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Ruth Beale & Amy Feneck, 'Common Understandings of Moneyspeak', The Alternative School of Economics, 2016, interactive installation, Raphael Gallery, V&A, London. Photograph: Gabriel Bertogg

‘As much land as a man tills, improves, plants and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does enclose it from the common.’[1]

John Locke once argued that it was in the nature of mankind to claim private property, something that followed directly from God’s own intention for nature, which is a common ‘product’ for men to claim. Indeed, for Locke it would actually be against nature to leave the land ‘common and uncultivated’. [2] His defence of private property marked a milestone in the gradual decline of the commons and the concomitant rise of individualism, the legacy of which we live with in the ‘new common sense’ of neoliberalism. [3] The long history of individualism and privatisation is part of what makes such conditions feel so inevitable–as the late Mark Fisher remarked, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. [4] Building on Fisher’s statement, it could be said that it’s just as difficult to remember capitalism’s beginning as it is to imagine its end. [5]

The history of the commons is just as old as the philosophy of the individual, if not older, yet somehow it appears today like a distant memory. In contrast, private property is so present in such a vast majority of the world [6] that it can seem utterly natural, and anything to the contrary anachronistic. Perhaps the difficulty is in even visualising something other than our current system. This is precisely the struggle that London-based artist Ruth Beale explores. Her large scale, ongoing projects are committed to an inclusivity that rises out of the immediate common ground shared by participants. Two recent projects, ‘Performance as Publishing’, which was a collaborative platform for multidisciplinary artists run with Nicole Bachmann, and the ‘Alternative School of Economics’ with Amy Feneck, which aims to bring people back into an economy from which they are alienated, mobilise the most subtle connections between individuals in ways that encourage collaboration and shared understandings previously obscured.

If ‘Performance as Publishing’ is less overtly political in its aims than the ASE, its approach is an important counterpart to that of its activism-oriented neighbour. As the name suggests, the platform attempts to bring together those working at the junction of performance and text, often including text-centred installations, films, and participatory situations. An online archive of these actions acts as testament to the resolutely direct ethic of the platform; art is to be experienced live, remaining only in the form of a document thereafter. Allan Kaprow’s understanding of art as an immaterial experience enclosed by time echoes throughout the works themselves, many of which relied strongly on co-creation from their audiences. The idea of transforming spectators into participants is an essential part of Beale’s practice, and the communal, transitory spirit of the platform is a hallmark of her work, which even when taking the relatively final form of film or performance has a latent participatory potential.

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Ruth Beale & Amy Feneck, 'Fieldwork: finding out about the rich', The Alternative School of Economics, 2016, 30 minute digital video with sound. Photograph: Static Image
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Ruth Beale, 'Who Owns it? Can I hold it?', 2015-2017, 20 minute performance with pre-recorded soundtrack, spoken word & porcelain. Photograph: Performance as Publishing

For Beale art is as ‘already there’ as the economy in which we find ourselves, both of which escape critical attention through their sheer ubiquity and which by investigation and recovery she hopes to make pliable once more. Projects such as Common Understandings of Moneyspeak and The Rich as a Minority Group achieve this firstly by probing how much we actually know about the systems we live in. The former asked visitors to London’s V&A to guess at the meaning of seemingly common terms such as ‘blockchain’, ‘commerce’, and ‘commodity’, while the latter brought secondary school pupils directly into the world of the privileged classes through face-to-face interviews with bankers and other high-salaried workers. In both works people were brought into sudden contact with stimuli that highlighted their possible position within the economic mesh under examination. What does this accomplish? By provoking us into an awareness of the contexts that render us passive, Beale & Feneck attempt to arm us within those contexts. If such outcomes are not always guaranteed, her work still plays a necessary role in responding to the ever more urgent divisions created by the indifferent individualism and laissez-faire policies propagated by major powers today.

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[1] John Locke, ‘An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government’ in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 32

[2] Locke, 133

[3] Neal Curtis, Idiotism: Capitalism and The Privatisation of Life, (London: Pluto Press, 2013), 2-3

[4] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism, London: Zero Books (2009), 2, 78

[5] ‘Remember’ was used here because it links to the idea of forgetting, which plays an important role in Beale’s work. Part of the naturalisation of capital is the forgetting of the commons, thus it must be remembered.

[6] This general wording was used as I find it important to acknowledge that private property is a global phenomenon, and no longer confined to the West.

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Ruth Beale is a contemporary artist based in London. Her most recent work with the Alternative School of Economics, a feminist economics podcast, can be accessed here.

Theo Carnegy-Tan is an arts academic based in London. He has taught intensive courses in art history and aesthetics with Central St Martins since 2014.