Interview: Lenn CoxLink
Back in July 2023, I spent a few days camped in the Alpine surrounds near Roverto, Italy. Here I lurked coyote-like around the edges of the Community Economies Institute summer school. Neither properly participating nor entirely removed, it was a special position from which to meet each of the actual participants, and to learn about the practices and interests.
(You can still apply for the 2024 summer school, until March 15th).
During this time I had the opportunity to interview Lenn Cox, a community organizer, designer, educator, programme maker and artist, based in Arheim, Netherlands. I was initially motivated to talk to Lenn about her research into intentional communities, which she conducted somatically, with in person visits to communities across Europe. Lenn is also the author of Collective Wandering: Hanging Out With Our Everyday Ecology, a manual of sorts intended to "inspire and support kindred individuals who are in search of an alternative rhythm of learning-working-living".
The interview itself was done outdoors, half way up a mountain, and so the recording is a little too noisy to edit together as audio. Instead, here below is a transcript, where I've tried to preserve the spoken nature of our windy and winding conversation:
First of all, first of all, please just introduce yourself.
Introduce yourself. Oh, gee, that's always quite a question. How do you introduce yourself? Well, I'm Lenn Cox. I'm based in the Netherlands - in Arnhem, actually - in the east, between say, Dusseldorf and Amsterdam. And I am a community organiser, programme maker, educator, artist.
So I do various things. If you talk about the diverse economy, I'm practising it. I don't have a choice. I think that's part of being in the cultural sector. And I have a background being an art school student, studying fashion 20 years ago, getting quite confused about about being an art school student, also about being in fashion. And then after graduating 2007, I started already finding my way in the cultural sector in the field.
If I just share a few things that I was doing: I lived a while in Japan, working at an architectural firm in an internship, where they also developed Pecha Kucha. They developed it as a presentation format of 20 slides, and each slide you present for 20 seconds.
Ah, this was like an American couple, is that right?
Astrid Klein is from Italy and Mark Dytham is from England, and they were one of the first Europeans developing themselves as architects in Japan, in Tokyo. And they developed, I think in 2003 or so, Pecha Kucha. And I was there to in 2010 for the first time, I wanted to go to another planet, and it was not possible, of course, so then I thought "let's go to Japan". And I have a karate practice as well, so for me, that was also an excuse to go there and to practice.
And at the same time also, I've studied fashion so in that sense, I'm not an architect, but I was really always still interested in the body in relation to more bodies and the third dimension, and how we come together as humans. So I spent three months there in Japan and having some great experiences there and also through the Pecha Kucha, I think more the communal aspect or places of learning where we come together as creatives.
And, let's say, over all those almost ten years between 2007, after graduating, finding my way in the field, and between 2017 I was also doing a lot of production work. So helping out with art biennales or more design related projects, curating exhibitions, working with students, and I was asked to become an educator, whatever that means. I never studied for that. So it was also, for me, a great learning. What does it mean to be an educator? What is a facilitator, to facilitate learning processes?
Is that enough about an introduction or?
No that's perfect, no, that's great. So how long were you in Japan?
Three months. And then after a few years I was asked to go back, by the Dutch embassy, to curate a project. So back then, in 2010, I was there meeting a lot of people. And I was also thinking about like "hey, do I want to work here more often?", because this was an internship period. So I got an apartment, a bicycle to cycle around Tokyo. And then in 2013, I went back with an exhibition. I curated a small exhibition in a gallery in Ginza.
And so for me, I think mostly it was important to find my way through the different disciplines. And finding people who I feel I resonate with, or I think I resonate with. I'm inspired by learning with them. And I never believed in a masters of any kind, like, this bullshit - you just have to go out in the field and find your mentors. And it sounds now, maybe a bit like hierarchical, but you find people you're inspired by and find your own way of further building your practice.
Yeah. It's interesting. I've got a lot of questions coming off that. I mean, it's interesting you say about mentors and hierarchy. It's more like mentors as a form of lineage or like a form of like...
Yeah, yeah. Kind of kinship.
Kinship! Yeah. Maybe like a generational sort of kinship rather than "I am your superior" or that sort of thing. Because often, you can have a peer that is younger than you, less experienced than you, but they're still your peer. It's important to recognise that. And I think capitalism often makes us feel like if we are lesser, or if we know less, that we are lesser, you know?
So, this is an, it's a really interesting journey, like all these different things. How did you get, when did you start getting interested in intentional communities?
I think it was already somehow there, in the undercurrent, it was appearing. I think even when I was in Japan with working with the Pecha Kucha community, which is a big online community worldwide.
And do they they do it in person too? They used to do in person in Tokyo, right?
Yeah, yeah. So I was also involved there and also gave my own Pecha Kucha presentation of course they said like "Lenn, you have to go there in front of the camera", because they're all recording it. And I was working on the sound recordings, as I was never involved in that before, so I kind of trained, by just finding out like how to put the essence of what everyone was saying together in those edits.
And so I think it already started there in a way. But in coming back to the Netherlands, working as self-employed, being part of art school education, then as an educator, and running collective projects with like students working together on one collection and developing that whole process with them instead of for them.
Then in 2017, I was asked to get involved in thinking about a new masters program within the art school I was educated in myself as a bachelor student. And the person who was going to re-formulate the new masters program was Pascale Gatzen. She was a mentor when I was in at the bachelor school, so I knew her.
And then she left for to go to New York, to the New School, to develop an integrated design program. And she asked me, like "Lenn, if you would study again, what would you need?". But as I was saying before, I never believed in a masters. I thought, like, it's going out in the field and there you will learn. But then I felt like, oh fuck, I need time and space.
And that sounds really abstract, and it's maybe the case as well. But I felt so, somehow something clicking in my body. And to put a bit more context to that, a few years before that moment, I woke up with a scream in the middle of the night. It was the beginning of November, and I so felt like I can't go on, being in this rat race doing projects, really in survival mode.
Maybe from the outside it looked like I was doing great projects. Oh, you're going to Japan, you can work with students. You have an income, it was quite minimum, but all okay. You know, I was also being able to to travel a lot, meet great people, but it felt... so I think the question was, how do I, how do we, relate to the cultural sector? How do I relate to the world?
So I felt I wanted to be more connected with the things that are really going on outside the museums, outside the white cube galleries, outside art education. So when that question came, if you would study again, what would you need? Time and space. That really triggered something within me. I decided after a few months I wanted to be a student again. I want to go into that program, actually.
Ah interesting. So wait, you were asked to be part of putting it together, and then you said, yeah, you'd be part of it from the other side as well?
Yeah. I was asked to be part of a working group to think along about if you would look, content wise and structure wise, to make this new masters program. And it was originally still a masters in fashion design, because the art school still had this masters in fashion design and didn't know what to do with it.
So they asked Pascale Gatzen to give a new vision on it and to also really develop a new type of masters program. And she was like, we have to go out of the traditional fashion scene because there are so many traditional types of fashion masters, and the only way that that we can find new ways of education is to also really look at the whole assessment systems and structures.
She asked, could it be much more rooted in a commoning practice? So the name of the masters turned into Practice Held In Common. And from there it became much more clear for me, to go into these intentional communities with collective spirit. First I was like, no, why? But I got questions from mostly Pascale, being one of my mentors there, to talk about my practice and the things I had done.
But then how can I make an elegant next step? As I was always involved in collective projects, in that sense, or in being one of the facilitators to develop those collective processes. So then I started with putting all my studio in boxes. This was some months of work, and also some emotional work. I still have it here in my publication.
In order to move or?
I felt like I really need to make space. Also, if I have a need for time and space, I physically have to do that as well. So everything in my studio that was on the walls, taking it down.
