Code maintenance: caring for the collective body by Sarah Payton

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“How can people feel that they can have agency as a collective body and act upon that when they don’t know the collective body yet?” - Jeanne van Heeswijk [1]

I’d like to use this space to borrow Hackers & Designers theme ‘Coded Bodies’ and use it as a lens to explore the dynamics of the community of artists and makers at the NDSM. Could it be productive to think about this community as a collective body that is in some sense coded?

Sounds good, right? Reads easy, rolls right off the tongue. Let’s go!

But wait, slow down, let’s pause for a moment. Because each of these terms—productive, coded, body, collective, community, artists, even NDSM—contains meanings and values that are not immediately apparent or necessarily coherent. One could say that each term itself is already coded, and also, potentially contested. Productive implies that something will be produced—knowledge perhaps, or tools. But productive to what end and in whose interest? Who belongs to this collective body? And who am I anyway, and what about my own interest?

Unpacking these questions is not just an exercise in endlessly examining one’s own bellybutton. But where then to begin? Let’s start with the ground, the NDSM itself. The NDSM—the initials stand for Nederlands Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij or Dutch Dock and Shipbuilding Society—is a former shipyard on the northern shores of the river IJ in Amsterdam. Once one of the largest shipyards in the world, the company went bankrupt in the early 80s; not long after artists and assorted free spirits began to move in. Theater festival Over het IJ held its first edition at the NDSM in the summer of 1993 and the following year hosted a spectacular performance by the company Dog Troep that is still spoken of. Five years later, in 1999, the city held a competition for ideas to redevelop the area; a group of artists, crafts-workers and skaters won with a plan for an experimental, multi-disciplinary cultuurwerf. The NDSM they imagined would be self-built and self-organised, a sustainable, diverse and social ‘city’ populated by artists and makers, but also by skaters, boat-builders and green energy cooperatives. Their plan was inspired by the Dutch artist Constant and his utopian project New Babylon and underpinned by an urban development philosophy in which residents take responsibility for their environment and develop themselves as citizens. The scale of the pioneers’ dream was matched by the sheer measure of available space, and the plan ignited interest and admiration around the world. Although only a fraction of the original concept was realized, it put the NDSM on the map: a cultural hotspot was born.[2]

Fast forward twenty years and the NDSM has expanded exponentially and what was once a rough edge seemingly far from the city center is now prime real estate: there are hotels, restaurants, art spaces, international business headquarters, street lighting and paid parking, and—until the lockdown—bike rentals, guided tours, massive commercial music festivals and a monthly flea market. Around the edges chic apartment buildings are going up, selling arresting views at equally arresting prices. A classic case of gentrification, it would seem, except for one thing: the artists are still here, even if the space we occupy—literally and mentally—has shrunk.

Today the artists and makers community is one stakeholder among many. There is not just one ‘community’, there is not just one NDSM. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the founding story is no longer always told in the same way. More recent arrivals may not know it or it may not interest them, or more to the point: they don’t have an interest in it, don’t see it as their story. And isn’t it too long and detailed anyway? So why keep repeating it?

Marshall Gantz has written of the role narrative plays in the formation of a community: “A story is a way to share the values that define who we are, not as abstract principles, but as lived experience. Narrative is the discursive means we use to access values that equip us to make choices, to exercise agency … [the] form through which we translate our values into the motivation to act. [3]

For the artists and makers community, our founding story is not just a link to the past, but, potentially, a guide for the present and for the future. Put another way, the degree to which the community is a collective body is determined, shaped and sustained by story: if the collective body is encoded, the story is the code. And crucially, it is a story we choose to tell, or more accurately: a story we can choose to tell.

Because these two small words, ‘we choose’ are not a fixed given, but are themselves in a relation of reflexive co-creation: in the choosing, through the story, we actively make and remake the we, which in turn impacts on the choices that we will choose to make.

