European programmes | FERAL LABS

Feral labs Network: New Proximity, Non-Formal Learning at the Heart of Self-Reliant Communities

On the occasion of the end of a cycle of the Feral Labs Network – a Creative Europe cooperation programme co-funded by the European Union (2019-2021) – and the release of the associated publication “Feral Labs Node Book #1: Rewilding Culture”, Stefanie Wuschitz from Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory proposes an essay on non-formal learning and self-reliant communities.

Our feminist hacklab in Vienna is mostly empty these days, due to COVID restrictions. Yet, members gravitate one by one toward the lab, working in there alone for a couple of hours. Something is missing, though. Only a disappearing medium becomes visible, said Marshall McLuhan, so now that nothing is taking place in the lab, it becomes visible what hacklabs actually mean to our well-being and general state of mind (McLuhan, 1964). As labs for learning about tech and collaborating on open source projects, they in essence become sites for self-crafting (Butler, 2005). The people who meet here, take care of the tools and bond with each other are what makes it a hacklab. And yes, the aim to cultivate a critical perspective plays an important role in bringing people together (Maxigas, 2012). And there is a shared passion for playful inquiry of those codes, wires, chips and controllers. However, it is not what these commons are about (Ostrom 1990; Helfrich 2012). It is not an object, technology or commodity at the center, not even sketching or prototyping. It is a counter-community for non-formal learning, among members who share various struggles and experiences of oppression. By coming together and joining forces, members co-create new subjectivities. For example, when we hack hardware as women* and non-binary folks for circuit-bending, a task we are not expected to accomplish, but succeed in mastering within three hours, this changes the way we see ourselves and our possibilities. And slightly influences how we confront future sexist misjudgment.

Harmful behavior patterns need to be actively unlearned

The structures we are up against are socio-political, patriarchal, colonial, environmental, and cannot be undone through merely adding some cutting-edge plug-in, debugging some code. Harmful behavior patterns need to be actively unlearned first, through non-formal self-education. Through running off. Foucault explained how to escape these personal relations that express, perform and constitute power in everyday life (which feels oppressive). He imagined a new location he called hétérotopie: a different space (Foucault, 2013). Setting up a hacklab is really about people with differences coming together to create a different space. One in which non-formal learning can unfold. Members want it to be a space for overcoming conflicts, dealing with their differences, building trust, reflecting upon what needs to be said and understood, for ultimately unlearning oppressive patterns. This dream is a lot of work, but it can result in an actual hétérotopie: a temporarily established autonomous space (Hakim Bey, 1991). It will always be temporary and an ongoing process, rather than a state reached once and for all. Yet hacklabs accomplish relative independence through interdependence, collective practice and mutual self-care. All of this is facilitated through a shared lab and rituals to keep your mind absorbed. What members get out of this labor of love (which is in itself a form of non-formal learning) is an increased affection for a subject, sometimes even a strong shared passion to deal with a particular problem, as well as a sense of belonging towards it. Through this significant interest, members eventually become experts. And of course, a neoliberal market might be enchanted about this expertise and try to exploit it, as water, air, soil and even sex are being exploited, but the Open Source License allows a lot of this expertise to avoid price tags.

Norbert Schweizer has told me that Hacklabs were Montessori schools for adults. A fundamental principle of Maria Montessori’s pedagogy was to provide an environment for free children, one that permits a development of individual, spontaneous manifestations of the child’s nature (Montessori, 1949). In fact, Montessori pedagogy does not only leave space for spontaneous manifestations of an individual’s nature, it puts these manifestations into the center of its pedagogy and evolves around it. Pursuing a freely set goal, staying in the flow and paying attention to micro dynamics arising from your own observation, helps you to be increasingly involved with the world, and to find a deeper understanding of the complexities around you. The child immersed in playing with wooden blocks, almost as if addicted to learning, will not stop until she has managed to build that bridge she had envisioned. Montessori hoped that this way, the manifestations of an individual’s nature can shape the practice, and the practice can shape the individual’s nature.

