What Do We Have in Common?

Artist: Janet Zweig
Location: Boston Common, Boston, USA
Year: 2021
Researcher: Jen Krava

The physical aspect of What do We Have In Common? consisted of a large wooden cabinet, with 100 small doors on either face, and book shelves on the sides. The 200 locked hinged doors held individual objects, each with a question. LED lighting glowed out of the spaces when the objects have been removed, making the cabinet emit an increasing glow as more objects were removed over the course of the month-long event.

The objects were blue painted wooden and acrylic boxes with LED lighting inside; they had words stenciled on the top. The words are 200 different questions of what we might own together. One: “Who owns the moon?” Another “Who owns the air?” Another “Who owns these squirrels?” Another “Who owns history?” etc.

After extensive research on the idea of the commons, common-pool resources, and common property, Janet Zweig developed a one month temporary artwork for the Friends of the Public Garden sited on the Boston Common that engaged people about these ideas and sparked curiosity about what we own together, what is public, what is private, and what falls into the category known as the commons. The goal was to make something visually magical to help propel that curiosity.

The piece is site specific to the Boston Common; this site specificity hinges on a pun. The phrase, and title of the work, What do We Have In Common? refers to personal attributes we share, regardless of our ostensible differences. The word “common” or “commons” also refers to what we own together, things that are common-pool resources or common property or shared, like the air, history, culture, the internet, the moon, the squirrels, and perhaps the Boston Common itself.

In the early years of the colonies, the Boston Common really was a shared space for grazing cows. It was used as an example in the 1960s for Garrett Hardin’s famous “tragedy of the commons” argument that was a plea for privatisation. When the Nobel winning economist Eleanor Ostrom proved, decades later, that land well-governed really can be shared, Hardin’s theory was debunked.

Part of the process was to hold a call for guides who would talk to visitors to the artwork. The team hired twelve charismatic, and diverse guides to discuss what they had in common with the person they were talking to, the questions on the boxes, and The Boston Common. People flocked to them to converse; the piece was always crowded. The guides were briefed on the concepts before the event so they were well informed.

Each day, two of the guides gradually transferred about 6 objects out of the cabinet to different places around the Common. The guides affixed the objects to the 200 buried concrete posts, and powered the batteries for the LEDS within. By nightfall, the words glowed out the tops of the objects, attracting visitors and enlivening the park at night. As the month progressed, there were more and more glowing questions.

On the sides of the cabinet, there was a “Giving Library,” continually re-stocked. Six books were given away per day as they were requested. They all concerned the idea of the commons from every discipline. Inside each book was a label that read: “Take this book. After you read it, be sure to give it away. This book is owned by everyone, anyone, and no one.” People really wanted the books and some returned another day to be able to get one.

The Common is an incredibly populous place, visited by residents of many communities as well as tourists and visitors. To speak to non-English speaking residents, 32 of the objects had questions translated into 7 languages that represented the demographics of the Boston population.

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The Friends of the Public Garden commissioned the piece in celebration of their 50th anniversary, with a goal of reflecting on how we hold our public parks in common, and shining a light on what it means to care for them together as a community.

They hired local curators Now+There who contacted several artists and presented their work to the client. The client chose Janet Zweig. Zweig then visited, made presentations, met with Client board members several times, met with fundraisers, and developed a proposal. Once the proposal was accepted, Now+There did the production management in cooperation with the artist.

The client’s criteria also included: a dynamic and ever-changing piece, visible by day and night, conveying the layers of meaning of the park, and the park’s benefit to the public, and drawing attention to the labor that goes into the care of the Common-- the blue overalls were conceived as expressive of the act of caring for the greenspace.

The Friends of the Public Garden raised funding specifically to mount the project.

The artwork was a huge draw; people flocked to the area and to the many vendors and surrounding restaurants. The Boston Common has more vendors than any other park in the City.

The guides engaged with an estimated 3,500 people, and over 16,000 people viewed the art installation during the 32 days it was open.

32 boxes had questions in 7 languages that related to the local demographics.

There were a total of 12 guides, and 2 were available to engage the public daily from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. The project was staffed for a total of 288 hours.

The grand opening attracted 5 civic leaders to welcome the art and the people, with over 200 attending the opening.

73 people used the QR code to access audio questions.

Over 140,000 people were reached via social media on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and over 150 social posts included the project hashtag #InCommonBOS.

The artist worked with several experts on the commons and commoning including meetings with Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. The list of books in the Giving Library covers almost every academic and creative field. Those books were distributed to the public.

Janet Zweig is an artist who lives in Brooklyn, NY, working primarily in the public realm.

Recent commissions include a departure gate to fictional locations in the Austin Airport, a piece for West Sacramento that orients the viewer to the tidal river, a participatory temporary piece on the Boston Common, and a mechanical piece that tracks climate change at a library in San Diego. Earlier public works include a sentence-generating sculpture for an engineering school in Orlando, a system-wide interactive project for eleven Light Rail train stations in Minneapolis, incorporating the work of over a hundred Minnesotans, and a 1200 foot frieze in the Prince Street subway station in NY.

Her gallery sculpture from the 1990s generate language and are driven by computers and printers, marrying the analog and the digital. Some of her later public works continue this generative series.

Zweig’s sculptures and books have been exhibited widely in such places as the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Exit Art, PS1 Museum, the Walker Art Center, and Cooper Union. Awards include the Rome Prize Fellowship, NEA fellowships, and residencies at PS1 Museum and the MacDowell Colony. In 2019, she was the artist in residence with the New York City Mayor's Office of Climate and Sustainability. She teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University.

Progress Agency