When I thought about this talk, I thought it would kin­da be straight down the line, sug­gest­ing mod­els, tac­tics for lifestyle hack­ing or what a new nomadism might look like. But sketch­ing the talk out last night, I decid­ed that I’d actu­al­ly per­son­al­ize this and talk about where I’ve come from, the things that I’ve done, and the effect that they’ve had on my think­ing. But just to sum­ma­rize briefly, reflect­ing back on every­thing that I’ve built recent­ly. It can kind of be sum­ma­rized as the infra­struc­ture by which I (and oth­ers) wish to live does­n’t exist; so we’ve no choice but to build it our­selves.” I kind of describe this and a lot of the oth­er things I do at this present moment as being the soft end of stack­tivism, which is anoth­er Big Picture Day that was host­ed recent­ly.

I spent five years of my life liv­ing in a com­put­er game called Ultima Online. I’m not going to talk about that too much, but I did just want to punc­tu­ate the three things that I learned from liv­ing in that world. One was how to estab­lish mean­ing when you’re not bound to a grand nar­ra­tive, with­out a begin­ning, mid­dle, or end; the basics of how economies func­tion; and what com­mu­ni­ty actu­al­ly means.

When I was eigh­teen, I reread Siddhartha, and on a whim thought I would throw away all my pos­ses­sions except for my lap­top. I then also backed up all of my data onto a serv­er, just in case I did lose the lap­top. Around about the same time, I was putting togeth­er my degree show at art school, which was a kind of enor­mous build­ing. I won’t actu­al­ly talk about the specifics of it because it’s kind of weird. But I sunk £5000 into the project and destroyed all my clothes in the process. I was meant to be walk­ing into a well-paid job when I left, doing data-mining for Sky. But that was at the point at which the finan­cial indus­tries col­lapsed, and to add insult to injury, around the same time as a result of a very messy fam­i­ly dis­pute around rent, etc. I got a counter-court judge­ment against my name and had all my bank accounts closed.

So at this point, I could­n’t rent prop­er­ty and I did­n’t have a bank account. In many ways I felt like I did­n’t exist, and it was kind of a pre­re­hearsal for the [grad­u­ate?] of my future. But it was kind of okay because lat­er in the year I moved into a man­sion in Mayfair with some friends and opened a free school, the Temporary School of Thought. There’s prob­a­bly too much to cov­er on the sub­ject, but I think it’s impor­tant to point out the kind of key con­cepts and key expe­ri­ences I had dur­ing that time. So I learned how to live in one of the most expen­sive cities in the world with­out mon­ey and have the best time of my life. I learned how to eat with­out an income. I learned how to live out of a sin­gle bag indef­i­nite­ly. But prob­a­bly most fun­da­men­tal­ly, I got a real­ly hard les­son in the infra­struc­ture required to keep you alive.

Around the same time, we start­ed a project called Nomadic Infrastructure, which was a rehash of a 70s book called Nomadic Furniture. This project nev­er real­ly came into fruition, but con­tin­ues to live on prob­a­bly in this event today, and also in my work on the unMonastery. The desire of that project (and it might be some­thing that we might be able to map out today) is to cre­ate a bike-sized trail­er that would allow you to move into derelict build­ings and set up all the infra­struc­ture that you need­ed with­in a cou­ple of hours, includ­ing Internet.

So squat­ting is real­ly great, but I start­ed doing quite a lot of free­lance web work and stuff, and cycling around at night when you need to find a new place to live kind of got a lit­tle bit tir­ing and dif­fi­cult. I had this idea that maybe estab­lish­ing a mod­el or join­ing an exist­ing mod­el might be a bet­ter way to go. So around that time I moved into a LimaZulu Projects space, which is where I cur­rent­ly live with four­teen peo­ple, one show­er. I often find the solid­i­ty of liv­ing in a fixed loca­tion quite dif­fi­cult to deal with because it does­n’t real­ly reflect the flu­id­i­ty that I feel in my head. So for up to six months at a time, I often go nomadic again.

But what I’ve learned from my own expe­ri­ence of liv­ing at LimaZulu, but prob­a­bly pri­mar­i­ly those who move through the space and use the space, is that there’s no per­fect mod­el but that a low-cost self-made place such as LimaZulu can begin pro­vide sup­port struc­ture for an alter­na­tive way of liv­ing. Kinda key to this under­stand­ing, and encoun­ter­ing oth­er ware­house self-built spaces, is that actu­al­ly the desire is not to build this per­fect thing, but to actu­al­ly cre­ate a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of space and the abil­i­ty to move between them eas­i­ly.

Some friends recent­ly start­ed a ware­house in which they col­lec­tivized all their clothes, and did­n’t think that pri­va­cy was an impor­tant thing so put the bath in the kitchen. And the evo­lu­tion of this project was it does­n’t make sense to build a micro-Utopia, let’s build small rooms through­out the house and rent it on AirBnB so oth­er peo­ple can expe­ri­ence the way that we’re liv­ing. That’s I think an inter­est­ing project. I think it’s prob­a­bly impor­tant to say in the con­text of London that the ware­house thing is kind of over, but two thirds of all office space in London is cur­rent­ly emp­ty.

