Makers’ Meal and the Production of the New Common
Nuno Sacramento

As we speak the commons are shrinking! There are widespread attacks on the commons, ruthless attempts to take them from collective ownership into private/corporate control. We are made to believe there is nothing that money can’t buy. Throughout the world we hear about the displacement of tribes to create large-scale hydro-electrical projects, the privatization of water companies, postal services, hospitals and education, and the chopping down of the Amazon forest. That which was left to us by our predecessors, which we share and are collectively responsible to look after, to sustain for future generations, is in danger of being lost. But as we shall see, the commons are not only a given resource. They can be produced, giving shape to art and its institutions.

In some contexts more than in others, there is freedom of choice in the way institutions are constructed. People can choose how to allocate and share resources, and to ensure their sustainability. This is a durational task, which demands commitment, rigorous rules, participatory mechanisms, a wide range of voices, and effective mutualism. The challenge we have is how to create a new common and simultaneously protect it from enclosure? Can we still have institutions immune to the forces of the market?

The commons are a shared resource that can be land-based (depletable) or immaterial (generative). In other words they can be a field, the sea, the Amazon forest, a set of buildings, but they can also be art, language, data, knowledge, craft/skill etc. In any case, they exist for the benefit of the collective, and are owned and managed collectively.

Studies of “the commons” constitute a huge field of enquiry. One way-in is to start by looking into the definition of common in the Oxford English Dictionary.

a) A common land or estate; the undivided land belonging to the members of a local community as a whole. Hence, often, the patch of unenclosed or ‘waste’ land which remains to represent that. Formerly often commons = Latin commūnia.
b) Law. (Also right of common, common right.) The profit which a man has in the land or waters of another; as that of pasturing cattle (common of pasture), of fishing (common of piscary), of digging turf (common of turbary), and of cutting wood for fire or repairs (common of estovers); = commonage n., commonty n.
c) The common body of the people of any place; the community or commonalty; spec. the body of free burgesses of a free town or burgh; sometimes, the commonwealth or state, as a collective entity. (Latin commune, Greek τὸ κοινόν.)

In terms of etymology the word comes from the French commune, which in turn comes from the medieval Latin commūna. The words commune and common have the same root, but have developed different meanings.

Common comes from Proto-Indo-European:

*ko-moin-i- “held in common,” compound adjective formed from *ko- “together” + *moi-n-, suffixed form of root *mei- “change, exchange”, hence literally “shared by all.”2

We can thus conclude that traditionally (a) a common is a portion of land that “belongs” to a community (b) there is legal a right of access and use of the common (c) a common is a collective entity, or group of people.

The word common in English is associated with a cultural practice of shared land resources, allowing a collective entity the legal right of access and use. In other words, a community has access to a resource according to strict laws of access and use, which guarantee its sustainability.

In English there is a large amount of research and writing about the commons. Academics and writers like Peter Linebaugh, David Harvey, Tine de Moor and Charlotte Hess have provided us with ideas that range from socio-political aspects to attempts to map traditional and new “commons” practices and discourse. 2

The distinction between traditional and new cultural commons is important here. If we leave aside the idea of traditional land-based resource and focus on the possibility of the production of the commons, we might be able to develop an understanding of both.

In a short text on the production of the common Michael Hardt states, “No longer today, however, can we consider the common as quasi-natural or given. The common is dynamic and artificial, produced through a wide variety of social circuits and encounters” proposing a shift in thinking beyond “land, water, fuel […] and the profits from other resources such as oil or diamonds.” 3

The attempt to produce a common through an art project can arguably provide the necessary tools to re-think the commons more generally. How could a table and a meal – or in fact any other idea we can think of – assist us in this task? Can an arts institution be considered a kind of commons?

In his book The Expediency of Culture, George Yúdice proposes the idea of culture-as-resource. This expression underlines the possible uses of culture by different constituencies, such as politicians, philanthropists, the artists or the public. He draws a parallel to nature-as-resource. It is not difficult to imagine the capitalist mind–after almost exhausting the capacity of nature to provide for us near to collapse–to move on to culture as the next area to be tapped into, marketized and privatized. Creativity is a huge untapped area from which neoliberal capitalism, if allowed, will extract large sums of money through privatization and copyright enclosure, in the same way it has done regarding the natural environment. Only by keeping culture as commons – by activating its meaning and practice as a shared collective use – could we prevent it from being enclosed, privatized and expropriated. This is no easy task, as free riding and competitiveness are widely accepted as second nature. The production and maintenance of the common are incredibly hard to achieve, as they require rigorous codes. It is not impossible though, as many existing examples prove–namely the open-source software community.

