The Common Good (in a time of pandemic)

◤ A blog charting the development and publication of the next Sluice magazine during a time of isolation and social distancing.

  Karl England  
  London, UK  

 March/April/May/June 2020 

  22 June  

Today marks 91 days since the UK went into Covid-19 inspired "lock-down". Are we still in lock-down? Things are certainly not normal, we seem to be in a limbo waiting for a second spike or at least some summer respite – whatever that might mean in these hyper-localised times. Over the past four weeks, as we're patiently waiting for the magazine to come back from the designers, we've been chatting with a variety of individuals, all of whom operate in the creative industries in some capacity, to ask them what they're doing and how they see the creative sector – and the world at large – emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic.

  15 May  

The 2020 Od Arts Festival was due to start today (15 May). Pre-pandemic we sat down with festival founder and co-director Simon Lee Dicker for a chat about this year's festival. The sluice encounter video below – the 66th in the series – is the result of this chat.

Due to the Covid-19 lockdown the festival has been postponed until the autumn. We've since interviewed the Od Arts Festival team to talk about the irony of the festival’s 2020 theme 'Alone with Everybody' in relation to the current lock-down and the challenges of organising and being creative in a time of pandemic. This article will appear in the upcoming issue of the Sluice magazine – which can be pro-ordered now by subscribing via this link: subscribe

Here’s a bit that didn’t make the final edit for the magazine:

Sluice: T.S. Eliot wrote, in response to the looming Second World War: "We [creatives] can have very little hope of contributing to any immediate social change; and we are more disposed to see our hope in modest and local beginnings, than in transforming the whole world at once... We must keep alive aspirations which can remain valid throughout the longest and darkest period of universal calamity and degradation." Do you think artists are helpless against the seismic changes brought by something like the pandemic?

Vickie Fear: I’m not sure I would agree that individuals have felt helpless in this instance. Unlike during modern war time I think the threat has felt visible and present in our streets rather than overseas. The mantra of Stay At Home, accompanying children’s drawings of rainbows stuck to the inside of front room windows has been a clear and powerful message that our individual actions have impact.

Rowan Lear: I agree, I have felt less helpless than I have in a long time – partly because it is clear our government can tear up the rulebook and pluck fruit from the magic money tree when it suits them. The “modest and local beginnings” have already been sown in the last five or so years – universal basic income is not a pipe dream, it’s being discussed on all sides of the political spectrum, and artists have been very quick to organise against unfair and discriminatory funding practices (for example, Keep it Complex’s Solidarity Syndicate campaign). Here in Glasgow, volunteer mutual aid networks sprung up far more quickly, efficiently and effectively than the government or charity sector.

  13 May  

At its best artist-led culture is innately tied to the social, political and economic environment in which it exists. Our current social, political and economic environment is... challenging.

Publishing update: We're aiming for the magazine to hit the shops around the first week of June. Except as all the shops are shut we’re publishing into a void.

The magazine's revenue is derived from subscribers, online sales and store sales.

Sluice magazine is distributed to specialist bookstores and galleries world-wide. However, due to the pandemic all of our stockists are closed (as is our distributor).

Subscriptions and online sales are always preferable as more of the profit per sale is retained by Sluice – to plough back into the project.

If you're able to subscribe it's an effective (and currently only) way to pre-order the magazine.

Largely uncorrupted by the instrumentilisation of funders. Strategically willing to fall under the thrall of capitalism to aid the cultural insurgence. Sluice is resolutely independent, please support us so we can continue to be so!

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  11 May  

What will the art world will look like after this? The idea that the status quo won't reassert itself over the medium term is probably largely wishful thinking. The commercial art world will be fine; capital bounces back. That art world isn't especially social (if anything, it's oppositional). I'm talking about the art world Sluice exists in, the art world that needs support in the best of times.

