Campfire Conversations

Submitted by Phillida on Thu, 2010-07-15 17:53

Let's continue the discussions that were started at the campfire conversations here.

A place for memories, responses, new observations, just-solidified opinions and vague ideas...

Economies and the city

Campfire Conversations: Economies and the City

An overwhelming turn out to the Economies and the City conversation this week! Maybe we’d over-invited, or maybe there’s something in the air… The session began with Heath Bunting giving a presentation about his work. Heath talked about mapping the UK system, using diagrams to describe how society fits (or doesn’t fit) together. Heath’s maps lay out a range of possible identities, both generic: ‘an individual in possession of a NI card’, and more specific ‘a gay man living near Clifton downs’ (n.b. these may not be accurate). They trace the ways that being in possession of certain identities either circumscribes or widens the possibilities open to us as human beings.

While a couple of the maps were passed round, Heath talked about how, following the development of the maps, he began creating and then selling ‘new’ people. By understanding and following the structures of permissions that the maps revealed, he was able to create entirely new identities with their own specific rights and privileges, ready to be ascribed the highest bidding existent corporeal entity. As an aside to this, Heath engaged in a sardonic disambiguation of currency-based systems of exchange, selling Ian £2’s worth of ‘Heath Bunting money’ (there may have been a more technical term used here), in the form of a rather scrappy – but nonetheless signed and stamped - promissory note.

Heath also talked about the hierarchy of entities, the structure that he sees as acting to perpetuate class systems. For Heath there are three tiers of entity. At the bottom there are human individuals - street people who don’t claim their rights, people without NI numbers etc. Then there are legal entities – ‘Miss P E Cheetham’. ‘Mr Heath Bunting’, who have a place within the financial and legal systems of a country. Finally, there are corporations, (Heath gave the example of The Queen of England’), whose rights far outstrip those of first or second tier entities, but who evade the responsibilities and accounting systems under which the first two labour.

Heath talked particularly about the legal responsibilities of the corporation in opposition to the human, and they ways that this can be manipulated. He claimed that, since he himself is incorporated as Heath Bunting Corporation, were he to kill someone, and to do it in the guise of Heath Bunting Corp., he would only be liable for manslaughter, rather than murder. He also talked about the growing interest in developing equal rights for robots, giving robotic entities legal personalities similar to those enjoyed by corporations. He pointed out that, with the development of automated weapons systems and surveillance drones, this is an increasingly chilling proposition.

Lottie then began to explore the idea that it’s easier to control people by seeing them in terms of the service they provide, rather seeing them as human individuals with certain basic rights. Talking about her recent experiences in famously crime-free Venice, Lottie described how the unwelcome groups – African refugees, or women working in prostitution – found their movement was circumscribed by legislation against the economic services with which they were identified: exchanging sex for money, or selling counterfeit handbags and goods. Lottie described the way that, in Venice, the flow of capital works to determine the flow of people. To rich tourists, Venice is a crime-free playground through which they float on gondolas. To penniless immigrants, Venice is an island fortress intersected by uncrossable rivers.

Lottie went on the wonder about the economies around the farm itself. She recounted a story she’d heard about a pimp on Vallance Road telling his prostitute: ‘We’ve got to get you out of here. It’s Ramadan and if anyone sees you here they’ll beat you up.’ This segued into a more general discussion of the micro-economies that exist in the city. Hugh talked about creating pockets of agriculture, and the potential for self-sustaining economies to exist in an urban context.

From here, a discussion developed about the possibility of having different forms of currency for different products, rather than using money for every different kind of transaction. People wondered whether using the same currency to buy food as the one that is used to buy drugs or weapons doesn’t send out a falsely equalising message. People talked about recent example of alternative currencies, for example, the Brixton pound. There was a sense, however, that if a new currency is still tied to sterling, then it doesn’t provide that radical an alternative.

The need for a new mode of accounting was emphasised by someone pointing out that having just one currency means that the whole system is liable to collapse based on a lack in a single, vital area, such as food. There was a suggestion that people should have a carbon budget that worked similarly to their financial budget.

We then heard a description of Kate Rich’s ‘feral trade’ project. Feral trade celebrates the informal, worldwide economies that exist beneath the surface of the official economy. For the Feral Trade project Rich was importing goods such as coffee from El Salvadore, trying to use as many already existing transport links as possible, and documenting the entire import process online and on the packaging of the goods. ( Talking about Feral Trade led to a discussion of the intersection between the economy and the law, and particular the fact that seed-sharing is often illegal due to bio-copyright issues.

Someone then asked what could be learned from successful black markets such as the drugs and sex trades – major economies that we don’t know that much about, but which nonetheless direct our experiences. Lottie started talking about the Yes Men’s work revealing the hidden accounting systems used by large corporations, and in particular their ‘acceptable risk calculator - which allows corporations to ‘predict the precise point at which profitability is threatened by danger to the public.’

Dougald began talking about another hidden facet of conventional market economies: the increasing demand for emotional labour. He talked about how, when working as a mystery shopper for starbucks, he has seen workers being graded for their willingness to engage with shoppers in a friendly manner. He wondered: Is a job more degrading when in involves an element of falsified or forced emotion? Dougald’s point led to a more general discussion of the different indexes that are used to qualify success – money, emotional pleasure, etc. This in turn led someone envisage a future where durability was seen as a positive index, a world in which you could ‘inherit your grandfather’s ipod.’

Play and the City

Due to the rain, this week’s session was held in the treehouse...

