Tyranny of the Clock

By George Woodcock, originally appeared in War Commentary, mid March 1944:

In no characteristic is existing society in the West so sharply distinguished from the earlier societies, whether of Europe or the East, than in its conception of time. To the ancient Chinese or Greek, to the Arab herdsman or Mexican peon of today, time is represented in the cyclic processes of nature, the alternation of day and night, the passage from season to season. The nomads and farmers measured and still measure their day from sunrise to sunset, and their year in terms of the seedtime and harvest, of the falling leaf and the ice thawing on the lakes and rivers. The farmer worked according to the elements, the craftsman for so long as he felt it necessary to perfect his product. Time was seen in a process of natural change, and men were not concerned in its exact measurement. For this reason civilisations highly developed in other respects had the most primitive means of measuring time, the hour glass with it’s trickling sand or dripping water, the sundial, useless on a dull day, and the candle or lamp whose unburnt remnant of oil or wax indicated the hours. All these devices where approximate and inexact, and were often rendered unreliable by the weather or the personal laziness of the tender. Nowhere in the ancient or medieval world were more than a tiny minority of men concerned with time in the terms of mathematical exactitude.

Modern, Western man, however lives in a world which runs according to the mechanical and mathematical symbols of clock time. The clock dictates his movements and inhibits his actions. The clock turns time from a process of nature into a commodity that can be measured and bought and sold like soap or sultanas. And because, without some means of exact time keeping, industrial capitalism could never have developed and could not continue to exploit the workers, the clock represents an element of mechanical tyranny in the lives of modern men more potent than any individual exploiter or any other machine. It is valuable to trace the historical process by which the clock influenced the social development of modern European civilisation.

It is a frequent circumstance of history that a culture or civilisation develops the device which will later be used for its destruction. The ancient Chinese, for example, invented gunpowder, which was developed by the military experts of the West and eventually led to the Chinese civilisation itself being destroyed by the high explosives of modern warfare. Similarly, the supreme achievement of the ingenuity of the craftsmen in the medieval cities of Europe was the invention of the mechanical clock, which, with it’s revolutionary alteration of the concept of time, materially assisted the growth of exploiting capitalism and the destruction of medieval culture.

There is a tradition that the clock appeared in the eleventh century, as a device for ringing bells at regular intervals in the monasteries which, with the regimented life they imposed on their inmates, were the closest social approximation in the middle ages to the factory of today. The first authenticated clock, however, appeared in the thirteenth century, and it was not until the fourteenth century that clocks became common ornaments of the public buildings in the German cities.

These early clocks, operated by weights, were not particularly accurate, and it was not until the sixteenth century that any great reliability was obtained. In England, for instance the clock at Hampton Court, made in 1540, is said to have been the first accurate clock in the country. And even the accuracy of the sixteenth century clocks are relative, for they were only equipped with hour hands. The idea of measuring time in minutes and seconds had been thought out by the early mathematicians as far back as the fourteenth century, but it was not until the invention of the pendulum in 1657 that sufficient accuracy was attained to permit the addition of a minute hand, and the second hand did not appear until the eighteenth century. These two centuries, it should be observed, were those in which capitalism grew to such an extent that it was able to take advantage of the industrial revolution in technique in order to establish its domination over society.

The clock, as Lewis Mumford has pointed out, represents the key machine of the machine age, both for its influence on technology and its influence on the habits of men. Technically, the clock was the first really automatic machine that attained any importance in the life of men. Previous to its invention, the common machines were of such a nature that their operation depended on some external and unreliable force, such as human or animal muscles, water or wind. It is true that the Greeks had invented a number of primitive automatic machines, but these where used, like Hero’s steam engine, for obtaining ‘supernatural’ effects in the temples or for amusing the tyrants of Levantine cities. But the clock was the first automatic machine that attained a public importance and a social function. Clock-making became the industry from which men learnt the elements of machine making and gained the technical skill that was to produce the complicated machinery of the industrial revolution.

Socially the clock had a more radical influence than any other machine, in that it was the means by which the regularisation and regimentation of life necessary for an exploiting system of industry could best be attained. The clock provided the means by which time – a category so elusive that no philosophy has yet determined its nature – could be measured concretely in more tangible forms of space provided by the circumference of a clock dial. Time as duration became disregarded, and men began to talk and think always of ‘lengths’ of time, just as if they were talking of lengths of calico. And time, being now measurable in mathematical symbols, became regarded as a commodity that could be bought and sold in the same way as any other commodity.

