“You ask me, in short, how we are feeling over here.
We feel just about like elsewhere.
Surrounded by malevolent attention, obliged to perform useless tasks, wanting to change but not knowing how to.
We feel alone.”
* * *
The crisis is everywhere. Every day on the news I just see how difficult our situation is: images of war in faraway countries, the economy is doing badly, political decision making is dictated from above. It has a direct effect on our everyday lives, both on a local and on a global scale, Agamben’s ‘State of Exeption’
We watch video clips of civil unrest on Youtube and we know that there is a general level of growing discontent that never actually manages to change a thing.
I feel it grow inside myself too.
And I feel helpless and powerless.
All I can think of is how to escape, how to stop.
“They used to tell us, ‘you kids have it all’ as if to say ‘you sons of bitches’, yet who has raised and built this affluence, this inexhaustible source of war? Sometimes we have even suspected that if war is elsewhere, then life must be too.”
For most people a proper nine to five job seems to be the answer. Competitive, ordinary and half asleep, standing in city traffic every morning in order to make enough cash to climb up the social ladder:
”Every dollar counts. And every mornig hurts. We mostly work to live. Until we live to work.”
And all we seem to know is what kind of commodity we need to buy next, so that each one of us can claim: Yes, I am who I am!
Society functions because of me.
What else is there to reach?
“The more I want to be me, the more I feel emptiness. The more I express myself, the more I feel drained. The more I run after myself, the more tired I get. We treat our Self like a boring box office.”
I have to admit that the anonymous author of these lines speaks my mind and sadly enough I can only agree with ClaireFontaine’s bleak outlook when she writes:
“The fact is that they force us into apartments, into jobs, into clothes, into cars, and into desires that make us very difficult to love.”
Yet it is this very desire for love, which is at the core of our being. Sometimes I wonder wether it is possible to take a conscious position of not belonging to the society that surrounds us in order to maintain a critical distance toward it. Perhaps it might even be absolutely necessary if we want to take back control over our lives. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe that not wanting to belong is not just mere escapism. I also think it is not just the categoric refusal of everything, but rather an attitude that wants to reclaim a territory in which change can happen, that wants to be this very change.
Either way, it is about time to take the initiative.
“We don’t want to occupy the territory, we want to be the territory.
Every practice brings a territory into existence - a dealing territory, or a hunting territory; a territory of child’s play, of lovers, of a riot; a territory of farmers, of ornithologists, or flaneurs.”
Admittedly there are many different ways of self-organization. However, I don’t want to write a handbook - even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could. I also don’t want to write a critique of direct democracy, neither of anarchism, nor analyze the ways established communes, like the self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood of Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, defend their individual enclaves, because I think that nothing that has been (re- )searched can ever be talked about in a way that is as immediate and urgent as what has been directly experienced on a personal level, even though personal experience might be slightly more blurry and subjective.
“My form-of-life relates not to what I am, but to how I am what I am.”
* * *
When I first arrived in the city, I was pushed into a corner. The rent for a tiny room in a small shared apartment was too high for me to afford and cheap student housing was just not available at the time. Still, I had to manage somehow: For about two months I slept in my old Volkswagen Polo. I had to move around frequently in order to keep a low profile. Most of the time I was parking for free next to an industrial estate, always afraid to be discovered by the authorities. There was an overground metro station nearby that I could use to go to university.
I never expected it to be that hard to find an affordable place to live and I rarely felt that lonely before.
Even though I had done nothing wrong I felt like a criminal on the run.
“‘Becoming autonomous’, could just as easily mean learning to fight on the street, to occupy empty houses, to cease working, to love each other madly, and to shoplift.”
During the day I went to university, the nights I spent with a group of young Italian squatters. We were looking for empty houses that we could occupy. Yes, we started to do this out of necessity, because we felt marginalized and pushed into a corner, but soon our desperation changed into the conviction that our attitude was not just survival instinct but rather an act of defiance, a refusal of the many ways society as a whole organizes itself.
“Communes come into being when people find each other, get on with each other, and decide on a common path. The commune is perhaps what gets decided at the very moment when we would normally part ways. It’s the joy of an encounter that survives its expected end.”
At the same time ‘making art’ was our refusal to work in an established hierarchy, to be employed by a boss. The way we found each other, our desires, our sadness, our individual capacities and a shared openness toward each other, formed the basis of our ‘commune’.
We simply needed more space to breathe.
Together we squatted a derelict house in the city centre. Even though I was very much involved, I eventually started to live in a studio space at AK9, a former warehouse, several hundred square meters of concrete floor, a roof and tin walls. We went separate ways. We all had personal reasons. Yet we are still friends and we support each other whenever we can, even though we did not end up living together.