And I was doing sound recordings and learning how to work with sounds and with rhythm, and I got much more into my alter ego as a cowboy. It feels always so also a bit uncomfortable to talk about it, because it was such a solo adventure; putting everything in boxes here in my studio, making paper outfits, as a kind of cowboy outfit, really spending time with myself. And people around me were like, "Lenn, you're losing it, you know? Is this going well?" Because then I was 32.
But I also felt I can actually study again, can I allow myself to embrace quite a lot of the unknown? I have an identity in the cultural sector, so that made it hard. But I also felt something needed to change, or something needed to change within me.
So that first little solo adventure process, and then learning how to ride on a horseback to go into those rhythms of a really kind of sensorial, immersive research. And then the question was that we as students, or rather, say participants were asked to find places of learning. And that was for all of us, different.
And for me, it was like, what is now my question about? Do I want to continue in the cultural sector? What is my role? What are the places of learning that I think can contribute, to further develop myself? Also on a personal level. So then I thought, I think the only way is for me to go into that collective common practices. So what and where are the places now in the world where they are practised?
Right, right. Yeah.
So then I started sharing this with various people around me that I already knew in the cultural sector and outside. Where can I go?
And first I had an idea to go to the States, to America, to various places. But then I also felt, okay, this is then going to be a typical story. I'm already in my cowboy alter ego. Why should I then want to go to the States? How do I relate as being born in the Netherlands? Relate to those places actually, and I'd rather not want to fly. So what is actually much more closer to me? Then I started, and most of the places I visited were in and around Europe. This is now in 2019, and now we're in 2023.
Oh yeah, so it was the perfect time to start a project that involves going and being in person with people! How was that during the pandemic doing that? Did you keep it up?
Um, no, because it was almost impossible. I started in spring 2019 with a few places in Italy, and then with the Flixbus I travelled through from Italy to France, to Reims, to Performing Arts Forum. And then later on in the summer, I went to a place just outside Marrakesh, a kind of permaculture art residency where different disciplines were combined and learning how that works, and then later on I also went to Estonia, travelled there by car to a place called MASSIA. But that was all before the pandemic.
Right, just like back to back? Were you going straight from one place to the next?
Yeah, yeah. In spring, there were moments of Italy, France, and then in June I went to a lesbian queer bar, Mothers and Daughters bar in Brussels from Girls Like Us. So there I spent a few days and then in, I don't know, recalling where was I when in end of July, mid August in Marrakesh, because I knew someone who was in a specific place. So I thought like, hey, there's a connection, I would love to go there. And then late August, I was in Estonia also combining it with my holiday with my partner.
And then it was challenging in that sense because what can I bring them? You know, because how to practice reciprocity in that case. As that, they're often places that can be quite closed in that sense, not always open to people who do not directly want to participate, or don't have the intention to really live there. So it was for me also about tuning in and seeing what could I then bring in the sense of, I said I have my energy that I can bring with me, in the sense of helping out with the things that they needed, or on the land or in the the house. So mostly I was in a work exchange agreement there.
And what kind of exchange, what kind of skills did you exchange? Because as a sort of cultural worker, educator, there's obviously a lot of that in, often in these communities, you often think they need more practical, material help.
It was much more on a practical, basic, day to day level in that sense. Like I remember when I was at a spiritual eco community, Damanhur, I helped them out, helping out on the land, like weeding, things that needed to be done on Sunday. There will always was this collective few hours of power hours where everyone from the community, like everyone who lived in that specific house, like 25 people worked together. So some were cutting the wood, some were preparing the lunch. That was really a collective effort. And then I was mostly on that day cleaning the bathroom because there were many bathrooms. So then I was always like, oh, I will go for that bathroom.
That really, that sounds like a really non-capitalist approach, or it sounds like a pre-capitalist approach to labour in a way. You know, it's like this idea that in medieval times, did we have more leisure time? But it was actually the labour time was condensed. So you'd have like a few weeks of really intense harvest where you'd be doing really long days and then you'd have lots of time off. And I'm also sort of thinking of like Amish communities who all get together to build the house because it just goes up and it's done. And those ideas, that idea of like doing it together means that you're all, you leisure together and you work together. Yeah. Interesting.
Yeah. So for me this also became such an insightful way of doing things, and I especially also loved it that I was not in my role of an educator or cultural worker or making an exhibition. So, you know, to do not all those things, to also be anonymous in, of course, in a specific way, because of course, no, none of us can be anonymous in that sense. So we always bring your things and your identity with you. But I did feel like a "wow" to have a more human to human connection, and that gave me so much inspiration.
And through doing that, interviewing the people in the different localities, sharing about my research, about my questions, trying to be vulnerable or just embracing that and sharing that, also with them, like "Lenn, are you really looking? Are you here to maybe stay here or not?". I said, no, that's not my intention. Or maybe that will emerge during my research, but that that's not the case.
I think this is a good point. There was a question I wanted to ask at the beginning, which is a very basic question, but given that you said you got into this sort of work on intentional communities, not accidentally, but it wasn't like, you know, you've set out here, saying I want to look at intentional communities. You sort of said, where's this thing that I need, where's this energy that I need in my life kind of thing? Where is that happening? And then it led into it that.
So the question is, what is your definition of an intentional community?
Intentional community? Ah yeah. I think of course it's going to change, how I see it back then and how I see it now. I find it important to use the word intentional with it because, for instance, I'm not going to a refugee camp where people do not intentionally live together, which can also be part of it, you know. There are people who research into that, like a friend of mine who's working for various NGOs, and she's completely into that. She started into psychology and I went into art school. But we now see each other every now and then, things are coming together.
But yeah. There they really have an intention to live in a specific way or to work in a specific way. And what that intention is, they, they're really developing that in a communal way. Is it more by consensus or by consent based ways, that are different strategies they use, as well as thinking how to be and live together. Um, but I also started very broadly in that sense, with a spiritual eco community. So they have a specific intention in how to live and be together and work together with their own banking systems, their own currency, their own health care systems. But they are in a community that started in the 70s with different generations. And to give an example, how is that spirit still alive and how it changed? They have about like 8 or 10 different houses in a valley where there are different, like housing, let's say housing co-ops.
Like how distant apart as well?
I think sometimes half an hour or maybe two hours away. But they're all part of Damanhur. They call it "The Federation", but with all different specific housing co-ops. And every house has a tree. More trees, of course, but there's always one tree and that's the spirit of the place, which they're also really honour.
Um, and why I'm now going into Damanhur. Ah yes. They have a dragon house. Yes, they really call it a dragon house, where the youngsters in the community live. Because they started in the 70s and then in the 80s, mid 80s, there were children, of course, they were 16 something. And they said like okay, to their parents, we would love to live by ourselves, because the whole intention also with Damanhur is kind of about how we as humans change and how we need each other as well in that, but also to stay true to our endeavours that we encounter in that.
So they said, we want to live by ourselves. And the parents said like, oh fuck, of course they're going to now come up with this kind of request. So they found a way that also the youngsters could live on a specific area in the the valley where they somehow could be connected, but then also had to take care of the whole reproductive labour, all the tasks that are needed. Some of them came back to the parents, to the housing, and some of them stayed.
And now there are even new generations coming in from around about, in their 20s or 30s, who are starting to live there again, more and more, not specifically in the active community, but they are building new houses. They rather said, we we don't want to live all together in one house. In that sense, even with 20 people and having a collective kitchen, we'd rather have a piece of land (as they were buying and still buying a lot of pieces of land), a piece of land where everyone has their own house but we have a communal kitchen somewhere.
So I think it also says something about what was needed back then in the 70s and the intentions over the years and how it's going to look like now. So I've heard about that they're building their things and I think it's interesting to see how that will be developed. In that sense, the needs of living together also with an intentional community.
