Unsafe Safety

Florian Malzacher und Jonas Staal im Gespräch mit Maayan Sheleff

In: (Un)Commoning Voices and (Non)Communal Bodies. Hg. Maayan Sheleff and Sarah Spies. Zürich: OnCurating.org, 2021. 58-80.

In englischer Sprache

This conversation began with the discursive purpose of reflecting on the project Training for the Future by Florian Malzacher and Jonas Staal, a utopian training camp that aims to collectively reclaim the means of ‘producing’ the future. Subsequently, the conversation developed into a multi-layered conversation in two parts, before and after the training camp (and the pandemic). Tue text relates different strands of thinking about assemblies, identity conflicts, andcuratorial positions to the current challenges brought about by the Covid-19 crisis, making physical assemblies ‘dangerous’ and enhancing online participation.


A conversation between Florian Malzacher and Maayan Sheleff
in a cafe in South Tel Aviv, April 2019

MS: Can you tell me about Training for the Future1? What are you planning? What do you mean by training?

FM: Training for the Future departs from the simple observation that many of us have difficulties to imagine a future which is worth living for. Not only do we not expect it to bring much positive, we often also don’t have our own visions of it, no desires or goals that are not only reactive. At the same time, we can see that it is desperately necessary to be active in shaping this future. So, the idea of the training is that you can learn something that helps you to be prepared for the future—but also to claim part in influencing or at least imagining it.

In contrast to the terms “seminar” or “workshop,” the concept of training also suggests a more physical or practical approach—the presence of our bodies will play a role in this, the training groups will be rather large, and the time together rather tight. One could say, the training is a proposal; it others a beginning of something you might want to continue later on. But you also might disagree with some of the approaches: The trainings are quite diverse and sometimes might even be contradictory in their visions.

  1. The project was held in September 2019 in the framework of the Ruhr Triennale, described by the curators as “a utopian training camp where audiences become trainees in creating alternative futures…It seems a consensus today, that what is ahead of us can only be imagined as a disaster. Training for the Future instead aims to collectively reclaim the means of production of the future.” https://www.ruhrtriennale.de/en/agenda/130/JONAS_STAAL_FLORIAN_MALZACHER/Training_for_the_Future/

What is the difference between the training here and the “Marathon” in one of your previous projects, Truth Is Concrete (2012)2 which was also an intensive form of participatory knowledge transfer?

FM: Truth is Concrete happened almost seven years ago—a lot has happened since. When we organized this seven-day marathon in 2012, it was still a time of optimism: social movements became visible and strong around the world. Butat the same time, it was no pure, no naive enthusiasm anymore. When we started working on Truth is Concrete, Occupy Wall Street was not even thought of yet. And when it happened, OWS had already been evicted. So, it was a time where there was a huge desire for exchange and sharing experiences and practices.

It seems to me the tone has changed fundamentally since then. There is much more confrontation between different groups, movements, communities. There is—sometimes rightfully so—a focus on differences rather than on the common ground, which was a basic assumption for Truth is Concrete. I don’t think the openness, enthusiasm, and generosity towards each other would be possible today—for many reasons.

  1. Truth is Concrete, Political Practices in Art and Artistic Practices in Politics, curators Florian Malzacher and Joanna Warsza, 2012, in the frame of Steirischer Herbst Festival, Graz, Austria. Truth is Concrete was 24/7 marathon camp, with around 300 lectures, panels, tactic talks, performances, concerts, films, workshops, and a parallel, self-curated, spontaneous Open Marathon.

I think that this is an important issue, as it connects to concepts of agonistic pluralism and how the changing reality sheds a different light on them. Think, for example, of Claire Bishop’s seminal claim that the best participatory projects cause the participant to feel confusion and discomfort and often involve conflict or even provocation.3 Today, with the fake news and the right wing’s advanced propaganda, things are at times so absurd and extreme that it becomes impossible to draw the difference between reality and satire. On the other hand, as you mentioned, subtleties disappear also on the side of the activists—maybe as a counter reaction. Would projects like Please Love Austria by Christoph Schlingensiefor the Yes Men’s tactical media5 be as effective today as they were a decade ago?

FM: No, many of these approaches wouldn’t work anymore—they were specific in context and time. Obviously today, other activist and/or artistic strategies have to be developed. Think, for example, of Jonas Staal’s New Unions6which is based on the assumption that we need to build new alliances, that we have to find common ground. At some point, it was confronted by a strong demand first to change the underlying structures and conditions before moving on to the idea of unionising.

