ESSAY DOOR ANJA GROTEN, BESPROKEN IN HASSELT, 9 NOVEMBER.
De Nederlandse vertaling lees je hier.
I am here at the Hackers & Designers Summer Camp, in the South of The Netherlands. It is 9:30 in the morning. I am sitting on a small grass field that is separated from the campsite by a little creek. This miniature island has been declared a silent area, a place at which there is no need to chit chat and no pressure to engage in social activities. I am looking over to the campground. I see huts and tents surrounded by pear and apple trees, and many mole hills scattered over the large terrain. Further away a group of people are doing exercises and stretches. Others are watching them while having breakfast. A few seem to be busy preparing for their workshop in the barn, gathering tables, chairs, extension cords. Some are cleaning the shower area and doing dishes, while others seem to be still enjoying their sleep.
I am observing what seems like a collective routine, a choreography of everyday activities that look like they have been rehearsed and performed many times. I am thinking about how some people met for the first time only 4 days ago, and how we have worked on designing this moment over the past year. We were striving to create a wholesome experience that is on the one hand well thought through and taken care of, structured and planned. On the other hand, it was to remain open and porous, giving participants the possibility to shape the experience through their presence, taking the liberty to derail from the script, and attuning to the collective vibe as it unfolds.
Back in 2015, we envisioned the first edition of the H&D Summer Academy (HDSA), to be a temporary school of sorts, a classroom and playground at once, with an attitude of a hacker camp. My personal motivation to initiate the HDSA stemmed from a desire to connect and exchange with other designers, artists and hackers, to continue learning after completing my studies, organizing and making things together, virtues that appeared not to be pre-given in the reality of working as a self-employed designer. I was inspired by the historical lineage of self-organized extracurricular initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s such as the ‘Free International University’ (Germany, 1973–1988), ‘Anti University’ (UK, 1968) and ‘Non-school’ (France, 1966). Such spontaneous schools were taking place, in addition to or outside of the regular curriculum of universities, art and design schools. Following principles of learning-by-doing, education as an emancipatory practice was not to end with the boundaries of the prevailing learning institutions. Interdisciplinarity, unconstrained learning and egalitarianism seemed a common desire in these self-organized collective learning environments.
The H&D Summer Academy too, was thought of as a space for interdisciplinary encounters, for trying something new with others, for learning with and through technology, as well as experimenting with learning formats as such. Learningby doing in addition to learning with others meant we were exploring topics, methods and technologies, without claiming authority over knowledge. Focusing on processes rather than outcomes we were, and still are, interested in opening up making processes that are usually implicit or solitary. Doing so in a social environment, in the presence of others, one’s own habits of making and doing can be called into question when they fail to meet expectations of how ‘things are done’.
Furthermore the HDSA has been an experiment in self-organization. Since its first manifestation, each edition has been organized in a slightly different manner. The group of organizers has increased from three to nine. In 2018, during the organization of the fourth edition, for the first time, we did not differentiate workshop participants from workshop facilitators in our open call. People who were interested in joining applied by submitting a workshop proposition. Thus, they committed to facilitating a hands-on activity and to participating in the full duration of the two week long workshop program. No prior experience in teaching or facilitating workshops were required.
As part of the preparation we introduced a peer review process during which workshop proposals could be discussed and improved. That way, we involved participants in supporting the development of each other’s workshops and created connections between them before the actual program began.
I am frequently asked by students, colleagues and friends, how we do this. How does H&D self-organize? How have we managed to sustain ourselves since our first H&D meetup in 2013? How do we pull this off during times in which resources are more and more scarce, in which it is increasingly difficult to sustain spaces for experimentation that embrace processes rather than products, that cherish errors, bugs and failure and resist techno-solutionism?
These questions are not easy to answer as H&D could perhaps be best described as an accidental collision of people and conditions—and sometimes it even seems as if it has organized itself. Thus, H&D did not intend to become ‘an’ organization. To some extent it seemed to grow and mature by itself. There was no prefigured plan or distinct moment where organizational principles were explicitly decided upon and then followed through.
Collectivity and selfs-organization seems to be of topical interest. Designers and design theorists are calling for collective approaches to design as a form of disciplinary disobedience, to counteract permanent insecurity, and to redesign economies and interdependencies. Collectivity design is proposed as an organizing principle that embraces careand resists exploitative forms of life. Many of these calls convey the hope in collectives’ abilities to renegotiate boundaries between affiliations, expertise and dominating knowledge systems.
