Caveat is a collective research project initiated by Jubilee, reflecting and acting on the ecology of artistic practice. Emptor continues along the methodology and efforts of Caveat. It actively applies the practice-based approach to 'property', a concept that highly defines the economy of visual arts.

Report of presentation by Louis Volont, 'Creative Commons'

Presentation by Louis Volont, 'Creative Commons'

Today, I will look upon things abit more broadly, as I am standing here with the clear of goal of contributing an idea, or at least ‘something’, to the question of this summer camp, which is: what could be done in order to move towards a more fair field of cultural production?

To put it blunt, my proposition can be summarized in one word: de-fetishize! So, the title of my contribution is “De-fetishize, from Art-as-commodity to Art-as- commons.” In other words: how we can go from art as a material entity on which we put an exchange value for some people, to art as a material entity on which we put a use value for a broader group of people.

The question of how we might create a more fair and sustainable art field is a question that I have been researching for a number of years now, and today I am doing this within the context of the Culture Commons Quest Office - the CCQO - which is a research group in Antwerp that investigates, from a number of disciplines, whether and how this notion of commons might be a valuable solution for the marketization that the artistic sector has undergone during the last decades.


‘A commons’ or ‘the commons’ actually constitutes an old term that generally refers to a resource belonging to a larger group of people.

The International Association for the Study of the Commons (IASC) defines them as: "Most generally, it can be used to refer to a broad set of resources, natural and cultural, that are shared by many people. Traditional examples of commons include forests, fisheries, or groundwater resources, but increasingly we see the term commons used for a broader set of domains, such as knowledge commons, digital commons, urban commons, health commons, cultural commons, etc."

What I think is interesting about the commons, is that it redefines the classical models that we have in our minds when we think about our world. What are these models? Well, it's a duality, namely the public and the private, or more in economistic terms, the state and the market.

The idea of shared resources emerged in the context of rural commons, namely pieces of land that were shared and around which local villagers formed communities and devised a system of rules which determined when and how these pieces of land could be exploited: the ‘lex communis’. This was also called the 'meent' and this is also where the word community comes, "that which we share."

In the meent, the land is divided up in pieces, parceled up, in different allotments. Some farmers got larger pieces of land than others, but the system was that for example farmer A got this piece of land for this period of time, and farmer B got another piece of land for another period of time.

There was also fencing: the commons were fenced off from, contrasted almost, in relation to the surrounding pieces of land which would most probably belong to private families of the bourgeoisie.

I think that this is really important, because what we see emerging is that people, on the spot, and without the interference of the market or the state, are devising their own set of rules with regard to their shared resource. In other words, they set up a system of social relations which lies behind or generally relates to a shared resource, a shared materiality so to say, which contains value.

This form of commoning happens today as well, for example in Valencia, where every month locals, residents, villagers and representatives of the farmers come together in order to discuss how the self-constructed water and irrigation canals can be used. This happens without any external government coming in, and without the reign of the free market. This is very similarto the idea of the meent, I’d say.

So again, we can say that the idea of commons stands somewhere between the two classical models that we, as human beings, refer to when a certain need or desire of us has to be fulfilled.

Such a need could be housing. Who's going to arrange that? Or it will be the state, think about post-war social housing, or it will be the market, that is: private developers. Another need is, of course, culture. Who is going to provide culture? We can have it subsidized by the state, but we know that that's not going to happen, or we can hand it over to the free market, which is what we are seeing during these last decades on all levels. In our research, we see it on the individual level (burn-outs), on the organizational level (the turnover time of new start-ups), and we see it on the macro level (the Creative City).

What is happening since the 1990s, is that this idea of shared land, of shared property, is reappearing in theory and in practice. We could say that the idea was made popular by Elinor Ostrom, an American economist, who won the Noble Prize for her book Governing the Commons. She showed that that people on the spot, local communities, from farmers in the mountainsof Switzerland, to Japanese forest communities, are better able to govern their commons,than the market or the state would ever be able to.

Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons. The evolution of institutions for collective action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Then, after 2009, the year she won the Noble Prize, what we saw was an explosion of all sorts of commoning practices, thus an application of this idea of sharing a resource on an infinite number of things, this time not only material. There emerged Creative Commons: open knowledge, freely shared; but also, Urban Commons, namely to see our cities as a collectively shared resource; you had legal commons, natural commons, immaterial commons, and so on and so forth.

But I want to formulate a critique on this commons discourse, and it's the following.

It relates to a question that Anna Tsing asks namely: "How wealth gets redistributed is somewhat up for grabs." In other words: what happens with the commons or with the mushrooms, once they are harvested? Because, you know, once the fish are caught, once the mushrooms are in the basket, they are sold on a market, and thus it's not a commons anymore, but a commodity.

I ask this question because in the theory of the commons, as I have presented it here, there is a separation between the material and the social. The material is the commons, but the social processes around it, are not commons but a life governed by the commodity.

What I want to ask finally, is whether art can be a commons, both materially and socially, meaning that we share the value that comes from art, and that we share the processes of making art as well.

Having created this confusion, I also want to ask two additional questions: firstly, can art/artistic production be a commons? And secondly, if it were a commons, how do we redistribute its value? Who's going to decide upon that? And this is where I come to my proposal for a more sustainable and inclusive art world,and that is, again, de-fetishization.


What is a fetish? I am not talking here about the fetish as sexual desire, but look at this definition: "A fetish (derived from the Latin facticius, "artificial") is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, it is a human-made object that has power over others. Essentially, fetishism is the emic attribution of inherent value or powers to an object"

A fetishized object, is an object of which we think that is has a value of its own, while at the same time we forget that this value has been put in the object by human activity. When fetishizing an object, we tend to ascribe value to it, while we conceal or forget, at the same time, that labour, social labour, human activity, has gone into it.

In anthropology, a fetish thus relates to material objects embodying that were supposed to have supernatural powers.

If you have ever gone to an art exhibition, or to a biennial, or to a museum, then you will have experienced a fetish face-to-face.

Because, these are the places par excellence where there is some sort of mystification of the art object, in other words, a fetishization, whereby it seems as if these objects have a value in themselves, as if this value is related only to the materiality of the object, while we forget or do not see, where this value actually comes from.

Karl Marx, in his early years, investigated how the European colonizers of his time went to Middle and South America,and he describeshow the Europeans discovered these fetishes, namely the gods of the so-called savages,but also, at the same time, how the colonized people saw the gold of the bourgeois Europeans as a fetish, because they were wondering where its value came from.

Marx wrote: “The fetishism that hallmarks the bourgeois economy finds its fulfillment. It turns the social, economic character, which is imprinted on things in the process of social production, into a natural character of these things issuing from their material nature.”

Do we find this in art as well?

Sure, to me the best example is this, the urinary of Duchamp.

I believe the art world tends to see this work as a fetish, as if this intrinsically worthless thing had a certain supernatural value of its own, while we forget that this value, exchange value, has been imposed on it by human activity, by everything that has been written and said anddone around it by people.

Jean-Luc Nancy, in this context, said: "Everything revolves discretely around art, its artifacts and its false gods: art and production, production as art or art as presentation of the living producer.” Boris Groys has also commented on this, when he says: “Today, we do not identify an artwork primarily as an object produced by the manual work of an individual artist in such a way in such a way that the traces of this work remain visible...”

Guggenheim Bilbao is another level of fetish, but I could have put here the example of any other superstar museum. This, to me,is something of our time, namely this kind of highly marketized and commodified art exposure.

When I say ‘Guggenheim’, you will think about the city of Bilbao,and most probably not about any of the works that you can find in there. So here again, we tend to see materiality and the value in that materiality, but not the social processes and the relations of production that lie behind this materiality.

Between the lines, when we were doing research in the official policy statutes of these kinds of institutions, we found out that very often, in their policy documents, these museums decide officially that they need to have a certain percentage of dead artists in their expositions, because of course the dead ones attract tourists and visitors, and not the young, upcoming ones.

So, to make a long story short: what we have here is Art-as-fetish, as a commodity you might say, and now to pose my question again, can we go to Art- as-Commons?