Still, while these seem to be contradictory aims—to unionise vs. to focus on divisions and differences—we should not forget that they may happen in different time frames. There is usually only a small window of time for movements like #Metoo or Black Lives Matter—it is a matter of “now or never.” So, the strategy is to push as hard as possible since all the demands were ignored for so many years and nothing has changed. But at the same time, it is necessary to not forget the other timeline, in which it is just as necessary to create unions in order to change the path of this planet towards the manifold catastrophes that become more and more tangible.

When you and Jonas are imagining the future you will be training for, would you say that it is more useful, as an activist strategy, to imagine utopia or dystopia?

FM: For me, Training for the Future is about developing utopias—or maybe rather: pragmatic utopias. There are already so many science fictions that imagine dystopian worlds… So, the interesting thing is: are the utopias we are imagining common utopias, or divided and divisive ones? I have the hope that artistic strategies help to open some pathways within the current landscape of confrontations. We need safe spaces and agonistic spaces at the same time. So, what is the relationship between the two? Again, there is not necessarily a contradiction, perhaps they just need to be considered as different modes of time.

Maybe you need to feel relatively safe within an agonistic space, if that’s possible.

FM: Yes, because being in a safe space might change your personal situations—but not your social and political situation. You need to enter agonistic spheres in order to fight for your hegemonic project. And you need to create radical safe spaces—because mediocre safe spaces just produce superficial consensus.

Another thing that I often ask myself is if we ever reach larger audiences outside the communities of artists and activists, and does it even matter? Because these projects attract a certain kind of crowd.

FM: I’m all in favour of projects that are able to reach larger audiences. But right now, it seems we also need to communicate in smaller circles of artists and activists to figure things out. And after all: these people are multipliers. At TFTF, all trainers and trainees work in different contexts and can carry things further, in many different directions. Also, I believe that the idea of the training is bringing something to the art world which is not very present there. Sometimes it is necessary to focus on the art world in order to show that art can create these different kinds of spaces.

In this project, do you see your role as a curator, as an artist, or as a dramaturg? And do you see an echoing between the kind of artists you are interested in and your curatorial or collaborative methodology?

FM: I never see myself as an artist. For me, it is more productive to play with the roles we play, to see how the roles of artists and curators complement each other, overlap, clash, convene. A curator has to do things (and sometimes can do things) that within the role of an artist are more problematic or not desirable—and vice versa. Everybody assumes that the role of the artist offers—at least on paper—more freedom. But sometimes that’s not even true.

The other aspect is, that at some point in my life, I decided not to take on the role of an artist because I encountered some artists whose visions and practices seemed so much more radical or much more consequent than mine. For me, this is still one of the most important aspects of the role of “a good artist.” And it is this consequence of a few artists and a few activists that I am drawn to and that I try to connect and contextualise in my own way.

With Truth is Concrete, the aim was to bring together a lot of people— artists, activists, theorists, audience—and to create a context, a platform, a curatorial concept that would enable something that might otherwise not happen. So, from the beginning, it was about pushing the limits of the curatorial role beyond being merely a host—and at the same time serving a bigger political and artistic purpose.

So, in this regard I would say Truth is Concrete was a curatorial proposal, while Training for the Future is much more driven by the artistic approach of Jonas. For me, that means that certain decisions I would clearly leave to Jonas. I might discuss them or try to influence them—but in the end, they are artistic rather than curatorial decisions. But this is an undefined field—and that’s productive. And, of course, every collaboration differs. In another project I am currently working on—a performance by the Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera—it is a completely different kind of collaboration.

Either way, these kinds of collaborations are different from other curatorial work. I like the idea that curating does not necessarily mean endorsing. So, in other projects, it is also possible to have a more critical or agonistic relationship with the artists you work with. Struggling with each other can also be a form of collaboration.

I want to go back to what you said about the curator as a host. Do you feel that as a curator-host you sometimes go between two positions: one is to make your guests comfortable and the other one is to push them outside of their comfort zones in order to get something interesting out of them?

FM: Of course, but in any case it is about creating the best setting for whatever encounter you are aiming for—be it a friendly or an unfriendly situation. But, again, in the role of a curator I would not overstep certain lines in dealing with an audience which some of the artists I work with might.

