In the late July this year, Berlin based Architecture collective, c/o now, preparing video-work as a contribution to the upcoming Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB) approached me to reflect on the core question of the Biennial 2020: ‘What do we have in common?’ As they were in a rush and I was on holidays, deprived of video–conferencing tools, I recorded short videos on my personal phone, reflecting inconsistently but sincerely on the question of what do we have in common, a question important in itself and further amplified in the light of COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biennial, first held in 2018 on the topic ‘Buildings Are not Enough’, is for the second time attempting to valorise a range of urban practices and forms of space production commonly dismissed, unregistered, or actively subverted by authorities and developers of Tbilisi, one of the deeply and most uncontrollably marketising cities of post-soviet Eurasia. From the side of IfL, Wladimir Sgibnev and I were there also for the first Biennial, discussing the social embeddedness and urban space production practices related to Marshrutkas, small busses serving as public transport in a number of post-soviet cities. While the first Biennial placed emphasis on informal practices, primarily informal housing and self-made urban structures, the upcoming Biennial (to be held predominantly online during October 17 – November 8, 2020) engages with the notion of commons, and importantly, fleshes out what is or what can be understood under commons:
‘By questioning the notion of the “common” we would like to address several layers of urban spaces in Tbilisi and explore the internal and external, material and imaginary through examining the significance of the transformation process and the consequences it has had on common spaces. The staircases, neighbourhood patios, thresholds, roofs of the residential blocks, public parks and squares, rarely or unused public/private buildings, shared self-governed open spaces - they all belong to the beginnings of a “common” urban vocabulary that we attempt to enrich, study and research in different levels through the understanding of ownership structures, following the political consequences of “common” space transformations, everyday spatial common practices, the spaces of resistance and much more’. (Tbilisi Architecture Biennial 2020)
Hard to talk of commons in the face of amplified divides
Yet, for me it was not easy a month ago and is also hard now to discuss what we have in common. I cannot get over the question of who counts in ‘we’ and who really has in common with whom? Past months have not made it easier to address this question. The pandemic seems to threaten humans irrespective of class, race, ethnicity, gender, borders and other divides, which supposedly unites us (similar to climate and environmental challenges, or crisis of capitalism) across different corners of the Earth, but in reality it only reveals and amplifies social and spatial inequalities. When thinking of this question I could not stop thinking of the travelling conferences we organised by the end of 2019 together with colleagues from American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Tbilisi State University and Tuebingen University on green mobilisations in cities of Central Asia and South Caucasus, and our discussions over everyday struggles and larger scale protests in the attempt to preserve green open spaces: parks and urban forests as well as single trees and tiny plots of greenery. I could not stop thinking of how scholars and activists refused to discuss environmental justice in detachment from social and spatial justice, how they emphasized questions of redistribution and access. And I could not stop thinking how the concerns voiced during these discussions – especially the pollution and destruction of green spaces – had probably multiplied for dwellers of many (and yet not evenly in all places) Caucasian and Central Asian cities manifold in the face of the lockdowns in the spring 2020.
On a personal level, I felt painfully the difference between my own affordances and those of my friends and family in Tbilisi. As I walked down the street to enter a beautiful forest in Leipzig, I constantly asked myself what people are doing in Tbilisi, where only few have the luxury of accessing green space in a walking distance. It was telling that when I approached my mother with my worry, she said given the reduction in public transport services only people with private cars could probably afford to go to parks or drive to forests outside of the city. Not only this option is limited for many, but also at the worst parts of the lock-down even private mobility was restricted in Georgia. In Bishkek in the meantime environmental activists observed how the lock-down related drastic reduction in car mobility did not significantly reduce levels of pollution in the city, given that much of air pollution is related to the heating systems. And access to fresh air and green space, so crucial throughout the wave of pandemic related measures and restrictions, is only a top of the iceberg of inequalities, ranging from housing to income, to soft-and-hardware for digitalised education, and much more. To say it short, I personally was so overwhelmed by being confronted with painful rearticulation of divides that I could hardly get to the question of what we have in common.
Carving out space and practice of commoning
Yet, this confrontation with inequalities makes it ever more important to defend, think of, and carve out space and practice of commons, and to support existing daily struggles and large scale mobilisations in the name of commoning. Commons, in definition of De Angelis, broadly understood as diverse ‘forms of non-hierarchical human cooperation’ rest on three pillars: ‘(1) commonwealth, that is, a set of resources held in common and governed by (2) a community of commoners which (3) engage in a practice of commoning, or doing in common’ (De Angelis, 2019, p. 124).
In the cities of post-socialist Eurasia, geographers (including us, the researchers at IfL), anthropologists and political scientist have explored a range of collective anti-capitalistic or non-capitalistic practices under different conceptual tools, such as ‘domestication’ of neoliberalism, (Smith & Rochovská, 2007; Smith & Stenning, 2006; Stenning et al., 2010) moral economies (C. Hann, 2018), everyday resistances (C. Curro, 2017), reciprocal and socially embedded informal economic practices (Morris, 2011; Morris & Polese, 2014; Rekhviashvili, 2016; Rekhviashvili & Sgibnev, 2019) and finally also, as practices of commoning (Salzer et al., 2020). The challenge however has been that while the Western scholars, or scholars from the region based at Western academic institutions like myself, have talked of such solidarity practices with fascination, locally they ‘might appear not so much as something new, revolutionary, and promising, but rather traditional, boring, and tied to the everyday struggle to make ends meet – something we all would like to leave behind’ (Gagyi, 2019).
Indeed, the so called ‘transition to a market economy’ has obscured legal and spatial forms beyond that of public/state and market/private, demonised and marginalised the local practice and vocabulary of what is shared and communal, for being too ‘socialist’ or ‘pre-modern/traditional’. This is exactly why the effort of Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB) organisers – in themselves facilitating horizontal organisation of the Biennial events – to reappropriate and rethink the language and practice of commoning is extremely important and valuable. It is an opportunity to approach commoning as promising and revolutionary.
I will look forward to attend and be part of the upcoming Biennial events. I will surely present at and engage with the panel on ‘Archive works on markets’ organised by Onur Ceritoglu, dedicated to discussing public markets and bazaars as one of the critical public spaces and valuable commons for respective communities. I would invite you all to stay tuned and follow the program on TAB 2020 webpage.
Dr Lela Rekhviashvili is a researcher in the Department of Regional Geography of Europe at the IfL.
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