From the resurrection of waste to guerrilla public architecture, Collective Disaster’s projects are thoughtful and urgent interventions into public life. The team, made of up of ten core members dispersed across western and central Europe, confronts the reality of their lived experience, questioning the political, historical, and societal structures they inhabit through the resourceful engagement of the materiality and communities around them.
In the spirit of collectivity, a team of multiple voices wrote, rearranged, and reedited answers to questions from Sasha Amaya.
Sasha Amaya: Collective Disaster is a wonderful name. It reminds one of architecture school and too many cooks in the kitchen. But you state that your collective was created from a curiosity to explore collaboration and "ways out of disasters". What kind of disasters sparked your formation, and how did your own Collective Disaster come about?
Valentina Karga: At the time when we formed the idea of Collective Disaster in 2012—before we started working on our first project under this name—it was still relatively fresh after the 2008 economic crash. This was also the beginning of the Greek debt crisis, which spread everywhere in southern Europe, and dominated public discussion for awhile. Given the fact that one of us is Greek and another Italian, and also that most of us had just graduated and were starting to develop our own business careers in a world which had been turned on its head completely, we had to think about strategies for surviving such disasters, as well as those yet to come. Creating unions through friendship is one way; the second is to design and practice more sustainably, in order to come out of, or through, ecological disaster.
As for the name itself, Pieter and myself were brainstorming in the Berlin U-bahn one evening with Rosario Talevi, Jia Gu, and Ana Vogelfang, dreaming of making a collective for all friends to join, but also to reinvent the way collectives work. We talked a lot and drank a bit, so I don't remember the whole story, but it was that night we invented the name Collective Disaster. When the opportunity to submit an application to Parckdesign 2014 arrived, we used that name to describe our collaboration, and Collective Disaster was inaugurated with that project.
SA: Miracle Mountain is one project in which you combine imaginative inspirations with practical know-how. In this project, you focused on the subject of water, on positive/negative or yin/yang energies, on fermentation as an alchemical processes, and on notions of "waste" and "reuse" in the time of ecological crisis to create a heated water reservoir at the Hortillonnages, in Amiens, France. Tell us how this project manifested, and how the built structure took form.
Tessa Zettel: This project is a good example of how we try to bring together material, social, and energetic considerations. The way people suddenly happen upon the installation in the middle of the woods is part of its magic. We chose not to over-explain everything but to keep some mystery in the encounter while still sharing know-how. The placement of all its components—triangular ceramic tiles with specific alchemical symbols, healing plants, the hexagonal pool, and the compost mound—were carefully thought through in relation to the site and each other, making the shape of the ‘philosopher’s stone’. We think of the installation as a giant alchemical device informed by geobiology, the study of the influence of electromagnetic Earth energies on all forms of life. Here, water taken up from a copper reservoir in the ground is improved by a process of harmonious alteration, passing through a spiral-shaped tube inside the compost heap, becoming hot due to heat released by the composting process, before flowing back into the reservoir as if a natural hot spring.
Realising the built structure was most definitely a collective effort, and we were lucky to have a biomeiler expert, Arie van Ziel, on hand for part of the process. Biomeiler is the technical name for what we built, essentially a closed-loop outdoor water-heater, powered completely by compost. Arie gave a kind of hands-on workshop to everyone who was present for the build—it was by intention an opportunity to learn and share skills in our community rather than just a site for construction. Biomeiler is a wonderful technology which was invented by a French innovator, Jean Pain, in the 1970s, and which has huge potential for how we heat water in off-grid situations. At the end of the long weeks building and sweating, during which we also lived together in an apartment in town, to turn the tap from the compost mountain on and see hot water finally pouring out certainly felt like a miracle!
SA: What kinds of construction obstacles did you run up against and how did you solve or negotiate these challenges?
Pieterjan Grandry: The site of the installation was located on a small island surrounded by narrow waterways. The little island was totally taken over by old trees and spiky shrubberies. Our aim was to create an oasis in the midst of this, so trees were cut and processed into mulch for the compost mountain. We realised quickly we needed much more mulch and had two big delivery trucks come by. Of course, the trucks could not reach the island and had to dump their load on the mainland nearby, so we reached out to the whole Collective Disaster network and friends to come and help move this huge amount of mulch by hand, bucket by bucket. Also the one remaining farmer, Francis, helped us out with his mini tractor.
Andrea Sollazzo: Once the construction phase was complete, there was another unexpected disaster. A couple of weeks before the opening, we received news that the biomeiler had stopped circulating water and energy, that everything was blocked. An emergency team was dispatched to investigate, eventually discovering that the hot temperatures and pressure of the wood chips had caused the 200L plastic barrel buried inside to collapse completely, shutting down all functionality of the hydraulic apparatus. The solution was simple, remove the broken reservoir as cleanly and quickly as possible and allow this incredible organism, the biomeiler, to get on with its job.