The increased enthusiasm about rethinking forms of togetherness made me reflect on my own affinity, as a designer, with self-organized collective practice. I remember how doing ‘self-initiated’ projects and working collectively seemed like the highest of achievements, when I was still immersed in my design studies. However, I did not encounter many examples of collective practices within the field of design at the time. In the courses I attended, ‘best design practices’ were usually represented by individuals—charismatic designers, “heroes, superstars, and iconographies.”Studying design was a rather competitive and individualistic experience. What I was seeking and could not find within the confinements of my design education, were examples of designing and studying together that allowed for ambivalence, formats for experimentation and trying things out in the classroom without having to impress. I started self-organizing zine-making workshops, which allowed for leaving things unresolved, picking up where someone else left off. The workshops were not about outcomes, or about who made what, but about the collective experience.
“Self-organized” as “taking things into one’s own hands” is connoted with empowerment and self-determination. In Self-organisation/Counter-Economic Strategies (2006), the Danish collective Superflex wrote that the concept ‘self-organization’ describes “certain kinds of social groups or networks; in this context, the term does not have a strict definition, but broadly speaking it refers to groups that are independent of institutional or corporate structures, are non-hierarchical open and operate participatory decision-making processes.”
Now, I find myself involved with various self-organized initiatives, working with collectives that self-publish (small edition experimental books and websites), self-host (technical infrastructure such as servers, digital tools and online platforms) and design with self-built open source tools. Yet, I cannot shake off the feeling of unease about the popularity, and at times fetishization of self-organized collective work. That is, I started to wonder about the ways self-organization may, to some degree, reinforce precarious working, learning and living conditions and fail to achieve what it seems to promise—to create and strengthen ‘community’. More precisely, I am part of (as H&D is part of) a certain ecosystem of self-employed cultural practitioners that seem to shape how collectivity is perceived and practiced. Some say they are ‘self-employed’, some call themselves ‘independent’, some say they are ‘freelancers’, and others say they are ‘precarious cultural workers.’ We assemble at moments of (re)orientation, when we feel the need to expand our networks, acquaint ourselves with new skills or to meet new peers. What we have in common is that there is seemingly no pre-given structure or system to abide by in our working environments. Simultaneously there is nothing organized for us (no healthcare, no maternity or sick leave, no holidays, no pension). We self-organize our own basic care infrastructure.
Following this train of thought, the double-bind of self-organization surfaces. In that light a self-organized collective such as H&D could also be regarded as a fragile ecosystem of flexible workers who, due to their unstable and diverging socio-material conditions, resort to short-lived, semi-committed, chaotic ways of working together. Self-organization is then not about self-actualization and self-determination anymore but about self-reliance. It is often that moments of crisis, uncertainty, and disorientation necessitate self-organization. In these moments desires for collectivity are articulated and put into motion.
While I am painting a somewhat bleak picture of self-organized collective practice, I am also committed to working this way, and cherish the inventive work and efforts of the many collectives that evolve in the wider ecosystem of H&D. The point I want to make is that self-organization can and should not be proposed as an instrument or a solution to the major systemic issues but be seen as a consequence of such issues.
At a distance H&D may be perceived as ‘an organization’, a cohesive whole. From within, the experience of self-organizing can be more blurred, as ‘one thing leading to another’, which can make it difficult to uphold the conception of self-organization as an emancipatory act, or an empowering process. The ‘self-’ of a collective is not easy to discern in terms of who or what takes part.
There is a definition of self-organization that may be more suitable to understand collectivity-in-action. Deriving from the natural sciences, self-organization describes how particular systems “have a tendency to develop, and take new and more complex forms, in a seemingly unplanned fashion without the influence of an external or central authority.” In this estimation, self-organization is not about independence but interdependence, about coming-into-being as a process of mutual entanglements.
As a collective, H&D’s evolves along with the interests of its individual members and the larger community around it. Many of the people who are involved with H&D are also involved with other collectives and institutions simultaneously, and intersect socio-technical conducts, vocabularies, organizing principles, software repositories, learning methods from those various contexts.
Being involved in self-organization in the context of the H&D collective, I experience it as a turbulent praxis that requires constant (self-)reflexivity and reconsideration of organizing principles, in relation to emerging conditions, other parallel collective configurations, other contexts, other people, other tools and other challenges.
Decentralization of our organizational efforts around and the open process of co-designing the workshop program has been an important characteristic of each summer academy/camp. Yet, this year’s H&D Summer Camp seems significantly different. As the renaming from ‘academy’ to ‘camp’ suggests, for the first time, we embarked on an adventure of learning, making and living together.
