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.