Middle Ground #12: Interlude: Heterotopias and Neoliberalism

Essay / August 2022

Middle Ground #12: Interlude: Heterotopias and Neoliberalism 
By Jacob Barnes

         I have been writing more; it’s been difficult to write. It’s been some time since my last Middle Ground, and that extended absence is at once a symptom of having bigger ideas and, conversely, having very few ideas that seem appropriate for this format. While I feel I’ve told just about everyone, I’m working on a series of essays to compile for the beginning of next year, in line with Grove Collective’s commitment to publish the findings of our ongoing research, so I absolutely have been reading and writing, but my output has been somewhat limited to that work. What’s more, summer, seasonal burnout, and a new Playstation have all been factors towards why I only feel able to concentrate on a few projects at once, and, for better or worse, the newsletter has gone somewhat neglected.

With that in mind, I wanted to publish a more casual instalment, one a little more open-ended than what I usually write, as I look to get back into newsletter-writing form post-vacation. Hopefully it will illuminate where my head’s been at, and highlight some key ideas that will be expanded on in later editions, but also make clear some of the things I’m not so sure about: places where I feel I don’t know enough, or have yet to come up with coherent thoughts on. It’s my hope that these polarities can be equally generative: expressing what you don’t know ought to be as effective a means of starting dialogue as expressing what you do (per usual, feel free to give me your thoughts).

I’ve recently become quite interested in intentional living communities as both theoretical and literal spaces. Not necessarily in the ways that they (otherwise, “communes”) are usually understood — hippie-driven spaces eager to distance themselves from the commercial world (“turn on, tune in, drop out”) — but instead as collectives that prioritise communal well-being on a generational level. In this vein, the Shannon Farm Community is a wonderful example. Born from the minds of a Yale economics student and Harvard landscape architect in the early 70s, it’s thrived for fifty years, sharing common resources while continuing to allow members to pursue independent ambition outside of the community in a variety of professions.

It’s communities like these that seem to best orient, and thus realise, Foucault’s conception of heterotopias (in his words, spaces “that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect”) towards sustainable ends. It bears noting that Foucault does point towards religious communities as being key creators of these heterotopic spaces; these communities obviously have communal and communalised elements, but when set in relation to intentional living communities, clear divisions appear (although the secular Kibbutz Movement applies an asterisk). Here, the commune proves less interesting as a site for interrogation in itself, but as a data set to be further mined. If one is invested in creating a space that bears its own set of unique social relations, intentional living communities offer up a blueprint for some of the first moves.

It is in this light that I’ve looked to understand the gallery: a non- or semi-residential community that employs long-term tactics in order to achieve collective and generational well-being, while maintaining a unique set of loosely hierarchical social relations. With this in mind, one can see the overlap with intentional living communities — the division of collective and individualised assets is tricky business, and many smart people have devoted their time to figuring it out, all with the added pressure of having to see their co-inhabitants when they get home. Yet, when trying to mix and match elements towards a possible iteration in today’s art world, I can’t help but to feel that there is something much bigger that looms over the very idea of manipulating an avowedly commercial enterprise to privatise the needs of its constituents.

Indeed, is that privatisation not the entire M.O. of neoliberalism? To privatise that which should otherwise be the charge of the state? And if we as an organisation look to entirely internalise the burden of care for those we work with, is this not simply kowtowing to a broken system, however discontentedly? That in itself is not reason enough to not do something, but it does highlight the often contradictory spatial relations of neoliberalism and the myriad ways in which it can flex its structural muscles. In other words, localised resistance to national and international fiscal policy is not bucking neoliberalism but simply reorienting it towards future incursion—this is highlighted wonderfully in the book Real Estates: Life Without Debt. It is this spatio-temporal malleability—it can be reimagined in any space, across chronologies—that makes it so powerful. So how does one begin to do this work within a commercial framework that doesn’t otherwise aid and abet a rapacious system of socio-economic dissolution?

Again, this is only the beginning of my thought processes over the last few weeks; this is by no means a complete thought. However, as I continue to think (and write) about these themes, I’m excited to see what is born from it, and where a way forward exists. As always, if you feel you have further insight to add, please get in touch.

Image Credits:
1. Giphy.