  1. Claire Bishop, “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now?,” in Living as Form, Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011, ed. Nato Thomp- son (New York: Creative Time Books; and Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 2012), 34-45.
  2. “This project, which resembles the like Big Brother reality show, was attended by 12 asylum-seekers, that have lived one week in a shipping container nearby the theatre in central Vienna. Every day, through a vote by phone or internet the Austrian people chose the two least popular people that were ejected and then deported to their native country. The project was carried out during a period a tense discussions in Austria around immigration and nationalism with Jörg Haider’s nationalist Austria People’s Freedom Party enjoying strong support.” https://museumarteutil.net/projects/please-love-austria/.
  3. New Unions is an artistic and political campaign that departs from the current political, economic, humanitarian, and environmental crisis of Europe with the aim of assembling representatives of trans- democratic movements and organizations to propose scenarios for new future unions. New Unions considers the crisis of Europe simultaneously as a crisis of the imagination, and as such rejects both ultra- nationalist parties that demand separation from the European Union and seek to return to a mythical notion of the nation-state, as well as the political-economical functionary elite that has used the EU for its austerity politics. Instead, New Unions argues for the need for third, fourth, fifth options in the form of alternative scenarios for transnational unionization.” http://www.jonasstaal.nl/projects/new-unions-1/

Maybe I am too cowardly, but I would rather like to consider it not to be my role. For example, when Joanna Warsza, Jonas, and I created Artists’ Organisation International (AOI),7 it became quite a confrontational event. It was very productive this way, but as a curator I would usually be more transparent, explain the rules of the game beforehand. I would have tried to make it more peaceful—and in this case I believe that would have meant less interesting.

As for the Trainings, I would say: they are a rigid proposal, but there is no hidden agenda, while artists like Renzo Martens or Artur Zmijewski are working with what Pablo Helguera called “involuntary participation,”8 which basically means that they don’t lie but also don’t necessarily tell the whole truth. To a degree, they deceive their participants—and this is something I won’t do in my practice as a curator. I might invite artists to do it for me, though.

I think it’s a curatorial thing to be mediators and “save” your participants, be they artists or audiences, when they feel too uncomfortable, because you invited them under certain conditions. When Sarah Spies and I curated the first part of (Un)commoning Voices, (Non)communal Bodies, we held two workshops for the MAS and PhD curating students at ZHdK. One was with Jamila Johnson-Small/Last Yearz Interesting Negro and Fernanda Muñoz-Newsome and included non-verbal gestures and choreography of togetherness. The second, with Dmitry Vilensky from Chto Delat, was a performative debate about the controversy with Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till, and included some provocation regarding identity politics. At the end, we had a joint discussion with all the participants. Taking into account the explosiveness of the content, I felt the clash between the provocative attitude of Dmitry and the subtle activist attitude of Jamila and Fernanda so strongly that I almost couldn’t bear the thought of making people who I invited so uncomfortable, maybe even offended. On the other hand, I was careful not to be a self-censor, or to project my own sensitivities on others. As Dmitry was aware of our attempts to navigate between these two positions in the conversation, he asked me later over a drink: Why do curators always have to be such moderators?


A Zoom conversation with Jonas Staal, Florian Malzacher, and Maayan Sheleff, April 2020

Originally, when I invited you to have this conversation, I was planning to ask you about your post-event thoughts—what you had planned and what eventually happened. In the meantime, we found ourselves in an unexpected and overwhelming situation with the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. Currently, many countries are in the midst of a lockdown, and no one knows how long this situation will last. So, it seems relevant to ask first if and how you would have imagined the future differently if you did this project now, and would “assembly” even be possible?

  1. Artist Organisations International brings together over twenty representatives of organisations founded by artists whose work confronts today’s crises in politics, economy, education, immigration, and ecology. Artist Organisations International explores a current shift from artists working in the form of temporary projects to building long-term organisational structures. What specific artistic value and political potential do such organisations have? How do they perform? What could be their concrete impact on various social-political agendas and possible internationalist collaborations?” http://artistorganisationsinternational.org/
  2. Pablo Helguera, Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook (New York: Jorge Pinto Books Inc., 2011).

FM: Of course, I also have been wondering what it could mean to demonstrate while having to keep distance. There is the example of the recent Tel Aviv demonstrations. I really liked the picture from above with everybody keeping a two-metre distance in a very strict pattern. It was about creating an image.9 Then there are also other examples from Germany and Poland, where kiosks or takeaway restaurants were allowed to be opened, while demonstrations weren’t permitted. So, people instrumentalised the cues (with a distance of 1.5 metres between each person) in front of some takeaway cafés for their demonstration. That happened with a pro-asylum demonstration in Berlin, and protests against abortion laws in Poland. I was also thinking of the famous Standing Man performance by Erdem Gündüz in Istanbul, which is also about a demonstration that could not happen anymore. So, in a way, there are choreographies and formats for absent demonstrations, paradox assemblies that remind us that we cannot assemble. If we had scheduled the training one year later, could we have adapted the training in a meaningful way to the current situation or would we just have cancelled?