Another example I would like to propose is one that demonstrates how art can strive to be a kind of commons of skill, of knowledge and of education. It draws from my current work experience and aims to investigate how a small rural arts organization can contribute to a collective sense of art making while offering a framework for a cultural commons. This project happened in 2012 in the village of Lumsden, Scotland, far away from the political, economic and cultural centers of Edinburgh and Glasgow where the Scottish Sculpture Workshop (SSW) is situated. Even though small and rural, SSW receives support from central government, and works locally, regionally and internationally. Established by sculptor Fred Busche in 1979, the organization, as indicated by its name, is a Sculpture Workshop, in an expanded sense. Artists, craftspeople, students, interns, school children, etc. use the facilities to learn skills and to make stuff. At its best, it is a very busy place, with people doing ceramics, pouring bronze, working with wood, writing essays, editing films, cooking or even doing computer programming.

Despite most artists working on individual projects, there is a sense of collectivity in the preservation and sustainability of SSW as a resource. The geography of SSW and ensuing feeling of isolation might contribute to this collective sensibility, but it would be naïve to state that there are never any problems. SSW, open as it is, does not suit everyone. However, rather than solely due to its geographic location, I believe that the strong feeling of collectivity is largely due to the fact that the place is not owned by one single constituency, but rather that there is a constant negotiation between all the constituencies: artists, the board, the staff and even the local communities to a lesser extent. The bottom line is that the resource has been there for 35 years to be used by artists and communities, and should be there for at least another 35, remaining an open, accessible sharing space. The role of government in supporting such an organization is crucial as it channels public money for the creation of public contemporary art made in rural Aberdeenshire, but also shown nationally and internationally.

There are a large number of activities at SSW similar to the practices of many contemporary arts organizations ranging from residencies, special events and exhibitions to symposia. However, the small project that underlines my argument is called Makers’ Meal. It was the first of four dinners comprising a larger initiative entitled, Slow Prototypes, and it involved a collaboration between Scottish local artist/artisan Merlyn Riggs and Irish artist/critic Mick Wilson in the summer 2012. The process meant that Mick and Merlyn met up several times to discuss food projects as a way of creating conviviality and critical thinking. Both of their practices involved food events in Dublin and Lumsden.

Makers’ Meal itself brought together a group of 18-20 people who usually gravitate around SSW, ranging from established artists, to University professors, interns, an architect, craftspeople, staff, a writer, a board member, myself and a teenage student. At the launch of the project, we proposed to cook and eat a meal together. But for this we would make the tables, crockery, cutlery, serving dishes, etc. Everything was made from scratch and collectively, using the facilities at our disposal at SSW. Here the organization is regarded as a physical resource (with studios, workshops, accommodation and a kitchen) with access to materials, but also as a collectivity that shares ideas, skills and craft knowledge.

The rationale of the project was to include people who often used the workshops in various capacities–for individual purposes, as a learning resource, etc.–to now participate in a collective project. They would be responsible for procuring materials, devising work groups, doing designs and building the whole thing. They would be collectively responsible for how the thing would look, and how useable it was. This created an initial discomfort in some, whose work couldn’t possibly been seen alongside others. But this soon waned. People organized themselves into groups and started work. The funding resources were small, and the time was tight. This helped people concentrate. We had the use of facilities, access to materials and a vast amount of skills and motivation. The motivation, facilities and skills were shared openly, and the shortage of funding and time were quickly overcome. Weeks later we had the dinner, with locally-sourced food and homemade blackberry and blueberry champagne, made by the participants. The dinner was not only a time to discuss the process of making collectively and to generate interesting insights, but also to reflect on the project’s difficult and uncanny moments.7

But let’s stop for a moment and think about a simple table (Mesa); can a mere table provide the framework for us to learn how to do things together, to learn from and with each other?
As long as there are spaces around the table, people can join in. They can say what they want to learn, and if there is someone there with that knowledge / skill, then they can start straight away. If the skill can’t be found there, then they can look for it. If they decide this is not for them, they can leave. The table is the school, even the university. And then tables can be distributed to different places, and people can move between them, learning from and teaching each other.