The upcoming edition of Sluice magazine was envisaged as being broadly about the commons, and their role in art production. It was intended to set the scene for the autumn edition of the magazine and the next large scale Sluice event, which was going to look broadly at socially engaged projects whose acts of commoning often rely on the commons.

Then the pandemic took hold and the idea of our relationship to the commons suddenly became much more real. How society is constituted in a time like this impacts on how we approach social distancing, our relationship to the State, how we navigate necropolitics and how we relate to each other. The possibility that an increased awareness of the commons could alter how we think of and value our shared resources and our relationships to each other is an enticing vision.

On the excellent Parallel State podcast the question was recently asked “what should artists be doing now”. I think the response is always – multitudes and nothing. But this question leads to another posed on a different episode of the podcast, which is “where is the art in this?” The subtle difference in these questions is defined by the individual and the group. The individual should do what the individual can do. The group, here defined as galleries, collectives, festivals, art fairs, biennials etc have a huge question looming over us. What will culture look like over the next two years? How will a largely socially orientated scene function if can't come together?

The artist-led sector exists in perpetual crisis. It ain’t a great way to exist, and yet arguably it gives us an advantage in times like these. Just because something has always been one way it doesn’t follow that it will always remain so, Bertrand Russell’s headless chicken attests to this. On the other hand Mike the headless chicken probably resembles our more likely trajectory; stumbling on much as before.

In this time of slow-motion rupture (and renewal) of the social contract there’s a tiny window of opportunity to configure society and the arts into something better. It’ll disappear in a flash, and reconstitute exactly as before (with added face masks) if we let it.

  30 April  

If we were to stand up for the press as a part of the knowledge / information / cultural commons we could wax lyrical about the Gutenberg Press, or the role of 17th century coffeehouses in wresting control of the dissemination of information away from the State. We could talk about the noble role of the fourth estate in holding the government to account. Unfortunately, the press tends to shape the popular mood in the interests of capital and the status quo, and the idea of it holding power to account seems naïve.

After the election in the UK last December it was apparent that the press had swapped establishment interrogation for amplification. We expect commercial press will protect commercial interests, the BBC is another matter, the BBC is funded by us, it’s part of the information, cultural and knowledge commons. When it failed to maintain impartiality it really tore into our trust and its behaviour in 'covering' the Covid-19 pandemic has just solidified this realisation that we need a new press for a new world. The establishment press has circled its wagons around the government in some sort of war-time mentality where any criticism of the government response is tantamount to treason. Don’t worry we’ll have an inquiry afterwards – they’re always productive!

So the idea of the establishment press as a commons, in any form, seems a bit of a stretch. The independent press, the networked fourth estate, the free press, are another matter. These have less access to corridors of power, are less answerable to commercial influence and generally have a much smaller circle of influence. This alternative, independent press tends to have much more niche interests – but perhaps a deeper relationship to a more dedicated and engaged readership.

◾ Redpepper, a quarterly magazine and website of left politics and culture has drawn up a list of independent publishers that are offering free and heavily discounted books to help people get through the lockdown: here

◾ Magazine update: we finally shipped everything over to our designer yesterday. No deadline we’ve ever set has been universally met by contributors, so the week after the content deadline is always the most fraught. However, we’ve got there, the upcoming edition will truly represent the soup we're swimming in, which is all we aspire to.

  16 April  

Since the onset of the covid-19 lockdown images have been appearing from around the world on social media, images of impromptu, ad hoc markings and demarkations in public spaces and public pinch points like supermarkets and chemists. The phenomenon itself and the images of the phenomenon exist as a sort of intellectual / networked commons.

