Q: Amy J. Elias
I asked a group of artists and scholars in different arts fields to consider what the “networked commons” means for art and artists today—when “networked” is defined not only in terms of technological connections but also in terms of affective and social relations. Does the commons become redefined, reanimated and re-politicized if conceived not only in terms of spatialized geographical and legal territory but also in terms of timely networks, broadly defined? Might the arts intervene to redefine the commons—beyond copyright law and jurisdictional legalisms— and shift paradigms for shared environments from geography to flow, group to network, statement to dialogue, space to time, mind to body, solo to chorus, self to networked community?
African American spatial practices belie the notion of a static commons. Among
these, none do so more than parading traditions in New Orleans. Historically descended from the mutual aid organizations and benevolent societies of enslaved Africans and mixed Indian and African maroon communities, contemporary Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tribes have upheld second line parades, jazz funerals, and street masking as territorial assertions of a transient commons. Year-round and nearly daily, parades in New Orleans celebrate community and display creativity across downtown wards anduptown neighborhoods, often through backof-town alleys but also along main streets, during daytime and nighttime. In so doing these parades and processions, whether in the context of carnivals or festivals or as everyday life practice, innerve the city with a network of parental filiations, social affiliations, and political affinities as a commons in motion and, sometimes, as a commotion. Resistant and remedial practices against the encroachment of gentrification and the threat of further displacement, parading has all but reemerged from the floodwaters and oil spills of the last decade to provide time-space linkages for New Orleans’ African American working class communities and cultural bearers.
My research in and practice of processional performance is imbued with these immediate examples and their immemorial antecedents. Whereas processional performance was a dominant mode of public display in Europe until theseventeenth century, its marginalization paralleled the destruction of the commons. African diasporic performance aesthetics—processional performance in particular and public ceremonial culture in general—have used mobility as a placemaking device, a practice in which place is not a fixed locale but a mobile network, and sites are nodal points within it. Peripatetic and circumambulatory, ranging from marching to stepping, parading, and demonstrating, processional performance offers a vast array of territorializing tactics to reclaim public space, cultural strategies to make visible marginalized communities, and creative tools for participatory experiences. Largely unstaged and minimally rehearsed, open to improvisation and inclined to disruption, the processional performances that I co-elaborate with both invited and self-selected participants are a testament to the fact that there is power in numbers and that the street remains a sustainable arena for the formation of a temporary and mayhap more spatially integrated commons.