I mean, that sounds like an intentional community within an intentional community, which is very interesting. Like, to see that sort of generational nesting somehow, the ideas, and especially considering it started out so physically spread, to see that and then to try and condense that. That's very interesting. Yeah.
So, so yeah, the definition of an intentional community, I find it a challenge to make it like, this is it, this is it. And I think it's also about scale. For instance Damanhur, they used to live like 500 people, who were part of the community and then living in different houses (nucleo's). And I also visited places which are much smaller.
So for myself, this was also as I know I learned so much through my body by being in a place, by being surrounded there. How does it smell? How does it look like? How is the vibe, how is the atmosphere, what's happening? What is everyone doing in the day to day reality? For me, it was also interesting to go to places which are smaller to also, for myself, understand through going to those places, what is it that I'm actually looking for, as I have an idea that if I somehow will find some land for my big house or money or two more people to pull it together, then can we really build a place where I can live as well? But also more people can join as a kind of educational way of learning. But I also know how much that entails.
Well, quick question. What's the smallest place you've been that you feel is also is still counts, you know, it still feels like an intentional community rather than like some other thing that we potentially see as intentional, like a friendship group or a or a family or, you know. When does it become a community?
I think in a place I visited outside Marrakesh, that pops up now. There is Aziz, who has the house, and started to build it for his his family. And he made a lot of money in Wall Street, so he was really into one of these banking, was one of these bankers. And then he got fed up by it. Like, I can't live anymore like this or contribute to that world. So he stepped out, is what he shared with me.
And he felt like, how can I steward for the land where I was born on in Morocco? So then he's living there. There's a big house in the middle of the of the plot of land, and there was only one olive tree and one eucalyptus, and now it's abundant, full. He created a permaculture place in that place where, you as an artist, or also as a permaculture student, can live for a while. And by contributing to the land, that's the exchange. Or you leave something behind as an artist.
And I think he's living there with his girlfriend (Sarah). His mother, Zohra, is often there. She always takes care of the couscous lunch on Friday, and but it's just like a really small one. But there are a lot of, like, you have the Moroccan workers who are part of it, and then the artists coming in and the permaculture students. I do think it's quite hierarchical in that sense, that sometimes on the lunch we were all together, but the Moroccan workers that I also got to know, they were not able to join. They got the couscous, but they were in another separate place.
Yeah. So then I felt like a bit challenged by that. I was like, I would love to sit with all of us who see a part of the community together, but it also has to do with specific ways of how the country is structured. I talked about it with Aziz. I find that challenging and well, sometimes.
I also visited places that felt like, it's about learning. I think that's it about learning also about how the world is structured and organised. So for me, that is still an intentional community. Let's say that's the smallest one, but for me it's important too. But people have a specific intention of spending time together, and that doesn't mean you have to live together all the time. And maybe someone else sees it differently, and that's all fine.
But for me it is, what is the intention of sharing a part of your life together and how to create continuity with that? How to how are you able to maintain it? I think there's a kind of longtermism involved about who's taking care of the task that we often know is, can be challenging. So the reproductive tasks come in again.
Yeah I mean it's interesting, that idea of like, it being distributed in time as well. You know, like communities that are either temporary or communities that are seasonal and communities that are, you know, where people just naturally pass in and out of because they're porous somehow, rather than a definition that's strictly like people went and made it, and it's very, that's almost more closed, more like a full time thing. It's interesting, I think, like the idea of opening up this definition to more things that people maybe are doing already. That's an interesting thing.
Mhm. Yeah. And also, for instance, the lesbian queer bar Mothers and Daughters, they only come together in that sense while doing a bar, running a bar, a few weeks, mostly May, June, in a year. They did it before the pandemic a few times and now after the pandemic again. But they, you know, they have their platform, Girls Like Us, the magazine and the different activities they put on.
So I find that's why it's interesting nowadays. And I also think why so many people are interested in it. If I hear it from art school students, from practitioners like me, if they're almost 40, already work in in the cultural sector for a while, and being alive, like how it's about, how do you want to live? Yeah. And that became also for me the question, much more than what type of art practice do I want to develop.
Yeah, I feel like a lot of people are drawn to the arts broadly or art practices because they want, because they have some desire to live a certain way, express themselves. I often talk of my own art practice as a sort of self-actualizing process where I feel present. I feel like a person in the world when I'm making, and it's not about success, it's not about financial anything. In fact, it's often the opposite. Yeah. And this intentionality about it is the thing that really draws me to it and really makes it feel important.
And it feels some you know, it takes on a resonance beyond itself because of its, because it's like about, I've decided something that wasn't just sort of like, passive, you know? When I've had more traditional aspects of my career, in side jobs and things, there's a trajectory that they can put you on, that's just, you naturally just progress and whatever. But in the arts is very much like, you know - there are, obviously, structures of support in place and there should be more - but it's also a lot more like choose your own adventure kind of thing.
And it does seem interesting that like so many people, yeah, so many people are interested in this sort of intentional community thing now, but also it feels like it comes from a similar - it's not certainly not exclusively artists - but it feels like it comes from a similar desire of doing something that's not just prefab predetermined.
And that also, the need to connect. And especially, it's about nearness. Also human nearness. And I think that became much more clear also through the pandemic. Then I feel like, how can we be near one another and have our own space or enough space in between those moments? But it's also, too, one of the courses in our program “Practice Held in Common" was always NVC: Non-Violent communication. But we changed that a bit more to be less dogmatic, as some of us, as the students were experiencing, to make it more compassionate communication, so also more somatic and different bodily ways of learning.
And for me, it became through that also so clear that I was so longing for a real human connection, which is much more connected to how do you want to live your life? What are kinds of survival? Parasitic, wise, beautiful, great, crazy strategies to do that. And people are actually practising it at so many places in the world already for such a long time. And I think it became much more needed that also, not only people who were born in the 70s or before started starting. And every generation needs their own love song.
So I think there also comes the need now. Like I have old friends who are like, "oh no, no, Lenn, are, you know, going that way. You know how it was." But also the challenge of that, I said, yeah, but I think every time things are a bit different. And I think it's also, I don't want to go into this kind of romantic like, oh yes, we're going to do it all differently - no, for sure not. But I think if everyone who really has a need for that should try to experiment, finding ways with people around you, where you connect to it.
When I came back, I started writing letters to all artists, friends, all who identify as women, to create a summer camp together. Nine months later and we're seeing how could we do that collaboratively, what is needed. And now after then, of course, the pandemic came. So we were a lot of times online, so also finding strategies for that. We spent time together in the summer, a few days in 2020, and now in 2023, we're still together, we still sometimes do things. We have a more or less structured way of spending time together. It's about support systems. That's, I think, what it is needed to tackle a lot of challenges we encounter with all the neoliberal, pressing reality that is ingrained in us. Even, you know, that's not only around us, it's it's in us.
The I mean, you've set up perfectly my next two questions, which, one is: do you, well leading into this, do you think there's a; did you find a difference in how much interest you sensed around this sort of thing pre-pandemic? And then now, since the pandemic, has there been a rise, do you think, since people sort of sat down during that break and sort of thought, wow, why do I live like this? Like where, you know I myself, living in London: it was just suddenly a point of like, why am I here? What is this? You know, what is the future here? What is the long term goal? That drove a lot of this, actually trying to finally do this sort of thing that I've been thinking about for a while.
And then the second, other question is: do you think there's anything about - aside from the pandemic, perhaps - but like something about a historical moment here that leads to this, or is it just, has it been going on for a while? Is it always happening? Does it seem like there's actually a certain sort of social or economic or idea, like ideological thing that has led to it happening now? With the rise of neoliberalism. And also, you know, this idea that capitalism is now so unrivalled that it, you know, that Mark Fisher, capitalist realism, kind of thing.