The desire to collectively imagine and put into practice a temporary self-organized village of sorts derived from a shared discontent and feeling of uncertainty caused by the looming climate catastrophe, geopolitical tensions, and asymmetric distribution of wealth, power and everyday resources, as accelerated by Big Tech. The involuntary presence of GAFAM/GAMAM, within every aspect of our lives, is fueled by extractivist and exploitative modes of operation, and imposes techno-solutionism as the sole response to all social, technical, economical, and environmental challenges.
It is widely discussed that Big Tech companies are invasive, and impact our ways of working and being together, while “creating ever larger disparities between the ultra-rich and the rest.” Yet, the fast pace in which socio-technical dependencies are shaped and normalized creates conditions in which it is difficult to imagine ways of working and living together with and through technology otherwise.
The immersive experiment of the H&D Summer Camp has been on the one hand about reimagining and resisting the progress-based understanding of earthly co-existence. On the other hand it is also about resisting despair. We asked ourselves how we could exercise alternative ways of learning, making and living together, that are at once imaginative, as well as concrete and consequential. How to imagine and put into practice ‘terms of transition’, forging collective imaginaries for “managing the meanwhile within damaged life’s perdurance.”
We felt that solely relying on modes of ‘workshopping’ to address the complexity of our catastrophic times would not be sufficient. It seemed crucial to open up and pay critical attention to the areas of our organization that often remain invisible, the informal support structures that keep us moving, and rearticulate the boundaries between work, play, leisure, and reproductive labor. What does it mean to design economies based on care – humble forms of exchange that take others into account, that understand regeneration as non-negotiable?
Admittedly, leading up to this moment, we had been nervous. We asked ourselves: Who will come? Will anyone come at all? Will people be kind? Will they chime in, also in terms of reproductive labor such as cooking and cleaning and child care? Will this experiment become truly a collective effort? Will we, as a community endure this intensified mode of togetherness?
Now that I am watching the collective morning routine do its work, the H&D Summer Camp – as an experiment in self-organization – seems to organize itself. The workshop program has unfolded in unexpected and fantastic ways. We have been experimenting with solar technologies, solar-cooking, food preservation, world-building through life action role play, in-situ coding, repurposed food waste as well as redundant electronics to create electronic instruments, traced the local water histories, designed electric circuits with organic materials… and more is to come.
Contingency and imagination seem significant to the manner in which self-organized collective work is actualized.
Raqs Media collective invented a helpful term, which describes contingency and imagination, which seem significant to the manner in which self-organized collective work is actualized. The term is ’nautonomy’ “re-articulates and re-founds the ‘self-organizing’ principle inherent in what is generally understood as autonomy, while recognizing that the entity mistakenly called ‘self’ is actually more precisely an unbounded constellation of persons, organism and energies that is defined by its capacity to be a voyager in contact with a moving world.”
I hope this auto-fictional account of a morning at the H&D Summer Camp contributes to an expanded critical understanding and appreciation of collective self-organization as unstable and self-reflexive – a practice that needs to be understood and articulated beyond terms of purposefulness and togetherness. Self-organized collectives bring people, tools, and technical infrastructure together and blur disciplinary boundaries, distinctions between user and maker, friendships and work relations. They therefore necessitate a commitment to ongoing (re)articulation of what it is we do, who we implicate in what we do and under what conditions. Absolute definitions of self-organization, as well as depicting collectives as antidotes to individualized design practice, obscure the manner in which collectives are intertwined with multiple, sometimes precarious realities, economies and timelines.
Het essay ‘Self-Organized. Rethinking Collective Infrastructures / Zelf-georganiseerd: Een heroverweging van collectieve infrastructuren’ bespreekt de manieren waarop hedendaagse zelfgeorganiseerde collectieve ontwerppraktijken verstrikt raken in precaire, niet-duurzame werk- en levensomstandigheden.
De ambitie om zichzelf te organiseren ontstaat wanneer het nodig lijkt de status quo uit te dagen, bijvoorbeeld niet te willen voldoen aan de eisen van een werkgever. Echter, zelf-georganiseerde collectieven bestaan vaak uit flexibele culturele werkers, freelancers die bereid zijn om te werken buiten reguliere werktijden, soms onbetaald. Ze zijn op zoek naar betekenisvolle samenwerkingsverbanden en solidariteit terwijl ze in veel verschillende contexten en gemeenschappen tegelijk betrokken zijn om hun ‘zelfstandigen’ praktijken in stand te kunnen houden.
