TROJAN HORSE: You write a lot about local communities and how inhabiting places can be a way of becoming aware of complex social, cultural, economic and ecological processes and relationships which make and shape who we are and what we can do. You yourself are rooted in the Vallagarina district in the Italian Alps, how did you end becoming Vallagarinians?
BIANCA ELZENBAUMER: We are still in the process of becoming Vallagarinians. We decided to root our practice in this alpine valley because it is the place where Fabio has grown up from the age of 7 onwards and it is quite close to the valley I’ve grown up in. When working through issues of precarity for my PhD research, we decided that we wanted to find a way to tackle our own precarious living condition: we had spent years travelling around Europe and Palestine, always following either funding money for art/design residencies or moving for our studies. As our practice has a lot to do with building up social relations and inquiring into specific local contexts, we wanted to decide on a place where these relations could be build up over a long period of time and where the knowledge generated through various projects could sediment and build up to some more consistent but also more transformative body of work. And given that in all our travels the Alps where a steady place to come back to, but also a place we would always long for (those mountains!), it made a lot of sense to us to try to experiment with our practice and attempt to create more stable conditions for us in the valley one of us has grown up in. We hope that this allows us to ask more difficult questions, to more stubbornly work on issues we care about – no matter if there is funding for it or not.
(image of the valley – http://www.brave-new-alps.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/panorama_web.jpg)
TH: How would you describe the place, your life and the community there? What is your role in there? What does your being there enable?
BE: The valley we live in is a high-performance valley as it is one of the major routes connecting Central Europe to Italy. It is characterized by the mountains but also by heavy infrastructure running through it, monoculture vineyards and apple plantations, sprawling urbanization in the valley bottom. To us the valley is a strange mixture between alpine beauty and post-rural urban and infrastructural mess. In terms of community, we find that people live very individualized lives: many use the villages as dormitories, while their work and social life takes place in the urban centre (Rovereto, 40,000 inhabitants). As we came back to the valley after having been away for at least 10 years, we tried to figure out who our allies could be and to our surprise (which now seems a bit absurd to us) found very interesting small scale initiatives going on below the radar of mainstream culture and business that engage with pressing social and environmental issues in inventive ways. As we are still free agents in this context, we for now see our role as network builders (e.g. bringing together small initiatives that would normally not find a context to speak to each other), catalysts for projects of experimental sociality and production (e.g. an intergenerational community garden, a community economies research and resource centre), critical thinkers bringing contemporary feminist, Marxist and critical posthumanist ideas to the valley (e.g. by translating texts from English to Italian, activating concepts in practice, organizing workshops and learning cycles). But then we also like to think that we are simply inhabitants of this valley and that – as lots of other people – we just contribute to what is going on here by working and living in the area. And what uplifts us at the moment, that we plan to continue to do so for the next 20-40 years.
image of Circolo del Suolo: https://www.facebook.com/comunfare/posts/1883416905217087 (one of these images)
QuerciaLaB: https://twitter.com/bravenewalps (first image in our timeline)
comun’Orto: (one image of this or that post) https://www.facebook.com/comunorto/posts/827242224097554
TH: Commons and commoning seem to be key terms for your practise. How would describe what these mean? I’m also interested in this concretely in the context of Vallagarina for example.
BE: To us commoning is about doing things together while negotiating differences and creating social relations that exceed the kind of profit-driven and individualizing logics that a capitalist society fosters. So it is about solidarity that works across differences, that creates and maintains resources that allow a kind of sociality and live together that is not dictated by competition. The practice of commoning has for us also meant questioning what we mean by community – in terms of not creating an exclusive group while still creating a protective boundary around a commons in order for it not to be eroded, but also in terms of asking who is part of this community if we take global social and ecological interdependence into consideration. Concretely, in the Vallagarina this has meant getting involved in all sorts of collective endeavours – such as organizing convivial roundtable discussions for potential commoners to meet each other, getting involved in setting up a community garden and a bottom-up community economies research and resource centre – while always trying to make sure to create a space in which we can challenge conventional (and at times conservative and inward looking) ideas of what it means to do things together.
TH: In some of your texts you describe yourselves as Marxist-feminist-autonomists, what does that mean to you? How does one become a marxist-feminist-autonomist?