The new capitalists, in particular, became rabidly time-conscious. Time, here symbolising the labour of workers, was regarded by them almost as if it were the chief raw material of industry. ‘Time is money’ became on of the key slogans of capitalist ideology, and the timekeeper was the most significant of the new types of official introduced by the capitalist dispensation.

in the early factories the employers went so far as to manipulate their clocks or sound their factory whistles at the wrong times in order to defraud their workers a little of this valuable new commodity. Later such practices became less frequent, but the influence of the clock imposed a regularity on the lives of the majority of men which had previously been known only in the monastery. Men actually became like clocks, acting with a repetitive regularity which had no resemblance to the rhythmic life of a natural being. They became, as the Victorian phrase put it, ‘as regular as clockwork’. Only in the country districts where the natural lives of animals and plants and the elements still dominated life, did any large proportion of the population fail to succumb to the deadly tick of monotony.

At first this new attitude to time, this new regularity of life, was imposed by the clock-owning masters on the unwilling poor. The factory slave reacted in his spare time by living with a chaotic irregularity which characterised the gin-sodden slums of early nineteenth century industrialism. Men fled to the timeless world of drink or Methodist inspiration. But gradually the idea of regularity spread downwards among the workers. Nineteenth century religion and morality played their part by proclaiming the sin of ‘wasting time’. The introduction of mass-produced watches and clocks in the 1850’s spread time-consciousness among those who had previously merely reacted to the stimulus of the knocker-up or the factory whistle. In the church and in the school, in the office and the workshop, punctuality was held up as the greatest of the virtues.

Out of this slavish dependence on mechanical time which spread insidiously into every class in the nineteenth century there grew up the demoralising regimentation of life which characterises factory work today. The man who fails to conform faces social disapproval and economic ruin. If he is late at the factory the worker will lose his job or even, at the present day [1944 – while wartime regulations were in force], find himself in prison. Hurried meals, the regular morning and evening scramble for trains or buses, the strain of having to work to time schedules, all contribute to digestive and nervous disorders, to ruin health and shorten life.

Nor does the financial imposition of regularity tend, in the long run, to greater efficiency. Indeed, the quality of the product is usually much poorer, because the employer, regarding time as a commodity which he has to pay for, forces the operative to maintain such a speed that his work must necessarily be skimped. Quantity rather than quality becomes the criterion, the enjoyment is taken out of work itself, and the worker in his turn becomes a ‘clock-watcher’, concerned only when he will be able to escape to the scanty and monotonous leisure of industrial society, in which he ‘kills time’ by cramming in as much time-scheduled and mechanised enjoyment of cinema, radio and newspapers as his wage packet and his tiredness allow. Only if he is willing to accept of the hazards of living by his faith or his wits can the man without money avoid living as a slave to the clock.

The problem of the clock is, in general, similar to that of the machine. Mechanical time is valuable as a means of co-ordination of activities in a highly developed society, just as the machine is valuable as a means of reducing unnecessary labour to the minimum. Both are valuable for the contribution they make to the smooth running of society, and should be used insofar as they assist men to co-operate efficiently and to eliminate monotonous toil and social confusion. But neither should be allowed to dominate mens lives as they do today.

Now the movement of the clock sets the tempo men’s lives – they become the servant of the concept of time which they themselves have made, and are held in fear, like Frankenstein by his own monster. In a sane and free society such an arbitrary domination of man’s functions by either clock or machine would obviously be out of the question. The domination of man by the creation of man is even more ridiculous than the domination of man by man. Mechanical time would be relegated to its true function of a means of reference and co-ordination, and men would return again to a balance view of life no longer dominated by the worship of the clock. Complete liberty implies freedom from the tyranny of abstractions as well as from the rule of men.

***

I wish I’d discovered this text a long time ago but right now is also a good time. It’s included in the essay collection Why Work: Arguments for the Leisure Society, which was part of my haul from a trip to CIRA this week. I was very happy with myself to finally return the books I had borrowed in the fall and repeatedly renewed, but then I wound up coming away with more books than I’d returned. Those were in addition to a book my friend Elise gave me yesterday, plus four I bought on a trip to Lyon this past weekend (in all fairness they were for Alvaro too), which sets the book aquisition tally for the week at 10. I think I just need to shut up about wanting to streamline my book collection and accept the fact that I’m a hoarder. At least I get some things from the library. (But believe me I’d buy them all if I had unlimited disposable income.)

I’m not going to write much now in response to the ideas here, other than to say that it resonated with me so much given that a big preoccupation of mine is the equation of time with money, analyzing value in terms of time rather than in more mainstream economic value judgements. Clock time is, of course, an entirely artificial concept, I realize this — I’m not so interested in the precise measurement of time that Woodcock points out here (seconds, minutes) as I am in the fuzzier denominations of days, seasons, etc.

The ideas here are also interesting to me because lately I’ve been mulling over what to call a different sort of economic relationship/structure/tradition that is based not on the clock but on cycles and seasons. There are names for such structures already but I’m not really happy with any of them. And many words that spring to mind, such as “slow,” carry connotations that would be negative to some in this world of speed.

Anyway, to ponder. Right now I have a meeting to run to and I don’t want to be late. (ha.)

