We generally associate communes with 60s and 70s experiments in free love, psychedelia and radical living that we assume are no longer relevant to our culture today. In Canada there has been no shortage of historical experiments in co-habitation, such as Toronto’s Rochdale College and the psychoanalytic commune Therafields. While commune residents believed revolution was possible through the adoption of Utopian models of living and working together, their attempts often broke down due to political and social power struggles that tarnished their particular visions of social progress.
Today, a handful of collective art projects are employing similar means to bring focus to our contemporary social and economic conditions that are unique from the histories that earlier communes criticized. There has even been a contemporary evocation and exploration of” the commune model, with some Canadian artists initiating collective living spaces. However, this revival of cohabitation as an artistic process serves more as a performative medium of artistic expression, and as a means to address artists’ practical need for experimental space rather than as a unified political scheme.
Having had the opportunity to interview various artists across Canada recently involved with establishing collective projects that play on cohabitation, I will discuss how such experiments provide necessary spaces for artistic experimentation outside of established art world structures while simultaneously acting out alternative models of “being together” that direct attention to current social conditions.
LA COMMUNE. THE ASYLUM. DIE BUHNE
This past spring, the Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger led a residency at The Banff Centre called La Commune. The Asylum. Die Biihne. (The title is a partial reference to the historical Paris Commune of 1871.) For Thauberger, the six-week program was an opportunity to performatively explore conditions of collectivity, with the group of residents using the Banff Centre as a retreat where they could act out ways of being together.
The connection to the Paris Commune is significant, since its legacy is considered by many as an important representation of a commitment to struggle for a better world in the form of a collective social Utopia. (2) As the story goes, with growing economic inequality and food shortages in France, the rebellious National Guard civilian militia occupied Paris in March 1871, leading to an election that established a socialist-oriented commune, which for the following two months attempted to administer social reform through measures that included, among others, the separation of Church and State, and universal access to education. However, Thauberger’s interest in the Paris Commune is largely based on filmmaker Peter Watkins’ 2000 film La Commune (Paris, 1871), which is a re-enactment of historical events shot over 13 days with a cast of more than 220 people (most of whom had no prior acting experience) in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Paris. What was compelling for Thauberger was the collaborative authorship of the film in a creative space that attempted to produce a new version of the historic commune.
Thauberger’s own practice is devoted to collaboration with groups and communities who have included the wives of servicemen in the American military; female soldiers in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan; teenagers in Berlin fulfilling their mandatory public service; and the residents and visitors of Vancouver’s Carrall Street. For her video installation La mort e la miseria (2008), she worked with the Ladini people of the Dolomites in Northern Italy who speak a minority ancient romance language of Ladin. Meeting with locals, who included artists and poets, Thauberger learned their traditional stories about life, poverty and death, and then worked with the community to create a video performance of these tales in their native tongue-Performed against the mountainous backdrop of their hometown; the resulting work is a reflection on the major cultural shifts this community has experienced. For La Commune, Thauberger similarly worked with residents to create an experimental space of collaboration, but this time one in which young artists could critically think through ways of overcoming the limits of the institutional model of The Banff Centre. The collective practice of living and working together thus became a conscious mirror of something larger, the footnote of the Paris Commune invoking their daily performance as a commitment to broader social change.