I think from what I experienced, that's the case. I think that that's happening and it was already happening. I was just sharing with someone, when I graduated from the bachelors in 2007, there was a big financial crisis going on. Everyone said like, don't start as a self-employed, especially not in the cultural sector. Go for safe, go for safe. And that fear that I felt around me never left.
In that sense, I find ways and also people around me are kind of finding strategies. So I do think that's really a build up over decades - and of course, also what happened before - but for me it's relating to just my own experience. When I graduated, what was happening? So I do think there's quite a lot of big things that are already happening underneath that come together, and come to the surface now and then, in relation to the pandemic as I was visiting most of the places before the pandemic.
Then I have now this Collective Wandering map, with all places all around the world. So I feel also really in need to also share this because I think this, this research for me, so many people are interested. Um, so did I felt it is. I do think also coming, starting with my own experience, where I live in Arnhem, in a small neighbourhood and former sex workers' district, a lot of gentrification is going on. People from Amsterdam, Rotterdam are moving in and we were, with the neighbours, were trying to create a a communal garden, and that becomes so clear during the pandemic, like, who are you? Actually? You know, what's alive for you.
So for me, the hyper locality in relation to what could the intentional community really means that, that I noticed also with students who had to find ways of being almost like locked in their room, being on Zooms or Teams or big meetings, still finding a way. How do we relate physically to a place? So that for me, became more clear. And people making shifts if they are able to, and also a privilege to make changes, or maybe for a later moment.
So yeah, I think for sure they're connected. But maybe that's also I want to see that's connected. Maybe I also want to have an excuse to now further go into this. This is needed. But if I see how many people around me and also even looking into the arts, how people also got into "community-washing".
Yeah, but how to really practice it, that's my thing. I think it takes time. It's not something like, oh, let's do a community project as an art space. And then let's ask people of the neighbourhood and then, yeah, we're kind of this is the new world, and I think it's also talking about how to practice intersectionality.
I was working in an arts space in Rotterdam for a communal art project to do research in a neighbourhood, and it's so challenging. So I do think a lot of things came, and come to the surface, so how do we find ways to be together otherwise? I don't know if this gets an answer on your question?
It's interesting that, yeah, that I've not heard that phrase before community washing, but it's I've seen it happen. Yeah, a lot. And, a lot of, every residency, they ask, "how are you going to engage the community" in a positive way, which just speaks to, it maybe speaks to a sort of guilt that people feel about not engaging the community? Or does it speak to a desire that they want to be more grounded and communal? Like where does it, where do you think it comes from?
I think to, yeah, to go to that specific example of that art space. Often places are located specifically somewhere, but not necessarily rooted. And I think you can work on specific big themes about decolonization about gentrification, but do you then also know who's living next to you? And are you able to connect with them, or what are their needs? So for me, it somehow also has to do with this awareness about where it got detached from a lot of things that are really happening in our day to day lives. So we fell into it again. If that makes sense in a way.
So yeah, I'm also kind of seeing where I am with my thoughts. Yeah, the need for that, somehow. It comes also, of course, there is a lot of sense of community sometimes on different types of social media, but what type of community and nearness and real connection is missing there? So I think it also is of course parallel to that. Yeah. Okay, maybe you can ask a more specific question there?
Yeah, if it's in, you know, I'm thinking is this the sort of communal, community turn in contemporary art and contemporary art spaces? Without derailing the conversation too much into just very specific art things. But, is this is this a response to; is it that the arts have become very detached from; the arts are supposed to speak to culture. The cultural sector is supposed to speak to culture. And there's so much, you even see it in arts funding and things, who do you actually, who do you even speak for? When the kind of culture that people actually want is like football games, you know, like that's a lot more popular than like, weird niche art things.
And this real question of like, what is this? And so is it almost like a turn towards that hole that has kind of appeared in the centre of the art world, that I think is actually driven by the neoliberalization of the arts, where it's supposed to be about people, but there was turn away from engaging with that, and a lot more towards the market, a lot more towards collectors rather than communities and the public.
Yeah, and you're seeing the changing funding models of public institutions in the past 20 years, from the tail of the sort of post war boom through to now, where it's very much that the biggest institutions, some of the most dynamic institutions are these private ones that don't have the same sort of obligation towards the public. And that's the only thing that allows them to not have to care about the community. But then, you know. I don't know, I'm not sure what the question is here, but there's something around this sort of like art's loss of itself as the representation of culture.
Yeah. And there again, comes life in. How is it connected to life. It got so detached from it. Not always but in quite a lot of senses. And then it's always needs to be about the new, the next thing. Also with a lot of funding applications, the grant applications, that I also noticed with a lot of artists, designers, culture workers from who are graduating around my time (like in 2007ish, but also the last ten years) like, wow, how does it actually integrate and connect to your day to day life, and to the lives we live in?
So it's also about finding the realness. That's not the right word. Yeah. Somehow I come back to this real day to day connection, this life experience, how to really maintain it. What does it entail to have an art practice, to not be that star designer or starchitect or... but of course, also through education. I know often our systems are so pushed on, like, you have to perform and you as an individual are pooped out of the system and then you're going, you find your place. So there's such a hyper-individualisation that was going on, and still is. And we all know in a way also it's really ingrained that we need each other in some way or another. So yeah.
It's this idea of, it's the question of the weight of meaning. Or maybe this is an interesting thought experiment, how some artworks are, like, which ones are actually having an impact? Where is the power of radicality? Is it in the thought or is it in the action? And you look at some of these communities, the ones that are being enacted. And their radicality is very, it's all potent, but almost hidden. And then you see a lot of these thoughts, debates, talks, where it's very visible but the power is the weight is very, they're very...
Yeah. It's easy to just be like, "that's nice" and move on.
Yeah. I find it also, the superficiality of that, that I also encountered as being part of the arts. Not all aspects of it, but at some of the aspects. I felt also like my critique is not enough, also about a lot of critical practices. But how to really experiment? I think find ways about, is it possible to do it differently? And what is then needed.
But that asks so much, that asks time, that asks space. And often that's not possible in a kind of education format, or in the art world, because of the whole neoliberal dynamic. So it also feels like this is the only way, I think, to find strategies for everyone to build, how to radicalise the local, how to radicalise your own ways of being, how to take the rest, also as a kind of response to it. And there are different ways, how it will look like. That's already happening.
But it's interesting because I was never also during my research, so much aware about it, but I'm often talking with people about it, and going more into analysing it, or putting it in a historical context, or seeing it. I was like, oh, wow, yeah, it might be the case. But I felt so much I want to be on the ground, bodily experiencing the places and from there, almost as a compass, ask "Where do I want to go?"
And that for me is also a way I further want to move by practising it a lot. So starting my own, is it possible to start an intentional community in a collective format? Experimenting, being as one of a number, stewarding, taking care of a piece of land for a few years, growing our own flax, (with the Linen Project) so doing a lot of these, physically experiencing what, as it does with me, how it informs my next steps.
One question I wanted to ask - I do want to like feed off what you're saying - but one question I wanted to ask was: how many of the communities you visited in this had perhaps a founding philosophy?
You've spoken about the spiritual communities you mentioned, but like for secular communities, having some sort of; I'm often interested in, like how the spiritual, or what would have manifested as the spiritual, the spiritual that people manifest in secular areas where something needs to be sacred, where something needs to be even more important, important beyond itself somehow.
So do any do you see that in these? How many of the communities were just started for like a desire to do something different, and how many were where there was a vision, say, or there was a philosophy?
Yeah. I think, for instance, the spiritual eco community Damanhur. It was really a spiritual vision. And even with quite an intensely specific spiritual vision, and also one person, a man, starting it, who is not alive anymore. So now things are also shifting in the community there. So that's interesting. I found that quite linear in a way, how they started. But it was a specific vision and a kind of abundant worldview. And for instance, the lesbian queer bar, I think. Mmm. Yeah, all of them are. But if I think, what is a specific spiritual interest or a kind of intention? Most of the places.
