At the Well blog


When responsibilities become the norm

Photo: Jaana Denisova

In the MASSIA residency space in rural Estonia, residents are in charge of providing services for the building, the territory, and the people around them. Adel Kim from the Reside/Sustain project writes about her learnings at MASSIA, and how giving back through one’s time and care is connected to aspects of ecological sustainability.

Nobody greets you at the front door of MASSIA, but the doors are always open.

The place is welcoming and full of hospitality. As Kaytlin D. Hamilton, one of our field trip participants said, the house guides you. So, if you pay enough attention, it slowly opens up, shares its stories (look at all these Soviet educational posters), introduces its system of cohabitation (read the guidelines posted on the walls and in your email box carefully). You learn where the bed linen is, where the contents of different trash bins go; you know that no one is there to wash your dishes and wipe the table or clean the toilets for you. That takes time, and, if you are patient enough, in a few days the shift happens: you find yourself hosting yourself.

MASSIA is a project platform with a strong residency aspect. Situated in a former school building in an Estonian village, it seems to be the perfect place to start building a community for art, reciprocities, and care. It emerged from PAF, the Performance Art Platform in St. Erme, France. The operational principles of PAF (the first and most famous of which is Do not leave traces) have gone through adjustments and considerable revision to become more inclusive and more feminist.

MASSIA is run by a community of the Association’s members, co-organized and managed by Sepideh Ardalani. Who are the members, though? Here is the thing: before arriving at MASSIA, you receive a membership request form, and once you sign it, you become a member for a year. Therefore, the resident simultaneously becomes the one in charge. Not to say that this is different from other associations where members participate in management and activities; but here, one experiences perhaps a more evident, embodied connection.

In that sense, the experience of this concept is quite the opposite to that of a “residency provider”, which was highlighted at the recent Res Artis conference in London. It seems this new title came to replace “residency host” or “organiser”, which was there to distinguish between the ones who run and manage residencies – although the ultimate term was not coined. Considering that, “provider” clearly refers to the aspect of service (that which is provided) in residencies according to the model operating in service logic – and, as some residency colleagues mention, residents often expect to be served, seeing the residency as an institution that has a lot of resources at its disposal (which is often not the case).

MASSIA shares its space and connections with you but doesn’t provide any services. On the contrary, you are basically in charge of providing services for the building, the territory, and people around you. This is stated in MASSIA’s rules, that you must dedicate an hour a day, or a few hours a week, to maintaining the building and the surrounding territory. This is a sobering antidote that drives your attention to the fact that nothing is impartial: services come from the working efforts of people. When you pay for a neat, faceless room in a hotel, you rarely come to think of the reproductive1 labour behind it. It stays invisible (only occasionally you bump into the cleaning staff in narrow corridors around noon) and it has nothing to do with you. In many residencies, too, there is staff to help with maintenance, cleaning, exhibition preparations, and urgent issues; people who will respond to your messages outside their working hours. But when no one is doing this, you have an opportunity to experience first-hand, what the efforts and precious services are.

This leads to my own enlightenment that MASSIA gave me as a gift, and that I believe is firmly connected to the aspect of ecological sustainability. There is so much talk and speculation about residencies being or becoming a home, or at least a “feels-like-home” space for residents. But no place is home until you are responsible for it; until you start to care. The same logic can be applied to the environment: if we think we are not in charge, we cannot change anything, nothing is up to us etc., we are not at home, and we have the mindset of not being connected to other ecological systems around us (although, of course, we are). What would change if we took more personal responsibility for small actions in the areas that are close to us? If we took this duty as our own, if we signed up for this membership?

In a recent conversation for the “Testing Grounds” podcast by NAARCA, theatre director and Saami activist Pauliina Feodoroff shared her thoughts on what might be a possible “radical action” that a residency could do for the environment. She proposes that within the context of a stay, one or a few days could be dedicated to the care of the physical environment surrounding the residency: for instance, cleaning plastic off the seashore. These very concrete and grounded actions might be more useful than scrupulous CO2 calculations. This corresponds with how you give back through your time and care in MASSIA. (Similar principles are, of course, adopted in other residencies too.)

What also comes to my mind is a zen buddhist tale I read somewhere, in my teenage years. One day, a monk comes to his master, asking what else he can do, to get closer to enlightenment. The master asks: “Have you eaten today?”, and the monk answers: “Yes”. “Then go wash your dish,” the master says, and at that moment the monk is enlightened.

I stay for one day longer than the rest of our group in order to meet with the participants of the LOORE Estonian Creative Residencies Network, as well as to spend more time here and to feel the space better. As Sepideh drives me to the bus station the next day, I think of how strong their will must be in order to practise MASSIA every day, to constantly show, through their own example, how this place works, and softly, sometimes invisibly communicate this to newcomers like us, which is surely a never-ending emotional labour. Sepideh sees the ideal picture of MASSIA as an organically developing entity, although they also have doubts: maybe it’s not the right time for such a project? Maybe society is just not ready for this? Being not too optimistic myself, I share these doubts. At the same time, it seems to me that at some point, it is as impossible as it is unavoidable for society to follow this path for survival: being sympoietic, in Donna Haraway’s notion of a “collectively-producing” system. A system with no independent organisms in the environment, but rather, where we are highly interconnected, barrier-free, unpredictable, and organic.

1 The term developed within Marxism and feminist studies, refers to domestic labour, caregiving, and further traditionally female-related labour.