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.
Historically this is similar to the way empathy, and more explicitly, kinesthetic empathy has been theorized. Empathy is a term that is explicitly linked the body. It is a response to the world that is felt on a neural-muscular level. Kinesthesia is the proprioceptive awareness of our own body’s movements in time and space. Kinesthetic empathy proposes an embodied connection to the world in which the world is taken into the body through sensory perception and effectively mirrored through kinesthetic response. Much writing has been done in regards to the ways in which kinesthetic empathy is experienced when watching dance, wherein the act of watching dance evokes a feeling as if we are dancing.(1)
Recent research in neurobiology has connected this sensory resonance with the world to the presence of mirror neurons.(2) These mirror neurons are points in the brain that fire in the same way regardless of whether we are witnessing an action or performing it ourselves. These findings provide scientific backing to the way kinesthetic empathy has been theorized for many years, a sensory response we enact in which we feel as if we are performing an action which we are witness to. As one sits on the edge of their seat when watching a tightrope walker or sways side to side with the bowling ball as it rolls down the lane, we feel a kinesthetic connection with the movement of the other as if it were our own.
Neurobiologists are building links between our capacity for empathetic connection and the production of knowledge.(3) They cite our ability to feel this sensory response as being integral to our capacity to form meaning and understand the world in which we live. As grok is to take something into the body in a mutual transformation that leads towards understanding, so too is empathy a form of mutual transformation, taking information from the world, processing it through the filter of the body and understanding it through kinesthetic response. Understanding is based in our ability to mirror, to become a reflection of the world. How is the world taken into the body? How are we able to synthesize the multitudes of information we receive on a daily basis into a form that enables us take in, become and respond?
In order to kinesthetically empathize with the world, in order to grok it, one must hold an awareness of their own experience in such a way that allows them to simultaneously connect with the experience of the other. It is a sensory recognition and awareness, which stems from our ability to establish parallel and contradictory patterns of similarity and difference. It is an inherently relational practice that honors diversity and demands recognition of the intricately layered experiences that constitute our worlds.(4)
Improvisational dance can be this, a fine-tuned response of the body to the world, where sensory perception is closely linked to subsequent action. Community organizing can be this, beginning with acknowledging the impact people have in co-constructing their worlds, it is a coordination of gathering that influences transformative change, where the environment and beings in it figure the world, leaning form into action and back again. Growing and cooking food can be this, a choreography of feeding and digestion (mutual understanding) that sustains and transforms the body and the land. An alchemy of beings, plants, animals, coalescing to be taken into our body/world and become our body/world. We are what we eat. It becomes part of our cellular make up, where the cells of the plant become the cells of our bodies.
In the summer we slaughter
and there is blood and the chickens and the raspberries
those different shades of red
against the warn wood and thickets
the squawking dying birds
their lower bellies sighing their last breaths
grasping at a connection
we talk about when death begins and ends
when life passes out of a body
when the dying is done
feeding our bodies with their bodies
This is what I am presently interested in, as an artist, as an organizer, as a citizen, as a human. I am interested in how we can be more fully attuned to our environment and the other beings in it and how this awareness can be cultivated to breed actions that honor solidarity and diversity of experience. I am interested in the attempt to find points of connections across difference and the process of taking the world into the body in ways that sustain and propel creative acts of change.
I am looking for a new context. A new home out of which something vibrant, challenging and curious can grow. Something that incites feeling and action, something that brings people together. In the establishment of a kitchen I am looking for a community that gives a damn. Who are engaged in practices that not only believe in or hope for but also enact radically different modes of operation. My hope is that The Kitchen Collaborative will provide a platform to close the gap between production and consumption, to bring us closer to the world and each other in it. So that we may feel more intimately those lines of production that lead toward the act of consumption and understand the implications of what tracks we leave in our wake.
1 John Martin wrote about the emotional transmission of modern dance through what he called ‘metekinesis’ or ‘inner mimicry’ in the early 1900’s. Susan Foster has dedicated much of recent
research the subject of empathy and it’s implications for communicating across difference 2 See Rizzolatti and Gallese 3 Foster, “Choreographing Empathy” 178; Gallese, 171-172
4 Foster’s work on kinesthetic empathy has been helpful to me in articulating how our capacity for empathy is predicated on social formations, subjective experience and our ability to simultaneously hold similarity and difference.
Foster, Susan. “Kinesthetic Empathies and the Politics of Compassion”, Critical Theory and Performance. edited by Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach. University of Michigan Press. 2007.
———. “’Movement’s Contagion: The Kinesthetic Impact of Performance’.” In The Cambridge Companion to Performance Studies. edited by Tracy C. Davis, 46-59. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
———. Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. Routledge, 2001
Gallese, Vittorio “Empathy, Embodied Simulation, and the Brain: Commentary on Aragno and Zepf/Hartman,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 56, 2008.
Heinline, Robert, Stranger in a Strange Land. Putnam Publishing Group, NY, 1961
Oxford English Dictionary. web. http://www.oed.com/
Rizzolatti, Giocomo et al., “From Mirror Neurons to Imitation: Facts and Speculations,” The Imitative Mind: Development, Evolution, and Brain Bases, ed. Andrew N. Meltzoff and Wolfgang Prinz, Cambridge Studies in Cognitive Perceptual Development Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002.