Tuesday, March 10, 2015

About the Radical Collective Care Practices Project – an interview-text

by B. Rübner-Hansen, J. Wieger and M. Zechner, questions by E. Krasny[1]

Beginnings /// Upon meeting in Vienna in 2012, at a workshop Manuela ran at VBKÖ (a historical association of women artists that aims to foster contemporary feminist artistic agendas, in Vienna), we found that we shared an interest in questions of care, social reproduction/reproductive labor and collective forms of organizing, food production and housing. We come from different fields and directions: Julia is interested in feminist approaches to architecture and was then starting research on the spatial relations of reproductive labor; Manuela had done extensive militant research on care networks via workshops and her PhD, in Spain and the UK notably; and Bue was working theoretically on the question of social reproduction under capitalism, keeping an eye on the emergent forms of self-organisation during the crisis in Europe. We decided to start a collective research process and a corresponding online platform structured around case studies.
Social and economic crisis /// The idea to start the project came up against the background of a social crisis convulsing Europe – at a time when the impact of the 2008 financial crisis could be felt ever more strongly in the so-called PIIGS countries and when austerity politics started to take effect, further dismantling the social institutions once provided by the (welfare)states throughout Europe. This situation was new in Europe, both in the experiences and dilemmas it posed and the collective and organisational responses it triggered. Autonomous self-reproduction has become a matter of necessity and survival for many people (as opposed to being a life-style choice).
Radical Collective Care /// Obviously, the situation in Austria was (and still is) rather quiet and moderate compared to other countries, and the state still plays a crucial supporting role here. Even the arts are still decently funded. Noting the profound and growing disconnect that began to establish itself between northern and southern Europe, or in other words between peripheral and central Europe, we felt it was important to kick off debates about ongoing problems and struggles in the wider context of economic/social crisis in Europe and beyond. We wanted to learn from historical and contemprorary struggles in Austria, Europe and beyond and make our modest resources useful for building common notions and sharing examples across contexts. In our view, self-organised models of reproduction are crucial for ensuring survival and autonomy in contexts of crisis as well as for building a new institutional politics based on radical collective intelligence and decision-making. Our concern with such ‘radical’ practices is not subcultural practice or a fetishization of precarity and poverty, but about practices that tackle problems at their root.
Material conditions /// We decided to use the VBKÖ as an initial base for the Radical Colllective Care practices project, to hold group meetings and presentations there. J was (and is) a member of the VBKÖ board and helped secure the space as well as some funding for the project. We wanted this to be a shared process of knowledge production that would do away with the cultures of individual authorship, specialist knowledge and also precarization current in art and academia. So within our modest budgetary possibilities, we invited people interested in or already working on these issues to present case studies, paid 100€ per case study. This produced a strong basis for the project, but of course our money soon ran out, causing us to slow down and seek other formats. In that context, the project travelled to other places like the Shed Kunsthalle in Zürich and here. We have since been looking for models and ways to continue the project within reasonable conditions. In taking our own reproduction seriously, we know it’s crucial to counter cultures of free labour within cultural and knowledge production. We will likely focus on feminist economics approach to cultural production in our next steps.

1. What do you mean by collective care?
We partly already answered this question above. We’re interested in practices that could offer us cues for alternative ways of organizing care and social reproduction; alternative structures to those (anyways) crumbling social institutions of the state; structures that would step out of capitalist logics of exploitation and competition and rather build upon forms of collectivity and solidarity – that could take the forms of mutual aid, sustained self-organization, or institutions of the commons.
 We don’t mean to encourage fatalism about the welfare state, but rather to acknowledge that any politics – also one which tries to defend the welfare state – must take seriously both our desires for greater reproductive autonomy, and the increasing needs that must be satisfied in collective ways in the crisis. Here we cannot simply wait for a resurgence of the welfare state, for then other more reactive forms of reproduction take over: those of the family, the church, or neo-fascist food distribution programs, for instance. Also in North and Central Europe the “need” to defund welfare services is couched in economic terms. And indeed it does seem that after the years of high growth and redistribution in the last half of the 20th century we are, in Europe as they have long been in the global south, in a situation where there is a contradiction between our social reproduction and the reproduction of capital.  
But of course we are dealing with a political economy here, and the fact is that the social forces that brought about and sustained the welfare state are in deep crisis today. And they won’t be brought back by welfare-state-nostalgia. In countries less affected by the crisis and suffering a slower de-funding of welfare services, radical collective practices of care are more of a question of producing and composing political imaginaries and desires, than of immediate practical need. Our project is a tiny part of a broader recognition that the question of what we can call radical collective care, social reproduction, or autonomous self-reproduction, is not merely to ‘change one’s lifestyle’, as it might have been under thriving consumer-welfare-state-capitalism. Instead it becomes a matter of composing political forces capable imposing the needs and desires of our social reproduction against the necessities of the reproduction of the capitalist system.