Some of the basic questions that emerged during Makers’ Meal (our specific table project) can be asked generally in relation to the constitution of a cultural commons:

-Who are we? Who is part of our ‘community’? Who is excluded from it? Do we distinguish between us / them? How is this distinction made?
-What skills do we have as a group? What spaces, tools, materials and forms of energy and labour do we need?
-How will we make our skills available to others and benefit from their skills?
-What is a table, a fork, a plate?
-What does it mean to eat together? What are we eating? Who is around the table?

As this text attempts to ask questions about the commons in a Brazilian context, I must state that in the preliminary research I have been unable to find a consensual definition for “the commons” in Portugal and in Brazil – a translation that would both describe the land as a common resource and imply a cultural commons.

In conversation with Brazilian colleagues, and as I proposed baldio as the translation for commons, I seemed to hit a brick wall. “In Brazil the baldio means arid, abandoned, unused and cannot possibly mean the same as the commons in English,” I was repeatedly told. As provocation and perhaps desire to recuperate the “baldios” of childhood, I insisted on the term “baldios” as the commons equivalent.

I grew up in the outskirts of Lisbon as the city expanded into the countryside, meeting the need to house an influx of post colonial migrants as well as rural dwellers. There was an urbanized part, where our tower blocks, schools and shops were situated, surrounded by farms and fields. Some of these overgrown fields were called baldios. Far from mere unused wastelands, they were used for construction of houses and entire villages (so called bairros de lata or shanty towns), for growing food and as playgrounds for the groups of children and teenagers living in the adjoining areas. Myself included. The baldio as a territory for housing and food production, and most importantly for us as a place for play, holds memories of possibility, freedom and discovery. Baldio was the open place where we learned about the feral and the tamed.

As I started this essay with the definition of the commons from the OED, it seems appropriate to begin to explore the meaning of “baldios” via a Portuguese dictionary and leave open the space for a later definition by fellow writers, artists and thinkers in Brazil.

The Portuguese dictionary (Novo Dicionário Lello da Língua Portuguesa) defines the word as:

a. Baldio: Que não está cultivado; terreno que, pertencendo a uma comunidade local, é usado coletivamente.8
Baldio: That which is not cultivated: territory that belongs to a local community, and is collectively used. (New Dictionary of the Portuguese Language. Lello Editora edition, 1996 & 1999)

One of the etymologies proposed for baldio is the arab word ‘baladi’ meaning arid and uncultivated. This might explain the connotation the word has acquired over time, opening up an interesting discussion about the historicity of the commons during the Arab presence in the Iberian Peninsula.

Although the connotation of the word has changed, its denotation is enshrined in the Portuguese dictionary. It also figures clearly in Portuguese Law, being described in Diário da República, in terms of definition as well as form of management, in minute detail. According to Article 1 of the law n. 68/93 of 4th September:

1 – São baldios os terrenos possuídos e geridos por comunidades locais.
2 – Para os efeitos da presente lei, comunidade local é o universo dos compartes.
3 – São compartes os moradores de uma ou mais freguesias ou parte delas que, segundo os usos e costumes, têm direito a fruição do baldio.

1 – Baldios are territories owned and managed by local communities.
2 – For the purposes of the present law, local community is understood as the universe of its parts (compartes).
3 – Its parts are understood as the people living in one or more parishes or part of them that following uses and customs have the right to fruition of the baldio.9

The legal definition of baldio, here followed by the terms and conditions for use and management of the resource, makes no reference whatsoever to ideas of the arid and uncultivated as mentioned above. These connotations possibly developed later and with the exodus from the rural to the urban, as well as during the shift from agriculture into industry.

Furthermore, the description of baldio in Portuguese law contemplates not only the land commons and the rights of pasture, piscary, turbary and estovers, but also refers, more importantly for this argument, to community facilities. According to article 2 of the same law:

O disposto na presente lei aplica-se, com as necessárias adaptações, e em termos a regulamentar, a equipamentos comunitários, designadamente eiras, fornos, moinhos e azenhas, usados, fruídos e geridos por comunidade local.