Bread success

Bread success

First decent loaf I’ve made in a while, been doing quite a lot of caution-to-the wind experimentation lately which = often sketchy results. That’s why today I said screw it all, I shall follow convention, and was thus rewarded with a good loaf of bread. (Note: all those experiments were not for nothing. There is learning in failure.)

Corrupting young minds

A conversation I had on Wednesday with the 9-year-old daughter of a friend:

Sara (doing her homework): What are you doing?

Me (crocheting): Making gloves.

Sara: Really? For kids or grown-ups?

Me: Well these are for a grown-up, they’re for my friend.

Sara: Oh. (pause) That looks like it takes a really long time.

Me: It does, but I don’t think it really takes much longer than gloves you buy in a store. It’s just that this way, when I make a pair of gloves myself, I see exactly how long it takes because I’m the one doing the work. When I buy gloves in a store, someone else made them so I don’t really see how long it takes.

Sara: I guess so. But the gloves you buy in a store are made with machines.

Me: True, but a lot of times the machines are super far away from the store, so you also have to figure that it takes a lot of time for the gloves to be put on a ship or a plane and then brought to the store. The yarn I’m using for this glove comes from South America though, so that still takes a long time to send here, and since I didn’t make the yarn I don’t really know how long that part takes. But at least I know how long the crochet part takes. … You want to hear something crazy though? My mom knits a lot and she goes to a conference every year for people who like to knit. She told me that last year there was a lady at the conference who raised her own sheep, then cut off their wool, then made the wool into yarn, then dyed the yarn a nice color with dye that she made herself, and then knitted a really beautiful sweater with it. Can you imagine??

Sara: Wow, that really must have taken her a long time!

Me: I know, totally! And imagine, just the part where you raise sheep, how long that must take. But I think it’s really cool because when she wears her sweater she knows exactly where it came from. She can even point to the sheep that gave her the wool for it!

Sara (after a silence in which she appeared to be pondering something): … Well… my sweater, I got it from Manor, so I know where it came from. Before that it must have come from the Manor factory. But I don’t know anything about the Manor factory…

Me: Me neither…

Sara went back to her homework and I continued with my crochet, which I’d just started so there wasn’t much there. About twenty minutes later I was in the kitchen waiting on a pot of coffee and continuing to crochet, and by then I had finished about half of the cuff of the glove. Sara came in and saw it: “Oh my gosh! It’s so long now!” Then she asked if I could teach her how to crochet 🙂

As for that glove I was making, it continues to mock me. Here is 1 of 2:

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I’m unapologetically proud of that glove. (The pattern is on Ravelry: “Dead Simple Fingerless Mitts.”) I started and finished it in about two days when I was at my parents’ house over the holidays. Since then I’ve started and screwed up and had to take apart glove 2 of 2 about five or six times. The glove I was crocheting as I discussed with young Sara the origins of our clothing and the temporality of its production? Also screwed up and taken apart. Every time it’s the same thing, glove #2 is significantly snugger than the first one and I can’t figure out why. There were a couple of times when I conceivably could have miscounted rows, but with yesterday’s attempt I am 100% positive that I counted right.  And now I can’t escape them because Mélanie (their eventual recipient) saw the one finished glove last night and she’s now all excited and waiting for the second one to be finished. I can do this, I can do this…

Slow Art: Serge, Piero & their many casks of brew

Piero Isgro and Serge Margel are old friends and it shows. They speak like two men possessed, frantic, wild-eyed, impassioned, talking a mile a minute and interrupting each other to complete the other one’s sentence, constructing their stories in loops of elongated time rather than linear narratives. Plantopic had a meeting with these two on Friday in order to learn more about a particular project that they’ve been working on together for the past twelve years: the fabrication of plant dyes using a long, slow process of natural fermentation.

Piero is an artist and Serge has a background in philosophy and is also an artist. They began the plant dye project out of a love for color, experimentation and process, but not necessarily with an interest in controlling end results, and certainly not with an interest in selling their wares. They meet every Friday in their studio space in the neighborhood of Servette to embark on exploration in the purest sense: no road map, no objectives, no agenda.

They seem to test out pretty much everything you can think of to see what color it makes. All of it they gather out in the wild, and depending on the plant they use a different part of it for the dye (roots, stems, flowers, berries, etc). They put some plants directly into the water baths, while they tuck others into plastic bags for varying lengths of time, where the heat inside (like in composting) will jump start the fermentation before putting the plant matter in the water bath. The proportion of plant to water is something they play with, but Serge used as an example a basketball sized ball of plant matter for 30 liters of water.