De belangstelling voor zelfgeorganiseerde collectieve praktijken binnen het ontwerpveld en daarbuiten lijkt toe te nemen. Ontwerpers en ontwerptheoretici roepen op tot een collectieve benadering van ontwerpen om disciplinaire en institutionele grenzen uit te dagen, economieën en onderlinge afhankelijkheden te heroverwegen en opnieuw te ontwerpen, en regeneratieve vormen van samenleving op onze planeet te ontwikkelen. Collectief ontwerp wordt vaak gepresenteerd als een principe van organisatie dat zorg omarmt en zich verzet tegen uitbuiting van levensvormen.
Terwijl de interesse voor collectiviteit toe neemt, gaan mensen niet zo vaak in op de vraag hoe je jezelf kunt organiseren, wat de uitdagingen en gevolgen zijn die gepaard gaan met het runnen van een eigen onafhankelijk initiatief, en hoe je dergelijke uitdagingen kunt aanpakken?
Het essay plaatst een persoonlijk verslag over het werken met het zelfgeorganiseerde collectief Hackers & Designers (H&D) naast een kritische analyse van de betekenis en implicaties van ‘zelforganisatie’ in een grotere sociale en culturele context.
H&D bestaat uit negen leden die samen de ‘H&D coöp’ vormen; een gedecentraliseerde organisatorische structuur die de verantwoordelijkheid voor financiën en besluitvorming verdeelt. Het doel van H&D is het stimuleren en ondersteunen van interdisciplinaire uitwisseling tussen ontwerpers, kunstenaars, soft- en hardware ontwikkelaars, onderzoekers en mensen die in het onderwijs werken.
De tekst vertrekt vanuit het jaarlijkse H&D Summer Camp 2023 een intensief 2 weekse workshop programma voor creatieve makers die geïnteresseerd zijn in een kritische en praktische omgang met hedendaagse technologieën. Het is een zelf-georganiseerde tijdelijke school – een leeromgeving en speeltuin tegelijk met een sphere van een ‘hacker camp’. Het H&D Summer Camp werkt op een niet-hiërarchische manier. Docenten zijn ook deelnemers, deelnemers zijn ook workshopbegeleiders en mede-organisatoren – iedereen brengt eigen expertise, urgentie en ervaring in.
Door te vertrekken vanuit een persoonlijk verhaal over het H&D Summer Camp wordt de discussie over zelforganisatie binnen een subjectieve ervaring gesitueerd, met aandacht voor details – de marginale en alledaagse uitdagingen van zelforganisatie. Dergelijke persoonlijke, alledaagse verhalen blijven vaak onzichtbaar binnen bestaande kaders, zoals gedefinieerd door de disciplinaire kaders van het ontwerpveld. Het is dankzij de subjectiviteit, en de poging om die subjectiviteit te lokaliseren, dat de punten die in de tekst naar voren worden gebracht proberen een perspectief op zelforganisatie te bieden dat eerder specifiek dan generiek is en een al te positieve weergave van een dergelijke praktijk voorkomt.
‘Zelforganisatie’ wordt vaak geassocieerd met empowerment, onafhankelijkheid en zelfbeschikking, als ‘het heft in eigen hand nemen’. Maar door betrokken te zijn bij verschillende zelfgeorganiseerde initiatieven, te werken met collectieven die zelf publiceren (experimentele boeken en websites in kleine oplage), zelf hosten (technische infrastructuur zoals servers, digitale tools en online platforms) en ontwerpen met zelfgebouwde open source tools begon ik me af te vragen op welke manieren zelforganisatie tot op zekere hoogte onzekere werk-, leer- en levensomstandigheden kan versterken – en er niet in slaagt te bereiken wat het lijkt te beloven: het creëren en versterken van een ‘gemeenschap’.
In dat licht zou een zelfgeorganiseerd collectief als H&D, in plaats van autonoom en vrij te opereren, ook kunnen worden omschreven als een fragiel ecosysteem van flexibele werkers die, vaak als zelfstandige freelancers, toevlucht nemen in kortstondige, chaotische manieren van samenwerken. Zelforganisatie betekent dan niet meer zelfactualisatie en zelfbeschikking, maar op zich zelfs gesteld zijn. Er wordt niets voor ons geregeld (geen gezondheidszorg, geen zwangerschaps- of ziekteverlof, geen vakanties, geen pensioen). Vaak maken momenten van crisis, onzekerheid en desoriëntatie zelforganisatie noodzakelijk. Op deze momenten worden verlangens naar collectiviteit gearticuleerd en in beweging gebracht.
