Patterns of Rural Commoning
Niklas Fanelsa circulates references
In the late nineteenth century, small communities, like Obstbaukolonie Eden (the Eden Orchard Colony) near Berlin and Monte Verità near Ascona, established themselves in the German and Swiss countryside. Part of an expansive movement to reform life, these communities formed self-sufficient systems based on rules of common ownership and production, in close relation to nature and in opposition to the materialist and urbanizing trends of industrialization. These groups reconceptualized elements of collective existence, from education to clothing, from the position of women in society to the introduction of a vegan diet. They were not isolationist per se, as these communities broadcasted their ideas to a larger audience. Eden Orchard Colony published magazines and produced a line of vegan products, later becoming the organic supermarket chain Reformhaus. Congresses, internationally distinguished guests, and new educational formats—like the summer dance school of Rudolf von Laban—emerged from the cultural and artistic character of Monte Verità. These Lebensreform communities peaked in the 1920s and now, a hundred years later, we see that utopian projects are thriving again, though they have taken on a new character.
The limits to our global neoliberal economy, which relies on the non-renewable extraction of natural resources, have contributed to a strong desire for societal shifts especially as they may apply to our daily routines and habits. Crises like the recent COVID-19 pandemic reveal the fragility of lifestyles dependent upon cheap flights and the non-local production of goods. The concentration of global capital in growing urbanized areas makes cities more expensive and less attractive—more people are seeking a simpler lifestyle in smaller communities.
Meanwhile, the paradigm of the city as the only creative environment has broken down. The countryside is now a space of potential, offering affordable land and a proximity to the modes of production that sustain life. People go there to seek meaningful activities beyond the cooperate environments of professionalization. New communities in the countryside have formed: many lack a strong ideology, but most seek to cultivate a better life. Many of these communities continue to maintain a strong link to an urban centre to re-form the lost connection between countryside and city. In the near future, it will become increasingly important to develop alternative ways of living and working by engaging operational patterns that nurture regenerative systems embedded at a local scale.
In his book Pandora’s Hope, Bruno Latour joins a group of researchers in Amazonia, and reflects on their specific findings. He considers how in-the-field observations of soil conditions are brought into more expansive discursive contexts through the concept of the circulating reference: the data collected at an exact location transforms through a series of scientific operations into abstract diagrams and texts, which can be exchanged with an international audience. In this process of dissemination, the reference maintains a connection to its previous condition; however, this original condition has necessarily lost some of its original content in order to become comparable to other contexts.
Though rooted in my experiences in rural Germany and Japan, this curatorial project learns from current movements in the global rural context. It approaches these movements through the development of exemplary patterns from observations that fall under three themes: craft, food, and material. The formulation of patterns from many contexts enables larger statements: a pattern welcomes specific observations into its structure, and each pattern can then relate to others. Through this process, the patterns can be applied to a range of contexts, scales, and times. The patterns become a productive tool for reading our current circumstances, understanding historic precedents, and constructing possible futures. Here is a selection of observations from the countryside that I propose we begin with:
New life to old buildings
I have observed old, empty buildings in many rural villages. Their presence and poor state of upkeep are due to various reasons: they became too costly to renovate or maintain, their proposed style of living did not appeal to their owners, they are associated with a bad history, or simply because, with less effort, a new house would promise more comfort. These structures are seen as opportunities by new village inhabitants who move from the city, looking for a place to settle and start a new life or business. The newcomers realize the immanent potential in such buildings, often located in the village centre, and reuse the structures for new programmatic concepts and business models that connect equally to the village as to their individual network from the city. A former church in Saint-Adrien, Quebec, transforms into a co-op store and recording studio; an old theatre in Kamiyama, Japan, opens itself to the village, inviting performances by international artists; and a barn in Gerswalde is reused as a summer office and project space. With this concept, new inhabitants preserve existing built forms while extending their uses and bringing new life into the village.
Traditionally, the transition of the wilderness into a cultural landscape began with the continuous effort and daily care of the land by a community of farmers. The construction of buildings was an integral part of this collective maintenance work. Today, this approach remains present in how the lives of buildings are extended by their users. Often, materials sourced from old houses are reused to maintain existing structures. Many buildings are built by their owners and incrementally extended. Neighbours provide help, sharing knowledge and material resources, and supporting a complex localized system of giving and accepting favours. For example, one house owner in Gerswalde used the clay excavated from another construction site to plaster his interior walls.
Across the countryside of Japan, I have experienced unique local products that are formed by their particular place—its local modes of production and its available materials. Locally grown or produced food and hand-made objects—such as vegetables, dairy products, and furniture objects—have become increasingly popular to consumers in nearby regions. Large department stores incorporate these regional products in their offerings. The production of local products is not only a source of income but also the starting point for a new local economy and identity. A search for new regional products unveils existing local skills and material resources that can be implemented or used for further projects.
I have seen that, in the rural, the strong connection of the inhabitant with their immediate outdoors and the seasons can be reflected by their clothing. Wide shirts and trousers allow for more comfort and provide ventilation on hot summer days. Materials like natural cotton and linen, traditionally used for workwear in the countryside, are used by young tailors for contemporary designs, and more simply patterned clothing allows for household production. In the winter, a wide-cut coat made of organic wool felt provides warmth—and such materials need only to be aired for cleaning. Colour palettes are influenced by locally available resources for natural dyeing, such as walnuts or pinecones in northeast Germany.
The lifestyle in the countryside is more strongly connected to how food is communally produced and consumed than it is in the city. I have experienced dinners, during which a large group of people may gather to eat and talk, discuss ideas, and enjoy a shared meal. International recipes are made from locally produced food. A salad may be made from wild edible plants collected in a nearby meadow. Seasonal vegetables are freshly harvested and combined with regional products. The gatherings cultivate unexpected meetings, exchanges of practical information connected to life in the village, and the making of collective plans for future projects.
Regional Farming Cooperatives
Today, much of food production has been industrialized by globally operating and state-funded farming companies and, perhaps as a result, interest and longing for more regional and eco-friendly food production has increased. Networks of locally organized food producers have emerged, developing bottom-up networks independent of existing ones. Community-supported agricultural farms cater to households in nearby cities on a weekly basis with fresh vegetables and self-made products. The consumer does not pay for each individual vegetable item, but instead subscribes to a delivered box, allowing for a more direct connection to seasonal farming schedules. The products are distributed from a central pick-up location, often a community center or a regional shop. I have also observed that participating households are sometimes invited to volunteer work at a farm or to spend their holidays at a farm’s guest house. Some farms also offer a seminar space that hosts workshops around organic farming, biodiversity, or cooking. The farms often maintain close connections restaurants in the city that promote fresh and locally produced products.
I wish to bring more personal stories, diagrams, and patterns to life through the format of a workshop series that follows three experts through the thematic fields of craft, food, and material. During three one-day workshops and a concluding event, participants will actively engage with a local environment, its network, and aesthetics qualities. We will experience the countryside and its potential to offer opportunities for common activity, forming possible narratives for a new society.
With the support of the local project space löwen.haus, the first installment of this series will take place in rural Germany in Gerswalde (Brandenburg) from 4-6 September 2020.
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