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  • The United States of America can be described as many things but “a place where people hold wealth in common” would not be one of them. If not wealth, then what do we hold in common?

    EXPLORE

    By: The Editors

    Publication Date: 12/03/2020

    The United States of America can be described as many things but “a place where people hold wealth in common” would not be one of them. If not wealth, then what do we hold in common? Who is the “we” that defines our nation, our states, our cities, and our communities?
    Maybe we shouldn’t let go of holding wealth in common. Can we redefine “wealth” and redistribute it in ways that foster greater well-being for all? Essentially, can we draw on the collective power embedded in the term “commonwealth” while at the same time recognizing its connection to exploitation and colonialism? In the Puerto Rican context, “commonwealth” has a very particular meaning, associated with American colonialism. This fact has been a recurring touchstone for this project to consider.
    In the spring and summer of 2020, the pandemic has challenged our public health infrastructure on both a local and global level. It has prompted big and urgent questions: Do we rely on government or private corporations to keep us healthy and safe? Are these our only two options? And when we say “government,” do we mean local or federal or both? Who knows what’s best for us and who has the ability to follow through on a promise of care? In addition to the public health crisis, we saw a collective pushback against racism and police violence on both a national and global scale. The offense that called forth this rage was a betrayal of the commonwealth.
    In response to these crises we have seen people come together for the common good in a myriad of ways. Mutual aid groups have gathered food, rent support, and other supplies so that neighbors can help one another survive. In some cities, people sheltering in place would come outside to applaud first responders. A remarkably diverse coalition came together, often in the streets, to commit to anti-racism. In the US a discourse of abolition has risen to the surface as we realize that there is little justice in the justice system. Protesters cried “I can’t breathe,” invoking the image of society as a body that has been choked off from the resources it needs to live by the very system that was established to protect it. Despite the fact that we have lost faith in some systems, we have built new ones and treated “commonwealth” as an idea that is an organic thing, something that must constantly adapt to maintain a commitment to the common good.

    By: The Editors

    Publication Date: 12/03/2020

    Our project started as a simple line of questioning. Curators from three institutions, each based in a US political territory designated as a “commonwealth,” chose to think together about what that term actually means. In this partnership among Beta-Local (San Juan, PR), the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA), and Philadelphia Contemporary (Philadelphia, PA), we set out to investigate its history, its utopian potential, and its limitations. As we know, the United States of America began as a colony founded on land taken from indigenous peoples. Its revolutionary texts espoused the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—while embracing slavery and denying women the right to vote. In the nineteenth century the USA became an empire itself, and it remains so through its ongoing colonization of Puerto Rico. How is one to swallow such massive contradictions?
    Since 2018, the curatorial team has been meeting in our respective cities, considering these questions and formulating a collaborative project—one that would reflect shared values and commitments while respecting differences in our institutions, our contexts, and our perspectives. Through our collaborative work as well as community processes in each city, we explored the meaning of commonwealth. We explored our connection to the land, our unity or division as a common people, and the voices of resistance that come together to fight injustice within our communities. Together, our curatorial team also selected a group of artists from whom to commission works that would respond to ideas of “common wealth” and “common debt.” We initially planned to present them through exhibitions in all three cities, along with a more traditional print publication and localized public programming—but the onset of COVID-19 forced us to pivot.
    We agreed that each organization would take the lead on one re-formulated component of the project: Beta-Local would lead on this re-envisioned publication, the ICA would focus on a reconceived exhibition and work with the artists to adapt their commissioned projects into a spatially distanced indoor-outdoor exhibition, and Philadelphia Contemporary would emphasize its community council, regranting, and a neighborhood banner initiative. The two physical manifestations of Commonwealth are now the banner project and a billboard by Firelei Baez in Philadelphia (October 15, 2020-January 10, 2021), and an exhibition of all the commissioned works at the ICA both in and around the building to allow socially distanced viewing (September 12, 2020 – January 2021). The newly-obvious benefits of digital programming also opened paths to collaborative digital programs that link our communities and connect to others.

