This piece is part of a weekly series of articles curated by Voluntary Arts and authored by cultural thinkers and doers. The series will be published between November 2017 and March 2018. It is being shaped in response to the emerging practice of cultural commoning and as a way of articulating ideas that have arisen in conversations about Our Cultural Commons over the past two years across the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Our intention is that the series will help make visible the cultural commons in action and will encourage new approaches to sustaining creative cultural activity in local places. And we hope that the articles and the conversation they stimulate will contribute to the forming of ever more enabling cultural policy. the shorter run, which is the run of everyday life, a civilisation is irrigated and sustained by its common interchange of ordinary intelligence.

Clive James, Cultural Amnesia, 2007, p.4

This article has its origins in my experience of participating in an exploration - initiated by Voluntary Arts with others - of ‘our cultural commons’ as a way of thinking about local creative cultural activity and how this can be grown and sustained. The article is in two parts. The first part suggests ways of thinking about ‘culture’, ‘commons’ and, therefore, ‘cultural commons’. The second part shares some perspectives on conversation and its crucial role in a cultural commons.

In recent years there has been growing interest in ‘the commons', not least as part of people’s search for viable and ethical alternatives to current economic and social paradigms. Much has been, and is being, spoken and written on the subject. Prominent in this extensive discourse are concepts and practices related to/rooted in people making common cause – people of diverse character and capability who hold in common a set of values, a sense of human kinship, and a commitment to making a difference and shaping a place for the common good. [1]

One insight which I find especially helpful in thinking about the commons is expressed in David Bollier’s comment that "the commons is an active, living process. It is less a noun than a verb because it is about the social practices of commoning." [2] There is no commons without ‘commoning'.

Sketch of commoning

Turning to cultural commons, it is worth considering for a moment the various meanings of the ‘cultural’ descriptor.

In its broadest sense, ‘culture’ can be described, for example, as the "total set of beliefs, customs or way of life of particular groups." [3] At the other extreme, the word is used in very narrow ways as if it were the same thing as ‘the arts’. Between these ends of a spectrum of meanings, it is helpful to see ‘culture’ as denoting an aspect of human society that includes ‘the arts’ (visual, musical, performing, etc), but also other manifestations of human creativity, such as intellectual accomplishments – in sciences, philosophy, humanities – the processes and products of design – in technology, engineering, architecture – and the practical crafts of making, agriculture, horticulture, and so on.

But culture is not just a collection of customs, conventions, practices and accomplishments. It is, first and foremost, an active process, with which people engage, and which shapes and is shaped by the context in which other practices - social, political and economic – take place. It is about people being creators as well as consumers of cultural artefacts and experiences.

Participating in culture as a process through diverse forms of culturally creative activity is something that many people love to do – and everyone has the inner potential to do - not just privately but in a civic space. When people ‘do culture’ in collaborative association with others, they are engaging in a form of civic participation. They are being creative citizens whose caring about the common good finds expression in their working together creatively to make things happen. Such cooperatively creative acts - often small, always significant – are what cultural commoning is about. And people engaging in conversation is at the core of this process.

There are several ways in which conversation is a crucial part of cultural commoning. First, conversation - the marvellous process of people talking, listening and learning together – is in itself a culturally creative act. Consider for a moment the root meanings of the English words ‘con-vers-ing’ and ‘con-vers-ation’. Vers means ‘turn’. From vers we also get the word ‘verse’ - a line or row of writing; a furrow. The metaphor is of ploughing, of turning over earth to form a furrow, of turning from one row to another. So, in the course of conversation, the people participating can be said to be ‘ploughing together’, working cooperatively on the same ground. And ploughing is a cultivating action, a deeply transformative culturing process.

conversationIn practice, conversation can be a precursor, a sort of parent, of creative cultural commoning. Much of the work that Voluntary Arts Ireland is doing, in partnership with local authorities and others, involves the simple act of inviting people in a locality to come together to share stories and perspectives on creative cultural activity in and around that place. [4] Convening conversational gatherings of citizens enables connecting between people and learning from and with others. [5] And it can encourage those participating to see that they are already/can become ‘creative citizens’ who can initiate new culturally creative action in the civic space.

Furthermore, participating in conversation with others is an essential and intensely practical part of the collective creativity that happens as a group of creative citizens imagines new possibilities and works towards realising those imaginings. As one thinker has expressed it, "conversation is a cooperative activity, not just a series of beautifully manicured statements." [6] Conversation, that goes beyond the cosmetic, changes things. It helps to make a difference.

In summary, people being in conversation with each other, learning and creating together, is essential to the purposes and processes of cultural commoning. It helps to prompt participation. It helps people to discover a ‘wise initiative’ that they can take on and perceive a shared sense of purpose. It helps to cultivate and sustain commitment along the way. And conversing with others co-creatively fosters a sense of practical hope in the face of life’s challenges. As David Fleming put it, "people talk to each other and start to believe they can work things out for themselves." [7]

There are hints of a heartening vision here, glimpses of grounds for being hopeful in the midst of our contemporary world's despairing tendencies. As much as ever before, our world needs the nourishing, civil-ising influence of what Clive James calls, with customary eloquence, the common interchange of ordinary intelligence. Cultural commoning and the co-creatively civic conversation at its heart are forms of that common interchange, enabling emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary and the ethically excellent from the everyday.

Denis Stewart,
Chair, Voluntary Arts Ireland

Denis StewartDenis Stewart has been Voluntary Arts Ireland Chair and a Trustee of Voluntary Arts since January 2015. He is currently in his ‘post-professional’ stage of life, pursuing his interests in ‘life-wide’ learning and connecting with other people. A former Chair of the Ireland region of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and an active member of the International Futures Forum (IFF), Denis works with others to encourage and enabling ‘civic conversation’ – open, creative, encouraging conversation between citizens about things that matter to them – as a way of enhancing civic society.

Denis’s professional life – initially as an academic scientist, then as a school teacher, and latterly as an educational developer in several national, senior executive roles, spanned four decades and involved working in all four countries of the UK. A native of Northern Ireland, he has had the pleasurable privilege of living for periods in both Wales and Scotland.

Next week, Andrew Kim, Artistic Director of Handmade Parade, writes about producing participatory cultural events in West Yorkshire.

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1 As, for example, in the ‘creative place-making' movement
2 David Bollier, Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm (2015)
3 Penguin Dictionary of Sociology
4 One example of the effectiveness of facilitated ‘civic conversation’ about cultural creativity is the ongoing story of Creative Place-making in Ballyogan
5 ‘Civic conversation’ – people talking, listening and learning together about things that matter to them as citizens - is the term that has come to be applied to such conversational gatherings. The potential of civic conversation for society is considerable. See, for example, this short piece on civic conversation as an aspect of participative democracy
6 David Fleming, quoted by Jonathan Porritt (2016)
7 David Fleming, Surviving the Future, 2016, p.3

Creative Commons license - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

This article is published under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
Images: Courtesy of Denis Stewart / CC0 Licence, Pexels