SA: The Holy Shit Preacher and the Temple of Holy Shit are two projects focused on waste, biology, and community. Can you explain about how these two projects started out, and some of the microbiological research and considerations you had to take into account while building?
Valentina Karga: Some of us have been researching deeply ecological matters in the urban realm—in particular, food production, energy distribution, and waste management—and how these could become more sustainable and decentralised practices and infrastructures. Waste is one of our favourite topics. And the ultimate waste is shit! Waste, actually, is a fairly new notion, formed after the industrial revolution. Before that, there was no waste as every output was recycled back into the system. Neither shit nor pee was waste but rather an important resource. People put feces and urine out in the field in order to get it fertilised, and urine, which contains ammonia, was used to bleach textiles. However, people didn’t find good solutions for how to use it in big cities during the industrial revolution, and because people didn’t understand the importance of nutrient recycling, we have ended up today with a very depleted topsoil. The Holy Shit project underlines this ecological problem and propose a way of dealing with it: redeeming shit from negativity and restoring its reputation as a good resource, for starters. Regarding the microbial research, we have Ayumi Matsusaka and Dr. Haiko Pieplow as advisors. However, producing terra-preta at home is a growing DIY practice today, and one can find on the internet many step-by-step tutorials about how to do this safely and even buy the microorganisms you need online.
SA: Many of your projects seem interested in showing us a different perspective on waste, especially that which humans create, and allowing us to destigmatize, and come into close physical proximity with, waste matter. How, in the instances of the Holy Shit series, did these sites become a place for play, music, gathering, and festivity?
Pieterjan Grandry: With the project Temple of Holy Shit we aimed to reflect on the term “waste”, as what is waste for one person can be a resource for another. The waste of the park, both human and organic, can be magically transformed into fuel for a garden and in turn this garden can be again fuel for us humans. This transformation is of course not mystical but presenting it as such by elevating it to something holy allowed us to trigger discussions around waste, soil production, and even potential micro-economies. Celebrating “waste” by giving it a podium, literally, and a programme, connected the visitors or audience with a wider discussion we wanted to have.
SA: The Temple of Holy Shit was later renamed Factory of Black Gold due to community members' concerns. How do you approach concerns from bureaucrats, business people, and, particularly, members of the public when they arise in the development of your projects?
Valentina Karga: It is much easier to open a discussion with a concerned public than with bureaucrats. Indeed, the Muslim community that lives in this neighbourhood of Brussels found the name The Temple of Holy Shit offensive, because they simply had a different approach to religion and to shit and dirt. Anonymous voices threatened to burn it down if it would remain a temple! Although it was a bummer for us, the name became the tool to start a dialogue. We showed interest in understanding their point of view while we explained what the ‘temple’ actually was. It turned out that it was negotiable to keep the installation once we changed the name. Although it felt like we had to sacrifice something precious, they agreed with the name Usine du Trésor Noir, amongst some possible alternatives we proposed in a language that did not confuse them.
After the name change the neighbourhood appreciated the toilets, they used it and they protected it, because they understood it, and we understood them, so no-one was excluded. In fact, a group of young Muslims actually turned out to be the activators of our installation. Together we organised Saturnalia, an ancient Roman feast, dedicated to Saturn, the symbol of agriculture and toilets, in the midst of the Ramadan. For those that understood English the original title nevertheless stuck: the Temple of Holy Shit. On the other hand, our working proposal to the city administrators who actually funded the project, to replace public toilets in parks with compost toilets, did only become a partial reality. For temporary installation and activities the regional environmental administration implements dry toilets. Although they are not using the terra-preta system, our explanatory workshop, feasts and games, even a petition, seemed to pay off partially afterall.
SA: One of the powerful things that you do in your work is link artistic interventions to specific political issues at both local and global levels. For instance, your installation POOL IS COOL—an offshoot project from Andrea Sollazzo and Louisa Vermoere— saw the set up of swimming conditions in a city lacking them, in this instance Brussels, but also spoke explicitly about the local lack of public swimming and the relationship between that and bureaucracy, funding, politics, action, and participation. Can you tell us more about this project: what started it, how did it unfold, and how it is an example of the way your work encompasses the artistic, local, and globally political?
Louisa Vermoere: POOL IS COOL is actually not a Collective Disaster project but, as you say, one in which two Collective Disasters members are a part, and a project which overlaps with many of Collective Disasters interests and ethos.
It began when I, Louisa, and Andrea arrived in Brussels from Rotterdam—a rather policed city, clean and clear, where one can be easily fined and where administrations are organised, locatable, and contactable—and experienced a little culture shock. Out of that shock a first collaboration—with designers Duccio Maria Gambi, Federico Perugini, and Giacomo Mezzadri of ½ Atelier, all friends we first met in Rotterdam—was born. We conceived of a project that collected all the rubble found in the streets and made it into stuff that people could enjoy in those same streets: rotating bench, a periscope that transformed the horizon in a “vertizon”, a staircase to see the land stolen by some developers—and so the project BXL Swings in the Cracks was born. The most striking thing about this project is that it revealed the zero responsibility that many municipalities in Brussels take at their borders, their cracks, resulting in these sort of law-free zones. This was the opposite of what Louisa and Andrea were used to in Rotterdam.
