Commons

By Jasmine Rault

Empty stage, red velvet curtains, stage lights and smoke. Shutterstock ID 252777415
Empty stage, red velvet curtains, stage lights and smoke.
Shutterstock ID 252777415

Can we imagine a commons that is not based in dispossession? Can we imagine and build a commons that adds rather than extracts value from the people and more-than-people who have created and/or cared for the resources that we might make commons? What would an ethical practice of online commons-ing entail? How can we use the network affordances of the internet to archive, care for, render accessible and put into conversation the creative and cultural world-making of queerly minoritized people, scenes, parties, shows without reproducing the digital culture of extractive capitalism, built from legacies and logics of colonial white possession? How might we commons differently?

Because most of what we’re commonly encouraged to understand about the commons is a settler colonial fantasy. A quick glance at history will remind us that most of the information, land, space, knowledge, culture and cultural heritage that might now be considered part of the commons are instead stolen, extracted and selectively shared with subjects who comport themselves according to prevailing interests of power at particular times and places. In Kim Christen’s game-changing essay, “Does Information Really Want To Be Free?”, she notes that the “[c]ommons were never free, nor did they promote an unregulated notion of freedom” (2012: 2877). She goes on to explain that,

For many indigenous communities in settler societies, the public domain and an information commons are just another colonial mash-up where their cultural materials and knowledge are “open” for the profit and benefit of others, but remain separated from the sociocultural systems in which they were and continue to be used, circulated, and made meaningful. (2879-80)

In our digital experiment here, we’re aiming to highlight/honour cultural materials and knowledges richly embedded in their sociocultural systems, primarily for the benefit (and whatever profit means when we’re not talking about money) of those who create, use, circulate and make them meaningful. Much of the material we’re commons-ing has value only for the people who helped create it. Much of the material has been forgotten and ignored; told to clean up and professionalize; attacked and threatened; misrepresented and swiped/appropriated. For some of these reasons, much of the material we care about cannot be subject to the capricious cruelties of an online cultural commons. One of the materials we value most in this digital commons is refusal.

We started this project (around 2011) with the hope of preserving and putting into online conversation the archives of Trans Feminist Queer (TFQ) cabarets and performance scenes – those photos, playbills, posters, set notes, costumes, DJ playlists, etc. that are so often stashed under beds or in closets or storage lockers – that are so often lost, destroyed, forgotten, decontextualized, mistaken as one-off, devoid of history, kin or future. We speculated on the (im)possibilities of digital architectures and design, out of the need to reorder the computational epistemological order of things; to design computational models and systems that follow TFQ ways of knowing, rather than expect TFQ knowledges to be uncomfortably housed in text and data processing environments built with other priorities in mind. We wanted not simply to bring TFQ cabaret and performance scenes into the digital commons, but to create a digital infrastructure that might reflect and sustain translocal TFQ commons. We learned quite quickly that not all of the artists, activists, organizers and audiences whose works make up the archives we might want to put online were so eager.

There are so many reasons why people, especially TFQ people, do not want photos, videos, records of their social lives – past or present – put online. While for some, the prospect of having their amateur performance captured in video and circulated online for the world to Google is merely a matter of wounded vanity (but then, when does our vanity merely matter !?), for many racialized, Indigenous, undocumented, queer, trans- and feminist artists and audiences, the appearance of their work or their images online, in an open-access way, represents a risk they need to carefully consider. Your terrible first drag show; that time you got naked in a creative way onstage; that beautiful performance you did that is horribly misrepresented by the video; that time you performed under your assigned-at-birth, former, or legal-but-no-longer-used name: these were intended for a small audience of your friends and their friends. We often cannot even identify in photos, videos, posters, and playbills who these people are – partly because we weren’t at the show/event, or these people are no longer in the scene, or these people have transitioned over time and are unrecognizable, or the quality of the image is so low that we just can’t make out the details. There are differential consequences to circulating this media without these people’s permissions – for some, these media are at worst an embarrassing but funny or nostalgic reminder of another time and life; for many it can do real damage, threatening their current lives and resource networks; some people’s professional and artistic reputations and possibly careers would be hurt. Additionally, even the research required to find these folks and ask for permission can have the unintentionally harmful consequences of detonating a former name in a search engine, algorithmically linking that name, gender, sex, and/or other marker to a current identity that the person has worked hard to delink. (for more on the ethical questions/considerations informing this work, see Cowan & Rault, “Onlining Queer Acts: Digital research ethics and caring for risky archives” in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, 2018)

So we’re thinking along with Audra Simpson about what refusal tells us. Simpson writes the resonances of “the ways in which Kahnawa’kehró:non had refused the authority of the state at almost every turn and in so doing reinstantiated a different political authority” (Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States: 106). And there is more than simply negation in this refusal, “[t]here was something that seemed to reveal itself at the point of refusal—a stance, a principle, a historical narrative, and an enjoyment in the reveal” (107). Rather than rushing to online every bit and GB of archival material from TFQ cabarets scenes that we can get our hands on, rather than revealing everything and assuming more exposure, more circulation, is always better, we’ve been asking what enjoyments, pleasures and knowledges are encountered at the point of refusal? What can we feel, say, show and know when we focus on TFQ refusals to give it all away? What does the digital commons of refusal look like?

Perhaps our orientation is to those lives, bodies, embodiments and modes of life which are at once operationalised and rendered expendable in socio-technical formations, something more like what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have called the undercommons, “the common beyond and beneath – before and before – enclosure” (Undercommons 17). This is less a place – a website, bar, theatre, street – than it is an operating system, what Kara Keeling suggests as a “Queer OS” where “queer offers a way of making perceptible presently uncommon senses in the interest of producing a/new commons and/or of proliferating the senses of a commons already in the making. Such a commons would be hospitable to, perhaps indeed crafted from, just and eccentric orientations within it” (153). This is an orientation to the commons-ing and proliferation of senses, knowings, feelings, embodiments, movements, intimacies, socialities that already exist, have in some cases existed for thousands of years, or are in formation and are cast within current socio-cultural conceptual-technical formations as uncommon, extinct or impossible.