A survivor of the prosecution of the Indonesian women’s movement Gerwani (a movement brutally banned in 1965) told me in an interview that teachers trained through Gerwani were going out to the woods with their pupils, to work with clay, wood and soil, and to learn about biology. They went to the street food vendors to ask them about their lives and livelihoods, to learn about class differences; they went to their neighborhood and learned about culture and craft. The kids were encouraged to explore, invade and investigate their world (Ita Fatia Nadia, 2020). Both Montessori and Gerwani pedagogy start from what is here and now to facilitate learning. This connection to the very moment and current standpoint tightly connects us to the present, and therefore inherently politicizes us. It is what Donna Haraway calls “staying with the trouble” (Haraway, 2016). In her book of the same title, Haraway claims: “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” (Haraway, 2016)

Credit: Stefanie Wuschitz

New relationship with proximity is a form of world-making

This new relationship with proximity is a form of world-making, and takes a lot of guts. Feminist scholars have for decades relied on knowledge acquired from personal encounter, personal experience and personal trouble. This method is called Situated Knowledge Production and is closely related to non-formal learning. Donna Haraway established the term “situated knowledge” in the 1980s to describe the individual subjective context as a source for insight and evidence. Feminist research, feminist learning, informal learning starts where we are right now, with the people around you, within the environment you are in, and is in fact centered around your immediate cognitive reach. Today the Oxford dictionary defines Situated Knowledge as: “The idea that all forms of knowledge reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced, and at some level reflect the social identities and social locations of knowledge producers.” Ultimately, the whole economic supply chain system, the whole ecosystem, the entire human body system can be addressed by starting from the here and now, from my own subjectivity, and then by gradually increasing my empathy.

Since patriarchal structures had for centuries denied women* the right to vote, to access education, to decide on reproduction and on their sexual pleasure, it was out of the question to claim objectivity. It was unthinkable that subjective feminist perspectives would inform scientific research and knowledge production. Science was dominated by white male supremacy, not tolerating resistance to the existing hegemony. The fact that it matters what matters we use to think other matters with (Haraway, 2016) applies also to oppression that is based on race, not only gender, and applies to intersectional discrimination. Audrey Lorde noticed as early as 1978 that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. In this sense, we need to see the Hacklab as a plain canvas awaiting matter to be used to think other matters with: Maybe from the perspective of an insect? A mushroom? An iceberg? “We, the feminists in the debates about science and technology, are the Reagan era’s “special-interest groups” in the rarified realm of epistemology, where traditionally what can count as knowledge is policed by philosophers codifying cognitive canon law.” (Haraway, 1988)

It was not only middle-class women* in the U.S. of the 1990s who thought this way. We can find it throughout human history: this strong notion of creating commons, to gain resources in order to enable non-formal knowledge production. Just take a look at the matrilineal Minangkabau culture in West Sumatra a thousand years ago (Göttner Abenroth, 1991), the Beginen and Begarden movement in Europe in medieval times, Mahatma Gandhi’s self-sufficient residential communities 70 years ago, the Gerwani movement on Java 60 years ago, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in Brazil 40 years ago (Freire, 1970), communities in West Timor, such as the one around activist Aleta Baun, up until the present (Goldman Environmental Foundation, 2013). Their non-formal learning methods have all brought about powerful experts who had the skills to transform their society.

Of course, this is not a coincidence. Montessori knew, admired and quoted Gandhi’s idea that education must become coextensive with life, and that the central point in education must be the defense of life (Montessori 1949, p.9). She shared this idea of an extension of education throughout life, one that considers life itself, becomes a help in life. And of course, the activists of the Gerwani movement in Indonesia were avid readers of progressive, feminist and anti-imperalistic writers, went to international conferences, and were therefore aware of Montessori and Gandhi. It was all open source. Actually, even now, we can find similar-minded people all around us. During those breathless summer days of 2020, I was allowed to visit Schmiede for my Feral Labs Residency in the alpine town of Hallein. I experienced non-formal learning on a small, delicate and nurturing scale. I could freely watch, meet, interact with a hand-picked group of fellow participants, and I felt that artists here enthusiastically shared their projects in an open-minded, transformative atmosphere. Although plenty of lectures and artists’ talks were held, what counted most here was implicit knowledge exchange. But what is it with implicit knowledge, situated knowledge? Can it be replicated?

A mixture of observation, internalization, routine and skill.