Terwijl het essay een (zelf)kritisch beeld schetst van de zelfgeorganiseerde collectieve praktijk, koestert het tegelijkertijd het inventieve werk van een zelf-georganiseerd group zoals H&D en de inspanningen van de vele collectieven die zich ontwikkelen in haar bredere ecosysteem. Het punt dat de tekst benadrukt is echter dat zelforganisatie niet kan en mag worden gezien als een instrument of oplossing voor systemische problemen, maar ook altijd moet worden gezien als een mogelijk gevolg van dergelijke problemen.
 Hackers & Designers Summer Camp 2023. “Hopepunk: Reknitting Collective Infrastructures,” https://hackersanddesigners.nl/s/Summer_Camp_2023
 Founded by Joseph Beuys in the early 1970’s in Düsseldorf, Waldo Bien “The Founding of F.I.U. Amsterdam with Joseph Beuys,” FIU Amsterdam, 2007, http://www.fiuamsterdam.com/html/f_i_u__history.html, last accessed: October 2023.
 “The Antiuniversity of London was a short-lived and intense experiment in self-organized education and communal living that took off at 49 Rivington Street in Shoreditch in February 1968.” https://maydayrooms.org/portfolio/antiuniversity-of-london/, last accessed February 2022.
“The group included the anti-psychiatrists R.D. Laing and David Cooper; veterans of the Free University of New York, Allen Krebs and Joe Berke; the feminist psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell; and the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. In February, 1968, the Anti-University of London opened its doors.”
https://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/remembering-1968-the-campus-of-the-anti-university-of-london/, last accessed: October 2023.
 Founded by Fluxus artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht, in Villefranche (1966), Natilee Harren “La cédille qui ne finit pas: Robert Filliou, George Brecht, and Fluxus in Villefranche,” Natilee Harren “La cédille qui ne finit pas: Robert Filliou, George Brecht, and Fluxus in Villefranche,” Getty Research Journal, no. 4 (2012): 127-143.
 “I propose the decolonial concept of border-thinking within design as a method of disciplinary disobedience for moving design towards more collective approaches.” Danah Abdullah, “Disciplinary Disobedience. A Border-Thinking Approach to Design,” in Design Struggles, Nina Paim and Claudia Mareis, eds. (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2020), 228.
 “Yet, despite all the flexibility and ever-changing styles and modes of production, what lacks is the collective design of a subjectivity that would overcome permanent insecurity” Geert Lovink, Foreword, in Silvio Lorusso. everyone is an entrepreneur. nobody is safe. (Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2019), 12.
 “It becomes possible to collectively redesign economies and interdependencies in ways that defy, resist and/or exit precarising ways of organising and designing.” Brave New Alps, “Precarity Pilot”, 2015, https://modesofcriticism.org/precarity-pilot/, last accessed October 2023.
 “To embrace care as an organizing principle in every part of life, we must do so collectively.” Complaint Collective, “Does Design Care?” Cherry-Ann Davis and Nina Paim, 2021, https://futuress.org/magazine/does-design-care/, last accessed October 2023.
 “The collective determination toward transitions, broadly understood, may be seen as a response to the urge for innovation and the creation of new, nonexploitative forms of life, out of the dreams, desires, and struggles of so many groups and peoples worldwide.” Arturo Escobar, Design for the Pluriverse (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 7.
 I am referring to the my studies in communication design from 2003 to 2008 in Krefeld, Germany.
 Martha Scotford, “Is There a Canon of Graphic Design History?,” in Graphic Design: History in the Writing (1983—2011), De Bondt, S. and de Smet, C., eds. (London: Occasional Papers, 2012), 226.
 Will Bradley, Mika Hannula, Cristina Ricupero, (Superflex), Self-organisation/Counter-Economic Strategies, (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2006), 5.
 W. Bradley, M. Hannuia, C. Ricupero, (Superflex). Self-Organisation. Counter-Economic Strategies (Berlin: Sternberg, 2008).
 GAFAM/GAMAM (Amazon, Facebook/Meta, Apple, and Microsoft), also referred to as Big Tech stands for the most dominant information technology companies, that dominate the tech industry without much regulation.
 Lauren Berlant “Infrastructures for Troubling Times,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 3 (2016): 393–419.
 In reference to: Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
 Raqs Media Collective, “Nautonomat Operating Manual. A Draft Design for a Collective Space of ‘Nautonomy’ for Artists and their Friends,” in Mobile Autonomy. Exercises Artist’ Self-organization, N. Dockx, P. Gielen, eds. (Amsterdam: Valiz: 2015).