    ISSUE 1

    By: The Editors

    Publication Date: 12/03/2020

    This publication is anchored in the spirit of a miniseries, or perhaps a pamphlet series. Three volumes, mainly in digital format, include networks of content linked to the Commonwealth project. Through this content, we approach our contexts, ideas, and feelings (many of these contradictory) in various ways and from multiple latitudes that are at times almost impossible to reconcile. The only possible way to work has led us to unravel the semantic content of the “common good,” “commonwealth,” “common debt,” and other permutations from their mix of meanings. Instead of thinking about the utopia of putting something together, we work from the reality that things break and that it is not bad to operate from the cracks. The broken and the interrupted as a positive value.
    This art project is manifested through such various components as an exhibition, editorial content, and public programs. The sections dedicated to participating artists, mainly from the exhibition at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, not only share documentation of the works in the exhibition but are also approaches to the ideas that fueled them.
    These materials do not seek to explain the project in a totalizing way; they are an array of multiple approaches to and from it. We have included the fragmentation and changes of direction that have occurred since the beginning of the crisis caused by the pandemic as well as the irresponsible responses to the pandemic exacerbated by our capitalist contexts, racist attacks by the police in the US, and public reaction to these various catastrophes. In the case of Puerto Rico, we keep in perspective the 2019 summer uprising, the unusual seismic activity that has hit the southern section of the island since the beginning of the year, and the fact that at the moment of writing this note we are in the middle of hurricane season. Also, we do not hide the uncertainty related to the next elections in both the US and Puerto Rico.
    Many things have happened since we started talking, and many more will continue to happen. This project is an invitation to work together, to keep up the dialogue despite our unstable contexts, and to allow art and the thoughts it provokes to sustain themselves as necessary tools from the present.
    One aspect of our collaboration included the formation of conceptual tools, which are represented in each issue in some way. We organized these tools into three main conceptual categories: Collectivity, Spatial Economies, and Historical Agency. We found these categories useful to think through the artist commissions and the public programs that followed. As a result, the publication is also structured around these principles, creating tracks for the content to follow.
    This first issue has contributions by three participating artists: Mónica Rodríguez, Sharon Hayes, and Duron Chavis (with Quilian Riano). These provide context, not explanations to their respective Commonwealth projects. There is a journalistic note focusing on Richmond’s Confederate monuments by Brian Palmer. Since the three organizations started to work together a series of working concepts were developed as our orientation tools. Here we present them as a series of icons produced by Lorraine Rodríguez. Also included is a comic strip by Jimena Lloreda.

    ISSUE 2

    By: The Editors

    Publication Date: 12/18/2020

    This issue of the Commonwealth digital publication raises and continues many of the core questions that have animated our conversations about the project from its beginning: how do we begin to define “commonwealth”? How do we acknowledge the historic inequities of our commonwealths without being bound by them as we pursue more equitable futures? When do we reform our systems, and when do we create new, alternate models for pursuing the common good?
    To add to the range of lenses on and approaches to these questions, we solicited—in addition to Commonwealth’s artistic commissions—journalistic reports, historical case studies, and scholarly essays and dialogues from writers in all three of our commonwealths. Like the artworks, these writings approach the central themes of common wealth, common debt, and the productive tensions that arise in the pursuit of common good from a wide spectrum of methodologies and social contexts. The writings in this issue also speak to the range of methods used to create space for common good and collectively held wealth, encompassing activism, mutual aid, and community organizing. Sometimes these collectives pursued goals of developing separate, self-determined spaces and models outside of those of their predominant capitalist and political systems, and sometimes they demanded reforms from within them. Our hope is to share these narratives as pieces of a larger methodology of questioning, soliciting new perspectives, and respecting differences in positions and context.
    This second issue of the publication features three contextualizing contributions from artists who participated in Commonwealth: Firelei Báez, Alicia Díaz (with poems by Patricia Herrera), and Nelson Rivera (written by nibia pastrana santiago). This issue also includes two historical case studies: one by Kalela Williams on the founding of the Black-owned United Bank of Philadelphia and one from Mabel Rodríguez Centeno on writer and singer-songwriter Rita Indiana’s new album, Mandinga Times; its accompanying video, After School; and their many resonant intersections with Puerto Rico’s queer, decolonial histories. This issue’s journalist report by Sojourner Ahebee centers on the mutual aid networks that have developed across the West Philadelphia Promise Zone neighborhoods during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. An essay by anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla reflects on the social and political ramifications of Puerto Rico’s recent history of compounding crises. A new comic strip by Jimena Lloreda is also included.
    Finally, the conceptual tools first presented in Issue #1 have been transformed into an online game, allowing visitors to group and recombine them. Our hope is that these tools will serve as prompts for further dialogue and new perspectives on the central questions of this project.

    ISSUE 3

    By: The Editors

    Publication Date: 02/15/2021

    Uncertainty is in vogue. Suddenly necropolitics is felt by more people, but it continues to be an abstract experience. The sad thing is that the antidote will be more necropolitics. The crisis caused by the Coronavirus is similar to those generated by mega storms, earthquakes and systemic racism. The crisis is not a total event, it is a sequence from which it is very difficult to escape, to which we are forced to get used to it. If we look closely, we will see that it bears a human stamp, it is the product of the inequality generated by capitalism.
    For some people the solution is to go back to pasts that never existed. And if they existed, they are in part to blame for our present. This is why it is important not to lose historical perspectives, without fear of the daze they may cause.
    “Colossal task of inventing the real”, this quote from Franz Fanon can be very useful. Think also in relation to groups that have been labeled through multiple ways. Please don’t assume, we are not what you think we are. In order to invent the real we need many counter narratives, and accept differences, which is not the same as operating in opposition. Our narratives may be fragmented, but we should not be. The we we refer to is both a contracted as well as an expanding one. It can be both, think of it as an invitation. The opposition must be against the conditions that wear us out, but this is not so easy. Who are the culprits of collective wear and tear? This takes time and conscience, meanwhile we work against extinction by omission. That is another front. It is also possible to advance from the rear, and go through uncertainty without diluting ourselves.
    Commonwealth has been an interesting experiment. How to harmonize such different conceptions and contexts? This situation at times was also projected for instance among the relationship between pieces that were presented in the exhibition in Richmond, as well as the interventions in Philadelphia and the contents of this publication. However, an assemblage has been achieved that has made sense, contributing from multiple angles with interesting counter narratives. This is the third and last volume of the publication. It includes contributions that expand on many of the ideas in this note, as well as the project in general.