Many Other Worlds are Possible: chance encounters, gathering points, following the sweet potato rhizomes in Mexico City

What am I supporting through what I do everyday?
How would I like to live?

A few days after listening to ‘The Danger of the Single Story’,1 on Vulcan Lane, Auckland, I headed to the other side of the earth, to join the class Design for the Living World at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts for two years. Quite a change of scenery — yet the above questions remain, this time through the lens of ‘solidary societies’, as we prepared for a research residency in Mexico City.

I understand solidary societies as when people gather together to critically reflect on how they could live according to the values they decide for themselves. Often it involves trying out different ways of exchanging, sharing resources: skills, material things, time, ideas.

In Mountain Stories, I encountered some ways of solidarity. Since then, I have been carrying ‘living off the grid in the mountains’ as an ideal, while I stayed put in metropolises, pursuing higher education and art. I experimented with shelter arrangements, but for now have settled with the usual way. Recently, I found reconciliation in the words of Daniel Quinn: ‘Beavers have a good life, but their habitat would fail if all rodents lived like beavers.’ Not everyone can run off to the rural area and start growing their own food, building their own houses etc. If they all did, ‘…their way of life would fail. This isn’t sociological thinking, this is ecological thinking…. There is no one right way for everyone.’

‘Diversity, not uniformity, is what works.’2

Where do you find diversity when the media washes us with its monoculture broadcast?3

Well, have you ever harvested kumara?4

Looking back on my time in Mexico — one of the native homes of the sweet potato — I realised it was like harvesting kumara: burrowing through the leaves, feeling around. Once I discovered one, I found more hidden around it.

Here is a trail exploring some ways of living together, with what is around, from Hamburg to Mexico City.


I heard about Rancho Electronico after sneaking into a communication congress in Hamburg. I got in at nearly midnight, long after the official schedule of presentations ended. ‘You came just as things are starting,’ my conduit into the scene said. He brought me to a place ‘where the interesting things happen!’ Between the corridor and the stairwell, under a large handmade fabric sky, people were sitting around low tables, self-serving tea, and chatting. Some were showing stuff on their computers — complex things I had no idea of. Fortunately I came across someone willing to talk to ‘non-nerds’ like me. As soon as I said that I was going to Mexico in a few weeks, their eyes lit up, became even more animated, and said, ‘You have to go to Rancho Electronico, the hackerspace!’ To make sure that I did so, they gave me a stack of stickers to deliver.

What is a hackerspace? What could I — knowing little about computers — do there?

The piggybank at Rancho Electronico, for when one wishes to make a monetary contribution. Photo by Xin Cheng

The piggybank at Rancho Electronico, for when one wishes to make a monetary contribution. Photo by Xin Cheng

I checked their website — it listed activities most evenings. My first visit to Rancho Electronico was during their DIY laptop repair workshop on a Saturday afternoon. At the door I rang a bell. A man came down and welcomed me in. While walking up the stairs we started talking. T explained that Rancho Electronico was a collective space for research and debate on technology and politics. They hosted free and open workshops, from open-source software and broadcasting, to human rights and yoga. Inside, a flyer station pointed to more places to visit, including the vegan cafe cocoveg, that grew out of Rancho’s food-hacking activities and took a life of its own.

T placed the stickers from Hamburg with the other flyers. Drinking warm tea and looking through their Wunderkammer, I learnt about their film screenings, book presentations and crypto-parties. On the big table in the middle of the space, a few people had their computers opened for surgery, screws carefully collected. ‘We don’t repair computers for people, we teach people how to repair computers themselves. This is not a service centre.’ How do they sustain themselves financially? T gave me a postcard showing their Coopera Collaborativa scheme: participants could make a voluntary contribution of any kind: with materials, electricity, food, money, work, or running another workshop. A handmade ceramic pig with an intricate painting of the Rancho Electronico logo collects the monetary contributions.

