Walker Art Center

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Which Commons: 
Market, Zoo, 
or Tribe?

By Jon Ippolito

“The question is not whether a museum should be a commons, but which model of the commons it should be,” said artist, author, and new media professor Jon Ippolito in a June 2010 talk at the Walker Art Center for Open Field’s inaugural program. Based on that talk, here’s his thinking on two models he considers highly compromised—the market and the zoo—as well as one he believes is closest to the original spirit of the commons—the tribe.


The year 2010 saw a number of prominent US museums experiment with new ways to bring their audience into the process of presenting culture. When the Brooklyn Museum invites the public to select photos for a show, or the Guggenheim teams with Google to solicit videos via YouTube, or the Walker Art Center proposes that visitors help decide what to do with the green space next to the museum, the idea of an accessible cultural commons is usually implicit. Sometimes the word commons is even in the title of the initiative, as when the Smithsonian Commons proposed by Michael Edson aims to share its virtual real estate by giving each online visitor a profile page on the Smithsonian website.

As admirable as these attempts at inclusion may be, it’s important to remember how easily the word “commons” is compromised. No one seems to object, for example, when a university or hospital calls its dining hall full of McDonald’s and Sbarro’s a “commons.” In such advertising, the word only connotes sharing; the only thing offered for free in such spaces is the seating.

In a historical sense, the commons has always been a compromise, an attempt to capture the freedom of indigenous culture in a post-enclosure state. As Joline Blais points out, the Euroethnic paradigm of the commons comes from the mostly forgotten Forest Charter provisions of the Magna Carta, which returned the rights of peasants to make use of land that had been abrogated by the king.

The question is not whether a museum should be a commons, but which model of the commons it should be. I’ll look at two models I consider highly compromised—the market and the zoo—and finish with one that I consider closest to the original spirit of the commons—the tribe.

Commons as Market or Zoo

Museums like to think of themselves as answering to a higher calling than mere commerce. Yet while the historical definition of the commons was all about firewood, acorns, and game you could take freely, few museums let you walk away with their permanent collections, and most charge you to walk in the door. Even museums with free admission, such as the Smithsonian, have a “gift shop”—a contradiction in terms suggesting the unnatural yoking of free culture with a market for souvenirs.

If the way museums control access resembles a market, the way they attract visitors resembles a zoo. The word “curator” and “keeper” are interchangeable, which explains why zoos have titles like the Curator of Large Reptiles and why I once received a letter at the Guggenheim addressed to the Keeper of Modern Art. In the ideal zoo, the animals don’t realize they are the subjects of other people’s economic attention. In this sense, a luxury cruise is a kind of zoo, for it purports to exhibit for its passengers the world’s exotic places, whereas in fact it is the passengers who are paraded around, exposed to the economic predation of local shops and tourist traps. Similarly, museums claim their value derives from the treasures in their vitrines, but as a practical matter, museums are kept solvent by the visitors who pay for tickets and tchotchkes.

When a market or zoo masquerades as a commons—which can happen with Web 2.0–style sharing networks as easily as with brick-and-mortar museums—the word degenerates into a marketing term, rather than a radical shift in access to culture.

Economic and Social Transactions

Comparing a museum to a market or zoo may seem glib, but if we want to treat the commons as more than a branding term we have to understand how our underlying paradigm influences the sorts of transactions—economic and social—that occur there. Transactions in a market, for example, are based on a zero-sum economy: if I give you eighteen dollars for a CD, the assumption is that I get something worth eighteen dollars—a net sum of zero. (Bartering is a more “enlightened” version of the market because it is by necessity more local—but it is still a zero-sum economy.)

While the market runs on a conspicuously capitalist economy, a zoo runs on an invisible one. The zoo that is Facebook depends on its users blithely ignorant that the site is selling access behind the scenes to intimate details of their private life.

Each of these economic transactions produces expectations for certain kinds of social transactions. It‘s no secret that capitalist markets lead to wealth disparity, and thus encourage hierarchic relations that pit employer versus employee or rich versus poor. In a zoo, meanwhile, the gap between haves and have-nots is so vast that the animals can’t vie with the masters because they can’t even see them.

A zoo domesticates its denizens—meaning it only encourages bonds that make the animals dependent on the masters. A male tiger may be let into a female’s cage to encourage them to mate, or offered fresh meat to chew. But that tiger would never be let into another paddock to drink alongside wildebeests or hunt antelopes. Yet is a tiger that doesn’t hunt really a tiger?

