Commoning UVA, a #RDgrantee story

In the series of talks with #RDgrantees we talk with Anna Kooi of Commoning UvA, which in her words is a “commons, with a nucleus of seven persons, students and alumni” [next to Anna Kooi: Koen Bartijn, Sepp Eckenhaussen, Danna Harmsen, Soheila Najand, Max Rozenburg and Michael Vermeer] at the University of Amsterdam. Commoning UvA was founded in the aftermath of the occupation of the Maagdenhuis in 2015. After this twelfth occupation [the first took place in 1969] of the historical building of the university by students, staff and sympathizers had been ended, the question arose: “What now? How to prevent the need for another occupation?” This group decided to organize themselves and present workshops, trainings and lectures to stop the processes of privatization of higher education in general, and of the humanities and social sciences in particular. Most of these events took and continue to take place in VOX-POP, the creative space of the faculty of humanities. Most of the events attract some 50 attendants and via social media their outreach quadruples. The events are programmed by Commoning UvA and networks around them. “This fits our ideal of Commoning UvA being a facilitating group; of co-designing a space to experiment in.”

 Public review of Joost de Bloois'  In de naam van het Maagdenhuis,  April 2018

Public review of Joost de Bloois' In de naam van het Maagdenhuis, April 2018

The #RDgrant ‘Moving Communities’ call struck a chord as it offered the opportunity to be inspired by others “on how to communicate the alternative paradigm of the commons” and to co-learn on “how to support other commoning groups, be it methodology wise, in matters of hosting or via trainings.” The Idea Camp of March 2017 allowed one representative per group to join. Anna’s agenda allowed her to be that one person. In the first days of the Idea Camp she wanted to share all new insights and experiences with her fellow commoners at the UvA, but that proved impossible; “Skype sessions allowed for sharing some factual information, but the Idea Camp was so dense, it soon turned out to be more fruitful to dive in completely. My participation taught us it is possible to act as an individual, not as a representative of, but with the trust of, the group.” Upon returning to the Netherlands Anna was fully energized and that fed into the group.

When asked for important take-aways from the Idea Camp Anna first mentions the experience of collective cross-fertilization in a well-designed space for experiment, but also the empowerment in “communicating” the ideas of commoning principles effectively whilst remaining honest: “By slightly adopting our language our message remains the same, it just reaches more people.” Overcoming that aversion came about by many discussions with other Idea Camp participants who are active in education; Beatriz Barreiro Carril and Tuba Doğu most notably. Those conversations also made Anna “to start thinking in little steps rather than in giant leaps, which is a neoliberal projection anyways. To start asking people what they need, rather than telling them what they need. It turned out our ambitions were our stumbling block. Lessons learned in the Idea Camp taught us to appreciate the differences we can make.”

The processes in the Idea Camp, and the grant obtained after it, enabled Commoning UvA to further professionalize; officially turning into a cooperative, installing a board, reporting on (financial) matters, and attending conferences as ‘Practising the commons’ in July 2017. “We can now conclude the grant was an acknowledgment of our existence and an invitation grow even more ‘mature’.”

The residency at 2016 #ECFpma laureate Medialab Prado provided an opportunity to show that responsibility. “In cooperation with my fellow commoners I drafted learning objectives for my residency. They included; discourse analysis, matters of representation [“do I represent the group or am I a delegate?”], translatability of commoning processes, the relation between international networking and local actions, transparency of communication and what constitutes a commons lab? “During my residency at Medialab, what I consider to be a mothership for commons initiatives, facilitating but not neutral, I really felt like an apprentice. I conducted a lot of interviews with their staff, and others, and learned a lot, in more than merely academical sense.”

More plans for the future include installing a public library with books on commoning practices in the premises of the VOX-POP, further exploring the cracks of the university on offering a minor on commons in the curriculum, and – ultimately – establishing a parallel governance structure for students; so they will not be students at the university only, but will be students within the city. “Not as to validate the valorization of science the university aims at, but based on principles of reciprocity. As that could be the one lesson the trajectory of last two years taught us: fundamental global criticism and local impact co-exist.”