JS: I don’t see any scenario in which we would have cancelled, even if we would not have been able to physically gather. I think the notion and format of the training could have generated many different forms in terms of instructions, collecting different methodologies, including alternative organisational forms that are emerging from the coronavirus crisis.

In some sense, maybe the starting question for the training would not even be that different, because before the coronavirus crisis we were asking how can we organise to challenge the means of production of the future, and now we would ask exactly the same question. In a way, what we are inheriting now in the coronavirus crisis is the consequence of our lack of organisation to ensure durable social infrastructures before.

What I have been observing in this crisis is how much it confronts us with choices of the recent past. Like in Greece, where I am at the moment, a new right-wing government was elected. They are hiring IC (intensive care) beds from private hospitals—for tens of thousands of euros per bed. If we would have voted the Syriza government back into power, that would never have happened; they would instantly have nationalised the private health care infrustructures, at least for the period of the pandemic, as it happened in the context of the Podemos-led government in Spain. So, on one hand, there is the question of how do we train and organise an assembly in the context of the pandemic; on the other hand, the pandemic is kind of mirroring all of the made or lost choices of the recent past. What we could have organised and what we didn’t now gets amplified in the present. But that does not undermine the urgency of our training, it just amplifies it.

It’s as if the subconscious is now surfacing, and everything becomes more extreme. I’ve just read that Trump is banning all immigration starting from today. He also, of course, already gave benefits to oil companies. And in Israel, Netanyahu is basically taking the country hostage in order to prevent himself from going on trial. So, it is kind of like an enhanced mirror of what was already happening.

JS: Enhanced, yeah, that’s the word.

FM: To come back to the training: if we can’t come together physically, what can be transferred to an online space? And what can’t?

JS: If we wouldn’t have been able to physically gather, my first thought would be to ask each of the trainers to set up instructions for the trainees to be sent. But not to try to hold on to the existing format and do the training in the form of a big Zoom meeting with 450 people as if we can somehow continue the situation as it was before. I think then it would be more about instructions of how to gather within the direct and existing surroundings, to acknowledge and build on the way the pandemic has site and culture-specific impact.

I am thinking about that a lot now because apart from the different campaigns that I am involved in directly related tothe pandemic, there are also projects in the near future where some forms of assembly were planned which now would have to happen in a compromised social-distanced form. But am I willing to conceptualise parliaments where people have a 1.5-metre distance? And how does that relate to the core idea of the assembly? I feel very resistant to the idea of facilitating this atomization process that is manifesting now as a result of an inherited crisis of capitalism, which has created the conditions for this virus to emerge and circulate at a rapid pace. The total precarisation that is going to manifest as a result of our added dependency on telecommunications is one big exercise for companies to figure out: “Oh, actually we don’t need that office space, or actually our teachers work much harder when we put them online.” This all feels like the amplification of dynamics that should be rejected in their entirety.

So, I feel resistant to facilitating a choreography that naturalises the crisis, that naturalises the pandemic. We need to get to the origins of how this crisis manifested in the first place and why, and identify who is benefitting from it. Who was already benefitting before and is trying to establish hegemony even further in this new era of coronavirus capitalism.

FM: I don’t know, I sometimes feel that this discussion is just adapting to a discourse that was already there. So, the virus has to fit into a certain logic of critiquing capitalism. And yes, it is partially true: capitalism didn’t go down, the gap between rich and poor is even more visible, and the ones that always profit also profit from the virus. But on the other hand, some things are happening as well—things that we did not expect, like the nationalisation of certain infrastructures in some countries or the oil price dropping below zero. Of course, it’s important not to romanticise rather anecdotal events—but how could we learn something from these experiences?

For me, there is a performativity in these kinds of assemblies we were talking of that emphasises a lack. We cannot give up on the idea of getting close. We have to be aware of the phantom pain of all of this onlineness. I actually like the idea of producing assemblies that cannot be assemblies just in order to produce exactly this desire. Like Erdem Gündüz on Taksim Square was showing that something is missing: a man standing alone where there used to be a demonstration. It was not about replacing the demonstration, it was about showing that the demonstration could not happen anymore.

And maybe we just should not give in, we should not just overproduce and pretend we are happy with this situation, but rather ask how can we produce a desire to come together again? And keep this desire alive, so that we don’t get used to it. And at the same time acknowledge the need to stay at a distance. We should make the tension visible—and not release it by going in either direction.