Then comes the wait. Acidity is what makes it ferment, and they check the acidity with a pH strip and simply add some lemon if it’s too base. It all sounded a little like my own mad scientist kitchen experiments with sourdough, pickles, yogurt … except that I get to enjoy the products of microbial labor within a few hours, days or weeks. Serge and Piero’s dyes take much longer. To give you an idea of the timeline we’re talking about here, on the day before our meeting with them they had just opened up a cask of dye that had been fermenting quietly for the past eight years. Think about that for a moment.

They know when it’s done fermenting because the ball of plant matter falls to the bottom of the bath. Once that happens, they filter out the plant matter and return the liquid to the bath to begin dyeing. That part goes more or less how I would expect it to. They soak fabric in the dye for a few hours, and then take it out to dry for 10 days, either in a light or dark space. The decision of light or dark depends on what plant matter they used for the dye: berry-based dye, for example, needs a dark space because light causes some weird reaction to the color. This process of soaking and leaving to dry is repeated until they decide they’re done.

A friend of theirs who is a molecular biochemist has observed the whole progression of production and cannot figure out what exactly is the chemical process throughout it all. Hence why they call it plant alchemy.

The one color they still have not achieved is indigo, the color that marks one with the status of Master Dyeman (or whatever the title would be). This they said is because climatically Geneva isn’t well placed for making that color — too cold and damp for the techniques they’re using. Said techniques are informed in part by in-person tutorials they organized with two elderly sisters living outside of Anduze who were masters at creating plant-based dyes à l’ancien.

It was only at the end of our conversation that the pair thought to show us a few swatches of fabric. This is a piece of silk from a collaboration they did with another artist who works with computer-based projection:

image

Showing us samples seemingly only as an afterthought was a funny flip on how many people treat their work — show and then tell. But for these two, showing their work comes second. (Piero actually had to go out to his car and dig around under the back seat in order to find a few pieces.) The question of the visibility of their work is seemingly something that haunts them both — initially Serge said that they wouldn’t be showing us anything because we’d get distracted by them as objects, as products, and forget what was important, ie, the process of dilating time and production: “We are prisoners of these beautiful colors.”

 

 

 

In bread news

This sounds awesome:

The Land Grant: Flatbread Society

Image

(photo by the Flatbread Society)

Participants include Amy Franceschini, Tara McDowell, Boris Portnoy, Stijn Schiffeleers, and Lode Vranken.

For this iteration of The Land Grant project, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU is partnering with the widely acclaimed Flatbread Society (FBS), an international public art project that brings together farmers, oven builders, astronomers, artists, soil scientists, bakers, anthropologists, and others who share an interest in humankind’s long and complex relationship with grain. Led by San Francisco–based artist Amy Franceshini and the design studio and artists’ collective Futurefarmers, FBS projects extend across the globe, with each iteration bringing together a specific constellation of collaborators. At the Broad MSU this group will include artists, an architect, a writer, a musician, a curator, and a chef, whose work together  will draw upon the deep knowledge and experience of local farmers, ceramicists, folklorists, sociologists, musicians, and economists.

The history of the development of human civilization, from early technological innovations to cultural evolution, can be told through the story of grain. But that story is also a local story, and one that East Lansing knows well. The Land Grant: Flatbread Society invites us to think differently about that story and to imagine new agricultural models. Through an exhibition, a variety of public programs and workshops, and a publication, FBS at the Broad MSU will explore possibilities for scaling down food production and keeping distribution local and will propose practices that encourage farmers to remain connected to their craft and more hands-on farming methods.

In other bread news — I didn’t announce it right away because I was busy mourning — my sourdough starter is officially dead. My fault entirely, starting with a sketchy feeding schedule followed by no feeding schedule after I relegated it to the back of the refrigerator for the better part of two months. I opened up the jar the other day to discover a revolting layer of black liquid floating over a gray skin covering a cement colored block of a clearly dead starter. I tried rehabilitating it anyway but no go.

Time heals all wounds. I’ve begun already cultivating another starter.

Upon mixing flour and water:

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After three days of sitting quietly on the kitchen countertop it started bubbling away, so this morning I began feeding it. This afternoon it looked like this:

image

 

It smells strongly of stinky cheese (this is good), hence our kitchen smells strongly of stinky cheese (which is why I’m not inviting you over for dinner tonight). We’ll see how this one goes. It’s amazing how guilty I feel letting the first one die.

 

Open call for residency: Deadline change

I posted an open call for an art-research residency last week, but due to a scheduling issue we’ve extended the deadline for proposals to 14 February. FYI.

Nature, adversity, etc. – A call for proposals for a transdisciplinary residency at Utopiana (Geneva, Switzerland). 