Heide Inhetveen describes in a paper how children raised on a farm absorb skills and knowledge about farmers’ practices playfully, unintentionally, with their whole being — through mind and body. In this paper, a farmer tells the story of how, when she was only 12 years old, she observed that a cow was going to give birth. As there was nobody else at home, she herself helped the cow to deliver the calf; she intuitively knew how to do it. The author emphasizes that to know what to do and when is an embodied knowledge, it is all about sensing and feeling and being aware of what needs to be done. A mixture of observation, internalization, routine and skill. At Schmiede you will see more interactive art installations than calves being brought into the world. Yet, the implicit, situated, embodied knowledge on how this is performed and done in a collaborative effort stems from community rituals that instigate non-formal learning (Lefebvre, 1974).

From the outside, environments that are organized as commons for non-formal knowledge exchange, such as hacklabs, might seem anarchistic, random, chaotic, even inefficient. Yet, they are sophisticated, solid, slowly grown, resilient entities. If we look at hacker camps, hacklabs, hackerspaces, artist studios, offspaces or squats around the world, they are usually not the most appreciated learning institutions of their region, and ridiculously underfunded. Still, many of us have volunteered and invested a lot of energy in art, hacking, community building, research, activism… Spending time with and in collectives, groups, art collectives to co-create with peers can appear from the outside to be a time-consuming and frustrating task. And beyond COVID lockdown, we might feel that it is more of a hobby than a job. Yet, we should take the non-formal learning environments we have developed so far as serious as Montessori, Gandhi and Foucault, because their heterotopic value cannot be overestimated. Hacking culture takes what is here and now and plays with it, examines it, undoes, recombines, facilitates and upgrades it. This work of mutual self-care helps a community to maintain necessary, crucial resources. The resources to allow each community member to deeply self-immerse into a meaningful and transformative occupation, just as Paulo Freire had envisioned it and later turned into the Theater of the Oppressed (Boal, 1993).

To become literate is to be able to situate, contextualize yourself, build a clan, start reacting to the default mode, the imbalance of power, unequal distribution of knowledge. While audiences and counter-audiences are challenged and contested, one thing appears to be increasingly clear: what we, artists in hack culture, might have in common, is that we deliver by far the most unheard-of stimulations to engage with the world. With my face mask on, I can see more clearly now, that every single meeting among people facilitated through hack culture is about weaving yourself into a carpet of relations, solid enough to step on, and entering autonomous zones (Hakim Bey, 1991). Within a solid group that I can trust and feel safe in—safe enough to risk making mistakes, explore my vulnerabilities and skills I’m not yet good at—implicit, situated, embodied and non-formal knowledge can take on a healing quality.

Once the pandemic is over, we will celebrate what we have built together.

Boal, A. 1993. Theater of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group.
Butler, J. 2005. Giving an Account of Oneself. Fordham: Fordham University Press.
Fatia Nadia Ita. 2020. Recorded interview online with Nilu Ignatia, Dhalia and Stefanie Wuschitz, December 11, 2020.
Foucault, M. 2013. Les hétérotopies. Les corps utopiques. Zwei Radiovorträge. Berlin: Suhrkamp.
Freire, P. 1970/2005. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing Company.
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Goldman Environmental Foundation, 2013. Aleta Baun 2013 Goldman Prize Recipient for Islands and Island Nations. Available at
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Lorde​, A. 2007. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 110–13. Crossing Press, Berkeley.
Maxigas, 2012. “Hacklabs and Hackerspaces – Tracing Two Genealogies” In Journal of Peer Production, Volume 2: 1-10.
McLuhan, M. 1964. From: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message. London; Penguin Books Ltd
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Stefanie Wuschitz. CC BY-SA 2.0

Visit Stefanie Wuschitz website and Instagram page.

Stefanie Wuschitz works at the intersection of research, art and technology, with a focus on feminist hackerspaces, open source technology and peer production. She co-founded the feminist hackerspace Mz* Baltazar’s Laboratory. Her 2014 PhD thesis was titled “Feminist Hackerspaces. A Research on Feminist Space Collectives in Open Culture”.

Download the publication: Feral Labs Node Book #1: Rewilding Culture.

The Feral Labs Network was cofinanced (2019-2021) by the Creative Europe program of the European Union. The cooperation was led by the Projekt Atol Institute in Ljubljana (Slovenia) with the Bioart Society (Helsinki, Finland), Catch (Helsingor, Denmark), Radiona (Zagreb, Croatia), Schmiede (Hallein, Austria) et Art2M/Makery (France).

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