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Alberto Duman on BearMotherHouse
Soul Markers for the Near Future
Commoning:
A verb to describe the social practices used by commoners in the course of managing shared resources and reclaiming the commons.[1]


It’s hard not to think of the power of this verb as an active site of hope and resistance, just as my Word spellchecker still stubbornly refuses to acknowledge its legitimate existence. And still, it is this small but apparently rogue transition from a noun to a verb that keeps our attention pinned to the incessantly reproductive drive of the Commons, ‘one of the more significant ideas within contemporary progressive political discourse today, functioning as a transversal notion able to connect different kinds of movements and struggles in different parts of the world.’[2]

It is easy to see this ongoing reproductive drive rolled out as an operative mode in Fourthland’s BearMotherHouse, their current project at SPACE, where connections are spun, then folded and then again unravelled to ‘reimagine the stories we tell about crisis, light and darkness, mothers, houses, grief and bears,’[3] created in collaboration with Xenia, a Hackney-based project blessed by the auspicious name of the ancient Greek goddess of hospitality.

Extending hospitality into each other’s practice is where Xenia and Fourthland converged. This joint understanding is the space where commoning as a social practice of mutual support, conflict negotiation, communication and experimentation has the potential to overcome the host’s predicaments and open up previously unseen spaces for knowledge and mutual learning.

If hospitality in institutional contexts is always subject to legislation and conditions dictated by treaties and the law, then individual hospitality is ‘mired by its self-contradictory character: the host’s unconditional invitation is predicated on his mastery of the home he presides. It deconstructs itself precisely in being put into practice’[4] and because of this, it is always to come, displaced by its very re-enactment.

Perhaps this explains how in order to deliver and protect a nascent collective voice based on gathered myths emerging from group storytelling, Fourthland had to disrupt the gallery space and build a shelter house inside it: from within that inner place, a position of non-belonging could be asserted to stipulate that the rituals hereby consumed are for a host to come, transitory passages in an ongoing narrative. Remember—it appears to say—this is a house, not a home, or at least not one yet, perhaps never to be one.

Rituals of anticipatory history, cosmological connections and mythologies abound in Fourthland and Xenia’s cooperative output. Spelled out and peeled back by the eerie objects and their settings that populate this exhibition, they speak of the degrees of connectedness beyond human knowing and the evocation of powerful figures such as the Bear and the Mother that oversee and mesmerise this house’s proceedings.

As we turn around the tangled up narratives of bears, humans, migration and hospitality, all bound by rituals, we are also struck by other wayward connections: as the main refugee conduit into Western Europe since 2015 and, in reaction to the massive tide of migrants coming across Greece from Syria, ‘Slovenia began building a razor-wire security fence along its 670-kilometer (416 mile) border with Croatia, giving little if any consideration of the environmental impacts’[5] and the migratory routes of bears as well as wolves and lynx.

Whilst borders were erected at the gates of Europe, an exemplary and unsanctioned project of hospitality and collective solidarity was also underway in Athens: City Plaza Hotel[6]. A house for 400 refugees in a squatted ex-Hotel in the citycentre left empty for seven years after the owner’s own business went bankrupt. Through the real and symbolic transformation of the individual hotel rooms into domestic units within a collectively run hostel, the hotel spaces have been remade into an alternative structure for positive affirmation. What were previously alienated spaces of estranged freedom are turned into vital family spaces for comfort and protection, whilst anonymous lobbies are transformed into places for commoning—or at least until the eviction notice comes through the door.

The structures within BearMotherHouse resemble more an encampment than a hostel—and there is no eviction threat here—but in the horizontal alliances of hospitality and the commons’ ‘transversal notion’, these are both places that ‘recognise and celebrate difference, encouraging people from different places to learn from one another’s cultures’.[7]

If history is a matter of gleaning and memory is the ‘knowledge that is already there if only we looked’[8], the words offered by Fourthland as a lead into their exhibition BearMotherHouse, are triangulating into a provisional space fenced for the sharing of gleaned material, a small enclosure of protection where the dispersed is reconstituted and the remembered is offered as communal wealth through the rituals at the core of Xenia’s storytelling gatherings and Fourthland’s ritualised crafting of objects and environments.

Within this makeshift safe space articulated by the women of Xenia and made through the socially situated practice of Fourthland, the political pings its communitarian articulations back towards the personal, acknowledged as its cradle and the source of interconnected feminine knowledge, where forgotten strengths and obscured—but vital—consciousness lives.

This is where ‘we are always simultaneously making gestures that are archaic, modern and futuristic’, time ‘is multitemporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary, and the futuristic’ and the objects produced within are ‘polychronic, multitemporal, and reveal a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats’.[9]

The time of collective storytelling and shared stories has its own temporality, the non-linear time of conveyance sessions where making is intended as the craft of ‘bringing together’, of aggregating the spoils of workshops into material evidences of process, precarious bundlings of soul stories emerging from participants’ direct experiences reformed into totems of possible collective futures, vessels holding the processes that generated them.

These tarnished things held-up by fabric and wood and wax and strings produced through archetypal sculptural gestures of folding, pleating, rolling, tying up and holding together are essential portable narratives, carriers of stories that must be protected and preserved, their value not yet fully divided from the origin of the story but expressing a willingness to be carried forth into other angles of visibility and vocabularies of translation.

Still, the main negotiations in social practices of commoning and creativity always have to do with temporality: ‘The time of the common is different to the time of the “project”, the common is never finished and needs ongoing care.’[10]

The word ‘unravel’ comes to mind, intended as the doing and undoing of tangles and knots where matter once entrusted with memory tries to speak of their makers and exhorts our listening. As they petition us to care, these objects might tell us: we embody many migrant sets of meanings, situations in a range of varied situations, perhaps on our way to speak more loudly as markers of a near future, today’s artworks and tomorrow’s things staring back at others.

Works cited:
1. Online here
2. p.1, ‘The Politics of Commoning and Designing’, Kim Trogal, Valeria Graziano and Bianca Elzenbaumer. Available online HERE.
3. Fourthland’s own writings on BearMotherHouse.
Online here
4. In Jacques Derrida’s lectures on the subject collected as: ‘On Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond’, Stanford University Press, 2000.
5. Online here
6. Online here
7. Xenia’s Values online here
8. Introduction, ‘Memory: Encounters with the Strange and Familiar’, John Scanlan, Reaktion Books, 2013
9. p.60, ‘Conversations on Science, Culture and Time’, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, University of Michigan Press, 1995
10. p.2, ‘The Politics of Commoning and Designing’.

Alberto Duman is an artist, university lecturer and independent researcher whose work is situated between art, urbanism and social practice. He is a part-time Lecturer at Middlesex University where he runs, with Loraine Leeson, the BA Fine Art and Social Practice. Since 2014 he has also worked with the DIG Collective. In 2016 he was the Leverhulme Trust artist in residence at University of East London UEL with the project Music for Masterplanning in Anna Minton’s MRes Course ‘London: Reading the Neoliberal City’. A book inspired by the project will be published by Repeater Books in September 2018.