The disposition of the present law applies to, with necessary adaptations, and in terms to regularize the community resources, designated threshers, ovens, mills and watermills, used, possessed and managed by the local community.

This description of baldio in Portugal is largely consistent with the English commons. In Brazil it came to mean unused or “waste” land. Naturally words and meanings change and evolve over time, but are we excused to ask whether this amnesia was carefully forged by the ones who wanted to annex this land to put it to “good” use? Away from the spotlight, people watch powerlessly as these resources are taken away from them. In northern Europe as well as the USA, copious amounts of historical research done on the commons have prevented this amnesia and subsequent “silent” annexation. What are we doing in other contexts to prevent the collective and shared dimensions of the commons from being lost?

It is also interesting to acknowledge that Portuguese law embraces community facilities as commons. We ought to ask if cultural facilities could be encompassed in the broader framework of community facilities?

The widespread abandonment of the commons as a practice in most contexts is nevertheless worrying. There have been four moments in the legal treatment of the baldio in Portugal, and barring the 39/76 one, all succeeded in taking the baldio away from collective use and ownership. 10

It is with great anticipation I hope to progress research on the commons in Brazil, to look into its possible definition and articles of law. In the interim I would like to propose a possible way of advancing this discussion. Could we, similarly to what happened in Scotland in 2012, attempt now in Brazil to collectively produce a meal, a table and its utensils? Could this be done involving artists, museum staff, university lecturers and students, urban farmers, communities, children, carpenters and potters (and whoever else wants to join us)?

Whether we do Makers’ Meal as was done in Scotland, or look for an entirely new framework for collective making, we must bear in mind the importance of culture as a freely available, widely accessible and shared resource. Alongside the project we would work on detailed documentation paying special attention to: what is the optimal size of the group? What is the mechanism of entry and exit to the group? What are the rules of engagement? What happens to people who don’t comply? What happens if some refuse to collaborate? How will we decide on the format of the tables, crockery and cutlery? Where are we going to source our food? Who will cook it? According to what recipe?

By the end of this event, even if we fail to have a suitable word to translate the commons into Brazilian Portuguese, we will have nevertheless asked some of the most important questions that pertain to the collective sharing of a resource and its subsequent sustainability.

List of participants of Makers’ Meal at Scottish Sculpture Workshop:

Jennifer Argo, Rachel Barker, George Beasley, Judy Beasley, Beth Bidwell, Emily Wyndham Gray, Sera James Irvine, Eden Jolly, Euan Ogilvie, Gavin Smith, Michael Marriott, Keith Mellard, Kevin Andrew Morris, Christine Muller, Sofia Oliveira, Merlyn Riggs, Jonathan Rose, Nuno Sacramento, Dane Sutherland and Rosy Wood.

1 [accessed 05/10/2013]
2Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto. Liberties and commons for all. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008;
Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the urban Revolution. London: Verso 2012;
De Moor, Tine. “What do We Have in Common? A Comparative Framework for Old and New Literature on the Commons” IRSH 57 (2012): 269-290;
Hess, Charlotte. “Mapping the New Commons” (July 1, 2008). Available at SSRN: or
3Hardt, Michael. “Production and Distribution of the Common: A Few Questions for the Artist.” Open. Cahier on Art and the Public Domain, no. 16 (2009): 20-28.
4George Yúdice. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham NC/London: Duke University Press (2004): 9-39
5Hardin, Garret. “The Tragedy of the Commons” Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859. (Dec. 13, 1968), 1243-1248
6Slow Prototypes, a project by Scottish Sculpture Workshop in 2012, introduced three international contemporary artists to the rural North East of Scotland, through collaborations with artists-artisans who became their hosts. In order for them to move beyond the default positions–of artist providing the ideas and the artisan the hands–the curatorial framework introduced one obstruction; the artist must not ask the artisan to make their work for them, and vice-versa. As the field was leveled, both parties found new positions and forms of negotiation in order to produce work together.
7SSW will publish a Makers’ Meal publication (forthcoming 2013).
8Consulted online: [Accessed on 1/10/2013]
9 [accessed 5/10/2013]
10 [accessed 5/10/2013]