The propositions may be comprised of artistic projects in different media, workshops, or other forms of interventions.
Utopiana is developing its activities around three axes: artist residencies, “Plantopic” – a research and gardening project – and a public event entitled “The Beast and Adversity,” the latter to be held in 2015.
In 2013 an urban garden, created by artists and neighbors of the residency, integrated itself into Utopiana’s universe. At present we are launching an open call for propositions for residencies in this context. The garden is a microcosm that allows us to question the old couple of nature and culture.
Contrary to the preconception of “the artist-genius,” which inspired romanticism with the conviction that “the contemplation of nature can bring us to understand the deep meaning of things,” Utopiana invites interested persons to take part in the residency to follow “the secret life of plants.” In addition to the workspace traditionally offered by the residency, a garden parcel of 5m2 will also be available as a space of experimentation in the community garden “Pote à Jean.” This call for those who believe themselves able to contribute to the subject at hand and who are ready to enter into a dialogue with the garden and its occupants.
This residency will be accompanied by the research group Plantopic, which bases itself around permaculture seen as an attitude and alternative form of social construction. In this same direction, Plantopic’s research is concerned with seeing art mediation as the creation of a milieu, an intermediary, but also an environment, a context, and “producing knowledge that contributes to writing our history differently….”
The residency is organized in view of an event that will take place in 2015, “The Beast and Adversity.” The notion of adversity refers to the fundamental ambiguity of our existence, which results in our desire to possess and master nature, when in fact nature possesses and masters us at least as much. In this way, in the heart of our being and in our environment there lives a force that makes us as much as it escapes us. The question that guides us in this project is thus: If nature is neither a reservoir of resources to exploit, nor an inert space to possess, nor an ensemble of mechanisms to master, how then might we come to terms with it? In this research we aim to question our relationship with nature constructed economically, culturally, and politically, and to explore alternative practice and thought in these subjects.
Interested candidates are asked to send by e-mail an application file consisting of a portfolio, CV, availability for a residency between March 2014 and March 2015 (maximum three months), as well as a motivation letter of 500 words or less. For more information, write to utopiana@utopiana.ch.
Deadline: 14 February 2014.

For more about Utopiana, please see our website www.utopiana.ch.

Precarious work

What question(s) exactly am I trying to answer with my research? That should be a pretty obvious answer to know, but I haven’t really thought about it in those terms. I can tell you what my research is about, but not what questions it’s trying to answer. So I’m starting to ask myself. This week we’re in the third of six pre-doctoral seminars, this time with three guest professors from the CCW Graduate School at the University of the Arts London, and one of them during his opening presentation posed this question to us. So what am I asking?

One question I’m trying to answer is about precarity. The International Labor Office identifies some common characteristics of precarious work (but does not give an all-encompassing definition, since definitions vary across cultures and countries):

In the most general sense, precarious work is a means for employers to shift risks and responsibilities on to workers. It is work performed in the formal and informal economy and is characterized by variable levels and degrees of objective (legal status) and subjective (feeling) characteristics of uncertainty and insecurity. Although a precarious job can have many faces, it is usually defined by uncertainty as to the duration of employment, multiple possible employers or a disguised or ambiguous employment relationship, a lack of access to social protection and benefits usually associated with employment, low pay, and substantial legal and practical obstacles to joining a trade union and bargaining collectively.

Workers on temporary contracts of various durations, be they directly employed or hired through an agency, may benefit from a job in the short term, but live with uncertainty as to whether their contract will be extended. Temporary contracts often also provide a lower wage, and do not always confer the same benefits, which often accrue with time and are directly linked to the length and status of the employment relationship. The result is a condition in which workers cannot plan for their future, and lack the security of certain forms of social protection.

Another core aspect of precarious work is the lack of clarity as to the identity of the employer. Recent decades have seen the fragmentation of what was once the vertically-integrated enterprise into more horizontal arrangements involving other entities such as subcontractors, franchisers and agencies. Legislation in general has not kept pace with these organizational changes, failing to differentiate between these complex multilateral relationships and the traditional simple bilateral relationship between a worker and an employer. Workers who are hired by an agency or subcontractor but who perform their duties in or for a separate user enterprise are in a precarious situation when it is unclear who of the two parties should be held responsible and accountable for the rights and benefits of a worker. Weak legislative frameworks and impotent enforcement mechanisms create a situation in which workers in triangular or disguised employment relationships have virtually no means of protecting their rights.

(Interesting to note that many employees of the ILO itself, the ones at a lower level, are in situations of precarious employment, being given short-term contracts of a few months or a year with no idea of whether that’s going to be extended.)

In my opinion there is precarity in all work. I remember having a small crisis of conscience back when I worked as a freelance book editor. I was working in-house at the time for a school book publisher, and had gotten interviews at two other publishers for a full-time staff position. Both interviews went well and I wound up getting offers from both (which I eventually turned down, for various reasons), but prior to getting the responses I was telling one of my co-workers at the freelance job that I felt a bit guilty even thinking about leaving for another job because we were in the middle of a project. She raised her eyebrows and said, “Kate, they can fire you whenever they want. And you can fire them. It goes both ways.” Then she told me a story about how she once had been hired as a graphic designer for another publisher and they agreed that she would start after she got back from her honeymoon, in mid September 2001. When she got back from her vacation she was told that her position, which she hadn’t even started, had been cut. So it really does go both ways.