2. What do you think is the relation between austerity urbanism and new forms of care?
Affordable housing is a part of the social institutions that are being dismantled in the neoliberal city and even more so under austerity politics. At the same time, housing is the base for our daily practices of care and reproduction. How we live – how much of our earnings we have to spend on rent or mortgages; if we can afford to life close to social or public infrastructures (like kindergarten, food supply, public transport, etc); if we can afford to live close to our social networks and networks of support, or if we are being displaced or threatened by displacement; how much we can determine our living situations, etc –  these are important questions that determine our daily routines of care and reproduction.
In that sense there is a direct relation between schemes of austerity urbanism that (further) cut affordable housing programs and foster heated real estate markets that drive up rents and prices, and new forms of care. One example that we looked at, where this relation becomes very clear, is the social movement PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca) in Spain who are fighting for fair access to housing and social rents. They do so through a politics of networked mutual aid and campaigning – a fight that became extremely urgent after the burst of the Spanish housing bubble, the mortgage crisis and the ensuing waves of evictions. It is a quite impressive movement in terms of its social breadth and depth, its sociability and collective care, its forms of mutual aid dealing with the banks, as well as its combativeness in resisting evictions or helping families to re-enter the houses they have been evicted from. The Solidarity4All network in Greece has done similar work of establishing vital infrastructures for a brutally de-classed and impoverished population.
Another example we discussed, that evolved out of the wish for experimental ways of living and with it alternative and collective forms of care and support, are the numerous collective housing projects in Leipzig that are backed by a huge amount infrastructure that support these experiments. And they also get support by larger solidarity structure (working throughout Germany) like the Mietshäuser Syndikat that aims to establish models of collective ownership and to take these projects out of the real estate market. 
A third example of taking on the question of social crisis and social reproduction at the level of the city can be found in new municipalist movements, such as Barcelona En Comú which some of us are collaborating with. The point of radical practices of collective care is not to negate the institutional dimension but to map out a sort of source code of collective management, and the criteria that go with it: not one-sidedly but within, against and beyond the state.

3. Why does the context of art and culture offer a possibility to locate your praxis?
 There is an interest on the side of the arts – institutions, groups, projects, debates – to connect to broader political questions, as we have seen in the last decades. This is often tricky to negotiate, but so are most things in a world where resources and power are unevenly distributed. We see the arts and culture as a domain where thought and experimentation can still have a place, without being subject to efficiency and productivity measurement quite as in neoliberal academia. It’s important to keep creating those spaces for encounter and exchange and to use the resources available, whilst advocating a strong politics of working conditions and autonomy of production and circulation. Collectively managed institutions such as the VBKÖ are key pillars of support for such processes. If we consider that culture, creativity and thought are commons that play no minor role in our social reproduction, perhaps we can begin to valorise and organise them differently. Our project is one of many, many experiments with how to do this. 
So this is about creating spaces for discussions that are neither strictly academic or aesthetically oriented, and neither purely driven by the urgency of activism. We like the possibility of multi-site and open ended discussion that plattforms and networks can generate, and consider conversations (in discourse and practice) between activism, knowledge production, radical pedagogy and cultural production to be very important.

