Reconstructing the Civic with Aaron Levy
Library as Commons by Doris Madsen
Grock it. Essay by Julia Handschuh
April 6, 2012, Harvard GSD.
As part of his visit to Boston, Aaron Levy will speak at the GSD on his work at the Philadelphia based Slought Foundation. Philadelphia is situated at the intersection of a specific series of tensions. Foremost among these is that it is a peripheral city marked by profound socio-economic inequality and racial division. These tensions are further exacerbated and reinforced by an institutionally uneven and culturally conservative landscape, one consequence of which is limited funding for more progressive sensibilities. Levy's work is a consequence of these tensions.
by Doris Madsen, Reference Librarian, Pine Point Branch.
Commons. What we share. Creations of both nature and society that belong to all of us equally and should be preserved and maintained for future generations.
All that we share, Jay Walljasper. 2010.
Commoners. In modern use, people who are dedicated to reclaiming and restoring the commons.
All that we share, Jay Walljasper. 2010
Social Capital. Values and social networks that enable coordination and cooperation within society … the relationship between people and organizations which form the glue that strengthens civil society. “Libraries create social capital”,
Nancy Kranich, Library Journal. Nov. 2001.
As the featured speaker at an American Library Association (ALA) 2001 Annual Conference, Harvard professor Robert Putnam shared his concerns about the erosion of community social capital to an audience of librarians. According to Nancy Kranich, ALA President and host of the program, Putnam was taken aback when he discovered the level of social capital present amongst the audience of librarians.
The public library is the physical place where the entire intellectual, cultural, scientific and informational storehouse of the world is open to all for free. It is a shared community resource, a safe gathering place where people of all ages can share interests and concerns, find information essential to civic participation and connect with neighbors. The library is an institution rich in social capital and poised to sustain civic awareness and community revival. (Kranich)
Civil society creates and sustains commons. The Magna Carta, of 1215, was the first document to mark a political commons, the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot. Environmental movements and indigenous people movements around the world exemplify social groups working to establish a commons-like structure to the sharing of precious natural resources.
The library where I work is located in an urban neighborhood. Many of those we serve have had a lot taken away from them. The library branch represents the community giving back, a resource equally shared by the entire neighborhood, a resource that is free to all, no matter who or what they are. We are building social capital every day we are open.
The Springfield Seed Library (a commons), to be housed in a repurposed card catalog at Pine Point Branch library, 204 Boston Rd. will grow as gardeners (commoners) in the city contribute seeds. The project will grow and social capital will be reaped as gardeners visit and borrow seeds for their home and community gardens.
Springfield City Library is proud to produce the Springfield Seed Library in partnership with New Growth Gardens and Artists in Context.
We will attempt to grok at The Kitchen Collaborative as we choreograph the feeding. We are a collective that believes in the power of food to create and sustain connections to one another and our environment. The Kitchen Collaborative will be a commercially certified shared-use kitchen opening onto an eatery and performance space and integrated with a rooftop garden and building-wide green systems. It is being designed for a range of creative food projects from cooking and preservation to mentorship and politics. Most importantly it will be a place that is welcoming and celebratory; that embraces people-driven sustainable approaches to food and community.
For the past ten years I’ve thought of myself primarily as an artist. Now this title no longer seems sufficient for the realms in which I want my actions to move. The conceptual and capitalistic frames of contemporary art have begun to feel limiting; particularly in the face of climate change and a global war on terror, the Art World (with a capital A) feels useless. So I find myself leaning towards actions that have a practical application; that make connections in everyday life, that touch the world and cycle back, that exist beyond the container of artistic practice and hold me accountable to creating the world in which I want to live.
My background in improvisational dance and performance art, particularly in the realm of ecological and environmental philosophy has lead me to think about my actions in terms of how I/we are wrapped up in the world, bound into a reciprocal agreement of impact and exchange. These issues are intimately connected to the ways in which I experience improvisation and it’s set of scores for collective action within the delimited space of a dance. In this realm our bodies’ impact on each other is explicit, as our movements in response to each other and space send off chain reactions of expression.
By challenging myself to understand my body’s relationship to the world and its agency within a system of repercussive actions it seems logical that I would begin to think it terms of material relations to the world. What and how I consume becomes instructive to how I move, and how I move shifts the cycle of what I consume, produce and excrete. What responsibility, what response, can we have in a world that mutes our impact? What structures can we build which rekindle a direct connection between impact and effect, production and consumption?
When mulling over these ideas I often come back to the word grok and it’s implications for both consumptive and empathetic connections to the world. In Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land he coined the term grok, which has since entered the lexicon and found it’s way into the Oxford English Dictionary with the following definition: “To understand intuitively or by empathy; to establish rapport with.” In the context of the novel it also has the connotation of consumption, to drink or to take in, and in the taking in of the other, the two become one, a dispersal of energy, a synthesis that leads to understanding. Grokking is not reserved for humans (or in the case of the novel, Martians) but also includes objects and other elements of the environment. Swimming in water produces a mutual agreement or understanding between water and body, in which each have an effect on the other. To grok is to both understand and become, to fully take in the world into the body, to become the world and the world to becomes you.