The Question of Collectivity: Dispossession, Surplus, Commons

Pelin Tan

The economic engine of the artist run city-state were true human resources: feelings – they controlled the climate and nobody had to work.[i]

The question of ‘collectivity’ in art is difficult and not easy to answer. However, ‘forming a collective’ is an often experienced practice throughout art history, for reasons that point to genre-based or ideological positioning, or for the sake of an autonomy released from institutional representation. Basically, there are two layers in such art practices: firstly, to hold the emancipative potential of the dissemination of art works and art practices surplus; and, secondly, a continuous process of dismantling the surplus of the collectivity itself. Being a collective also produces a surplus that can easily become institutionalized, and which the collective tries to position itself against. The question, then, is what are the forms of art that can open the surplus to a collective dissemination and create a specific commoning? Commoning, in this sense, is not about controlling and managing the commons, but about a continuous practice that leads to the dispossession of art and its property into collective aesthetics experience.

Shareholding on property, setting a cooperative structure, and creating mutual trust and friendship are shared principles in urban or food cooperativism. However, an art practice defined conceptually and theoretically as a collective articulates itself somewhat differently than urban or food collectives or cooperatives. One important difference stems from what I call ‘labor-shift.’ Labor-shift, or labor-exchange, can be understood in the world of practice: it is a type of labor that can shift or flow into another kind of labor production. For example, a shift from labor work in the office to household labor: writing and producing work on the office computer, in the morning, and cooking and looking after someone in the evening, or during weekends. An artist who produces her/his own art and also paints another artist’s exhibition wall, or edits her/his video. A labor that defines one as farmer in the morning, in the rice field, and as designer in the studio in the afternoon. As these examples show, labor-time and production expand and shift continuously. This shift maintains capitalist structures of exploitation and alienation.

Labor-shift, together with care and solidarity, constitute the base of alliances of art practices; yet the cooperative structure and its body do not automatically ensure their cohesion. Dismantling property and sharing it bring the question of who are the commoners. In what concerns commoning, J.K.Gibson-Graham clarifies:


Commoning refers to the ongoing production and reproduction of commons. The practice of commoning is key to building community economies and for negotiating ways of surviving well with each other and with other species on this planet, especially as we face the dual challenges of a climate-changing world and the powerful pull of privatization as the best means of managing our resources. Commoning claims resources for a collective or community of more than one. It involves defining who is the “we” that establishes protocols for sharing access to and use of this property, as well as shouldering its care and how benefits are to be distributed.[ii], [iii]


Are ‘being in collectivity’ and ‘the commons’ the same thing? We can consider cooperativism as a legal act and as a body of dispossession. Dispossession is not the result of force exerted by neoliberalism or by institutional representation; it is the consequence of sharing and disseminating the surplus of artistic practices and forms within the process of commoning. From this point of view, cooperativism certainly has instituting power, but this power weakens when administrative tasks become a burden. Collection Collective members  propose:


… an alternative model in which the artists and cultural workers themselves could safeguard, determine and benefit from a collectively owned and managed art collection. The exhibition is thus a serious proposal for establishing a collection of artworks functioning as a cooperative in which the artists and other cultural and administrative workers are co-owners and caretakers of a shared collection rather than employees. What would such a collection look like? How would it be organised legally and practically? And what emancipatory potential would such a collection have, beyond existing collection models?


This statement and set of questions may well resonate with Negri and Hardt’s concept of ‘entrepreneurship of the multitude’. The two authors suggest that producing ‘means organizing social cooperation and reproducing forms of life. The mode of production of social labor, then, of general intellect and the common, is a field in which the entrepreneurship of the multitude appears.’[iv] Yet one has to consider that ‘entrepreneurship,’ and its appearance within the multitude, exists differently, in diverse social conditions, that have conflicted and ambiguous multitudes. In this sense, one needs to ask: is cooperativism a safeguard of collectivity?

Collectivity appears from a need to address concerns and proximities of precarity. Although we do not want to describe it as such, cooperativism is an administrative structure with which collectivities organise activities, a structure of shared production and dissemination. When writing this essay, I interviewed the artist/urban activist Sevgi Ortac [v] about her experiences as an active member of food cooperatives and initiatives in Istanbul. For Ortac there is no difference between art cooperatives and food or other urban cooperative structures, in what concerns the dissemination of accumulation, social support and care, and the creation of commoning practices as essence of togetherness. She admits that locality and the scale of community are the most important conditions that should advance the cooperative structure as something other than administrative body. What is important is to recognize members’ precarious condition, as well as proximities of precarity: this should create an entanglement among the members.