  1. See, for example: https://www.palestinechronicle.com/

As you, Jonas, pointed out when launching Collectivize Facebook: this is not a substitute, it’s just a pragmatic solution for the moment. So, how can we make this physically felt, this desire and political necessity of assembling? And at the same time acknowledge the necessity not to be able to do that at the moment.

For me, it raises a lot of interesting questions about participation because I think that even before, online participation was often about being visible. There was always this race—which, of course, is also connected to neoliberalism—to be visible and produce more content. And now there is this acceleration of the need to be visible; you have to constantly produce attractive online content and invent new platforms, which, of course, you can’t, because you have to take care of a two-year-old child or you’ll be fired or you’re hungry. So, in a way I think participation online is always infected, sorry about the irony, with this sort of neoliberal purpose. So with online participation, engagement is always mediated by various agendas, and if we are in a sort of crisis, the temporal virality constantly intensifies the crisis, like an echo. And somehow when you’re together in the physical space, you create a different kind of temporality, less infected by all this propaganda. You feel your body and the closeness of other bodies in a tangible way, and then the participatory engagement is completely different.

JS: That’s absolutely true, but at the same time I remember that the way the training camp came about was also as a critique of the very form of the assembly. The idea was to move from assembly to training because of the risk of the assembly slowly becoming a kind of substitute for political action: as long as we are together, as long as there are bodies in a room discussing something, it feels like we are doing “something.” And after the assembly, there is another assembly and another assembly, and it can risk becoming a self-serving paradigm. What would it mean to shift towards the training, to somehow embrace an aspect of disciplining? Not disciplining as a punishing act, but as a way of expanding our capacity of collective action. For me, this question still holds very much in this particular moment intime.

It’s obvious that together with the pandemic there is also a different virus spreading, I call it the “red virus.” There are more reawakened socialists in the world than ever before because suddenly everyone wants universal basic healthcare, basic income, well-paid care-workers and cleaners, and the like; this is a huge base and potentiality that could turn this moment into a transformative one. But that won’t go without a fight, and it still needs incredible organisational discipline. We need a militant imaginary of where we want to get to. What is the kind of world we want to build through this crisis? How does this crisis make visible what is wrong, and what it is that we want to achieve? But we also need structural trained constituents that can enforce these futurities to become reality, because it’s very clear that our opponents, whether it’s the authoritarians or neoliberals, or the combination of the two, have had their plans to exploit crises ready for a long time. Erdoğan knew exactly what he wanted to do, the right-wing Greek government knew exactly what they wanted to do, when it comes to mass precarisation or corporate benefit, or when it comes to dismantling independent democratic institutions. I think we were working on the idea of the training camp to have our own plans and trained constituents ready for such moments as well. So, if there is any form in which we would continue this now, I think we would have to acknowledge the changed choreographies of our intimacies, of our gathering, but at the same time it would have to focus directly on how to spread this red virus, and how to enforce this reawakened social imaginary.

FM: I agree, the trainings now would have a much clearer focus. We offered a very wide array of futures and approaches, and now they would have to be narrowed down. The task would be clearer. I really like the idea of manuals or tasks or structures that would be worked with in different places. We already had discussions about the possible Eurocentrism of the last edition and about its context specificity and the problems that might come with that. There was, for example, a controversy around the training given by Heath Bunting, who recommended touching the police as a strategy to confuse them. And some people said: well, if you do this where I come from, you’d just get beaten up. So, this strategy is obviously not universal.

So, by decentralising the trainings, they could become even more specific. They would have to acknowledge what you can actually do, in what kind of lockdown you might be trapped, what the specific social situation is in the concrete space you are in. This would actually be a gain: to understand what tools, strategies, weapons actually can function in which concrete context.

One example of a local specific context in terms of surveillance could be how the medical masks were used by protesters in Hong Kong to confuse the facial recognition in cameras. Now that the masks are obligatory in many places, maybe they could be used in other subversive ways? Or remember the propaganda and graffiti robots by the Institute for Applied Autonomy? They designed robots that deliver propaganda and draw graffiti so that you can’t find and arrest their human sender. The robots protected the people who wanted to deliver their message anonymously, and now they could potentially also protect them from getting infected… technology can somehow be imagined indifferent ways than just facilitating Zoom conversations.

But I also wanted to go back to the concept of training, because the specificity of contexts brings up some issues regarding why a certain person is a trainer and another a trainee—why should this person delegate their knowledge toother people, and shouldn’t the knowledge be transferred in a less hierarchical way?