BE: Funny to read this question. We are not really going around our everyday thinking of ourselves as marxist-feminist-autonomists, but we do indeed find lots of inspiration in feminist marxist and feminist autonomist texts as they question stupid institutions such as patriarchy and capitalism, while always stressing the fact that we can change things bottom-up, starting from ourselves and organizing collectively.
TH: You started a project called Precarity Pilot (with an illustrator Caterina Giuliani), the word precarity comes up a lot in your writing, how would you define it? How did you-we become precarious? Was there a moment in time when it happened?
BE: Tricky question. Let’s say I wrote a book-length thesis on it. But here a short and hopefully somewhat clear answer. First of all, for the definition of precarity I like to draw on one given by Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, two sociologist researching the creative industries in the UK: “Precarity signifies both the multiplication of precarious, unstable, insecure forms of living and, simultaneously, new forms of political struggle and solidarity that reach beyond the traditional models of the political party or trade union.” One could say that precarious (and even dangerous) working conditions are the norm within a capitalist mode of production, however, in the global North West workers have gained significant rights after World War II (e.g. shorter working hours, pension and health care provision). From the 1970s onwards these hard-fought for rights have again been gradually eroded through neoliberal politics at the work place and in education. With Precarity Pilot we in fact look also into how – in the case of designers – education contributes to make us precarious: with its focus on the individual genius and narratives about creative genius providing ‘success’, in design education there is very little space for looking at precarious working conditions as something that is systemic in our society and at how we can organize collectively to counter it, whether at the micro-scale of design collectives or at the macro scale of our profession. And given the neoliberal imprint we get within education, very often we engage in acts of self-precarisation in order to be flexible and hard-working enough to remain part of the creative industries.
TH: What is that you find useful/ interesting / special in the practise of designer at the moment?
BE: That we got some great practical skills when it comes to creating imaginaries and allowing people to experience spaces that allow for qualitatively different social interactions. I’m particularly interested in what happens when these skills are activated to experiment with a post-capitalist world could look, feel and function like.
TH: What would you do with your life if you would graduate from design or architecture school right now?
BE: I would define a place where to root my practice and try to stick with it while using all my skills and contacts to create a diversity of economies that can sustain myself and others.
TH: The summer school takes place in Bengtsår, a small-ish island in southern finland which mostly functions as a place for different kinds of summer camps organized by the city of Helsinki. What is your relationship with islands?
BE: I’ve grown up in the mountains, where as a kid islands felt like a strange concept. So I’m excited about spending time together with other inquiring minds on a small-ish Finnish island.
TH: What is your workshop going to be about?
BE: For now, there is only a rough overall idea of the workshop: I know that I would like to share my interest in work from a feminist perspective, while also continuing my exploration of how self-organised learning can play out. To do so, I will also bring along my friend Paolo Plotegher, who is an artist, critical pedagogue and shaman as well as my 16-months old child Pino. I think the workshop will involve questioning what we consider work and what role care plays in our work and everyday life. I also would like us to explore how collective moments of care can be activated while we live, study and work together on the island – and I think that this will involve paying attention to how we can create a spaces where to take care of our body and our mind at the same time.
TH: Do you have texts, videos or other things in mind we should read before the summer school, to prepare for your workshop? Why those?
BE: Ever since I knew about the topic of this year’s summer school, my thoughts were going to a short by Siliva Federici called ‘Wages Against Houswork’ https://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/silvia-federici-wages-against-housework/
. It’s a short piece from 1974 and it gives an insight to one of many struggles against exploitative work that have been fought so far. But I think my mind also keeps coming back to this text, because the way Federici speaks about work and wages resonates with ways in which today we might speak about precarious ‘creative’ work and about an unconditional income for everyone. Visually the text also connects to a lot of great graphic design that was produced on the topic of work by feminist artists: https://seeredwomensworkshop.wordpress.com/
Bianca Elzenbaumer is a design researcher and co-founder of Brave New Alps (together with Fabio Franz). In her collaborative work, she produces design projects that engage people in discussing and rethinking the politics of social and environmental issues through the co-creation of pedagogical spaces, publications, urban interventions and public events. In her work she combines design research methods with radical pedagogy, conflict mediation techniques and DIY making. Bianca currently works as an associate professor at Leeds College of Art (UK).