Fast-forward the time I was liv­ing at LimaZulu. About a year ago I start­ed a project called Character Date with some oth­er peo­ple. This was the most dis­as­trous project I’ve ever had any­thing to do with, and no one should ever ever repli­cate any­thing that we did.

Audience mem­ber: And you were told this in advance.

Ben: And I was told this in advance. But the basic aim of Character Date was to con­struct a net­work of indi­vid­u­als with alter­na­tive iden­ti­ties for a self-built fic­tion to appro­pri­ate exist­ing resources and estab­lish pow­er in real net­works of influ­ence. It kind of worked. It was kind of how I got my job at the Serpentine. But the key things that we learned I’d like to share, which is that when you try to cre­ate char­ac­ters to exist in the world, you con­struct a real­ly pow­er­ful toolset for build­ing and reflect­ing on the social and phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture that main­tains our place in the world. You also find out the mate­r­i­al and social integri­ty for new ways of exist­ing is excep­tion­al­ly high, and that there exist an innu­mer­able amount ser­vices that can be reori­en­tat­ed to com­plete­ly new pur­pos­es. You also find out that cre­at­ing a real com­pa­ny is actu­al­ly kind of easy, run­ning it with fic­tion­al char­ac­ters is a bit more dif­fi­cult, and that you should­n’t try to break real­i­ty at scale with unsta­ble human beings. I will nev­er re-run this project.

So, that’s a col­lec­tion of things. What I’ve been think­ing about recent­ly is how com­bined ser­vices might sup­port an alter­na­tive way of liv­ing. And with­in that I’ve been ask­ing the ques­tion if you com­bine say, a mem­ber’s club of a gym, a 24-hour stor­age space, and an office space as a hos­tel, could you dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduce the cost of your liv­ing whilst improv­ing your stan­dard of liv­ing? I think that there’s a num­ber of ser­vices that cur­rent­ly exist and an inter­est­ing eco­nom­ic sit­u­a­tion in which if we were to opt out of the cur­rent set­up and begin to build new forms of infra­struc­ture, and reori­en­tate things com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent­ly, that we might end up with a very inter­est­ing sce­nario. But we should­n’t do it with fic­tion­al char­ac­ters.

Where all of this stuff kind of cul­mi­nates in the present moment is in my con­tri­bu­tion to a project called the unMonastery. Since this is a ten-minute talk, I’m going to explain it in short. It is a hack­er space that main­tains a social con­tract with the local com­mu­ni­ty that hous­es it. And it aims to solve three prob­lems. Large num­bers of unem­ployed grad­u­ates, a gross num­ber of emp­ty prop­er­ties through­out Europe, and the cri­sis of state pro­vi­sion with the onset of aus­ter­i­ty. It also tries to do this by ask­ing what does monas­tic life look like in the 21st cen­tu­ry, and how would a con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of a monastery func­tion?

I’m not going to expand on the mod­el too much, because I’m more inter­est­ed in actu­al­ly what hap­pens when you begin to cre­ate new insti­tu­tions and new forms of infra­struc­ture. What I’ve found is that you kind of end up ask­ing ques­tion you def­i­nite­ly weren’t ask­ing at the begin­ning. And some of the things that unMonastery has raised for me is how does time work when you don’t have to go to work? What juris­dic­tion­al mod­els, draw­ing on the monas­tic idea of the rule and how can those things influ­ence the cur­rent cur­rent state of play, and what would an autonomous zone look like draw­ing on rule? What does trav­el look like for zero car­bon nomads that actu­al­ly have places to move between?

So just to share some of the lessons I’ve learned.

  • You need friends with hous­es and resources in order to sur­vive these sorts of lifestyle, with a clear mod­el of what your safe­ty net is.
  • The build­ing process is still super messy at the moment. Without resources you’re going to have to work with what you’ve got and what the world throws at you.
  • The oppor­tu­ni­ties offered in the present moment by sev­er­al years of low-resource free­dom and geo­graph­i­cal flu­id­i­ty is enor­mous com­pared to the exist­ing man­dat­ed mod­els of work.
  • In order to move toward and build things that don’t require income and don’t gen­er­ate cap­i­tal, you need to have lived with­out these things and had the best time of your life, oth­er­wise you def­i­nite­ly don’t know what you’re fight­ing for. This is clear­ly a priv­i­leged posi­tion.
  • And final­ly pre­car­i­ty is def­i­nite­ly not cool.
  • That’s it.

Further Reference

The Temporary School site is offline, but Dougald Hine posted a collection of links to various notes and recordings of events, and media coverage, in 2009.

Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Cash App, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.