An interlinked network of individuals who share a similar attitude can be understood as a commune in a much broader sense of the word. Even though divided in space, maybe because of this very division, there always is the potential to become this flexible, organic, ground shifting territory we are dreaming of.
* * *
AK9 was started as an artist run studio space only a year before I arrived. Back then it was in a pretty bad condition and it was illegal to live there. As an alibi I had to be registered at a friend of a friend’s place. When I ask my friends today why they chose to live in a place like AK9, I often hear somthing like this:
“Look I needed that push, to really kind of - I don’t know - get away from comfort? [ ... ] We spend a lot of time in front of Facebook and we just get bored and sick of it. Even though it’s comfortable, it doesn’t keep you from getting bored of it. [ ... ] You’re not comfortable anyway, so you just figure it out!"
And: "I had to get away from the the over-regulated area of town. There is no space for me anymore. It became too normal, - too bourgeois. [ ... ] You do not have to have a 9-5 job, living in a concrete box, standing in city traffic every morning. There are still choices in life! You do not have to do that. It can be done differently!”
Together we constructed walls, dividing the space into several independent units, we reinforced the insulation and wood burning stoves were fit in to keep the place warm during the winter. We also built a shower and a communal kitchen, and the ceiling was cut open to let the daylight in. Electricity and internet followed.
There was absolute freedom to do whatever was necessary to change the space according to our needs.
“An old squatted shack still feels more lived in than the so-called luxury apartments where it is only possible to set down the décor just right while waiting for the next move.”
And the same kind of freedom existed in the organisation of our lives. Most of us were semi-chaotic and young, navigating grey areas of the law in order to maintain our self-sufficiency. We preferred to collect Euro Pallets and trash furniture from the streets, and to chop wood to feed our stoves, instead of being connected to the national gas-pipeline.
The parties at AK9 were legendary. Our naïve enthusiasm and energy was the spark, while the flexible division of labour, the ability to learn from our mistakes and the use of our imagination allowed us to free enough time and mental space for each one of us to think, to be creative, and to work autonomously.
“The exigency of the commune is to free up the most time for the most people. And we are not just talking about the number of hours free of any wage-labour exploitation. Liberated time doesn’t mean a vacation. Vacant time, dead time, the time of emptiness and the fear of emptiness - this is the time to work. There will be no more time to fill but the liberation of energy that no ‘time’ contains; lines that take shape, that accentuate each other, that we can follow at our leisure, to their ends, until we see them cross with others.”
During the subsequent years AK9 started to establish its reputation as an artist-run studio space. Our neighbours, mainly mechanics, boat builders and a motorcycle gang, had grown fond of the space. Once again, I can only agree with ClaireFontaine when she writes:
“If every social relation extracted from capitalist misery is not necessarily a work of art in itself, it is definitely the only possible condition for the occurrence of the artwork.”
Yet at the same time there also was friction and conflict, both inside AK9 and between us and our neighbours, caused by personal differences and the natural human tendency to form hierarchies, which some of us tried to subvert at any cost. But even though the place never was perfect, there always was a sense of solidarity that is hard to find elsewhere.
“The two distinct problems - that of the eternal discord between the qualities of human beings and the qualities of their works, and that of the crisis in the singular quality of artistic productions - have a common base: the social space that shelters them, the ethic of those who people it, the use-value of the life lead within it. Or, in other words, the possibility of living in social relations that are compatible with artistic production.”
I often think if AK9 was ever completed, if it ever developed a clear social structure or a specific framework of rules, it would have lost its spirit. It would have become just another institution, reactionary in its very confinement. This is the reason why I think it is important not to revolt blindly against society and its culture, but also to be critical toward the hierarchies that emerge from within our own territory. In my opinion, in order to keep the flexible space alive which allows us to be productive in the first place, it is vital to be present, to develop an awareness for the reactionary tendencies in the very way we live together and to find appropriate ways to respond.
Being present means to look at what surrounds you with an open mind.
* * *
Imagine you go to a place for the very first time. You are an anonymous stranger, looking at everything with fresh eyes. You try to remember each landmark on the way and you are aware of every choice you make. Yet as soon as the way becomes too familiar, as soon as walking the same path becomes a habit, you forget to look at the things that surround you and you either walk it half asleep or you occupy your mind with other things instead.
You got too used to it to have a critical distance.
“I need to become anonymous.
In order to be present.
The more anonymous I am, the more present I am.
[ ... ]
To no longer recognize myself in my name.
To no longer hear in my name anything but the voice that calls it.
To give substance to the how of the beings,
not what they are but how they are what they are.
[ ... ]
Freeing spaces frees us a hundred times more than any ‘freed space’.”
If becoming anonymous means to become stranger, then it is important to unlearn familiarity in order to become more present.
