Hands-on Change

Theun Karelse

An evening of discussions and presentations hosted by Foamlab and Shibumi Friends International in Amsterdam on July 08 2007.

Respect, playfulness, interdependence and apperception were the key concepts that shaped the event:

Respect enables a true connection with the world, with others and with yourself and your place in things.

Playfulness manifests itself as a great source of strength and resilience . A playful practice brings forth extraordinary results, because you are intimately connected to what you are doing and setting no limits to ways for it to evolve.

Interdependence: Hands-on change is not a manifesto for self-reliance by taking matters into your own hands. The most effective solutions are the ones that are also solutions for others.

Apperception is the deliberate and conscious observation of the world. It is how we learn. Many aspects of life may be counter-intuitive. For our endeavours to be effective and harmonious with what ever goes on in our collaborations, society or nature, we need to see it for what it is and is not.

With regard to change, joy is a keyword in contrast to the clash between human culture and the environment, dominated by appeals for austerity and reduction. These force the debate into negative arguments that closely follow the Christian tradition of Man as the species fallen from Grace, which now has to suffer. This self-denial is not a very inspiring message, as it focuses on a negative set of actions for us to take. It is hard to imagine a positive revolution happening on a global scale, based on negative arguments. It is not inspiring and certainly not very sustainable, because people are already getting demotivated. Instead we should focus on positive changes that are inspiring. This debate should be dominated by the possibility of increasing the quality of life in our social lives, our food and in the way we spend our time.

For those who think our quality of life is at a high standard, I would like to point the omnipresence of depression in Western societies. Just watch the expressions on the faces of people you meet in the streets or supermarkets in any major city. It looks like what Theodore Dalrymple describes as the “transcendental boredom”1) of a vast middle class who are unlikely to gain or lose much in material assets and whose lives are lived in passive consumption of goods offered by large anonymous corporations. He suggests that this feeds into a myth of self-destruction, which originated with the great Romantic poets, and which has developed in the 20th century into the pinnacle of post-modernity; José Ortega y Gasset’s “mass-man,”2) people liberated even from thinking. Together these phenomena combine with unrelenting news of our deteriorating habitats to form a picture so saturated with fatalism that even our visions of the future have become dominated by nostalgia, a classic sign of depression.

It is hard to picture the development of humanity into Homo sapiens if we didn’t have something like hands. You can see it even in the simplest Disney cartoons, the vast majority of characters with human capacities have hands (Goofy) and the ones without dexterity belong to the animal kingdom (Pluto). Somehow thinking and handling are related activities and they stimulate each other: hands-on/brains-on. The ability to manipulate, to modify things by hand is liberating. And it is striking to notice that the most liberating solutions to problems between people and biosphere are tackled by those who produce results with their own hands, in ecosystem gardening, permaculture, slow-food, craft-nouveau, hacking, modding, personal-fabrication, etc. This kind of interaction offers the possibility, as William McDonough puts it, “for humans to become native to the planet again.”3)

A problem with projects is that design has its limits. The world cannot be made as a design, because your view of things is inherently restricted. Pix described once how the “One Laptop per Child” project struck him as odd. For a child from the Indian desert, life revolves completely around goats, and if he knew that most European families have few goats – or to be precise, no goats at all – he would take great pity on European children. How awful life must be for children without goats! And clearly European kids would benefit at least as much from having a goat, as Indian children would benefit from having a laptop. Obviously a project like the “One Laptop per Child” plan is constructed from preconceived notions about life. That does not make it a bad project, just a one track-minded one.

Recent directions taken by FoAM indicate that our hylozoistic mindset is becoming more directly visible. Our attempts to integrate realities irrespective of something being animate or inanimate are taking shape. A clear parallel to this can be seen in Maria Blaisse’s work. During Hands-on Change she showed Cymatics, the forming of patterns and movement in matter due to vibration as a rather magical illustration of this insight. I suspect future FoAM projects will further challenge limiting interpretations of life and life-forms. No doubt we will be bringing alchemical lifestyles to urban environments.

Many recent cultural trends seem to me connected with medieval thought, perhaps because we see ourselves again as fallen from Grace. As the eminent historian Kenneth Clark put it,4) European civilisation survived by the skin of its teeth during the early stages of the medieval period. Clark also identified the crucial injection of vibrant energy by Viking cultures that revitalised the dull face of Christianity and made it robust again. The peculiar concentration and vitality contained within ornamental artistic expressions, he suggests, are somehow related to the narrowness of such primitive societies. This, I propose, is prevalent too in the appearance of much of Web 2.0’s consumer-created content and dominates game graphics.

If we are to survive by the skin of our teeth again, I would look at these dimensions of current culture to find momentum. These places where people build things for themselves do appear to have an almost identical narrowness and power that springs from darkness (although it may be fatally lacking the sublime). I suppose it moves us more than the austere world of harmonised proportion and human reason of modernity. Although a similar unpolished medieval mode of expression has popped up in more established visual arts during the last decades, this area seems to me too isolated from society to have impact on any significant scale. Hands-on Change was set up to be a catalyst of creative activity within our communities and an appeal to release the energies hidden there. Recently FoAM have directed this towards the “prehearsing” and modelling of possible future societies. I’m keen to see were it goes: surely as you are reading this crystals of panvitalism are growing, rising up through the layers of the Earth.

This event was hosted by Theun Karelse and organised by Foamlab in collaboration with Shibumi Friends International.

Theodore Dalrymple in Nexus #44, 2006, Nexus Uitgeverij
Rob Riemen in Nexus #44, 2006, Nexus Uitgeverij
William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle, 2002, North Point Press
Kenneth Clark in “Civilisation, a Personal View,” BBC 1969