Well, my proposal is: if we want to go to a more fair art practice, then we should be able to make art as a commons, as something we share, and how do we do that? By exposing the social relations that lie behind art, and also, to redistribute the value that is found within an artistic object. In other words :in order to move towards a more open, inclusive and just field of artistic production, we should lay bare, expose, reveal the social relations - the man-made character - that go(es) behind the commodity form that art has become.

Examples from my personal research

A first example is the Kitchen Monument by Raumlabor. Raumlabor is a Berlin-based group of architects and artists. They have developed a sort of inflatable bubble, which has by now popped up all aroundthe world, and where they provide, albeitin a temporarymanner, the time and the space to make, to think, to design, to talk, tolive, for those who are active incultural production.

They expose cultural production to outsiders, to passers-by, they show how art is made, how the artist is at work, even showing ‘bare life’ in its fullest sense: it's a place to eat, to party, to encounter, to get together. It reveals cultural production to the outside world, while at the same time keeping the needed distance. It has something of: ‘you can see us and you can’t touch us.’

Another example comes from Spain, this is the work of Recetas Urbanas, A Spanish group of architects that started out as guerrilla architects, butare now doing art projects that stand somewhere between architecture, art and activism.

And, in contrast to the work of Raumlabor, they do not only show cultural production to the outside world, but also make and design their work together with a broader group of people: non-experts, non-designers, non-artists, non-architects, but residents and local citizens.

Their work is about the reappropriation of urban space through co-production, co-creation, and most importantly, the goal of these works of art, is to have a use value, and not to have an exchange value: this is for me the true embodiment of commons and commoning.

One of their latest projects has taken place in Antwerp on the De Coninckplein. And even though it was heavily commissioned by the Middelheim Museum, Recetas Urbanas has set out to co-create a commons, an artisticcommons, a place for encounter, for arts, for play, for production and co-creation, which bridges and also heavily involved the input of the more than 150 nationalities that live around this area of Antwerp.

So again, this is for me, and I am looking forward to hear your opinion, is an interesting path to explore, de-fetishization, namely: to expose to the outside world, showing to the outside world that the value of art does not come from materiality alone, but also from social labour and social production.

Other inspiring examples are found in That Might be Right Brussels and the commoning activities in the context of Gent, namely processes whereby artists are experimenting and effectively applying the principles of commoning both materially and socially.

Unfortunately, this is not the whole story. We know of course that these kinds of artistic projects create value, a lot of value. Not only economic value, but also social value, cultural value, and so on. Now the question is: how do we redistribute this value? And who has the right of access to this value?

Gentrification is a good example. Artists come to a certain neighborhood, they make the area better, then the developers come, the rent prices go up, and the artists have to move out. So, in this case, the created value goes to those to whom it doesn't belong.


I want to end with a number of propositions with regard to art-as-commons. The first three of these propositions come from a book which had a serious impact on my thinking, and that book is called Commonwealth by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.

First proposition: “provide everyone with the basic means of life”.So, the question is whether the basic income, and here I'm not talking about the Kunstenaarsstatuut but about a real basic income,would be a valuable pathway towards art-as-commons.

Second proposition: “equality against hierarchy: self-organization.” We're already seeing this in the artistic field, but is real autonomy vis-à-vis the market and the state a good solution? Should we retreat? To use a word by Hardt & Negri, should we do an ‘Exodus’?

Third proposition: “open access against private property”. This is of course the idea of the Creative Commons and of shared authorship. Is this a good idea? Maybe yes, but remember, as we saw in Ostrom and Tsing: every commons can always be used further as a private asset.

However, if we come to the question of the redistribution of art’s value, for which Ronny & Katleen have already specified an inspiring ‘Modest Proposal’, I suspect the arts would need a sort of representation, at least a number of actors joining together to realize such aim. But how would this be possible? In other words: what about representation in the arts? How can we organize? How can we form formations or groups that are able to articulate demands to the political level? Should we pass these demands to a higher level? And if we were to organize, how do we make sure we don't fall back in the classical state-led system of representation?

These are fundamental questions. But if we are to create a more fair field of artistic production, it is this, the commons and our shared commonwealth, I believe, that should be considered of as a way forward.