The question of community in commons is stated clearly by Silvia Federici:


The challenge that we face in this context is not how to multiply commons initiatives but how to place at the center of our organizing the collective reappropriation of the wealth we have produced and the abolition of social hierarchies and inequalities. Only by responding to these imperatives can we rebuild communities and ensure that commons are not created at the expense of the well-being of other people and do not rest on new forms of colonization.[vi] 


How to define localities, how to deal with worries and insecurities, how to witness labor shifts and the instant conditions of precariousness? These are basic questions for a collective that forms a cooperative. Moreover, this structure may attach to other networks of collective practices and cooperative structures, leading to a new social organisation and to commonings. But if one refers specifically to art, one should not neglect that its dissemination presupposes an interaction with audiences. In this case, the surplus should be reconsidered and redefined with the audience together. The audience is a default outsider of the existing collective; it reacts and takes part in the surplus, and should be taken into consideration for further share in the cooperative structure.[vii] Chinese Activist Michael Leung gives a similar example from his experience of ZAD[viii]:


At the ZAD, the commons exist in everyone's shared and collective way of life. It is visible where collectives: live (in squatted farmhouses and farmlands); farm (the numerous collective gardens whose produce is shared with outside struggles, in the canteen, everyday and at the Non-Market [free pricing] on Fridays); broadcast (on a pirate radio station that uses the same FM frequency as the former construction company that was going to work on the airport); produce knowledge (at the library and through the collective work and sharing of skills such as foraging and cheese making; dress (the abundance of clothes in the Free Shop); and are connected (pirated water and electricity supplies).[ix], [x]

Does self-presentation and holding the surplus dissemination in an artistic practice – such as that proposed by Collection Collective – automatically ensure the non-alienation and non-exploitation of work and art labor? No, I do not think so, and for the following reasons. Firstly, the shift of types of labor between different conditions of precariousness is not as flexible as one may think. Although there is an inherent denial of institutional representation, and a collective that consists of different art producers, from artists, to curators and managers, one still needs to reflect on the possibility that the surplus of artistic form, from painting and video to any kind of discourse, can be commodified endlessly[xi]. Secondly, the community of members who are commoning need to define well the relations of art labor among different producers (or producers who are practicing in multiple ways, as artists, translators, curators, etc.). Thirdly, the production, accumulation (and non - accumulation), and the dissemination of surplus in art has to be doubled with other means of production, such as food, urban activities, rural production, which shift into each other, but also create spaces of commons, precariousness and solidarity.

To summarise, practices of commoning of labor, forms of solidarity, and the production of uncommon knowledge and its distribution have been part of artistic practices for a long time. Socially engaged artistic research methods and practices provide a collective experience of the translocal production of knowledge and of instant alliances. These may lead to the creation of common spaces for uncommon knowledge. Nevertheless, different types of labor and care also create surplus, which we experience within art practices of commoning, and which represent heterogeneous and diverse economies. The problem of surplus and its collective dissemination and disarticulation, I want to suggest, still withholds a dilemma for art producers who organise themselves as a collective; it is part of question of how commoning leads to a potential imagination of practices of the ‘otherwise’.





[i] Pelin Tan and Anton Vidokle (dir.), ‘The Fall of Artists’ Republic’, video, in 2084: A Science Fiction Show / Episode 2: The Fall of Artists’ Republic (2014).

[ii] J. K. Gibson-Graham, Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, Take Back the Economy an ethical Guide for Transforming our communities, (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p.138

[iii] See also J.K. Gibson-Graham, 2008  ‘Diverse economies: performative practices for “other worlds”’, Progress in Human Geography, pp. 1–20. Available at:         

[iv] Michael Hardt, & Toni Negri.  Assembly (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 145.

[v] Pelin Tan in conversation with artist and activist Sevgi Ortac, member of food and agro collectives DÜRTÜK (Collective of Producers and Consumers in Resistance) and Kuçe, October, 2018.

[vi] Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (PM Press, 2018) p.491

[vii] Pelin Tan and Sevgi Ortac, op. cit.

[viii] ZAD, from fr. zone à defender; describes the militant occupation of areas with an ecological or agricultural dimension, in order to defend them against development projects. A notable example is the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD, a blockade village against the construction of an airport.

[ix] Michael Leung, Working for the Commons, 2018. Accessed 15 July 2018, available at:              

[x] See, also Pelin Tan, ‘Commune Cantine’ (part 1) a science fiction story about communism by replicas, in Joshua Simon (ed.) Being Together Precedes Being: A Textbook for The Kids Want Communism (Archive Books, 2018).       

[xi] Önder Özengi, Commodification and Appropriation of Artistic Labor (PhD in publication). Contact the author for further details.