I later on started more and more going to community supported agriculture, more and more into day to day needs that people were looking for, and then coming together and collecting one another or finding ways. But in more of the places I visited, there was often quite a vision of, or an idea of, let's rewild this piece of land, and what does it entail? And then also the long term vision comes in. So there was already some where most of the people that started in the lineage, something in relation to a piece of land like, hey, we feel here that this is what is needed now.
However, if I now then go to MASSIA, which is connected to the Performing Arts Forum in France, and it's a bit how as a with a community, as a collective ownership, can we take care of this huge building, the Performing Arts Forum in France. So the different performative makers, writers can all come together and spend time there and just book a room and just spend days there, or organise meetings, but they're not specifically connected to that piece of land. That was much more a need to come together and to find a place where to practice in a different way, that was not possible in the Netherlands. So the vision was really, "can a building and day to day life become a performance?" Yeah, but not specifically to that place then.
That's interesting that like how do we think of the performances? Because I often think of performance, in going back to this idea of how does the spiritual come out in secular areas, performances are the suspension of disbelief and that kind of thing. There's definitely always a sort of way it brings a room together. You know, this is why it's stimulating.
But it definitely taps into that idea. And also, I guess the next question is - with this thing about communities - how much do you think people need to lose themselves into the collective in order to really partake? And how much can they remain? How much could you have a collection of individuals, and how does that question of the individual, the importance of the individual that has become such an important political thing, in terms of participatory politics? Yeah. How does it work with an intentional community?
At so many places I visit there was a kind of, "oh, we need to more and more celebrate differences". That's even the ones who are from different generations, the ones, the spiritual eco community Damanhur from the 70s, from those sectors. That's why they also have the different houses (nucleo’s), where each house is different in a specific way, how to spend time together as well.
And is it more a spiritual one? Is it more the way to celebrate differences and to have more and more examples of people spending less time in one space, but more intentionally when to spend time together. Yeah. And maybe also that I am interested in more of those types of structures than to all the time live in one building, share everything together. I also know there are initiatives where people share their clothes together. You know, there's a communal closet where everyone is in this. So maybe they are there, but my interest is in more how to celebrate those differences and spending time together. And what is then a way to to build the support systems in there.
And in relation to what you shared before with the spiritual and what is the vision, or was there an extreme vision, intention? I think there's something here that has to do with imagination. How do we imagine other worlds which are already happening here? And what makes sense for you to find those ways. So I think the power of imagination, it feels like a kind of a song.
But I do believe something there is, they have connected to where it's located, how it relates to a piece of land, to the people who are already living there, who people are too. So I think that's imagination. And also in relation to how to allow yourself to open it up and make it wider. And, and people have maybe different ideas also how it's going to look like. Yeah finding ways with that.
And it's okay that you stay committed, but also know if it doesn't resonate for you anymore. I also met people who left, for instance, that extreme spiritual community and said, like, "I still made sure that I was working for the community, but I found my own house with my own family because after a while, depending on where you are in your life, I can't live like that anymore".
And I know from a friend who was always in the squatting movement in the 80s in the Netherlands, then started to work for housing co-ops, to develop housing co-ops, and to buy formal like squatting places to make sure they maintain. More as a way of commoning. How to make sure it's not got hijacked by the project developers. Yeah. And he's now 61, 62. And he said, "now I feel I want to live in a housing co-op again".
So in a kind of communal setting, because I know how beautiful it is when you get older and when people are dying to do that in a communal way. And I was so inspired by his story because he recently had a friend who was living in a housing co-op and he was getting ill, cancer, was passing away. And he said, what happens when you do that in a, in a kind of communal way, instead of being by yourself, or have someone you don't know taking care of you.
So that's something also that gave me a kind of perspective, how the communal aspects can be related to our lives. So that you can go in and out. I think that's what I want, to say instead of, I have to commit, for instance, the rest of my life in this type of way.
Yeah wow. The porousness is interesting and also the I mean, I'm struck by that by saying, now that I think about it, that is such a common thing, where - I've been thinking about this a lot in terms of like the young people who are wanting to start these new things - but the idea of how older people are living, it's a big problem in lots of countries where they just live in real isolation, and there's lots of lots of investment in projects to try and improve that for various reasons. But it seems like it's only really maybe the middle age, like the middle of life where you feel like you want your own thing, and then you go back to community, perhaps.
And then, how much is it driven by, what are those forces that take you away from feeling communal? Whether it's even living in a houseshare to then a nuclear family, often but not exclusively. And then back to communal living again. It's an interesting journey that seems to happen often. Do you have any feelings about what drives that? Like, why is that pattern there?
No, I think it has to do with different stages we go through in life. Really the seasons we have as humans. But just based on my own experience - I can't put a kind of psychology analytical thing in here - but there are the different needs that emerge throughout your life. And I know, and often also encounter from friends and other artists I'm exchanging with, or communal members from specific intentional communities, like how does the cycle of the 7 or 10 years works? So I do think there are a lot of stages we go through as as humans, and there are specific needs connected to that.
And when it comes to communal in also in relation to relationships, for instance, in the Damanhur, you can get married, but then only for a year and you have an agreement where you say, I want to learn this from you and you want to learn this from me.
And you have to split up again?
And then after year you have a reflection moment and there's a party again. They they love to party. And then you see, you have a look into what, what did we write back then and how is it still relevant? Or does it still make sense to be together? So I think there's a kind of extreme reflection moment. And I know people who are already married there for 30 years with the same person. But I think what I want to say with this is like, how we change as human beings, there's so much change going on. And I think too, how can we be more open towards that? Embrace that, the need, so that it somehow makes sense, how we go, how we move through life. Also, when does the communal make maybe more sense than in another stage of your life? Depending on, of course, where you live in the world, it's much more complex. But this is something that pops up. But why?
It's a tangent, but what you just said makes me think of a lot of discussions around consent and things like that. And I know that this affected intentional communities back in the 60s and 70s: there was the question of consent and sexual politics in there. But the idea that you can decide to undo a decision is an important part of consent, of maintaining consent in a regular way. So if you join a community, you can leave the community, but that's not a rejection of the community. It's just a change of your decision. It's important. It's as important as choosing to join the community in the first place.
Hum. Um, yeah, yeah. And with that, what I discovered, what I then find challenging is that, how to still, I think it's about how to practice the I in the we, in that sense. Also in a financial way: that if you are part of a community, some of the places I visited, people pay for their room and for being part of the community. Sometimes they even have a job within the community or buying, for instance Damanhur has also solar cell company already for maybe 20 years. They're developing, say, developing soap, their own farms, so they also have quite a lot of income, so they really make money. They can sustain themselves and buy their pieces of land and old houses. But I know that somebody left and said it was really challenging for me because I didn't have any money for myself because the money I earned often go get back into the community to pay for the room and all the things that are needed in communal and with the food and that.
And there I thought like, oh. Which is in, it a can be a great way to pool the money together. But what happens if you feel it doesn't work for me anymore, you know, and there are all different strategies to think about that. But that's what I thought: what do we nowadays need in a intentional community setting? To pool money together is an important way to put the care and the task that are needed. But what if somebody decides it doesn't work for me anymore? How to make sure that they also have a way to bridge and go out?
It's so interesting to think of these concentric circles, of these contracts, because you have that wider contract with the state, perhaps, that you pay in and you expect certain things out. And how much control do you actually have over that? And then you have it in your community, where you still have that.