Similarly, Facebook implicitly encourages its users to post their mating rituals on its own pages, but will sue anyone who tries to use that information on their own terms. And good luck trying to get an RSS feed out of Facebook; its founders have no incentive to let you take its attractions home when you leave the zoo.

Preservation and Governance

Most museums obey two contradictory models of preservation. They appraise works in their collections according to monetary value, which reflects the market-based model of ownership. Their mission statements and policies meanwhile, by discouraging deaccessioning and promoting conservation, typically reflect the care-based model of stewardship.

Ownership and stewardship share some common aims, but are fundamentally opposed in other respects. Indigenous peoples from the plains to the rainforest have traditionally assumed a role of steward for their lands, implying a high level of care and responsibility. Now that individuals and corporations can own plains and rainforests, the result has been strip-mining and slash-and-burn agriculture—suggesting that the bonus of owning something in a market system is the right to destroy it.

To be sure, a conventional museum’s approach to preservation also follows the containment model of zoos. Items under a museum’s care are relegated to a crate to keep them safe for future visitors to observe, and for future curators to profit from. Keeping a tiger in a cage is touted as a way to preserve its species from extinction, but just as importantly, it’s a way to keep zookeepers in business.

While it doesn’t have physical bars, Facebook’s architecture has virtual ones: you can’t syndicate, scrape, or otherwise redistribute the site’s content the way you can with blogs, YouTube videos, and even newspaper websites. Facebook’s technical and legal stickiness ensures that its users will stay put inside its own pages (or quickly return to them).

If the instrument of governance employed by zoos is the cage, the instrument employed by the market is the law. Copyright is probably the most infamous example of a law that enforces a market-based approach to sharing resources. At first blush, open licenses such as those promoted by Creative Commons would seem like an alternative to the marketplace. Creative Commons licenses allow musicians and artists to share their creations within minimal strictures or via noncommercial terms. But what Creative Commons licenses convey are still rights, a form of market-based law that detaches judgment from context.

Such rights are productive in that they free 
consumers from the constraints of copyright, and hence from a capitalist economy. Unfortunately, they also represent a lost opportunity for the social connection crucial to the original commons. When a musician releases an MP3 on her website under a Creative Commons license, she has no way to find out who listens to or remixes it. And of course, there is little disincentive for a listener to drag an MP3 to the trash once finished listening to it—a hallmark of disposable culture that has unfortunately carried over into the physical world and its landfills full of obsolete laptops and cell phones.

Commons as Tribe

The form of commons closest in spirit to the original is not the market or zoo, but the tribe.

If the capitalist economics of the market produce hierarchies, and the invisible economics of zoos domesticate their denizens, the transactions of a tribe create kinship. Unlike the detachable gifts of Creative Commons, the feasts and songs shared by indigenous people in potlatch serve not to disengage but to connect. In his description of the Reiti people of Papua New Guinea, anthropologist James Leach points out that those who receive gifts are indebted to those who give them—not in a zero-sum sense, but in a sense that multiplies social ties. Unlike the “American Dream” promised by a market economy, you cannot work your way out of the intricate web of interpersonal debt you owe others in a tribe, even in theory.

One example of a commons that privileges connection over detachment is The Pool, an online environment for sharing art, code, and text currently in use by a handful of universities across the United States. Pool users don’t give each other feedback face-to-face, but develop kinship in other ways. The software encourages creators to build off each other’s work, and helps visualize relationships to a work’s ancestors (artistic predecessors) and descendents (works influenced).

While I will admit to projecting my own predilections onto Native culture when using the word “tribe,” it is also the closest term I can think of to describe how we got along before our common spaces were enclosed. And in some cases, the influence is direct rather than metaphorical, as in the example of the Cross-Cultural Partnership, a project developed in meetings with representatives of indigenous peoples.

In the form refined by Leach and legal activist Wendy Seltzer, the Cross-Cultural Partnership is not based on an abstract right, but on a concrete context. This legal and ethical framework for sharing across cultural divides is meant to be tailor-made for each partnership, whether between a Hispanic electronic musician and a Choctaw flutist, a software artist and a Bell Labs engineer, or a Cambridge anthropologist and a Papua New Guinean herbalist.

Such partnerships emulate not the physical boundaries of a zoo or the legal rights of the market, but the protocols that allow tribes to treat with insiders and outsiders alike (“Treat” is the verb form of “treaty” that I hear from scholars of native studies and international relations. Among native speakers, particularly, it conveys a sense of personal ethical behavior that has historically been denied them by paper-based colonial treaties.). Protocols are essential to the functioning of a robust commons, whether they take the form of The Pool’s software protocols or the Cross-Cultural Partnership’s legal template.

