Many years ago I was intrigued to learn of an art institute in the Netherlands, that formally declares its mission to be “working for the commons.” That’s how the Casco Art Institute in Utrecht presents itself to the world. Their tagline immediately raises questions about how exactly arts and commoning are related, and how an art institute might enter into the world of commoning.
I decided to learn more by inviting Binna Choi, Director at the Casco Art Institute, to join me in a podcast conversation for Frontiers of Commoning (Episode #35). Binna, a native of South Korea who has led Casco since 2008, curates artistic work for major exhibitions and was a faculty member of the Dutch Art Institute. She has been a curator or artistic director for the Singapore Biennale 2022, the Gwangju Biennale 2016, and the upcoming Hawai’i Triennial 2025.
Choi has brought the ethic and practices of commoning to the creation of art and its exhibition. She and her colleagues have embraced commoning as an organizing principle for how a diverse team of artists can make art and work together. Casco Institute explains its philosophical commitments to the commons in this way:
“Art is an imaginative way of doing and being which connects, heals, opens, and moves people into the new social visions. Art is in fact inherent to the commons, as they are shared resources to keep the culture of community alive. In turn, the commons may well sustain art. With art and the commons we can draw a worldview beyond the divides of private and public, to shape together a new paradigm of living together as “we” desire – be it decolonial, post-capitalist, matriarchal, solidarity economies — we name it!”
In practice, what does this mean? It means that the Institute is an artist-centered institution, rather than an institutional brand bent on burnishing its reputation through splashy exhibitions and marketing. Instead, Choi and the Institute’s artists work as a participatory, non-hierarchical, egalitarian team. Everyone talks about how studio space is used, how the next project or exhibition will be developed, and how the Institute can use its artistic imagination to engage with the local community.
One such project was the exhibition, “Traveling Farm Museum of Forgotten Skills,” which revolved around an old farmhouse surrounded by modern suburban development near Utrecht. Low-rise suburban sprawl had consumed much of the farmland that was once there, leaving little but a decrepit farmhouse — still owned by a farmer, but decrepit and unoccupied.
Choi and Casco artists decided to develop an art project that would let the community explore the history of that space, like: “Why is the farm empty? Where did the farm move to? Where does the food of the inhabitants of the Leidsche Rijn district [this area] actually come from, now that almost all agricultural and livestock farms have disappeared from its region?”
Casco was given permission to use the farmhouse – considered a nuisance by Utrecht officials – to mount an exhibition to showcase the old-time agricultural practices that once produced food for the region. Casco artists cohabited the farmhouse for ten months, re-relating to the land through its history and contemporary circumstances, while farming and foraging. The project invited local residents to consider the forgotten past of the farm and to express themselves about possible future uses of the land.
Unfortunately, the project had to be abandoned prematurely when the owner decided to sell the house and land; the site now hosts a pancake restaurant and shopping center. Still, for a time, the exhibition brought artistic provocations to bear on topics important to the community: its history, its sources of food, the future of the land.
A year-long program, soon to be launched, “Unlearning Center,” will invite people to shed legacy ideas about art and culture and ask, “How can we build the cultural institutions we want? How can arts and culture allow us to imagine and enact the commons?” Another forthcoming exhibition, “Commons Art,” will provide “a digital platform that supports the care and maintenance process of socially engaged art projects contributing to the culture of the commons.”
I asked Choi whether some people in the museum and arts world might regard the art produced by Casco Institute projects as somehow inferior to the “great art” that conventional art institutions like to present – meaning, paintings and sculptures celebrated by critics and the cultural canon, formal presentations in stark white exhibition halls, scenarios that divide “art” from everyday life, and so on.
Choi replied that the most important thing to focus on is building relationships:
“Our relationship at Casco Art Institute with artists is, like, kinship. You’re moving in this web of relationships. And so what we have to focus more on is how to take care of those relationships better. If we imagine that we work on the practice of relationship, rather than on ‘making good product,’ the world would become far better.”
The conversation gives a nice glimpse into how commoning can animate different forms of art-making, artistic exhibitions, and institutional stewardship. You can listen to my talk with Binna Choi here. A PDF transcript of the interview can be found here.
Teaser photo credit: Willem Blaeu‘s 1652 map of Utrecht. By Unknown author – Atlas van Loon, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8166403