4. Can you describe the structure of a workshop and what you exhibit?
We usually refer to the case study meetings as presentations, and they differ in format, depending on who presents and what they present. Some of these meetings are a bit like seminars, with one or two structured presentations followed by a discussion; some of them function as interviews, with onre or more people asking questions to a person or group (in situ or via skype). Others have involved invited guests who tell of their own practice and research techniques or pedagogies. Our first few meetings at VBKÖ were attempts at establishing a stable group of contributors, which failed somewhat; we thus assumed that the three of us drive the process and also began to accept to take the project to other places. So far most presentations happened in cultural spaces and attracted a mix of activists, academics and cultural workers, and people working across those. But we also work in activist and academic spaces and see the project as open to travelling, given certain basic material, ethical and political conditions.
The RadColCare project is not an exhibtion project as such. M co-curated an exhibition on radical care in Zürich and brought us in with a series of events and a wall space, which gave us the occasion to edit and assemble our materials in more solid ways. There we created a space for reading and listening to case studies in the Shedhalle library (with audio stations and take-away booklets), and used the same space for presentations of the domestic worker’s collectives Territorio Doméstico, Keine Hausarbeiterin ist Illegal and Respekt@Vpod. This space functioned as a kind of lively and convivial archive. Both J and M have worked with the archive in various ways in the past and like to play with the display and activiation of knowledge via such formats.

5: I am interested in the etymologic dimension of the word curating (care) and how the practice of curating can be redefined by artistic/curatorial/activist practices; do you see a relation to curatorial practices in your work?
Curating is probably not the first thing that comes to our minds when we think of what the work of this project is about, but when it comes to imagining and discussing how to arrange and set up bodies, physical or digital architectures and how to position and display information, perhaps curating could be a verb. This also concerns where and how we want the project to happen. The same could be said about considerations like who we want to invite, what practices we want to discuss, how we want to present and distribute the knowledge that we gathered. So if you take curating to involve an aspect of cura or care, for sure we take care to do all this in collectively, politically and ethically sustainable ways. But compared to classical curating, practiced in museums and art spaces, the practice of the rad-col-care project is much more open-ended, procession and messy, and crucially there’s no one figure of a curator who wields great power of the arrangement of things/places. The care for composition and presentation in our case is part of a larger question and temporality, not just with the event or single encounters but with weaving assemblaged and networks over time and space. And, while this involves trying to establish decent conditions, it doesn’t hinge on funding quite in the same way that classical curating does and doesn’t valorize certain curatorial roles over others. The question, perhaps an existential and political rather than definitional one, is what ‘care’ is taken to mean in curating. Is it the care of the (beautiful) souls, undertaken by the specialized functionary, the curator of a parish – this clerical term is perhaps the most proximate etymology of contemporary art curating – or are we speaking more broadly of care for processes – social, political, ecological, corporeal – in the more expansive sense of the Latin word for care, curatus?

6. What are your most important theoretical references?
For us the writings of feminist authors such as Silvia Federici and Mariarosa dalla Costa are important sources of inspiration, as well as writings on commons by people such as the Midnight notes collective, Geogre Caffentzis or Massimo de Angelis (check out the gendered divisions of subjects!), but also texts about the crisis from various collectives and individuals. The feminist authors we appreciate start from the gendered nature of reproductive work while historicizing, rather than essentialising it as female. At the same time, their acknowledgement of the violent and economic historical construction of reproductive work as a separate sphere, does not lead them to simply reject it or deride it in the name of autonomy. Instead their work points towards radical practices that disarticulate familiar binaries such as autonomy and heteronomy, production and reproduction, creative and care, desire and need, avoiding the subtle violence of invisibility and domestication that comes with choosing side over the other. These debates are key for questions around the commons as much as the welfare state, and obviously there is an ecology of debates and writings in the authors we mention: rather than from individual authors we start from that ecology.

[1] We put this together on the occasion of  an invitation to participate in the exhibition Suzanne Lacy's International Dinner Party in feminist curatorial thought’, curated by Elke Krasny at the Toni-Areal, ZHdK, Zuerich, in 2015.


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