This is what Jeanne van Heeswijk means when she suggests that we might not yet know the collective body; because it is, literally, not yet, but instead is always coming into existence: “It is important to think about the collective as an activity. To approach the notion of collectives not as a pre-existing social structure but as actively becoming in context… a balancing act between making emergent and re-rooting. [4] Expanding on this she writes: “What is important in the learning process is ‘allowing’ for one’s own ideas and even ideals to be withheld momentarily, in order to understand what might emerge from the fact that all these differences are there together. Most of us are bad at just allowing for things to emerge, because we are so ingrained in the capitalist productivist system that we don’t know how to withhold, how to not produce reactions, a surplus of objects and ideas. It is a collective learning process in which we all have to let go of some of our ideas and our ideals in order to understand what it is that WE need.

The writings and work of van Heeswijk have been very important to me personally in self-critically examining my own role and relation to the collective body. Because of course every we is made up of a number of individual ‘I’s’, and so too the NDSM. This is perhaps a good moment to identify this particular ‘I’ and declare my own interest.

I’ve been at the NDSM since 2006, when my partner and I joined the first group to build our own studios in the ‘Art City’. With a background in collective, community-based working practices, I was drawn by the self-organising principles and utopian vision and eager to get involved. Reality was rather less utopian: we had a new baby and juggling parenting, working and building didn’t leave much time over for community, all the more so since the demands, and ongoing challenges of the young utopian community seemed all-consuming and never-ending: problems with organization, financing, regulation, ownership, leadership and above all, maintenance. [As Mierle Laderman Ukeles, famous for shaking the hand of each and every one of New York City’s 8,500 sanitation workers, wrote in her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art: “Maintenance is a drag, it takes all the fucking time.”] [5]

In 2013 I became part of a group within the community who wanted to find a new way to unite and amplify our voice; we chose a new name for the annual ‘open studio day’ and published an artists paper under the same name: NDSM OPEN. From the start, an explicit part of our ambition and purpose was to tell our own story—to the world, and to each other. “If we don’t tell our own story, someone may tell it for us, and they may do so in ways we don’t like.” [6] Since then there have been seven editions of the manifestation NDSM OPEN and five editions of the artists’ newspaper; the most recent 2019-2020 edition is produced in collaboration with Hackers & Designers (you can find it, and the previous editions, online at Issuu.com, or pick up a physical copy at the NDSM).

Along the way my own work practice has evolved, I have become what Bo van der Vlist describes as an ‘in-betweener’ [7], someone whose practice does not fit neatly into a single domain. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the question, ‘where do I stand?’ and the need for speaking plainly about what one is doing and why. By asking myself this question, it becomes possible to ask others, ‘where do you stand?’ and also ‘where do we stand?’ and ‘can we stand together?’

Why is this important? I believe that finding a way to stand together is the only way human beings can survive, let alone thrive.

I am writing these thoughts at an unprecedented global moment in which each individual and every group and organization, at every level of society, around the world, has to fundamentally re-evaluate the question of where we stand. Literally, as our governments ask us to physically avoid each other, to stand at a distance, to practice isolation, while at the same time to stand together, in spirit. It is clearer than ever that we share a need to find a better way of living and of relating to one another and to the planet.

Contemporary anthropologists speak of ‘embedded ecologies’ as a conceptual framework in which ‘humans are not coherent objects set against the background of their environment, but are relationally implicated with it (and each other)’. It is a frame that recognizes that there is a fluidity between bodies and worlds; rather than being isolated, bounded entities, it posits us as porous, receptive bodies intimately influenced by our surroundings. [8]

In other words, we are never alone, but always in relation. Even before a previously unknown virus arrived to shake our complacency, the word ‘solidarity’ has been making a slow comeback. In the north of Amsterdam, where the NDSM is located, the musician and writer Massih Hutak has started a grassroots movement to challenge the antisocial and discriminatory effects of gentrification. His online manifesto Verdedig Noord (Defend the North) calls upon residents new and old to consciously and actively relate to one another (in Dutch, ‘verhouden’).[9] Being in relationship is an active rather than passive attitude; it requires that you make an effort, to see and take into account (an)other, even—or especially—when doing so is complex or uncomfortable.

What does all this have to do with the NDSM? For me it is about making a conscious choice to care, and to take care. If my individual body is in relation to the collective body and also in relation to the wider environment, and if each of these, individually and in their relatedness, are informed and shaped by the stories we, and I, tell, then taking care of the story is part of taking care of the collective body, of which I am a part. It is a way in which we can take care, together.

