In Common: what’s in a name?

Children at the London workshop, May 2016

How do children encounter, experience, and engage with public life?

On Sunday 5 November, we will have the public opening of our In Common exhibition in London, a week-long event showcasing children’s own photography, photo-stories, and words about their relationship to public life.

The book accompanying the exhibition is launched today.

In advance of Sunday’s opening, I wanted to write a few lines to explain where the name ‘in common’ comes from and what it tries to do as a term.

The title of the exhibition, ‘in common’, was inspired by an article by German feminist philosopher Isabell Lorey called Becoming common.

Lorey writes about precarity – a sociological term used to describe the uncertainty, insecurity and risk that many people experience living and working in the 21st century (e.g. zero hour contracts, citizenship status). Her analysis of precarity got me thinking a lot about childhood and the publics creating methodologies of the Connectors Study, of which the In Common exhibition is an example.

Lorey bases her analysis on the transnational movement EuroMayDay which she considers special because it continuously makes strange the relationship between culture and politics. She describes how through art practices and art institutions the movement critiqued the structural economic patterns that produce social insecurity in 21st century living and working.

She makes the important points that becoming precarious, or finding oneself in a precarious situation, is not something that that only happens at the margins of society before affecting everyone else (e.g. those with jobs or citizenship). The production of social insecurity is the result of a systematic dismantling of social security systems across Europe, something that effects everyone.

The widespread experience of social insecurity can thus be understood as a way of managing contemporary life and work. The differentiation between centres and margins is part of the organisation and management of contemporary life, it results in obscuring the recognition of commonality in experiences of social insecurity. It also shuts down possibilities for action and social change.

To be critical of social insecurity requires a recognition of what the precarious have in common; this is a recognition that starts with differences but does not end with them and which continuously calls into question what counts as ‘the common’.

The Connectors Study does not focus on precarity, although precarity is its historical leit motif. Beyond that there are a number of points of connection to be made between Lorey’s analysis and our engagement with and analysis of the relationship between childhood and public life.

In contemporary times, and despite the inroads made by children’s rights and practices of including children in decisions that affect them, social policy continues to approach children’s and young people’s lives as problems in need of solutions, and risks to be managed. At the same time, social and economic conditions threaten children and young people’s well-being. Children’s experiences and perspectives are thus marginalised from public life with childhood, especially in advanced industrialised economies, long being described as ‘conceptually privatised’ (Thorne, 1987), meaning that the experience of the child in largely absent in mainstream social theory and is instead designated to specific knowledge domains (e.g. psychology, education, childhood studies). In Lorey’s terms the troubles of childhood remain in childhood, and at the margins.

At the margins, there is little scope of e.g. intergenerational solidarity, shared experiences or shared knowledge. Adults and children occupy different spheres. Our work is taking place at a time when some of these disciplinary and social divisions are coming into question anew (here and here). From the outset of the study we have been using the idea of a ‘childhood publics’ as an orienting metaphor with which and through which to re-thinking how children participate in public life.

The term ‘publics’ is a tricky one: I’m often asked if the ‘s’ at the end is superfluous, and auto-correct on Word continuously underlines the term as a syntactical anomaly. As a plural noun, publics is not often used in everyday speech. The more widely used singular form of public, or public life however, does not fare much better in terms of an easy definition (although word processing software has an easier time with it!). As one London boy in our study said: ‘I don’t know how to describe what I know about it’.

Public life could be described as being something that has one or a number of the following characteristics: accessible, communal, civil and political, known and open. While the term publics is often used to refer to common cares, concerns and/or interests held amongst a community of strangers, and a certain emergent quality and unpredictability of bringing people together.

The process that went into creating the In Common exhibition shares many of the characteristics of publics and relating to public life: a group of children, and their families, in each city, strangers for the most part, brought together by an interest to support a group of researchers who were asking questions they found interesting, brought together through photography and other artistic practices, asked to create images and stories of what mattered to them in their everyday lives, images and words which were then curated in a mainstream exhibition space, open for anyone to come and see, engage with and add to.

Lorey writes about the process of becoming visible and making shared experiences recognisable as a mosaic. The joining of many jagged little pieces which looked at together paint a picture of and response to social insecurity and social divisions. Drawing on the work of another feminist social theorist and philosopher, Judith Butler, Lorey goes on to argue that thinking only of the individual pieces of the mosaic does not allow us to think about the relationships, social support, political and economic conditions that underpin, in Butler’s words, ‘liveable lives’. It doesn’t matter that the many jagged little pieces don’t quite fit together. What’s important is that we continue to look for and learn from possible ways of fitting them together which keep the bigger picture in mind (minimising social insecurity and working with differences).

Part of the beauty and resistance of art practices is that they lend themselves well to attempts to fitting together, to find commonalities, to question those commonalities, and to think about what bringing commonalities together might mean.

The exhibition itself is a sort of mosaic of trying to bring childhood into contact with public life both through the research themes and the (re)presentational media. It’s an attempt to imagine a childhood and adulthood that are closer than they are distant (earliest political memories), a public and private that converge and coalesce in childhood. It also engages with the idioms of childhood publics, the ways in which care and concern, what moves and matters often across the life course, is communicated in childhood.

We welcome your feedback to the exhibition and book on the blog and in the visitors’ book at the gallery.

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