JS: For me, using the terms trainer and trainee is not necessarily an imposition of hierarchy, as trainees can easily become trainers and vice versa. What we chose was to highlight competencies related to questions of reclaiming the means of production of the future from people who have been invested in these questions for several decades, when it comes to protest choreography or hacking, for example. But acknowledging competence is not a denial of the fact that there are also other competencies. A different starting question would have resulted in a different division of who can be temporarily regarded as a trainer and who can be temporarily regarded as a trainee. On top of that, if a trainer does their work well, a competence is transferred and, at the end of the training, a trainee becomes a potential trainer. So, for me what seems to be hierarchy is more about a temporal recognition of competence related to a specific question and an undoing of the division of knowledge through the training, because essentially that knowledge is redistributed, and you end up with more trainers than trainees.

Returning to your previous comment, the question of surveillance is crucial—for example, in relation to all of the different apps that are being developed to speed up the “re-opening” of economies for the coming year. Apps through which people will continuously be receiving messages whether they have or have not been in close contact with someone who might be carrying the virus, and are imposed to stay at home in quarantine for another period of time, or might be rejected entry to use public transport systems or going to public spaces, in one form or another. There are a lot of technological tools of surveillance that had difficulty getting into the public market because of resistance against privacy infringement, and now have a perfect occasion to be fully put to the test because when there is a sense of collective emergency, people are obviously much more willing to give up what previously seemed to be extremely important civil liberties. Just out of a sheer desire of getting out of the crisis as soon as possible. And this is what makes it hugely difficult to engage crises transformatively, because it is exactly in crisis that people desire to return to an idea of the “normal.” Even if you hated that normality, it seems better than being at home jobless or not even having a home, or being evicted from your house in the middle of a crisis because you can’t pay your rent or mortgage. This explains, for example, why in a country like the US, where it would be most rational to vote for Bernie Sanders in a moment like this, the desire for Biden becomes even bigger. Because it is the person that represents this idea of a pre-post truth normality. So, that also puts a challenge on how to engage a crisis transformatively; it is even more difficult to mobilise people now for a promise that everything will change, because everything has already changed, and that is what makes people so fundamentally and understandably anxious.

FM: Just a remark in regard to surveillance and tracking technologies: one of the divisions amongst the trainers and the trainees in the last edition of TFTF was mirroring the classic division within the left between those believing in technology as a means of change and those being very sceptical towards or even against technological advancement. That’s also an interesting aspect to revisit at the moment: How much do we believe technology can be part of a progressive change, and where is it a mere threat, a danger? Again, this seems to be a question to which the answers are constantly shifting—especially in a time where tracking apps might to a degree be something that can help us move more freely again.

JS: Here is again the enhancement of already existing policies and infrastructures. For me, when the pandemic started, I wanted to cancel most of the running projects in order to think through what is happening now and not to stick to business as usual and blindly facilitate even more precarious economies that are emerging from this crisis. The lawsuit that lawyer Jan Fermon and I mounted against Facebook was the only one that we stuck to, though, although there was this huge sense of absence not to be able to launch it with 400 people at HAU Theater in Berlin as planned, and miss all the antagonisms and intimacies that are part of bringing an idea into the public domain and trying to mobilise for its support. But at the same time, it felt, at least for me, like a campaign that fit the moment, because everyone has worked for Facebook and no one was ever paid for it. You have a stake, they owe you, so we should own them. We are in a crisis, we need income, and we are even more dependent on social media for which we labour as unpaid data workers. So, somehow it felt like a strategy in which you could use this desire to return to normality: Yes, we will maintain the Facebook platform, you will remain a member, but with an added value, that you will be co-owner, that you will finally be paid for the work that you have done. So, I am very much thinking of how to strategically anticipate the desire to return to normality, and how to turn that normality into an alternative future. Yes, we will keep all of these infrastructures that we are so used to and that create our sense of daily life, but the change will be a change of ownership, a change of purpose, a change of who benefits. I feel that this is the moment when we have to struggleover the infrastructures that we have, but under a fundamentally new paradigm.

FM: But from what you say, it becomes very clear that we actually need training now, because the state of emergency becomes a state of permanence. It is already becoming more or less clear that it will be like this for at least this year, maybe next year, maybe forever, and infrastructures will be built. Yes, these infrastructures will provide a few more intensive care beds, but they will also entail a lot of other stuff that we will not be so happy about. So, wouldn’t that be the moment to actually launch a training—which might be digital, might be instructions, might be assemblies in fifty different places organised with only ten people at each place—all kinds of forms? And to have a clear focus on what we need to prepare, to train for right now—for the immediate future—and the future after that?