If a market preserves by ownership and a zoo by containment, a tribe preserves by crowdsourcing. This concept has two pieces. First you have to distribute the job to more people, which means giving up a bit on the “ownership” paradigm. The less well known but just as important second part is connecting those distributed people, which means giving up on the “containment” paradigm.

As scary as it may seem to leave preservation to such “unreliable archivists,” indigenous cultures worldwide have been doing it for millennia. That’s why the oldest cultural memories on the planet today are embedded not in the chiseled stones of the British Museum but in the oral histories of the Brazilian rainforest, which recount the habits and appearance of literally prehistoric creatures.

A similar approach to proliferative preservation can be found in the remix culture of contemporary digital artists, from Joywar to The Grey Album. Proliferative preservation is also the basis for an experiment by the Berkeley Art Museum called the Open Museum, which makes every work of digital art collected available for remix by the public. As curator Richard Rinehart explains, “When each artwork moves into the archive, it is “open-sourced.” Each artist decides how they would like their work represented in the archive and they allow relevant source files to be made available for download…. In recognition of the open practices that inform much net art, these source files are also available for remix, allowing these works to inspire an ongoing cycle of new artistic creation.”

Challenges of the Crowdsourced Museum

It’s a lot easier for museums to give lip service to the Commons than to tear down the stanchions keeping the mummies and Monets at arm’s length. Yet museums must question their identity as gatekeeper, whether of the zookeeper or cashier variety, if they are to remain relevant in the age of remix.

Rinehart asks provocatively, “Do we want the public to don figurative white gloves when handling these bits, or do we want them to take them home with them?” If the latter, who will safeguard the authenticity of the artifact if anyone can re-create it?

This question is understandably troubling to historians who fret about a fresco being overcleaned or a Barosaurus getting remounted in an unrealistic posture. But it should be a lot easier for curators and conservators who work with digitized or born-digital artifacts like JavaScripts and JPEGs. That’s because such digital files operate by the logic not of “either/or,” but of “both/and.”

The most successful example of crowdsourced preservation to emerge from the past few decades is video game emulation. Amateur coders have crafted hundreds of powerful yet reverent digital vessels that “contain” vintage games’ original habitats and enable them to be played on contemporary PCs. Emulator purists debate the authenticity of these 
re-creations with the same zeal as art historians debating the Sistine cleaning. Unlike successful conservators, however, successful emulator programmers have to conceal their identities to avoid copyright suits from the very game companies whose products they are rescuing from oblivion.

What a lost opportunity. In Marilyn Strathern’s account of Papua New Guinea, creative works among
its natives exist primarily to forge social bonds be-tween creator and remixer, not to antagonize them.10 Imagine a world in which museum curators and trustees took this tribal dynamic to heart. Keepers of culture who open their gates gratefully rather than begrudgingly might find that their visitors end up caring more about things in their collections—not to mention the people who maintain them.

Book: Conversations on the Commons

Edited by Sarah Schultz and Sarah Peters, Conversations on the Commons includes contributions by Susannah Bielak, Steve Dietz, Stephen Duncombe, Futurefarmers (Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine), Lewis Hyde, Jon Ippolito, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Machine Project (Mark Allen), Sarah Peters, Rick Prelinger, Red76 (Courtney Dailey, Dylan Gauthier, Sam Gould, Gabriel Mindel Saloman, Mike Wolf), Sarah Schultz, Scott Stulen, and Works Progress (Colin Kloecker, Shanai Matteson).

Market, Zoo, or Tribe?

Opening the Field

What’s to come during the Open Field’s summer-long experiment? Join us for a social hour, followed by a chance to share ideas and pose questions about the cultural commons. What constitutes a community of shared ideas, artworks, and other resources? How do age-old ideas about the commons translate to today’s digital world? Guests for this conversation present ideas from an array of fields, including new media, philosophy, education, law, and history. Afterward, head outdoors for drinks and a “collective DJ” mixed playlist at the Open Lounge.

Speakers include:
Michael Edson is the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution and is leading an initiative called the Smithsonian Commons.

Sumanth Gopinath, musicologist interested in the intersections of race, ethnicity, music and the ringtone industry.

Jon Ippolito, artist, writer and curator interested in building and sustaining networks and breaking down hierarchical media and culture.

Laura Musacchio, landscape design educator and researcher interested in human-nature interactions in metropolitan, cultural and bioregional landscapes.

Caroline Woolard, artist and co-founder of OurGoods, a barter network for independent projects.