Maybe that also says something about - I'm born in the mid 80s - about being brought up in the Netherlands in quite different type, or specific type, of education system with quite an individual perspective. So I do think, how can I always have a choice to go out of something, also maybe in a communal context, but I'm not the only one probably. So there is that, that I was also sometimes looking for or at places and I thought about like, like "Lenn, how can you just also embrace it and just go into it?" And I thought like, I don't know. So I'm finding, I think communal strategies in a way, to also support my own lives and to learn from that.
For instance, with the bread fund (broodfonds) that I'm part of, as part of self-employment in the Netherlands - and not only arts, but everyone who has as a work as self-employed. We are with 50, we all pull money together, we all have an extra bank account for that. And when one of us get ill, they get money from all of us. And it's for a maximum of two years. It's a kind of solidarity support system. And for me, it changed - visiting various intentional communities - collectives into much more solidarity economies, and ways of exchanging, pulling things together, in relation to like housing co-ops.
And then I flip, flip, flip back to a kind of spiritual aspect I have in my lineage where there were a lot of women who were all nuns: who were travelling the world, also doing the kind missionary work. So I do believe there are ways of creating meaning, and how to bridge that together, is somehow now also really needed. That's something that just pops up.
Is this bread fund something you set up or is it statewide?
No, no, no, it's it's even developed with the tax system in the Netherlands. Maybe in 2006, 2010. So there's a lot of them, I think maybe now hundreds and hundreds of these bread funds, but I find this is also a way to build those systems.
And, well, I'm interested in doing more of these types of research, and seeing how to put it more in practice. So for me, I'm curious what I'm also doing in a few years. You know, I'm still thinking about if I could have a piece of land with more people live there, develop a different type of educational place of learning? Is it residency, art residency? But much more connected to day to day life in that sense. But there are already so many of these places. So what would I then do differently? I don't know, but I think it has somewhere, it's about practising it. Doing it.
It's interesting you say that, as there's that idea of: why not join one, why not join an existing one? A lot of people want to start their own ones. I often wonder about this because I'm in the same position. Like, is it pride? Is it a desire to have done it? And then also this feeds into a wider question I want to ask about what is the importance of connections between these communities? Like have you seen the difference between ones that are quite isolated and ones that are well connected? And what does that mean for the porousness? What does it mean for the resilience? What does it mean for the claustrophobia as well, of being a member?
I think that the younger ones, let's say from the last decade, that they are often, from what I understood, much more connected; also to learn together and to have the capacity and the ability also to learn together; also in the stage where they are of their own place, for instance. Then again, Damanhur is already there from the 70s, and somehow they were inspired by Findhorn in Scotland. So they also referred to that and they said, like now they find their own way there, even like communities within communities, you know?
But I think going back to the first part of your question about this, is it pride? I think the imagination comes in, in a way. How could you imagine to do it? It is challenging to work together? You know what it entails, so it's much easier. And it's even challenging to start something yourself. So I do think it's also great to have different formats of there, but to think how to build the support in between one another.
Yeah I think, could that be done more maybe? I think it also has to do about being accepting that you don't know it all. You don't have to know it all, that that's okay. To make mistakes and to find ways how to structure it. And it all comes, like who is going to participate in it? Who's going, who are the users? But I think it's with who and for who and that's, then, it's the community supported residents or the community supported place or housing co-op or piece of land. So are they all needed? What do they need? So we also need a lot of initiatives. We need it, it's a kind of pulling together.
And then do you feel maybe you want to try for a few years, to hop on an existing project, and then start your own. But I'm, what I'm doing is also, in a way, finding resonance and seeing how that will be integrated in me, and digested into something that I think is needed, that we learn from that as well and to be transparent about it.
And somebody said David Bollier, who's also into, all about Free Fair and Alive. He has this book all about commoning (written with Silke Helfrich), and I think there are also some few books here from David Bollier, or one book from Bianca Elzenbaumer. I saw he said: "the next big next big thing will be a lot of small things". And there I think I also have a hope for that. Instead of making, again, too big of a structure. But how to practice it in so many localities and so many different types of lands and cultures and ways of being?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately as well. Like this, parts within a larger part. The part itself doesn't get, subsumed. I was reading an essay by Timothy Morton where he talks about the parts, that the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, because in order to form a whole, you have to like carve bits off, you have to ignore nuances within the parts. And actually parts resonating on their own has, yeah, it's beautiful, has its own power. And when you focus on that, it's quite radical. You can actually oppose easy narratives that way.
Yeah. And I think it also has to do with, for instance, for you, what you're hoping to do. Or exploring, or finding ways. It also has to do with what are your needs? Would you rather hop on a project that's already there and learn with that? Also, what are your needs to create more clarity? Or you feel, no, our way is to start it, and through that, practise it. So I think there are also different strategies to do that and to honour that, and that it also may change in a few years.
It'd be interesting to see people who've started one that's getting successful, going to another one and then going back. And I'm sort of reminded of you being asked to help form this course and then deciding to join the course. And then this idea of, as you were saying right at the beginning, about a mentor is not being superior. It's all about just, do I know this? What do I need?
It's great, also, to get more clarity about your own needs by exchanging. Like, oh wait, I could already start. Oh, there is some piece of land in the street, or a place where we can come together every now and then. It's the communal centre that's already there. But can we start it? I think what's most important, is it a place, is it to live somewhere? Is it a space or a specific way of living that that you're looking for? And then, so where does it start? I think that's it, is it being set up with specific type of people to relate to, what are the needs that need to be at the core. And that's different in different places I visited. So I think that it's important to create clarity about it.
One final question, we've been talking for a long time. Thank you very much, I know how exhausting it is. The final question is, with this idea of this specificity, this generality within the broader idea, and like sharing knowledge and that kind of thing. It relates to the question of how, in your opinion, how do you see the narrative of the discourse around intentional communities now? Do you think there's a narrative there? Is that why it's become, becoming, popular? Do you think that it's coming from a place of need, or does it seem like people are telling themselves that it is?
It's quite often you see these discussions, and it kind of inspires you to wanted to go and do it yourself. But is it part of something? Is there a story, like an overarching story being told here? Or is it really small, specific individual stories? In your experience, when you meet people, have they done similar research, or have they had similar experiences that led them down this similar path? Or did they all come at it from completely different places that means that there's no real overarching narrative?
I think it's much more, it was always much more, smaller in that sense. That somebody came together on a piece of land in the weekends and thought like, oh, we could maybe buy that small piece, or maybe also next to it, or we can break up. And there were mostly, in every place there is someone who is aware about the bigger narrative, of what's going on and looking into that, and often that is the one who also did initiate the place.
I find also, I'm going now into kind of the collective leadership. What does it entails to really collectively take care of a community, of a space? That there's often a few people who are always the ones who take care of it, somehow, and that they try to often say, oh, non-hierarchical structures. I don't believe in that. It's so diagonal, the axis, as we all inhabit different bodies, backgrounds, types of learning, types of being together.
So in relation to that, I know in a lot of the places, somebody often is aware about how can we do things differently, or we're feeling like, say, what is happening in Findhorn? Can we do this in Italy? Or Jessica Gysel from Girls Like Us, from the lesbian queer bar, where they started referring to other places she's been visiting. So there is often a patchwork already going on, the sense of like, hey, can we do something like this? But then in our community, because we see there is a need. So I think that the copy paste mentality is brilliant. It needs to be here to find ways to say, hey, what what can we learn from it, and then start with it to see.
I think it's all about hope, to see what's happening there. Yeah. Imagination comes in. Can we imagine to do it here? Can you imagine to start something, and you're like, yes. Oh what do we need for that? Okay. But maybe we just start with this and then the next step will emerge. So there is a way, you always have an awareness about things that are already going on, and there are a lot of people that just have the need in the moment and somehow connect to it, and I think those both, at different levels, need to be all present.
Yeah. Okay, cool. Thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah. Thank you. I felt this is really good. I really liked it.