“One becomes strange by means of halting, for, when the movement picks up again, it is as if the parataxic evidence of the sequence of things appears unbound, as if in that interruption an interstitial space gaped open, sapping both the instituted order and our belonging to it.”
When ClaireFontaine talks about practicing what she calls the ‘human strike’
, she refers in this context to Walter Benjamin, who already wrote about 'withdrawal as a revolutionary act'
in the early 1920ties.
At the same time she looks at the artist today in terms of the ready-made object when she writes:
“We are all just as absurd and displaced as a vulgar object, deprived of its use and decreed an art object: whatever singularities, supposed to be artistic.”
Again this is a rather bleak outlook and this time I do not completely agree with her view, even though I have to admit that the milieu that constitutes the art market is indeed highly problematic. Yes, proclaiming to be a ready-made artist while practicing the human strike also is a response to the ‘State of Exception’, which arguably extends its reach into the art world too. To become ‘ready-made’ in the art world is a possible equivalent to becoming ‘anonymous’ in any other field of life. This is why I am very reluctant to call myself both, ‘artist’ and ‘ready-made artist’, because I think both terms are too much defined, just another label. As an attitude human strike as such is neither just directed toward society, nor art, but toward the whole of life, including our own sense of self.
Change can only begin where ‘I’ end.
“Taken as facts, my failings can also lead to the dismantling of the hypothesis of the self. They then become acts of resistance.”
So I wonder:
Is this distinction between being ‘ready-made’ and becoming ‘anonymous’, between ‘art’ and ‘life’, useful and necessary?
Let me ask again, this time in a slightly diferent way: is it possible, maybe even necessary, to maintain a critical (non-)position of (not-)belonging to the system that encapsulates and absorbs our lives? In my view human strike describes a general move toward a conscious position of not belonging, not just as an act of withdrawal, but as an act of resistance, not as a means to an end - but rather as pure means without end.
“This type of strike that interrupts the total mobilization to which we are all submitted and that allows to transform ourselves, might be called human strike, for it is the most general of general strikes and its goal is the transformation of the informal social relations on which dominion is founded.”
It is an attitude that can also be used as a motor behind the production of art, a practice that emerges from the need for freeing spaces. As such the idea of becoming unfamiliar creates a metaphoric space in which art can develop a meaningful dimension, or in other words:
“art as source and device of these newfound affects, rather than as a site of their realization.”
Still motivated by a deep desire for love, by the urge to encounter one another on a truly equal level, human strike outlines an attitude that wants to reclaim a territory in which change can happen, that wants to be this very change.
“Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, [ ... ] and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.”
Human strike as a position of not-belonging, does not want to solve anything, I think neither should art.
Isn’t the very need to solve problems in its core reformist already?
‘Making art’ (?)
A point of departure, from ‘making art’ as a withdrawal from established hierarchies toward active change: On an abstract level I imagine a practice that wants to build on this attitude of human strike, of becoming anonymous, unfamiliar, yet more present and on the need for freeing spaces. It is a practice that wants to take the initive, that is playful and direct, rather rooted in the present than just in the art world. It is not limited to a specific medium but it employs the immediacy and the physicality of bodies moving in space, their flow from one point to another and their meeting points in time. It interferes with existing situations and opens spaces for others to interfere: a negotiation, perhaps a spark. A position of not-belonging in an attempt to connect. At the same there is the desire to loose control, for things to get out of hand. Every element of chaos, instability and unpredictability is welcome.
This is perhaps the main difference to socially engaged art, which often comes across as therapeutic. Because it wants to create micro-utopian situations, it lacks a subversive edge that wants to contaminate the outside world.
I believe that failures are necessary.
They force us to take a step back, to distance ourselves from what we are in order to understand how we got here, both in art and in life.
* * *
“Though the flames were hot and the smoke was thick not a single life was lost.
And the reason for the blaze was never found.”
In January 2012, AK9 burned to the ground.
The ultimate loss of control. We got out just in time.
Two of the neighbouring places caught fire too.
Spectacular, thick black smoke caused traffic jams on nearby highways, airplanes approaching the city airport had to take alternative routes and the event was covered by several newspapers and TV channels: Surreal indeed, like an act of war that happened somewhere else.
Personal Ground Zero.
The reason for the blaze was never found and the ground that once belonged to AK9 has been taken over by a neighbouring company. AK9 neither was insured, nor legally protected in any other way. It disappeared without a trace with everything in it.
The only failsafe for the victims was a network of people supporting each other,
the beginning of a commune in a much broader sense of the word?
A commune that both allows and enables us not to belong?
Or just the joy of an encounter that survived its expected end?
* * *
“What the State cannot tolerate in any way, [ ... ] , is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable condition of belonging.”
* * *
AT5 Nieuws (Amsterdam, 17.01.2012)
Eye-witness holding an iPhone (Amsterdam, 19.01.2012)