Except, it kind of doesn’t. I could quit my job in an epic way and post the video on YouTube, and maybe that will feel marvelous, but then what? Will I find another job? Maybe, but capitalism relies on a certain amount of unemployment in order to continue functioning; otherwise, competition for work is reduced. So quitting one’s job without another one lined up is inherently risky. What safety net do we have?

On the other hand, becoming a homesteader — growing your own food, making your life’s necessities and comforts — is precarious in other ways. But is that any more precarious than relying on a paycheck and hopes for a strong economy?

One of our seminar’s guest speakers was Chris Wainwright, and when talking to him about my research he rightly pointed out that homesteading was more precarious in the sense that in the current context all odds are stacked against its long-term sustainability. Political opposition, economic opposition, social opposition. This is sadly true. I get excited reading about new generations of people taking an interest in organic farming, canning, traditional craft skills, etc., but for every person like that there are who knows how many more looking to flee the family farm. Chris talked about his visit to the Isle of Eigg, a Scottish island owned by its residents, where all power is from locally produced renewables and people grow their own food. My idea of utopia, but then he said the island has the same problem that so many other rural places have: flight of the youth. They see images of other ways of living on TV or online, and they want that. Why they want that is a whole other research project.

In the end, Chris’s input was that these sorts of experiments need to avoid the binary, avoid moving wholesale from World A to World B. If that happens, World A is always going to continue to be degenerate, and World B is always going to be the start-up utopian commune existing in isolation. There needs to be some kind of permeability between A and B (and C, D, E for that matter).

But can experiments in more sustainable, ecologically sound ways of living coexist with a toxic consumer culture? They must for the time being but at some point the balance needs to tip out of the favor of the track this world is on, or else what? That’s not an answer I want to think about right now. Which brings me to my discussion with one of the other guests, Neil Cummings, on why we’re more comfortable with doing historical research and thinking about the past than we are with thinking about the future. Yet more to ponder.

This was not one of my more optimistic days, but a helpful one anyway.

Open call for artist residency + Post holiday reading & viewing

And a call for proposals in transdisciplinary art research:

Nature, adversity, etc. – A call for proposals for a transdisciplinary residency at Utopiana (Geneva, Switzerland). 

The propositions may be comprised of artistic projects in different media, workshops, or other forms of interventions.
Utopiana is developing its activities around three axes: artist residencies, “Plantopic” – a research and gardening project – and a public event entitled “The Beast and Adversity,” the latter to be held in 2015.
In 2013 an urban garden, created by artists and neighbors of the residency, integrated itself into Utopiana’s universe. At present we are launching an open call for propositions for residencies in this context. The garden is a microcosm that allows us to question the old couple of nature and culture.
Contrary to the preconception of “the artist-genius,” which inspired romanticism with the conviction that “the contemplation of nature can bring us to understand the deep meaning of things,” Utopiana invites interested persons to take part in the residency to follow “the secret life of plants.” In addition to the workspace traditionally offered by the residency, a garden parcel of 5m2 will also be available as a space of experimentation in the community garden “Pote à Jean.” This call for those who believe themselves able to contribute to the subject at hand and who are ready to enter into a dialogue with the garden and its occupants.
This residency will be accompanied by the research group Plantopic, which bases itself around permaculture seen as an attitude and alternative form of social construction. In this same direction, Plantopic’s research is concerned with seeing art mediation as the creation of a milieu, an intermediary, but also an environment, a context, and “producing knowledge that contributes to writing our history differently….”
The residency is organized in view of an event that will take place in 2015, “The Beast and Adversity.” The notion of adversity refers to the fundamental ambiguity of our existence, which results in our desire to possess and master nature, when in fact nature possesses and masters us at least as much. In this way, in the heart of our being and in our environment there lives a force that makes us as much as it escapes us. The question that guides us in this project is thus: If nature is neither a reservoir of resources to exploit, nor an inert space to possess, nor an ensemble of mechanisms to master, how then might we come to terms with it? In this research we aim to question our relationship with nature constructed economically, culturally, and politically, and to explore alternative practice and thought in these subjects.
Interested candidates are asked to send by e-mail an application file consisting of a portfolio, CV, availability for a residency between March 2014 and March 2015 (maximum three months), as well as a motivation letter of 500 words or less. For more information, write to utopiana@utopiana.ch.
Deadline: 31 January 2014.

For more about Utopiana, please see our website www.utopiana.ch.

Sharing Christmas and a New Research Project

Fermentation Festival recap: There is a sourdough starter struggling for life in the kitchen, a kitchen kept cold because my parents are extremely economical and concerned about energy waste. I knew full well going into this that winter is not the time to try to cultivate a sourdough starter, but attempting to cultivate it we are. My brother’s into it, as he is into all things sciencey and involving fermentation, but I don’t have much hope that this starter is going to produce decent bread before I leave.

