A Feral Commons: An exciting new arts project will highlight the busy hidden life of our city Kingston

I have long believed that the arts and culture have a powerful role to play in explaining and expressing the depths, and the breadth of our ongoing climate crisis. Now, Andrea Dempster Chung of Kingston Creative dropped me a line to tell me about a really exciting project in which downtown Kingston is involved – as well as three other cities globally (Dubai, Athens, and Johannesburg). I am thrilled!

By the way, I should probably tell Andrea, as she mentions urban wastelands below, that for the Jamaican birdwatching crew, forgotten areas such as sewage ponds and dumps are rich sites, full of life (including crocodiles, and more…) Hawks are hunting from our city’s high rise buildings. The Feral Commons, indeed.

Now, do cities belong to humans only, or do they have their own hidden life? What can we learn about the impacts of climate change and our relationships with Nature through the arts?

Andrea explained further:

The premise is that cities are anthropocentric, designed to support human life before and above all else. But, despite best efforts to enclose, domesticate and eradicate other beings to suit human needs and desires, cities are teeming with life that refuses to be dominated or contained. Invasive trees and plants, resilient bugs, mutating microbes, and adaptive fungi, are just some of the entities that persist, if not thrive on the margins, in urban wastelands and that ferally participate in the making of worlds, co-existing and entangled with our own.

The project…proposes an alternative vision of the commons, which is normally defined as land or resources shared by a group of people. Instead, this exhibition invites artists to illuminate the necessary co-dependencies and collaborations between humans and non-humans and explore a more radical understanding of what the commons – shared resources – could mean in the context of the climate crisis.

Water Lane in downtown Kingston. (Photo: Kerry Chen/Kingston Creative)

So what will happen in Kingston? Andrea tells us more:

Each project will stand alone as a site-specific exhibition and be accompanied by an inclusive and interactive programme that engages with local communities. Our site will be located in Downtown Kingston and will take the form of a public “green space”, an oasis or garden with sculptural elements made from plants and natural materials, combining visual art, music and other art forms. Our artist is a female Jamaican artist who will be announced in January 2023 and who will work closely with Canadian curator Tairone Bastien.

What can be learned from the multi-species collaborations in each city? What local beliefs, knowledge systems, and ways of being support multi-species perspectives and can help shape broader approaches to the climate crisis? How can art and artists illuminate the complexity of a commons shared equitably between humans and non-humans? And how might making space for feral beings engender greater understanding and respect for the dignity and sovereignty of all forms of precarious life, including human life, that exists the margins?

Here is more on the four-city project from the Dubai-based Alserkal Advisory:

Alserkal Advisory harnesses power of cultural districts to address issues of climate crisis

New co-commissioning initiative includes participation of four cultural districts across the world, with local artists responding contextually to themes of global concern 

15 October 2022

Dubai-based Alserkal Advisory has announced ‘A Feral Commons’, a new, co-commissioning arts project uniting cultural districts from the Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN) across four continents, each one presenting a public art installation in response to the theme of climate change. 

The first cycle of the co-commission series will present multi-city public art interventions that will be unveiled in Fall 2023, including: Alserkal Avenue, (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)  a pioneering arts and culture district in the UAE that is home to more than 70 creative businesses, including the region’s most renowned contemporary art galleries, design houses, and an arthouse cinema; Kingston Creative (Kingston, Jamaica), an arts district and hub for creative entrepreneurs that aims to revitalise Downtown Kingston’s cultural identity through multiple monthly programmes and a major mural project; the Onassis Stegi (Athens, Greece), a multidisciplinary cultural centre that hosts theatrical and musical productions, film screenings, art and digital shows, and which is part of an ecosystem of enterprises and initiatives that include the Cavafy Archive as well as a robust scholarship programme; and Victoria Yards (Johannesburg, South Africa), a uniquely integrated urban complex that has fostered an ecosystem that is as much about community and social development as it is commercial enterprise.

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The intent of the co-commission project is to harness the power of networked cultural districts to respond collectively to urgent global subjects, and invite participants to renew their current perspectives and learnings. This first cycle (2022-23) will explore how cultural districts can engage in knowledge-sharing and collective action, an ongoing endeavour for GCDN and its members. More specifically, A Feral Commons will explore how artists in these locations can rise to new challenges and rethink modes of working, create new models of the commons and new ways of living. Each project will stand alone as a site-specific exhibition and will be accompanied by a programme that engages with local communities to further explore the theme and questions.

Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The inaugural initiative from Alserkal Advisory is developed in collaboration with GCDN, an international membership-based network that fosters cooperation and knowledge-sharing between organisations responsible for a cultural district and clusters at the intersection of creative and cultural activity, urbanism, and community engagement . Supported by UAP, A Feral Commons will self-audit the environmental impact of the project, attempting to create the public artworks across all four continents in the most responsible and conscious method possible. Utilising UAP’s proprietary tools, specifically Artwork Ingredient List and Public Art 360, these tools will guide the project team on sustainable practices as well as measure the quantitative and qualitative impact on the environment, and the value of public art.

Vilma Jurkute, Executive Director of Alserkal Initiatives and Alserkal Advisory, said:

“Today, more than ever, we need places for growth, meaning, and community that are inclusive and accessible. The Global Co-commission project by Alserkal Advisory re-localises our efforts for commissioning public art. It acts as an attempt to harmonise and repair our relations with our ecology, as well as recalibrate social and economic dimensions through collective thinking with peer art organisations globally in times of climate change. We hope this will not only lead to more sustainable practices and formulation of whole-thinking structures within the current global art ecosystem, but will also shine a light on the imperative role cultural districts play in their communities globally.”

Alserkal Advisory has appointed Tairone Bastien as curator of the first cycle. Bastien, who co-curated the first two editions of the Toronto Biennial of Art, developed the theme alongside the participating districts. Under the title A Feral Commons, the curatorial theme proposes an alternative vision of the commons, which is usually defined as land or resources shared by all people within a community. Instead, this project invites artists to illuminate human and non-human entanglements and explore a more radical understanding of what the commons could mean in a multi-species world. The theme draws upon visionary American anthropologist Anna Tsing’s scholarship and writing on open-ended inter-species gatherings and non-human participants in human projects that are described as feral because they participate independently, resisting human control.

For this project, we are inviting each artist to make a work for public space that draws on their individual beliefs, ways of knowing and being, and unique ways of working to explore the non-human relations, indeed worlds, that overlay their own.” Curator Tairone Bastien explained. “I want to dream with others of radical horizontality, a vast common ground shared by humans and their more-than-human kin. And search for non-human protagonists of stories that have yet to be told.”

In the coming months, Bastien will work with the co-commissioners within each cultural district to study, shortlist and finalise artist proposals. The responding public artworks will be specific to each district’s context and locality, exploring critical issues related to the curatorial theme within different geographical environments.

Onassis Stegi, Athens, Greece (Photo: Pinelopi Gerasimou)

Christos J. Carras, Executive Director, Onassis Stegi

“Since its launch in 2010, Onassis Stegi has firmly established itself as a landmark venue on the Athens cultural map, with events and initiatives that go beyond artistic limits and geographic borders. Producing challenging contemporary work in public spaces, or unexpected locations in Athens and beyond is our way of stimulating discussions, proposing new ideas and perspectives, and deconstructing stereotypes. It is also a way to valorise those spaces, seen as parts of an urban commons, as essential components of a reflexive and democratic society. A Feral Commons is fully inscribed within this fundamental strategy.”

Andrea Dempster Chung, Co-founder & Executive Director, Kingston Creative
“Jamaican culture is truly a global phenomenon and the epicentre of Jamaica’s culture can be found on the streets of Kingston.  We are very excited to see what emerges from this global conversation between artists and global cultural districts.  We believe that A Feral Commons is an important opportunity for re-emergence, re-definition and re-connection for cultural spaces and communities.”

Brian Green, Founder, Victoria Yards
“Victoria Yards is proud to be associated with A Feral Commons spearheaded by Alserkal Advisory. Very much like Alserkal Avenue, Victoria Yards is a harbour for artists and artisans who have built a foundation here and call Victoria Yards their home. The community at Victoria Yards is a work-in-progress, with everyone being part of a circular economy, arising from the goal of aspiring to our mandate to uplift the inner city of Johannesburg and the surrounding community. Being part of an initiative such as this Global Co-Commission initiative would go a long way in highlighting the positive impact that projects like Victoria Yards and Alserkal Avenue can make.”

Adrian Ellis, Chair, Global Cultural Districts Network (GCDN):
“The Global Cultural Districts Network is pleased to collaborate with Alserkal Advisory on this inaugural Global Co-Commissioning initiative which engages our members in collective thought and action. GCDN aims to strengthen connections between members, to build and share knowledge about the value of cultural districts. We always look to support our members in new ways and this partnership is an opportunity to explore innovative ways of learning together.”

Victoria Yards, Johannesburg, South Africa (Photo: PJ Henning)

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