The artist Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau has been soliciting and collating submissions of these images under the hashtag #acceptableblockages, as a continuation of his 2015 project Acceptable Blockages

In this lockdown edition of Acceptable Blockages there is an interplay between how we interact with and how we formulate the commons. From the physical commons in which the demarkations occur to the act of photographing the demarkations and then the posting of the photos on social media (the digital/information/cultural commons). From the artistic contextualisation, the publishing and ongoing development of the project Acceptable Blockages – at each stage there are activations and enclosures of the commons. A forging and negotiation of what constitutes an acceptable blockage:

My interest is how quickly the culture creates this symbolic language, and then how it becomes an aesthetic to be played with and interpreted. These constructions can make us laugh, or be scary; they can be appreciated for their grace, or enjoyed ironically for their awkwardness

Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau

Matthew is going to present a small selection of these images as a photo essay in the upcoming edition of the Sluice magazine. The photo essay will form a part of the ongoing development of his Acceptable Blockages project. If you are interested in taking part post your images to twitter or instagram with the hashtag #acceptableblockages by 21st April. If your photo is selected we’ll DM or email you for more details.

  8 April  

One of the commons familiar to most is the local park. Unless privately owned a park is part of the commons. In London alone Clapham Common, Tooting Bec Common, Peckham Rye Common, Wimbledon Common, Hampstead Heath were all pastoral areas which enclosure put paid to in the historical sense of common land, the sort commoners had grazing rights over. These, like all public spaces are still part of the commons in the sense that they are publicly owned and funded by and for the benefit of the public.

We allow the State to administor the commons, the commons are not owned by the State. When the State institutes a lock-down and attempts to police behaviour, this control is predicated on participation in the consensus of what constitutes the common good. When the state threatens to close public parks due to residents loitering in them, when the police move people on in the name of public health the state is balancing its will (suppressing social contact - without stopping it completely, because we still need to get covid-19, just at a slower rate) with the publics acquiescence.

Enclosure is an ongoing process. We live in an age of cognitive capitalism, where immaterial labour finds itself engulfed by marketisation. Most visibly this is seen in the development of the internet, an open source information commons on the one hand and on the other defined by social media empires fighting over unique visitor numbers, retention matrix's and click-throughs (the attention economy) in the name of online retail and advertising.

..the widespread sense [is] that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it

Mark Fisher
Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

When the immaterial commons (including our rights to assemble and express ourselves) are enclosed it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a different reality. A reality that doesn’t consist of what amounts to indentured labour in servitude to debt conjured from sectors that should be – once were, could be – part of the commons (education, housing). During this time of national and global emergency, what constitutes common sense and the common good alters. What is interesting is witnessing how compliant the public are, how self-policing we are and how encaptured we are by our way of thinking.

  5 April  

Countries are starting to suspend their postal services, there's a daily updated list here.

Incidentally, the Royal Mail (UK) was part of the civic commons until 2012 when the coalition Government split the Royal Mail (delivery) from the Post Office (retail) and then sold off the Royal Mail on the stock market. Following the Postal Services Act 2011, a majority of the shares in Royal Mail were floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2013. The UK government initially retained a 30% stake in Royal Mail, but sold its remaining shares in 2015, ending 499 years of state ownership.

Interestingly, last Wednesday Gove thanked the public sector workers for their service, including police, teachers and Royal Mail workers.

Meanwhile the CWU have offered to suspend an upcoming strike in order to act as the 4th emergency service in the UK amidst the coronavirus pandemic. A union official said:

We want the public we serve, the government and shareholders to know that we want to set aside our differences with Royal Mail [management] and, subject to prioritising the health and safety of our members, we want postal workers to become an additional emergency service in the UK. We believe this could really help the country in these unprecedented times. Postal workers are embedded in every community in the UK. They are trusted figures. They are part of the social fabric of society.

As Gove inadvertently admitted, as Swap Editions demonstrate (see previous post) and as this pandemic is laying bare; what constitutes the commons reaches deep and wide and is only truly appreciated when the state needs to step forward, only for us to realise services constituted for the common good have been sold off.

