How might a non-catastrophic social order actually work? How might we, along with our children, grandparents, etc., run a city like Newcastle or London – could organize our schools, hospitals, garbage collection, and food production – ourselves?
Do we have tools, the experience, the habits, and the rituals to realize it collectively? Probably not. But how could we develop them?
Since like most people we know, we’ve been spending a lot of time in lock-down isolation, and as a result, in apparently endless zoom meetings and conversations about how we could escape a return to “normality,” we decided the first step was to step outside.
The above is from an initial text called “City of Care” that we sent out in mid-May 2020, to bring together (mainly) climate activists to carry out an initial experiment in a new activist tool we’re trying to develop to imagine such things – which we call the Visual Assembly.
This is what happened:
About 15 friends, mostly from the ExR group and Art Strike community from London, as well as some of our friends from NYC and family members, meet on ZOOM on 18th of May. We started by having David Wengrow (professor of archaeology at UCL) present a brief talk about his research with David Graeber on egalitarian cities of the past, from Tripolye to Tlaxcalan.
The ultimate aim was to collectively design a viable egalitarian city of our own, which—we realized somewhat belatedly—would have required a lot more work on process and facilitation than we could actually do in a week (which was the time we gave ourselves to prepare) – so we decided to make it a pure imaginative exercise. The plan was that participants, on Zoom, would throw out ideas for the city, Charlie, our on-line facilitator, would gather them up, and then we would use stencils and chalk spray-paint to actually place them in a public, physical space… which participants could see, and which would, we hoped, inspire them to further elaborations, which would be placed in physical space, etc. That worked.
We chose a spot in the still-empty Portobello market, at 8 PM on an early summer evening. There was yet light.
From the beginning, we were operating in a bit of panic mode.
David was playing the role of facilitator, as well as monitoring the chat, giving instructions to Nika, and filming the results of Nika’s work for the ZOOM assembly to let them see what is going on the ground.
Nika was working on making the city on the ground. We used the stencils she had cut and prepared in advance. Because of the wind, the stencils attempted to blow away on several occasions, so they required cautious attention at all times.
Several spray cans stopped working for no obvious reason, so we had had a limited amount of colors to work with. David had to try to fix those too, on the spot (all it really took was swapping the nozzles).
It was panic, yes, but a pleasant, even exhilarating panic. We came with one volunteer assistant (Olga B.), who was priceless, but we got others as the evening progressed, as well as universal support and bemused interest from local characters and passers-by.
Hey, at the end of the day – this was Portobello Road – probably the most amenable place in the world to do an unauthorized public art project! We chose the heart of our neighborhood – the market square – and everyone from local drug dealers to loving couples to teenagers on unicycles assumed that they’d be welcomed, as indeed they were.
We considered this initial exercise a kind of the first step, and as such, we think it went pretty magnificently. The idea was to illustrate how much fun the approach can be, and to give everyone taking part an experience of opening up imagination – in a way, it’s like popcorn, the consensus brainstorming tool, where no one can be criticized for any idea no matter what it is; then you record it all; then try to see what you can do with the results. The fear was that no one would rise to the occasion. That didn’t happen at all: the moment ideas started pouring out, there was pretty much a continual flow of new ones.
Step 2 though would be seeing what we can do with this unleashing of imagination, beyond creating cities where trees are elected to government and bicycles are currency – that is, to turn the exercise into a practical one; what would we do if we suddenly had to take over the administration of Kensington, or even Paris; how would we actually design a city of care, or a free community?
This means specifics. Actually, we think it would have to mean narrowing our focus, at least at first: to start with a more manageable-sized institution like a school, hospital, museum, or factory.
We are interested in questions: how could we manage them democratically? We are interested in details of behavior, rules, rituals. and above all – how to make it work. We want to envision a place that actually can exist (since we believe in reality, we are deeply dissatisfied with it. This world might pass as a fantasy but as a reality, it really needs to be changed.)
So we are sending this to you with a tentative proposal for the next steps to take. We figure the logical thing to do, if we want to build up to an exercise in genuine collective practical utopianism, would be this:
- We first contact people with particular experience in these institutions and organize preliminary meetings with them. We will need to work out common ground, to agree on terminology, methods of meditation, and problems to be solved during the Visual Assembly.
- Next, we define the requirements for visualization. Most likely, we will have to start by determining the overall structure of our project. We did not do this in our initial Utopian City, we left it loose, and partly it is what created a free space for fun as well as avoid having to think about the details and practicalities. So a series of circles (in place of a grid) sufficed. This time we’ll need a clearer visual frame.
- After that, we will need to collectively brainstorm the list of specific stencils, and arrange for their production.
- We think it’s important to try to find a place for our next visual assembly where at least the framework of the visual structure won’t be ephemeral but will remain afterward, as a permanent public artwork. This could be a schoolyard or a square in front of a hospital or even someone’s private yard.
- We plan to apply permanently lasting colors to create the framework of what we will then, during the Visual Assembly, develop by filling it out with comments and details, laws, and rules – the latter in a form that could still be erased and replaced later with different ones.
We are very much looking forward to your comments and any participation: all this is new and unexpected (even to us).
But we are very excited and believe that what is starting to come together here is a new tool for practical utopianism that could be used in any number of different ways.
We are hoping you’d like at the very least to take part in the next assembly; even better, to help us to make it happen.