Not long before the lockdown I organized a series of brainstorm sessions for the tenants association of artists and makers. Aside from various grievances around maintenance (from pigeon poop to the lack of a reception space where packages might be delivered), the fifty-some participants reaffirmed the importance of the original ideals of the NDSM community, among them freedom, hospitality, responsibility and ownership. Particularly this last ideal has proved tricky, as we are not actually the legal owners of the building or grounds. How might we claim—and be acknowledged—as the owners of the idea, and how might this be put into practice? Or as one participant neatly posed the question: “How can we become the artistic director of ourselves?”

The ownership we’re seeking is less about possession and more about agency; about the right, and the power, to act in a meaningful way. To return one more time to Jeanne van Heeswijk:

Many people do not have any idea about how many of the processes that affect their daily lives are constructed, and that makes them feel disconnected. Finding a point of entry and connecting to the processes that shape your daily environment is very important because it creates the possibility of becoming an active co-producer of those processes. This requires an embodied understanding of the complexity of what is at play in a certain situation and figuring out how to enter it. We must learn about how the place where we are is forced upon us in its being, how the powers that be determine our lives, and how we can keep agency in that, and bring our own idea of a relationship.

Contrary to how we have been programmed, an active citizen is not just somebody who just votes, but somebody who actively takes part in the way in which their daily environment is formed, governed, and financed. That is an essential right, and people should be encouraged to take back that right and say ‘We can be in charge’ …

The local is the scale at which this is possible, where we might be able to understand new social, political and economic relationships. It is a space in which you perform yourself and your understanding of the world… a field of tension in which people actively exercise their understanding of what it means to live together. [10]

The NDSM is my local, daily environment; it is literally, a space where I can, and where I choose, to take a stand, and so contribute to the discovery of how we might live together.

This is where I stand. Where do you stand? Can we stand together?


Sarah Payton (Detroit, 1967) is an artist, cultural producer and community organizer. She is (co)initiator of the annual manifestation NDSM OPEN, initiator and editor of the artists’ paper NDSM OPEN and co-founder of the Art City NDSM Foundation. She was on the board of Tenants Association the Toekomst (the Future) from 2011-2014 and has since March 2020 rejoined the board as Secretary. For the coming year she also holds the temporary function Community Organizer for the tenants association.

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notes

1. van Heeswijk, Jeanne. 2016. “Preparing for the Not-Yet” in Slow Reader, A Resource for Design Thinking and Practice, Valiz.

2. More information about the early years of the NDSM can be found in the book Make Your City by Eva de Klerk (2017, Valiz); de Klerk is co-founder of the NDSM artists community and still a resident of the ‘Art City’. On her website www.evadeklerk.com are various early documents about the NDSM (in Dutch) including the original competition entry. Stories, interviews and essays about the past, present and future NDSM can be found in the current and previous editions of the artists newspaper NDSM OPEN, online at issuu.com - see www.artcityndsm.nl for the link. For info about current programming and artworks see www.ndsm.nl and www.ndsmloods.nl

3. Ganz, Marshall. 2011. "Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power." In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, eds. Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee: 273-289. Washington D.C: The World Bank.

4. van Heeswijk, Jeanne. See note 1.

5. Ukeles, Mierle Laderman. 1969. Manifesto for Maintenance Art.

6. Ganz, Marshall. 2011. See note 3

7. van der Vlist, Bo. 2019. Met de kunsten naar een toekomstbestendige en inclusieve stad, essay (in Dutch) for artists collective TAAK. In her essay van der Vlist also poses what she calls ‘uneasy questions’ for cultural practitioners; you can find the article at http://www.taak.me/pbtb_article/met-

8. Ford, Andrea. 2019. Theorizing the Contemporary: Embodied Ecologies, online essay published by the Society for Cultural Anthropology; https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/embodied-ecologies

9. See www.verdedignoord.nl and the columns of Massih Hutak in the Parool newspaper https://www.parool.nl/tag/massih-hutak

10. van Heeswijk, Jeanne. See note 1.


This text was published in Coded Bodies Publication in 2020