  2 April  

The Covid-19 ‘lockdown’ in the UK started on March 23rd. One of the last interviews I conducted before the lockdown was with Robin from Swap Editions. I was interested in the idea of the social commons, not of the top-down ‘big society’ variety, but more in the vein of a self organising sharing economy. We talked about how Swap editions is an attempt to enact this exchange economy. We also chatted about their latest show which is thematically based around the idea of isolation, conceived off the back of Brexit, is now suddenly recast in a truly global light.

The covid-19 lockdown has bisected Swap Edition 5 into a time of before, the before times were defined as a time of impending reduced freedom of movement (in Europe) and a time of after, the after times are defined by State mandated social distancing and isolating on a global scale but also on a profoundly immediate and personal level.

This edition [of Swap Editions] is intended to confront a post-brexit isolationist world. Which seems ironic talking about now Covid-19 is sweeping the world.

Robin Tarbet

Currently working on:
◾ Editing & publishing micro Swap Editions ‘encounters’ video interview
◾ Transcribing & editing full Swap Editions interview for print publication
◾ Working on newsletter
◾ Thinking about visual elements

  31 March  

Flowchart of logistical interdependencies involved in publishing and delivering the magazine during the lockdown. Included are planned mitigations for actual and potential distruptions. The current intractible blockage is the closure of our stockists and of our distributor. There is currently still a pathway to physical publication so that remains our aim.

  29 March  

The Dartboard of Death / Six Ways to Die infographic by Vinay Gupta / from the website

Immediate thoughts: Adjust the planned theme of this edition of the magazine to reflect our current shit-show. The theme of the upcoming edition was slated to be about ‘the commons’. What we’re currently living through is an opportune backdrop against which to delve into what the commons is and how our relationship to it shapes our lives. In a time of social distancing and self-isolating the social contract we make with the state is under intense scrutiny. The civil, cultural, knowledge, social and natural commons are all implicated and utilised as part of our response to the pandemic.

To do: Pivoting the theme to address the pandemic will require an extended timeframe for the contributors; extend content deadline by three weeks from April 1st th April 21st. Contact all contributors to update. Calibrate for a certain amount of unavailability. Think about alternative contributions and fulfilment scenarios in case of incapacitation. Think about interdependencies of physical infrastructure, supply infrastructure and safety infrastructure and how these notions are usually abstract and yet now feel very real and present on a personal, local, regional, national and global scale.

  28 March  

When South Korean shipping container company Hanjin abruptly went bankrupt in 2016 freight fees temporarily doubled – at the time Sluice was printed in China, the bankruptcy cut that short. Luckily we found a great printer in Turkey …

In Autumn 2018 – the day before the opening of Exchange Berlin – half of our print run was stolen out the back of a van in Gleisdreieck.. In Autumn 2018 – the day before the opening of Exchange Berlin – half of our print run was stolen out the back of a van in Gleisdreieck..

round that time was the height of the Middle East refugee crisis and the land border between Turkey and Bulgaria was closed and all freight vehicles were individually opened and searched for asylum seekers. Sluice magazine found itself caught up for weeks before making it through...

meanwhile, the British public had just voted to leave the EU, causing the Pound to plummet against international currencies. Again we scrambled to find a new printer (now we print in the UK)...

Whilst we're not suggesting our little magazine matters at all in the context of these global upheavals it is illustrative of how these events all posed an existential threat to the magazine. Achieving anything in our non-profit, non-funded, independent, artist-led arena is a daily exercise in overcoming both seismic and mundane (like when half our print run was stolen out the back of a van in Berlin) existential challenges.

Over the next two months we’ll be working towards publishing our Spring/Summer 2020 edition.

Achieving anything in the current environment is difficult, a peculiar challenge, but one we feel is worth pursuing. The creativity we value is one borne of independence, collaboration and a culture which is innately tied to the social, political and economic environment in which it exists. Creativity as an integrated social organism. As we develop the Spring/Summer 2020 edition of the magazine – overcoming structural hurdles caused by the pandemic and the subsequent human fallout – we thought it would be interesting to bring you along for the ride….  s

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