As for Mark’s reciprocal offering of his knowledge of brewing, we ran into holiday season troubles of companies being out of stock followed by late deliveries. His chosen brew was root beer, which he insists (to my agreement) on making with real sassafras root etc, but his normal supplier was out of certain ingredients, so he went to the secondary, and as of this writing the shipment from the secondary has still not arrived. Over burgers last night he speculated that the shipment might arrive Tuesday, leaving us Tuesday and Wednesday evenings to tinker with root beer before I leave Thursday — but this means I won’t get to see the project through to its end, nor taste it before I leave.

On an unrelated note to any of this, Mark and I hatched an idea for a research project yesterday evening. This is all going to sound kind of weird, but bear with me because you are about to meet my family. Mark and I went out the day before yesterday on an afternoon date to go scatter our late grandmother’s ashes. She died two years ago, and because she donated her body to science the ashes only arrived fairly recently, after the first-year medical students at Brown University had done their lessons. She had specified before she died that she wanted her ashes, in addition to going in part to my mother’s siblings, to be scattered in my mother’s compost pile and also at two particular beaches on the island. One of the beaches is Surfer’s End at Second Beach, where my grandmother liked to go sit in the car with my mom over hot tea in thermoses and watch the surfers bobbing up and down in the churning gray waters of Category 1 hurricanes. That’s where my brother and I went for our scattering. We crept up to the shoreline by some rocks (because this is vaguely illegal) and dumped the ashes. Then we watched the waves roll in, pick up the ashes, and roll back out to sea, and we retreated to some boulders, where we did what people in these situations do: talk about socialism.

This came up because after Grandma died and my parents were cleaning out the apartment, they found a gigantic leather-bound album filled with newspaper clippings. My mother said later that upon finding it she had no idea what it was but that it would probably interest me, so it was moved to the basement of my parents’ house. Mom was, as she maddeningly always is, correct. The album is filled with an odd mix of clippings from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930s including ones about the Catholic Church (the majority of the content), the Spanish Civil War, the Socialist Party in the US, immigration, education, China… Kind of a wide swath of subjects that, knowing my grandmother, made sense together.

When I first saw the album a few weeks after she died, it was right away clear to me that this was her research. Into what, I don’t know. It’s occupied no small part of my mind for the past two years and I’ve been wanting to make a project of it but it all has seemed overwhelming until now, after this afternoon at the beach with Mark. When I told him about it his face lit up (and he’s kind of robotic, he’d say so himself, so this indicated real excitement) and we talked about it for the rest of our walk on the beach, through much of dinner, and on the way home, where I showed the book to him. He had never seen or heard of it before.

We told Mom about our project and hauled the thing up from the basement. Talking to her was key in the whole thing because she cleared up some important things. Namely, she confirmed that the handwritten dates on the articles were not done by our grandmother’s hand. With that and the mysterious postcards in the back of the album, Mark and I were wondering who did the compilation of the material since it was obviously not the work of Grandma. The only trace of her handwriting was an index she’d made on the backs of Parent-Teacher Association agendas from 1959. When my mom saw the date on those agendas, her face turned white like they say faces turn white. The year 1959 coincided with the time that our grandmother’s father’s homestead was getting cleared out, after he died. My mother remembers being there, and figures my grandmother took the album from the house. My great-grandfather was the kind of person that my grandmother was, and that I am, a hoarder of clippings and research, a non credentialed historian, slightly obsessive maybe. It would have been no shocker that my grandmother would take such an artifact from the house.

Since she’s gone, we don’t know if she managed to get any further work done on whatever my great-grandfather was researching. My mother said that the organization of the album screamed Grandpa McHugh to her, but the subject matter was surprising, since the only issue she remembers him obsessing about was the Native American genocide. I’m fairly confident now that the album belongs to him, just a hunch, but I have in my worldly possessions back in France the family genealogy books, with photocopied handwritten letters, so I’m going to compare penmanship. Grandpa McHugh, I’ve been told, had extremely precise and flowerly penmanship, and proud of it, and the album shows that, so I’m just waiting to get back to do a confirmation.

This has all caused some amount of excitement. Emails are being sent. My brother and I are exchanging glances of conspiracy. All is good in the household.

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(My brother, at the beach, talking about grandma and research.)

Economies of sharing in rural Ireland + I guess nothing changes with me

An excerpt from the book I’m rereading right now, O Come Ye Back to Ireland, my favorite book when I was a kid, recently discovered anew after twenty years of gathering dust on my parents’ bookshelves. I guess I haven’t changed at all because I still love it.