Is your voice also on the recording?
Uh, hopefully. We got one each.
Yeah. Because also it's kind of like...
Uh, I can definitely share this with you. This is. Yeah, 100%.
Because, uh, the questions were asking like, oh. I would love to, um, put some questions on, uh, cards.
I'd be honoured to be in your cards.
Yeah. But also to bring it along, because I feel some things like, wow, I try not to go always to those levels of looking into things that I've been doing or I am doing. I don't know why, because often I'm just like in this mode. So it's interesting to feel myself, like I'm there somewhere on the mountains and then like, oh, I would love to further digest. Yeah, the questions and to maybe later on have a conversation again.
Oh, that'd be great.
Maybe some years, I don't know, some something that pops up in the kind of. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah. For sure.
Um, no, this is great. And I hope, I hope the record I mean, I hope the recordings, like, okay.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a really great evening of short films. They were being screened at Hangar as the companion to a mini-symposium, Techgnosis and Ecodelics in the Age of Global Meltdown. Organised by Cinelab, this also featured a lecture by Patricia Pisters from the University of Amsterdam (that I very sadly missed, but not for lack of trying). The films screened were Atomic Garden by the phenomenal Ana Vaz (2018), and Guerras Floridas by the Mexican collective Los Ingrávidos (2021), alongside Life After BOB by LA based filmmaker Ian Cheng (also, 2021). The curation of these films seemed to divide into two halves, as examples of Ecodelics & Techgnosis respectively.
Atomic Garden is exemplary of Vaz's visual lyricism. Shot on beautiful 16mm, the film is a minimal and abstract meditation on ecology in the age of nuclear catastrophe and anthropogenic forces: "a stroboscopic reflection on transmutation, survival and the resilience of myriad life forms in the face of toxicity". The use of celluloid and the stroboscopic montage centres the physicality of film as medium front and center. Shooting on film is bound by temporal limitations - it is a finite resource. The length of a roll of 16mm film stock defines the maximum duration of any given shot, and experienced film editors could tell the runtime of a reel just by holding it in the hand. And the film techniques used in Atomic Garden are deeply ground in material reality. The film is a single montage, cutting frame by frame between different shots, constructed by slicing up every frame and splicing them back one by one. Through this, we are made aware of the limitations of visual perception. The images strobe together in a dizzying effect that breaks up the continuity of moving images we are so used to seeing on screen.
(I should note here that digital storage is also a finite resource but we tend to ignore this).
By contrast, Life After Bob is an examination in artifice, animated in the Unity game engine and exhibited in a way that could allow audiences to explore any scene as a virtual space, on their smartphone, through a process the creators call "Worldwatching". This high-tech format compliments a high sci-fi story, that explores AI companions, psychotropic foods, and corporate tech bro political intrigue (amongst much more). But in spite of such an ambitious concept and cutting-edge animation techniques, beneath the surface it is a relatively traditional hero's journey plot piece that left me feeling a little cold. For a film set in a near-future "anomic age", the irony of this was not lost on me. This narrative conservatism is sorely reminiscent of what Los Ingrávidos aim to dismantle: "the audiovisual grammar that the aesthetic-television-cinematic corporatism has used and uses to effectively guarantee the diffusion of an audiovisual ideology by means of which a continuous social and perceptive control is maintained over the majority of the population".
Viewing these three films together, the two curatorial halves seemed worlds apart. They did work to illustrate Ecodelics and Techgnosis, but off the back of some recent reading and researching, I couldn't help also viewing them as proxies for two radical tendencies in contemporary art/critical theory that I have been thinking about a lot lately: namely, New Materialism and Left Accelerationism. I won't go into too much detail about either of these topics here (this post is already at 2k words), but what interests me here is how they intersect and oppose. One reorients of our place within the natural order by broadly insisting that we should refrain from viewing ourselves as outside or above nature. We cannot supersede the material reality of life on a living planet, we must stay with the trouble. The other feels somehow both far more hypothetical and yet more likely to be adopted by some political entity somewhere. It proposes high-tech solutions to the tensions between capitalism and socialism, and by incorporating the arch of recent technological advancement into Marx's historical materialism, it builds a rebuttal to any technocratic neoliberalism arguments that paint Marxism as regressive. It posits a post-work and post-capitalist future where technology allows us to eliminate exploitative labour and social disharmony, by denying the social inequality and artificial scarcity that capitalism is built on.
This is a noble goal. So much of the hardships we see today are manufactured for the benefit of a dwindling few. The cost of living crisis is not impacting those at the top. But there's a flaw in the accelerationist approach, one that is shared by the techno-capitalism it opposes: our current technological paradigm is unsustainable. It will need to respond the material limits, as the ecological arguments of the New Materialists suggest. Dreams of fully automated luxury communism can not avoid engaging with the arts of living on a damaged planet. But the same can not be said vice-versa. While New Materialist thought looks to immerse itself in the problem of our ecological reality, Left Accelerationists want to rise over it. But the tech world is built inside the natural world. We cannot maintain the same scale of automation, or hope for continuing advancements, if we are unable to address climate change. This is why whenever I hear techno-solutionist hyper-optimism from the those I ally with on left, I find my climate anxiety becomes most acute.
Chat-GPT and AI will undoubtedly be used to crush labour rights and hoard wealth, but climate change will upend every aspect of how we live today. We cannot ignore the alarm bells that now ring out from ecological collapse. That said, I will be the first to admit it is difficult to comprehend such a colossal threat. It's hard to respond to such a tectonic shift. We can see the problems clear as day, and we can continue to contribute to them. Why is that? When the body of scientific evidence is so concurrent and clear, why do we fail to act? In the wake of yet another failed COP, we know this is the greed of the global elite. Sure. But why am I not out performing direct action? Why don't we all blow up a pipeline?
I stumbled on a random journal paper titled Climate Change as Liminal Experience by Nicu Gavriluță and Lucian Mocrei-Rebrean from the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Romania. It's a short paper that does what it says on the tin - it connects climate anxiety with liminality, drawing on Glenn Albrecht's concept of solastalgia and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.
In anthropology, liminality is the disorientation we feel when transitioning from one worldview to another - the sense of vulnerability and confusion felt in a gap between ideologies. Put simply, it's the feeling of bewilderment when you don't know what to believe anymore. Solastalgia is a term that denotes the distress caused once the environment you know deteriorates; after a landscape you are naturally attuned to begins to change. We enter a liminal experience when we lose faith in our existing beliefs, and the paper frames the solastalgic effect of climate change as an alienating force that is powerful enough to undermine any existing systems of belief we may hold. The changing reality of ecological collapse has produced a gap between the world we knew until now, and the unknown world we are moving into. Climate change is so unprecedented that it breaks the continuity of both our individual experiences and our sociocultural histories.
"We are perfectly aware of the fact that the world, as we have known it, is no longer and that a new one has not yet appeared"
- Nicu Gavriluță and Lucian Mocrei-Rebrean
The solastalgic sense of loss also perhaps explains the gap between our logical understanding of the veracity of climate science, and the divergent ways in which we fail to accommodate such facts into our personal, social and political outlooks:
"Following Schutz's phenomenologically inspired account of shock experiences that occur when moving between worlds, it can be argued that an awareness of the consequences of climate change induces a certain cognitive tension between the world of our daily practice and the world of scientific knowledge."
- Nicu Gavriluță and Lucian Mocrei-Rebrean
The article presents liminality as a journey from the familiar toward the strange, until that becomes our new familiar. It is process by which alien beliefs are brought within our horizon of understanding - where the homely must become unheimlich before we can create room for a new normal. It requires we experience a process of othering, of being alienated from ourselves, of seeing ourselves as a Lacanian other. We slowly accept a new belief system only once we have performed that psychological work which takes place in a liminal state. Essentially, we are unable to incorporate a new climatic reality into our worldview without accepting that the old world is gone.