I was reminded of my days co-directing RM, an artist-run space in Auckland. RM started when a group of art-school graduates realised a lack of spaces in the city for showing experimental, non-commercial projects, so they pooled together resources to create their own. I joined shortly after their ten-year anniversary. While working during the day to make ends meet, we gathered in the evenings and weekends to plan and host projects, events and exhibitions. Sometimes it involved doing things out of the ordinary, like convincing building managers to allow us fly flags designed by artists. It fostered a changing community of people interested in contemporary art and design. Regular Wednesday night openings were a meeting point between diverse people. Being in Rancho Electronico, I realised this tactic was not limited to artists, but deployed (perhaps more so) by other communities who wish to do things together, outside the mainstream culture.

Later, our design class wished to showcase Rancho Electronico in our exhibition, and invite them for a discussion on solidary society. I emailed but got no reply. I figured the only way was to visit again. It was a Monday evening, they were about to start their weekly assembly. I apologised for intruding and prepared to leave. However, I was offered tea and invited to stay — it turned out that my email was on their agenda (viewable online and edited in real time as a riseup pad). ‘Good that you came, you can present the project directly to us!’ I sat next to S, who translated and told me about their Voladores5 system, where each project needed at least one caretaker (voladore) to happen. The voladore is the contact point and provides support for the external person. Three people raised their hands for our project on the spot, physically and through virtual sphere. So it will happen!

S also said, ‘If you are interested in solidary societies, you should visit Autogestival,6 a network of people involved in self-organising initiatives.’ He asked if anyone knew what was happening with them. Someone replied that they were having a meeting in two days — ‘That would be a perfect time for you to go. Also the place, La Pirámide, will be interesting for you.’

So against my usual inclination, I gate-crashed another assembly two days later. La Pirámide is a cultural centre, inside a building resembling a pyramid. The assembly was in the foyer, in between a low-key cafe, a modest but intriguing display area for workshop creations, and a dance studio. When I arrived, people were chatting and self-serving tea from the cafe. It was more like a casual gathering than a meeting. After I introduced myself, a woman called Karla invited me to sit next to her. She brought me some tea: made from godolobo, a local plant. While taking notes for the meeting on her laptop, she came up with an ingenious way to overcoming my language barrier — by typing the notes into an online translation programme. One by one people introduced their initiatives: from making vegan food, advocating streets for people, to caring for the natural environment. They went on to discuss how to foster links between the communities, connecting like-minded people. Many enthusiastic suggestions were thrown around, like bike-tours of the initiatives around the city, and festivals for each month of the year, focusing on different themes.

A playful activity that occured at Rancho Electronico, with cut-up bike inner tubes. Photo by Xin Cheng

A playful activity that occured at Rancho Electronico, with cut-up bike inner tubes. Photo by Xin Cheng

Floating around table was a platter of bread in a variety of flavours: potato, rosemary cheese, cranberries, walnuts — all wholemeal (very unusual in Mexico city). They were made by one of the initiatives. I re-encountered the same bread at the barter market Feria Multitrueke Mixiuhca and during a digital self-defence workshop at Rancho: at around 7:30pm, a man came in with a basket on a bike, infusing the room with a delicious aroma of freshly baked bread. A timely break in the middle of the 3-hour session!

Around La Pirámide, I saw posters for a festival that weekend, with musical performances and contact improvisation. As the latter was one of my passions and had been a great way of making friends in many places, I returned to try it out.

The fair distracted me on the way to the dance studio: tables of colourful, handwoven textiles and mysterious chocolate lumps. Karla was there with Mexican-made moon-cups. The next table was full of books with individually hand-painted cardboard covers. The subjects varied: children’s stories, the Zapatistas, commoning, polyamory. There was even one made in collaboration with Rancho Electronico. I was intrigued, and got chatting with the woman beside the table. They were a collective, Pensaré Cartoneras.7 They practice an interdisciplinary approach for a dignified life, through building and distributing texts of social movements committed to autonomy. They also run workshops with children on issues not usually covered in classrooms, and some of the outputs included storybooks written and illustrated by children themselves. I was delighted, and invited them to collaborate with one of the neighbourhoods we were working with in the city.