One good thing about the training is that it’s a form of disciplining yourself to act, but at the same time, because of their diversity and their different approaches, they also other food for thought on the format itself. A training is a proposition that you have to follow in a certain moment and only afterwards you can criticise it. So, it actually is a vulnerable proposition—but one that you have to acknowledge with your whole body.

JS: I agree that the training is a form of reflection through an embodied experience. And it is a question whether reflection makes sense at all, or has any purpose, without an embodied experience in the first place. There is the challenge to politicise the virus as something that shows a violence in an existing system but opens up the possibility of transformation at the same time. I would say it would be a kind of training for collectivisation; it would need to be something that is much more focused, as you said Florian, on this particular moment, and on the very slim window of opportunity that it provides, but with a huge renewed politicised constituency that is unwillingly more socialist than it has ever been before. It even counts for many neoliberal governments that have been forced to put in place certain measures that they would otherwise have condemned as the worst cultural Marxist propositions.

I am wondering if collectivisation is not another form of assembly, if it’s a form of assembly through infrastructure. Similar to the way that I can see social distancing as something that simultaneously represents a social closeness, socially distancing because I want to care for another body, for another human, for a community. We can also see this distancing as a way of being closer to one another or enabling the possibility of closeness from a collective mindset, a collective mindset that we might not have experienced the same way before in this extremely atomised and individualised society that we are part of. What are we talking about when we talk about collectivisations? We are talking about infrastructures that distribute agencies, agencies of health, agencies of education, agencies of economic viability, and we are much more in that mindset now than we were before. Because we have to, for as long as this virus is active, we have to continuously think of all of our actions in this sense of an interconnected infrastructure. And that can lead to even further atomisation and surveillance or that could lead to another form of reclaiming our collective properties, materially, psychologically, intimately.

FM: Well, fifteen, twenty years ago, there was a lot of writing by Internet theorists and activists about the great chance of collaboration as a form of working together without the need to know or even like each other. It was a favourite myth for many Internet pioneers. So, there is a danger in just following that route. But on the other hand, there is the intimate, direct contact, the limited number of people you can interact with, that also plays a role. So how does it not just become an abstract or even esoteric concept of feeling connectivity with millions? How do we negotiate both aspects?

JS: It is also related of course to the question of what is collectivisation, because we have become very used to understating the term in relation to real existing socialism. But what if collectivisation is neither a strengthening of the transnational corporations, nor a strengthening of the nation state? So, collectivising Facebook would not be nationalising Facebook. Rather, it’s about opening up a spectre of the transnational: collectivising Facebook essentially means to transform it into a transnational self-governing cooperative of 2.5 billion users.

FM: Why do you seem to avoid a certain vocabulary that was used in the discussion around the commons a couple of years ago?

JS: It has more to do with the way that the rhetoric of the commons was so easily integrated into a lot of the neoliberal discourses, or even as a way for states to abandon responsibility. Pointing towards citizens commoning social security in so called “bread funds,” for example, then leads to the rhetoric: “Look, it’s great, citizens can do it themselves, that means they don’t need us, that means that whatever is left of our budget we can invest in making sure that we have a tax-free haven in Amsterdam South, so that we can get more corporations to register in the Netherlands.” In such a scenario, the commons has less to do with common ownership, and more with the state relieving its duties to citizens.

FM: It’s interesting that you put an economic aspect in the foreground. Isn’t there a danger that the very description of all relationships as being economicised is actually—performatively, so to say—producing partly this very economisation? So, it’s again an economic model of thinking about collectivity and commons…

JS: Well, it starts from acknowledging a personal benefit: you worked for Facebook, you were never paid by Facebook, they owe you, and you should own them. But in the steps following, this process opens a possibility of new forms of transnational social organisation that go far beyond personal interest towards a collectivised form of being.

For me, the shift from commons to collectivisation is a very similar shift to the one we made from assembly to training. We are still speaking about the same thing somehow, but we are trying to add the components that include notions of discipline, confrontation, ownership, and not exactly hierarchy but acknowledgment of the fact that we live in a world where there is a fundamental division of power. A world where there are fundamental class differences, which is what this pandemic makes visible as well, and which in the micro-political sense was also very visible at our training camp, when one person says, well, your training of how to deal with the police would never work in Malaysia where I would be beaten up if I would even dare to utter a word.

FM: What I like about the term collectivising are the concepts of the collective and collectivity lingering behind it—for me, that opens more options than only an economic point of view.

JS: So, are we starting a collectivisations training then?