Comhair is an Irish word for which there is really no English equivalent. Literally, it means help, but in the context of the West [of Ireland] it has come to mean something much more than that. The comhair, as it was called long ago, was the word for the powerful sense of community in a place, whereby men and women “gave” each other days, sharing labors on the farm and on the bog. In a time of great poverty it was this kind of teamwork that enabled each farm in a townland to get turf cut, to get the potatoes in, and to tram or bring in the hay. The men might be at O’Shea’s today, they would be at Breen’s tomorrow. Comhair. It is the mechanism of community.

Since we arrived in Kiltumper we had already witnessed many examples of it in the kindness and help of our neighbors. From television aerials to chimneys, to turf, to spuds; we had help with them all. And if the modern days of tractors and machinery have made each farmer a little more self-reliant, there is still a strong sense of comhair between them.

The day we were finally to dig the front garden into ridges for the winter, Mary and Joe came down the road with shovel and fork in hand. We were delighted to have them. Mary is a fury in the garden, pulling weeds wherever she sees them, and demonstrating in a moment just why she has the prettiest flower garden in Tumper. And Joe, beside her, is a skilled man with the fork. So easy and peaceful, he makes a mockery of our sweating and bustling efforts, as he seems to make the ridges mound up before him in an ancient, timeless rhythm. We have never seen the like of him before. He spits into his bare hands every few minutes to keep the wooden handle from slipping from his grasp and smokes his cigarettes every half hour, resting huge cracked and thick hands on top of the spade. He bends one knee, resting his foot on top of the blade, and looks across Hayes’ Hill. He rarely says a word.

We were delighted when he reappeared two days later to give us another helping hand. Joe explained that if the garden was laid to rest in these ridges over the winter, where more of the surface was actually exposed, two things would happen. First, the frost would kill any roots exposed to the air, which in our case was a lot. And second, the process of freezing and thawing repeatedly over the winter would help to break down the heavy soil into fine tilth, facilitating spring sowing.

As Joe and Chris and I began that afternoon on the eastern half of the garden, my mind was full of gratitude and thoughts of the comhair. Here was a man, I thought, giving his time without personal motive and sharing his knowledge and skills with us. What a staggering contrast this was to the days of Manhattan. I sunk my fork into the earth while Joe lit a cigarette and watched on. And then the afternoon was pierced with the jangling of the telephone. It was Michael Donnellan. He has promised to bring a neighbor, Sadie, into Kilrush for her eye test that afternoon, but his car had just broken down. Could I take her instead? By rights I couldn’t. Joe was here to work with us, and in any other world I shouldn’t have left. But this was not anywhere else, and even as I said yes, giving over the afternoon to taking an elderly countrywoman the twelve miles to Kilrush, I realized that this was yet another measure of our coming into the community. We were part of the comhair.

Things to ponder. This book tells about experiences from the mid 1980s so no doubt the situation in this part of Ireland is extremely different today, but I wonder if this idea of the comhair still exists. To investigate. (Edit: it appears that the book’s authors still live there and blog now and then, so maybe I’ll just drop them a line and ask.)

Also, am I wrong in thinking that this is kind of weird reading for a nine year old? I don’t remember exactly how old I was when my grandmother gave this book to me, but I know I was around late elementary school to early middle school age. It would make sense because that was at the height of my obsession with Sarah, Plain and Tall, Little House on the Prairie, and all things Boxcar Children. It’s really an odd sensation to rediscover when you’re older the obsessions you had as a child and realize that you still have pretty much all the same interests. And also to realize the subtle ways the books you read influenced your way of thinking.

For example, Sarah, Plain and Tall is the reason why I was incapable of baking bread for so long. There’s a scene in it describing one of the daughters making bread dough, and says something about the way the dough looked and felt like an infant. That image stuck in my head all the way through to my twenties, when I started attempting bread and would each time add enough flour to make dough the consistency of a baby. Not that I’ve ever poked a baby in the belly to test its consistency. I mean more like its weight — I was making bread dough that weighed as much as a newborn, which translates into baked bread coming out like cinderblocks. I realized my error through enough reading plus listening to a really helpful NPR interview segment with the owner of Amy’s Bread in New York, but it wasn’t until I was poking around in my parents’ basement on a trip back home and found and reread Sarah, Plain and Tall that I realized, son of a bitch, it was you!!! You, Patricia MacLachan, were behind all my bread failures! Damn you, historical fiction writer! (Her description of the bread dough was likely accurate — after all the flour they would have been using in the story would make for a heavier dough, and prairie bread at that time was denser, not the sort of all-purpose flour baguettes I was failing at in the early 2000s.)

Back to my reading couch. I have to say it’s also such a pleasure to read something like this, a break from heaviness and doom and gloom. I know, crop failures, rained-out summers, and peasant life — but next to what I’m normally reading…. At least in this book there’s talk of fairies and giants.

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(photo: http://kiltumper.blogspot.com)