Autonomy/Autarky or ‘Are you sure that’s normal?

[Conversation & photo essay originally published 2013 in Runway Issue 23: ‘Prototype’]

In August 2013 Tessa Zettel (TZ) and Sumugan Sivanesan (SS) spent a week in residence at the Summer School for Applied Autonomy, a project by Berlin-based Greek artist Valentina Karga. The Summer School is ‘a research initiative interested in capturing the complexity of the technical know-how but also the mental state and the social skills one needs for self-sufficiency’. At its core is an exploration of thematic fields including ‘self-reliance, open source knowledge, collaboration and self-reflection’. Residents live in a purpose-built tiny house with a range of experimental technologies for one week at a time, in a small plot of land completely off the power/sewerage/water grid, and eating only what the garden produces (or what they can trade for). Their days are structured by tasks and lessons, and knowledge is transferred from one resident to the next. For its inaugural semester, the school was situated on an urban wasteland marked for development as an artists’ precinct in the East Berlin suburb of Marzahn. The Summer School for Applied Autonomy opened on 21 July and ran until it was too cold, in early September.

Tessa and Sumugan reflect on their experience.


SS: The Summer School is effectively a live-in pedagogical project that embraces a philosophy of learning by doing, or in this case by living. Implicit in this first semester of the project is that it would be impossible to live self-sufficiently from the garden alone, so it really does rely on the Summer School’s support network and the student’s own ability to communicate and exchange. Being the ‘international students’ and having only limited German between us, we were obviously a disadvantaged class …

TZ: Learning by living / living by learning. I think the framing of the experience as a summer school is important, it sets up a space for intensive learning but doesn’t prescribe any particular kind of pedagogy. You can hold workshops, have conversations, do the dishes—everything contributes to the shared pool of knowledge. The school becomes a sort of container for an experience that is communal but intimate at the same time. The role of the ‘teacher’ is free-wheeling here, it might be you, or the sun, or your companion, or a visitor, or a past student.

SS: I want to address a notion of goodwill, or as Valentina puts it the collective longing for strategies that facilitate ‘the natural kindness of humankind as opposed to the monsters that capitalism and neoliberalism have created’ 1 According to a discourse of ‘institutionalisation’, a key function of art is to produce subjectivities, and it has the capacity to foster all kinds of roles and relationships. I’m not sure if living under such circumstances brought out our best on a daily basis, but I certainly appreciated ‘what it takes’ to attempt to live in that way.

TZ: Also what it takes to live well—there was definitely a heightened appreciation of each meal, the small successes like not wasting any bartered milk, a haul of tiny medieval potatoes, or a garnish of stolen berries.

SS: Having to co-operate, be frugal and resourceful. But of course tending to the garden, and trying to make the most of simply available sources of energy, like the sun. Hot water from the tap was a revelation by the time we were through … and cooking with gas!


TZ: It’s curious how a venture in autonomy makes you much more dependent on others. Partly this was due to failures in the School’s own technical infrastructure (though failure is always a chance to learn), but the necessity to build productive relationships outside of money is written into its basic operations. It becomes autonomy fromwhat, rather than autonomy as autarky, a concern Marjetica Potrč raised in her informal seminar. We’re always dependent on other people and ecologies, though a comfortable capitalist life conceals that. It can be a confronting exercise suddenly having to ask what you need to live, what your capabilities are to produce those things, and who can help where you inevitably fall short.

SS: Especially when it’s difficult to even find the words to ask! Another thing I want to discuss further is value and exchange. Perhaps extending on the notion of goodwill raised earlier. Nobody was out to sabotage the project or see the Summer School fail. Everyone was more or less invested in seeing it through and providing what it needed to continue.

TZ: Building a degree of autonomy is slow-growth—you need a lot of momentum to reach a point where the school could sustain its residents and share properly with those around it. I’m thinking of the past student who panicked when visiting schoolchildren ate all her tomatoes, until one declared it the best tomato he’d ever tasted. The process of ‘moving-towards’ is just as interesting as arriving at such a point.

SS: For those of us participating in the school, ensuring the garden was productive and the project could be passed on to the next residents became the values that underpinned the terms of exchange. However I think ‘art’ is a value category in itself, and one that escapes rationality? I would say that the Summer School favoured a certain ‘quality of exchange’—where value was determined by the terms on which exchange occurred, in a relation to the larger project, rather than a costs vs benefits rationality. That is, the Summer School itself acts as a kind of external guarantor of goodwill … what do you think?

TZ: Yes I see what you mean. The value of exchange here felt different to the many transactions we conduct in ordinary life. I want to say that comes from an idea of contribution to a shared project rather than its categorisation as art, though for me as a resident everything certainly had a quality of the hyper-real (more real than real life!). It’s true that many people participating and connecting with the school encounter it at least in part as an ‘art-work’, and that does shape the terms by which it functions. Maybe it’s refreshing for art to behave in more complex ways, as a distributed relational object with both practical and imaginative manifestations, in a continuous state of becoming.

  1. Valentina Karga,  30 Days in the garden / 15 Days on Mars. Crap is Good, 2013. p 4.

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