A spread of handmade publications from Pensaré Cartoneras. Photo by Xin Cheng

A spread of handmade publications from Pensaré Cartoneras. Photo by Xin Cheng

Eventually I got to the contact improvisation jam. There were many people dancing around, without music but plenty of free spirit.8 I shared a playful dance with a joyous woman called Clara. We met up later for a ramble around the historical center. Walking across a public square with many trees, she brought me to Punto Gozadera, a feminist cafe, exhibition and workshop space, where she had contributed culinary tips. All the staff seemed to know Clara and greeted her with warm hugs. I felt I was being introduced to a family. I tried tejate, a delicious drink made from maize, cacao, mamey stone and Cacahuaxochitl.9 While we were there, people were gathering for a book launch, followed by a talk and a music gig. On the blackboard, I noticed a hand-drawn sign for the Geobrujas, one of the collectives that Karla was part of.

A few days later I went back to Rancho, curious to learn more about their independent TV project. An intense working meeting was taking place: a man sitting in the front with a whiteboard, people around the table contributing ideas. I stayed for a bit but could not follow the discussion. As I prepared to leave, a woman walked over, and introduced herself as M. Her laptop had stickers I had seen in Hamburg, and it turned out that we had a mutual friend. I told her about my interest in solidary economies. She said, ‘You should meet U!’ and promptly called her for me. Over the phone, U told me to visit a barter market that was happening the next day, and gave me the details. Finishing the call, M asked, ‘What do you do?’ I showed her my makeshift photos collection — everyday resourcefulness from around the Pacific, and told her stories from the making workshops I had been running. ‘They are like real-world hacking! Maybe you could run a workshop here?’ I had not thought about that before, but was more than glad to try. She suggested two sessions, one week apart, to allow familiarity to develop, and for people to return. She gave me some guidelines for workshops at Rancho, and emphasised a focus on ‘clear pedagogy’. That was the first time I had been given such generous tips, so I spent several afternoons reflecting on my experiences of workshops, and how I could run an activity that was less of a lecture, but more about generating new ideas with the participants and practicing them in our daily lives. The workshops turned out to be a lot of fun, and yielded many realisations, like ‘Things are only as they are because they have been maintained to be so.’ and ‘The brain is not a computer’.

A spread of solidary economy currencies I later encountered in Catalonia, including ones from the barter market Multitrueke Mixiuhca. Photo by Xin Cheng

A spread of solidary economy currencies I later encountered in Catalonia, including ones from the barter market Multitrueke Mixiuhca. Photo by Xin Cheng

The next morning, I headed to the barter market Multitrueke Mixiuhca with some of my classmates, and soon realised I had been there before — it was at Punto Gozadera, under a large sunshade that extended the space into the tree-lined square. We got there just in time to participate in a special ritual that gave thanks to Mother Earth, led by a soulful woman. There were many tables full of goods: fresh vegetables, baked delicacies (the wholemeal bread appeared again), chocolate in many forms, soap, baskets, textiles etc., all hand-made. U found me among the crowds and gave me a big hug. She told me that this is a market for ‘prosumers’ — everyone making for the needs of the community. I needed toothpaste — did they have any? Turned out they did, but not what I had been used to: tubs of green paste made from local medicinal plants mixed with a natural oil. The man who made it told me that it heals many mouth infections, and has all natural ingredients. However, to buy it, I had to first exchange my Pesos into the local currency, ‘Cacao’, which it had its own rules, such as expiring at the end of each year. U introduced me to C, one of the organisers of the market. She runs a parallel project where members of the market get together to share knowledge about the nature of economics and money, and decide for themselves what kind of economy they would like to operate collectively, taking in account their personal values. She said, ‘Here, money is an expression of trust.’ Collectively, they had decided to limit the community to less than two hundred members, and host monthly markets physically, where people could meet face-to-face — the most important part of the exchange.

I traded some Cacaos for puffed amaranth, from the man who grew it. As he scooped the amaranth into a plastic bag, he told me ‘This is huauhtli’ — its original Nahuatl name. The usual name, amaranto, was from the Spanish colonisers. How a name changes things! I thanked him for the story. We shook hands. He told me his name, I told him mine. I wished I was staying longer to return.

