sortition in Belgium – especially in the youth parliament.

If it doesn’t play – you should be able to view it here.

This is a film about the Paris version of Occupy – nothing like the sound of impassioned French people arguing about democracy! I also showed this video which shows impromptu citizen assemblies at work during the ‘Bosnian spring last year. The point of these two films was to introduce a recent film made by these people from Spain which shows candidates from mini-Podemos municipalist parties discussing various dilemmas, thoughts and fears. These parties have deep roots in Spanish culture – but surely they must draw much of their energy from the Indignados. Barcelona en Comu (who feature in the film) and their housing activist leader Ada Colau have a real chance of winning the election in Barcelona next weekend.

Finally here is a film about a Polish artist and her struggle with local bureaucrats for permission to do some planting. I chose her as a sort of symbol of the Polish Urban Movement and its demand for more of a say in the towns and cities across Poland.

DSC_0192i’ve added in a page to my blog which outlines the events programme we’ve been putting together for LIFT. First up, three weeks today, we’ve got Rip it up and Start Again in a Tin Church in Kilburn. Here’s the blurb:

RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN Tin Taberbnacle, Kilburn. Wednesday June 4th.
A celebration of anti-politics, rebel-democracy and alternative guv’nors

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Democracy is rotten. Lots of us don’t vote and if we do, it’s with a heavy heart. This event brings together people who want to change politics itself, to do it in a totally different way – using anti-politics, new political parties and self-appointed parliaments. Are they helping – or just making the problem worse? Compered by Mikey Weinkove of The People Speak with David van Reybrouck from the Belgian G1000 movement;  Bob & Roberta Smith and his Art PartyDoreen Massey who launched The Kilburn Manifesto last year; Indra Adnan from The Downing Street Project, Kierra Box from Make Willesden Green and Prof Graham Smith from University of Westminster.  The evening also features party political broadcasts from Danish Politician Uffe Elbaek on behalf of his new political party The Alternative and Eric Mutch a man who once tried to change his name by deed poll to Self-Serving Lying Bastard and currently represents the Basic Income Guarantee PartyTICKETS HERE.

Here’s a picture of David van Reybrouck at the G1000 assembly – a parliament made up of 1000 Belgian citizens organised in response to an astonishing period in Belgian politics during 2010-11 when the country went without a functioning government for 541 days.


This is Bob and Roberta Smith with his Art Party in Scarborough.

Art Party 99



DSC_1040The Museum of the Confluence, Lyon


I spent last week at The European Lab which is a satellite conference of Nuits Sonores, an electronic/indie music festival in Lyon. It made me realise, probably about 10 years too late, that people operating in the creative economy balance two aims – one to ‘maximise ideas’ another to ‘maximise profits’. Obviously the two are related to one another. To be profitable Burberry need great ideas to sell their clothes, and make their profits. But not everyone in the creative economy is aiming to become for the same thing. Many eschew profits for doing work they think is more important, more innovative, more political, more accessible. These people are in an invisible, sector of personal-subsidy. Alot of the fringe of the music industry, visual arts and theatre is working along these lines. In the same way as Social Enterprises are supposed to reinvest their profits in their social aims, these promoters, curators, writers, artists reinvest their profits, or are just invested in a creative vision. But I don’t know what you call them – they’re not social enterprises, but they are definitely aiming to associate, to communicate and be social. They probably aren’t that commercially successful, but they probably supply the ideas to the people who are.

I blogged about this in another way here.

DSC_1014Last week Shelagh and I did a workshop at IETM in Dublin on our paper about Art and the Economy. The paper looks at the relationship between art and the economy – or more specifically, how artists are responding to an economy which doesn’t work, isn’t fair and, in some cases is actively destructive. The paper is still in draft form and can be looked at here. I have also broken it up into a series of blog posts which may make for easier reading as there are lots of links. The paper draws heavily on other people’s work which I’ve acknowledged here.  

I was on a panel this afternoon at a conference hosted by A.N.D. at St Martins’. The theme of my session was about what cultural organisations can do for young people in London, but so inept was the Chair you could have left without knowing that. I was so worked up that by the time I had my turn to speak, my words puked out in a sort of sonic vomit – it sounded like I was about to cry. For the sake of clarity: here are my points.


What can the cultural sector do for young people in London?

Three things:

First, engage politically with young people, on the issues on which their future depends. Put politics into your art, find ways to put art into other people’s politics – look here, for all the tactics you need. Don’t just lobby for art, ask how art can help young people in their battles. Decide what the issues are with young people, but guide them. I’ve put some starting points under this post.

Second, think of ways you can use available technology to make what you do easier for young people to find. I think we need a sort of ‘somewhereto of the mind’, something that’s visible and understandable like scouts – that feeds young people into cultural life across London. Makes it easier to use whatever it is that the arts offer. Organised locally, but part of a network. Something like Arts Award, but not explained like Arts Award. The aim is to take control through being creative/decoding culture.

Third, go and find young people, wherever they are. The idea that we can know where young people are at is slightly absurd, when the demography of London is changing so quickly. Some of the highest concentrations of young people in the UK are in Barking & Dagenham, Newham, Redbridge, Hillingdon. Go and have look – it shouldn’t be hard to find them.

That was what I was trying to say.

Here are some places you might want to start if you want to think about politics from a young person’s perspective

(i) The Housing Question
You know the story.  A new, young, right-less class of tenant is permanently trapped in private-rented accommodation. A process which benefits private landlords and is sanctioned and legitimised by by-to-let mortgages. Neither housing benefit nor social housing can fill the gap. It is an immoral state of affairs, but it will define young people’s future in London. It can only be resolved by politics.

(ii) JSA, Internships and Housing
It’s a grey area but it’s not that easy to claim JSA and do an internship. You can’t get housing benefit without JSA or a low income. So put that together and it means that if someone can’t pay for you to live, or keep-you, you can’t get an internship and therefore your chances of working in the arts – or many of the other professions – is greatly reduced. Again this can only be solved through politics.

(iii) Educational Opportunity
By my own calculations these provisional stats from DfE (PDF) show that across Waltham Forest, Newham, Greenwich, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, of all the young people who took a-levels in state Schools in 2010 just 157 made it to Russel Group Universities. Many private schools (maybe mine included) send that many themselves. What this means is that the places where there are the highest concentrations of young people in the country, are also some of the most hopeless for progression through education and into the professions. If private schools have to exist, why do they have charitable status? Why if you are one of those 157 kids could you end up paying the same to go to school, as someone who went to a fee-paying school? Why do you have to pay anything at all? Only politics can answer these questions.

(iv) The Price of Fun
£1 in 1985 is about £2.50 for today. In real terms, going to football, cinema and the pub are all significantly more expensive than they were a generation ago. So are many other things. Computers and drugs are less expensive. Unless you’ve got parents to pay for you, how much fun can you really have on a Saturday in London? A bag of weed and laptop is where the market is directing you. Again, this is another issue that goes back to politics.