Through a series of distributed events The Commons initiated ’fieldwork‘ into the nature of cultural production.

Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska have collaborated together since 1995. Their first project was a book Lost Property (1996), published by Chance Books and Public Art Development Trust in 1996. In October 2000 a long-term book project The Value of Things (2000) was published by August/Birkhauser; it traced the parallel history of the public museum and the department store.

In December of the same year a series of events Documents (2000) marked the culmination of a year-long residency at the Design Council Archive. Capital (2001), a series of seminars, publication and gift, is the inaugural project in the Contemporary Interventions series at Tate Modern, which involved the cooperation of the Bank of England Museum in May-September 2001.

Free Trade (2002) was launched with the reopening of the Manchester Art Gallery, with an exhibition installation, lecture programme, series of guided walks and catalogue. In July 2004 Enthusiasts (2004), an exhibition involving amateur film clubs, opened at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw. It travelled to the Whitechapel, London, in 2005.

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 Cummings and 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 informed their project for International 04 entitled The Commons (2004). In this project interest took on a new urgency, for what is at stake is the possibility of creativity itself.

The Commons (2004) referred 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 proposed to reclaim the ontogenesis of community when they defined the commons as ’capital over which no one’s right may be excluded‘. The proposed definition countered the appropriation of what nature had provided and pointed to the possibility of an inverse commons, exemplified on the world wide web, where the value of open-source software increased 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 initiated ’fieldwork‘ into the nature of cultural production.

1: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (1679), cited in Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, Capital, London: Tate Publishing, 2001, p. 11.

The Commons,
Project and Fieldwork
Commissioned by Liverpool Biennial 2004
Exhibited at St. John’s Gardens



The Henry Moore Foundation