My last weekend in Mexico, I experienced cyborgrrrrls, a technofeminist festival over a weekend spanning four venues, with discussions, presentations, workshops and parties covering topics from female ejaculation to digital self-defence. It was a delight to revisit spaces like Rancho Electronico and Punto Gozadera, and see them filled with very different crowds to what I had experienced previously, including people I had encountered in other spaces.

That last afternoon, I was sitting in Casa Gomorra, an upstairs space that resembled a shared flat/studio, where many women took turns sharing their projects from different parts of Mexico on diverse topics from how to practice feminist philosophy in our daily relations, to sewable electronic workshops on the streets, to an indigenous women’s story collection. I was suddenly filled with wonder: how rare it is to be sitting in a room full of enthusiastic women, from such different walks of life, in a home-made setting — which really could be hosted by anyone with a fixed abode?

***

It takes courage to visit new places. There are websites of information, but being there physically is something else: trying to catch someone’s glance, to know and to be known, to make friends…

Reaching these spaces involved transiting through the metropolis that was Mexico City, where I often felt overwhelmed by the growing skyscrapers, the globalized advertising, contrasts of realities between me and the person squeezed next to me in the metro, and how many young people were passing their days selling peanuts for five Pesos. However, through being in those places, I had learnt that there are other ways of living from the mainstream, money-focused culture. While they do not shout out from giant billboards, I had found them through friends’ enthusiasm and introductions; through stickers, postcards, flyers; through the grapevine that is the Internet. They had led me to hard-to-find, warm, welcoming spaces, where people gather with their passions, where I had glimpses of ‘many other worlds are possible’.10

A wall mural at Cocoveg. (Photo by Xin Cheng)

A wall mural at Cocoveg. (Photo by Xin Cheng)

I was glad that I had returned to the places multiple times. Like digging for sweet potato, each time I returned, I uncovered new connections. Something changes when one returns: from being an outsider, a stranger, to someone becoming familiar, whose name is known, someone who participates, and possibly even hosts activities. These were places ‘where our paths can cross, again and again’.11 Through making and doing together, meeting and re-meeting, many things are shared: tea, stickers, food, stories, dances, smiles, tactics, knowledge, hope.

When the intuition and dream belongs to a single person, they feel fragile and possibly ‘unrealistic’. A single egg-tray is easily crushed flat. Somehow, through meeting others who share my vision, or seeing a version of my dream reflected in others’ eyes, the dream is starting to feel more concrete, more believable. Connecting with others, we started doing things I had not imagined before. A stack of egg-trays has enough strength to support a seated person. Seeing others’ footsteps, I gain the courage to make my own, and build onto them.

Back ‘home’ in Hamburg, the real challenge begins: How to uncover the rhizomes of sweet potatoes where I live, and grow with them?

The answer lies here already.


Acknowledgements:

Thank you Harvey Bruce Milligan, Amy Weng, Givens Parr and Bembo Davis for your generous feedback and editing. Also thanks to Creative New Zealand for enabling some of the experiences.


1 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of the Single Story, TedTalk, 2009

2 Quinn, Daniel, Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure, Broadway Books, 2000. p97

3 Youngblood, Gene. Seccession from the Broadcast, 2016

4 Maori name for the sweet potato, one of the food plants brought over during the migration from the Pacific.

5 Voladores: flyer, from Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers), an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony.

6 wordplay on autogestión and festival

7 Direct translation: cardboard thinking, https://pensarecartoneras.wordpress.com

8 I started doing contact improvisation in 2014, while living somewhere that I didn’t speak the language, and looking for a way to make friends. If one has danced with someone, then starting a conversation becomes much easier.

9 Quararibea funebris, Funeral Tree, a sacred medicinal plant native to Mexico

10 From David Barkin and Blanca Lemus, “Rethinking the Social and Solidarity Society in Light of Community Practice”, Sustainability, 2014, v6, 6432-6445

11 Modified from Melle Hammer, “The Ampersand as a Place”, In Alphabetical Order, File under: Graphic Design, Schools or Werkplaats Typografie, Nai Publishers, 2002