While you are planning your new project, I have another aspect of the trainings for you to think about: I think that one of the interesting things that came out of the unofficial conversations during Training for the Future is not only about the police brutality in a local-specific context. What actually touched me the most was when some participants spoke about forms of communication and listening, and how cultural differences and multiple identities are not being taken into account. How when somebody is given a microphone they don’t necessarily feel comfortable using it, and how some people are not comfortable with the format of the confession that Westerners are so keen on; how some people don’t like to be singled out and asked to speak, while others felt that they didn’t have the opportunity to beheard, because they don’t feel that they can cut in when another person is talking, unless there is a long pause in the conversation. All these things, I think, are really interesting. In a way, they also come up when people are speaking online, maybe even more acutely because it is such a clumsy, awkward, alienating medium. Perhaps this is also something to think about if you’re working on another training.

FM: Yes, but what you described is also related to the problems of assembly: in a way, the training tried to other a different format where it’s basically not about having the microphone, even the human microphone. Or rather: it is actually very clearly decided who has the microphone. So, part of this critique sounds like wanting an assembly.

No, not necessarily, I think it was just a call to think about forms of listening and forms of speaking, that maybe there are more forms or other forms than what we think we know.

FM: Rightfully so, but still the trainings purposely offered an admittedly quite rigid, very different way of interacting, listening, and talking than assemblies. So, it was actually very clearly stated what they aimed for and what they did not aim for. Yes, there are many other ways of doing this. But the training tried to investigate one very specific direction of talking, not talking, and listening.

Assemblies could bring up relating comments, at least from what I remember from Truth is Concrete. I remember how some of the participants felt that some women didn’t feel comfortable talking, or that some of the white, Western men were talking too much. It’s interesting how even in an assembly where there is a supposed attempt to have a non-hierarchical conversation, similar issues come up. It’s not that they shouldn’t come up, antagonisms are, of course, important, and these discussions are by themselves mind-opening, but maybe there is more to explore there.

JS: I remember from that conversation mainly one of the comments that was made, which was: we are training for the future, but our present is not the same, how can you even assume that our futures would be? And this for me relates very directly to existing disparities, economically, culturally, infrastructurally speaking—it really talks about class differences on a global scale that are amplified in a context such as this, in which every participant, every trainee has different feedback. On a personal level, I feel that if we would organise the training camp again, I would put much more emphasis on the care aspect, which was so well structured into the methodologies of the final two trainings by Arrivati and the Schwabinggrad Ballett, and the laboratory of insurrectionary imagination. They showed the training space asa space of care that enables an unsafe safety, safety in order to be able to be unsafe. I realised how exceptional it is to have that competence, to be able to work in that way together with a group; it means to have an embodied understanding of what collective work is. We should learn from that as organisers. What are the keys and tools we give beforehand to feel that there is something to fall back to when necessary? That is one important thing I took from this training experience. The other I already mentioned has to do with these disparaged presents and different futures—it really shows the difficulty of the fact that we were training without a social contract. You bring a lot of people together to train for a variety of futurities, but we don’t have a social contract amongst each other, we are not part of the same party, we haven’t subscribed to the same programme; we are essentially training for the possibility of having one.

The risk of working without such a common understanding is that discomforts and inequalities have no mechanism to be addressed structurally, and it becomes the responsibility of individuals to speak out. Whereas a meaningful organisation has a social contract that enforces shared principles, whether it comes to gender equality or the insurance of equal participation. In our training camp, this was lacking, but this is simultaneously the paradox, because we are trying to train for a set of different futurities in order to be able to assemble such a social contract; we can’t presume it already exists. But then at the same time, it shows how much it is needed, like a basis of principles that doesn’t make everyone individually responsible to voice their discomfort, but in which there is a structure to assure that this discomfort is always addressed and that organisations are corrected or disciplined whenever necessary if they do not live up to these principles.

Or auto-errored if they are always correct.

JS: Auto-errored—yeah.

But I actually think unsafe safety is really beautiful, and it relates to what Florian and I spoke about in our previous conversation, pre-trainings and pre-corona, about the range between overidentification, involuntary participation, and other forms of making people feel uncomfortable. I think that “unsafe safety” is a really precise way to put it, but not so easy to achieve.

JS: No, not easy at all.

  1. “With over two billion users today, Facebook impacts our social, eco- nomic and political lives in an unprecedented way. In response, artist Jonas Staal and lawyer Jan Fermon initiated a collective action lawsuit to force legal recognition of Facebook as a public domain that should be under ownership and control of its users.” http://www.jonasstaal.nl/projects/