But accepting that is terrifying. It's not hard to understand why any other option would appeal to so many. It's hard to find a historical precedent for the scale of rupture presented by the climate crisis. From a eurocentric perspective, we can look for some parallels within the social upheaval following the Black Death, or more aptly perhaps, look to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, which stubbed out numerous advanced civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean, totally flattening the historical record in the region. We still don't really know the cause, or what happened in the aftermath.
How we choose to respond to this terror will shape the bulk of political consciousnesses for the rest of my lifetime. We're currently seeing the right's response: head fully in sand, while claiming climate change is some sort of left-wing psyop. But more chillingly, a major trend seems to be a revival of national identities, and protectionist political approaches that seek to push the economic burden onto diplomatic allies and enemies alike. These fascistic projects present hardman toughness as the way to stand against the perceived dangers in the world, all while creating much more tangible dangers for the disenfranchised: migrants, refugees, the disabled, queer, or otherwise other. This isolationist thinking is even now polluting left-wing circles too, as illustrated in Germany where Die Linke looks set for a schism over the topic of immigration.
"Capital is at every level an eerie entity: conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity."
- Mark Fisher
In The Weird and the Eerie (2015), the late and sorely missed Mark Fisher outlines a number of everyday ways in which we encounter entities in the key of strange. The book is about looking, unflinchingly, into the dark corners of our mind, our society, the physical world, and popular culture. With the rise of fascism at home, and as solastalgia thickens around every room, now seems like the time for us to grapple with the strange.
The Weird and the Eerie is a guide to finding unlikely beauty in desolate places, to finding hope in foreign territories. Despite the sorrow and depression in Fisher's work, it clearly comes from a place of optimism. And by engaging with this tension, Fisher provides an unintuitive insight that may allow us to leverage the alienation of anomia and solastalgia as twin sensations that push us toward a new collective politics aimed at bring us all back together. This isn't clearly defined yet, but it seems to me to be emerging.
After watching a phenomenal talk given by Fisher in the last year of his life, I have been obsessing lately over the question of what new forms of consciousness are taking shape, and which of these may depose capitalist realism. I feel the liminality that we find ourselves living in is shaping a new ecological consciousness. Environmental concerns cut across the traditional left/right divide. The contingency of this liminality may allow us to build a new constituency, one that provides a more egalitarian response, much like the post-war social welfare that grew out of the horror of the second world war, which was itself a liminal experience.
But if we're not careful, it may drive us in the opposite direction. It's important to keep our eye on the prize and to build solidarity. If we want to foster this new ecological consciousness as a system that lets us understand what to believe in an age of climate collapse, then we must allow ourselves to welcome the discomfort of solastalgia and be prepared to demand a fair and unifying response. We must pass through this liminal state and accept the way it will change us. To do that we must let ourselves be vulnerable, and in doing so, stand against the hardening politics of nationalism and fascism.
This weekend, I was lucky enough to take part in a performance and writing workshop, as part of the Alkantara festival in Lisbon. Geoerotics was centred between critical geology and meditations on queerness, run by performance artist and researcher Ritó (Rita Natálio).
The session involved group discussions on the history of mining in Portugal and South America. Like the UK, Portugal shares a long brutal colonial history that was predicated on extractive mining in overseas colonies, alongside the exploitation of working class mining communities domestically. Texts discussed included the ever-phenomenal A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None by Kathryn Yusoff, and Dyke (geology) by Sabrina Imbler, a book of personal essays than interpolates the history of geology with the author's own experience of coming out.
In preparation for the workshop, we were asked to find "an object/material that evokes the geological element", ideally a tactile object that can stimulate a sensual experience evocative of the erotic in an expanded non-normative sense, with the knowledge this would be shared around the group to be touched and held. I wanted to bring some mud - the really deep, viscous kind that envelops your feet in a tight, moist embrace, and steals your shoes. But it turns out mud is hard to find in the city, and harder than I expected to make in a hurry.
As an exercise, following the group discussions, we sat and reflected on the materiality of these objects, holding either our own or someone else's, before using this reflection as inspiration to write about geology, sexuality, identity and pleasure. I think I did this exercise a little wrong, but here, in an all-too-typical pseudo-philosophical style, is what I wrote:
To produce a rock requires a process of division, a fissure, requires that a portion of rock be cleft from the larger strata, cut out from the mother earth. This happens through stress, through pressure applied in duration, through the long rub of erosion, the ongoing exfoliation over time, as when the water slides over a geological surface and forms a groove, gradually wears through.
Subjectively, the twin inflections of the word rock each reference a substantive nature. The process of incision (whether through mining or weather-born erosion) isolates rock as singularity from rock as substance. Doing so creates: creates a rock as a unique object; creates the specificity needed to identify an individual from the background.
The partial is more closely observed than the whole, the individual more knowable than the crowd. Wholes are viewed holistically, it ways that often blurs their details, overlooking those complexities that trouble the whole's unification as whole, the unified wholeness. The specific can be studied, is communicable and computable, in exacting detail if desired.
An individual can be met, can be catalogued. The whole is not often so clear. It meaningful function is broader, more general, categorical. It is only when a shifting registers, when viewing whole strata in their individuality (rather than as collection), that we can assign individualised, unique properties.
This specificity of rock is in contradiction with the indivisibility of water, which so often acts to erode geological features. Water is conceived as a body: river, lake, puddle, pond, ocean, drop. We talk of water as continuity. As a fluid, it is a multitude, even in absence.
When we encounter ourselves, we often hope to find ourselves whole. I know I spend a lot of time trying to produce a narrative about myself that explains why I am how I am and who I am. But these narratives often fail to accommodate ourselves in multitude, with contradictions and competing tendencies, fluid and malleable.
We want to realise ourselves as subject, with agency, as capable. But there's a tension between ourselves as individuals and our presence within the continuity of the collective. This tensions is the so often the political foundation that neoliberalism exploits, through division and by diminishing collective struggle.
During the workshop, Natálio performed a short reading from one of their works. I felt the poem laid plain the absurdity of geology as property, the absurdity of owing rocks. The privatisation of common resources cannot begin from any truly fair ethical foundation, there is no legitimate authority to allow it in the first place: instead there is only violence. And yet owning land is the central absurdity of capitalism itself, and you can't own a mine unless you own land. Owning a mine is owning a lot of rocks, which central to the forms of extractive mining that drove colonial expansion.
In this mutation of earth into capital, we also encounter the second definition of the word "property": the properties of certain rocks (the specificity of their substance) is what gives them value as private property. Those properties define coal, from gold ore, from granite and marble. But our understanding of those properties come from geology as a field of study. Geology the functions as a way of viewing the world by its role as an epistemology, that produces the very knowledge of how to convert rocks into fuel or coinage, through exploitation of a racialised labour force.
Mining still drives politics, not least of all in Portugal, where a brewing corruption scandal over lithium mines has forced the resignation of the prime minister, António Costa. Lithium mining in Portugal has been hotly contested, with ongoing protests in the affected towns and regions. In Covas do Barroso, the mine has been green-lit to dig into land that is held in commons by the residents of the village, who continue to loudly vocalising their opposition. And so, the violence of enclosure continues.
Interweaving on Radio RobidaLink
On Saturday, Robida Collective invited us on their radio for an hour of readings and reflections inspired by the Community Economies in Action practice retreat that Gem took part in and I lurked around with my own coyote-like agenda.
Along with Vida from Robida, we discussing community building, collective vulnerabilities, and collaborating with the more-than-human, over a soundscape of field recordings from the hills around Topolò.
Here's a bunch of images I made back in 2021 as part of my Supercollager project.