We started by thinking about what inspires play. Hat commented that paying attention to her environment inspired her to be playful. Then Lucy and Hannah from the fun fed spoke a bit about running the Fun Fed, and the difficulties and joys which come from being professionals in the world of play.

There was some talk about the difficulty that comes with having no ‘adult’ vocabulary for play, making it difficult to communicate the deeper meanings and potentials of games and playful acts. Hannah pointed out a dichotomy that was often being raised with her by other adults: How do you ‘be’ an adult, and at the same time remain childlike and naïve?

Lucy, the Fun Fed’s ‘games mistress’ described her training in clown, and talked about her year learning to be a Fool. She talked about clown as being ‘the art of being lost’, and there was a discussion about resisting the temptation to constantly orient oneself and find out ‘where’ you are. She described her year as a fool as a year spent learning to ‘pull the dark out of yourself’.

Clown seems to be in large part about staying unresolved, and in a state of subjective flux, and fux and flow were two of the recurring themes of this week’s discussion. There was some debate around the nature of ‘flow’. We seemed to be using it to describe the state of play when actions lead naturally to other actions and words to other words, without sense or meaning. Ian added to this definition with a long exposition of his concept of play. He described play as being what happens when people’s brains, their will, or their consciousness all move in the same direction.

David talked about his experience of running an ad agency which rejected the traditional structure of a business, and in which play was integrated at every level. What he learned, he said, was that rather than flux and freedom, people often want goals and structure. He said: ‘It’s hard to lead people into fun’.

Rebecca then talked about they play that she does in the city. She talked about how urban spaces add anonymity and freedom. We wondered whether play is something that happens in situations where we feel safe, or whether it’s something we do to feel safer. Rebecca said that she thought she was less safe when she was absorbed in playing, because then she wasn’t playing attention to her surroundings.

We then talked about the affect that gender has on our interactions with our environment. Someone mentioned the different connotations of ‘streetwalking’ for men and women. Rebecca said that every time she walks alone on the streets she is aware that she is using a right that many women don’t have. She also said that if she were to get attacked, there would be some validity to the suggestion that she was in some way ‘asking’ for it. Hannah talked about the time a stranger said to her ‘you look really seductive eating that pear’, a comment that she felt instantly reduced her freedom. Later Lottie suggested that such comments didn’t really need to reduce our freedom. This made me wonder about women’s often fraught relationship to their sexuality – the sense that it is something that is in some way threatening, and which is owned by men and imposed upon women, rather than something that is asserted and owned by women themselves.

We talked about London as a comparatively safe city – Rachael commented that she feels much safer here than in New York, and that she feels much more able to not pay attention. She went on to talk about the relationship between play and Utopia, a topic which excited some impassioned debate – What is the practical potential of the concept of Utopia? How does one bring Utopianism into action? Rachael commented that Utopias are always theoretical, but they are a necessary theory.

Lottie then began talking about play as rehearsing the future. She wondered if, if you really feel, and explore the fantasy of play (for example, a child playing at being a queen), then do you build new synaptic links? Does play have the potential to expand our experiences beyond the reality of our everyday lives?

growing and the city

The campfire on the 21st July was on the topic of growing and the city. People attending ranged from medical researcher, artists, wildlife conservationists, gardeners, educators, beekeepers, a curator, environmentalist and more. The topic we came back to the many times throughout the conversation was fermentation - to ferment cultures, beer, bread, social change Tom said that fermentation. Tom said that fermentation could be seen as a philosophy for life, it requires the right balance of positive agents. We considered the ancient woodland on Hampstead heath and imagined it as a 'starter culture' for the reforestation of London. Pat explained how one could do archaeology of the city by understanding why which plants grown where. Beth said that we could ask what do we mean by nature? And how do these concepts affect environment policy? We touched on the dismantling of community initiatives in the Thatcher era, the invisible food walks that ceri buck leads in Brixton, the art work of Laura Almarcegui who, when she is commissioned to make public art, spend her time and budget on finding and ensuring that an piece of land in the area is left exactly as it is, her work was in the Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican last year. We also talks about Dan Harvey and Heather Ackroyd's deeply engaged environmental art works. We went through the actual steps one can take to get growing veg and Lady Lucy is up for the challenge - 'just start digging' said Paul, Tom recommended courgettes and paul said he’ll be going down to Columbia road market on Sunday to buy some, so anyone who wants to start growing courgettes, go down there on Sunday too. Mel’s neighbour has just suggested that they start a community garden and she is keen to find out how to begin, her bees arrived recently and she keeps them on her roof in Bethnal Green. Emily introduced the work that is done at the Mile End Cemetry Park, it’s 33 acres an dthe largest urban woodland in Europe, she works with Chris and Paul looking after the woodland, doing education and working with volunteers. They do special walks, a mushroom walk is coming up soon.

Community and the City Conversations

Last Wednesday Mhairi, the manager of the city farm talked to us about the farm and the community that sustains and is sustained by it.

She talked about what it means to have a farm in the city and how a community is created through shared ownership of this green space.

After Mhari’s talk and some more general conversation we split up into pairs. We roamed around the farm, talking about our different ideas of community, and what community means to us. My partner and I talked about the importance of eating together as a communal act, about bread and breaking bread, and about the way that gardening had featured (or not) in our urban childhoods. We agreed that it’s really empowering to know the names of things. I never know the names of any plants, and that always adds to my feeling that I’m likely to kill any green things that come into my care...