What gave us that burst of creativity and freedom then, four years later, in 2014, became the source of POOL IS COOL. Louisa and Paul Steinbrück, a German architect based in Brussels, dreamt aloud on Facebook about open air swimming places and water activities in Brussels. Together with many other active citizens from Brussels with backgrounds in urban landscaping who shared that dream, we founded a non-profit organisation POOL IS COOL vzw in 2015, striving for open air swimming spots in the city. It started with small semi-legal actions, like the guerilla swims, but grew significantly the moment we collaborated with partners like Au Bord de L’Eau in Laken, festival SuperVliegSuperMouche by Wiels and Bozar, and the Centre for Fine Arts Brussels during their summer programme in the centre of that city.
Simultaneously we reached out to people in other cities in Europe. It turned out that other cities are struggling with maintaining open air pools but their governments and/or citizens have found 21st century solutions to keeping them open. With debates, public research, campaigns, workshops, actions, and a yearly public installation, POOL IS COOL is building awareness among citizens about the lack of outdoor public swimming places in Brussels and making politicians take some action. Our last achievement is that the water quality of the Brussels region will be monitored and a study that looks into the possibilities of swimming in existing waters has been commissioned. Nevertheless, the highly complicated governments and their leaders in Brussels show much interest but have not yet freed up the means and the regulations to make swimming in open air possible. POOL IS COOL keeps on designing spaces and taking action to keep the topic on the table. In the meantime, our support crowd is growing and soon Brussels will not be able to go around it but will have to swim through it!
SA: You also speak about money and payment, and about not working for free, or at least about not working beyond certain limits for free. Do you share a collective stance on the issue of work and payment, or do your opinions differ on this point? What are some of the perspectives you have on this topic? How do you think, philosophically, about the relationship between artistic work and finances? How does this play out for you as a practice?
Tessa Zettel: Our projects have been partially realised with funding from city councils and festivals, but Collective Disaster as an entity is not yet able to support us, so yes, of course we all have other jobs or strategies for staying afloat. This means that as a collective we don’t need to take on anything that we aren’t completely excited by, but the trade-off is that it can be hard to mobilise quickly since each of us has their own web of professional commitments. Artistic labour is hugely undervalued in most of the spheres we work in, though artists need to eat and pay rent just like everyone else, so most of our friends and colleagues are constantly patching together paid projects in a ‘gig economy’. This is part of the wider neoliberal disaster, in which artists and creative labour figure as the ultimate precariat, modelling new forms of flexible labour where responsibility (of all kinds) is divested from the business onto the individual. Collective Disaster is one answer to that, but it’s an experiment that’s still taking shape.
SA: Projects such as BXL, focused on "guerrilla" strategies and tactics for urban revitalisation, aim to reinvigorate areas of your city, while establishing a "platform for confrontation." You have written that sometimes people "feel no commitment toward their cities and their streets, they assume that there is always some else that will decide." How do you aim to break this perceived spiral of civic apathy, and of the feeling many of us have that we have no right to the city, that is to say, that it is difficult or impossible to change things around us, be it economic norms or a park corner?
Andrea Sollazzo: What we do is actually pose questions and raise doubts. With our projects we aim to start a dialogue, to provoke a reaction, to make people think. This ideally will lead to a higher consciousness and awareness. Sometimes you have to be ‘naughty’, sometime more sweet and subtle, but the important thing is to ask the question and start a conversation. Once this is started then you need to be present and follow it up, learning from the experiences and from the dialogues. A very important thing is also to try always to keep in mind that only the loudest or more extroverted, the most educated and integrated, will make their voice heard, but often there are bigger parts of society that are not able to do this. The ideas and realities of the ‘silent’ people are as relevant as all the others, but often are forgotten because not cool enough and not well presented enough. This we believe is a very delicate aspect of the nowadays overrated and overused term ‘participation’.
SA: You often use found or recycled materials. What would your advice be for those looking to invest in the spaces around them: where might they look for material? What kind of desires and concerns should they consider? What are some good approaches to getting others involved?
Louisa Vermoere: Materials, just like the people that might get involved, can often be found at the site or in its surroundings. While looking on the spot for new or old materials you will meet people. Also while making, constructing, and managing—that is, being present at the installation—you meet people, and create an engaged crowd. Additionally, a close partnership with local institutions and organisations is often key for a successful project.
SA: There are now ten key members—Andrea Sollazzo, Louisa Vermoere, Pieterjan Grandry, Valentina Karga, Mascha Fehse, Ane San Miguel, Tessa Zettel, Robin Weber, Ayumi Matsuzaka, and Rosario Talevi—across Paris, Brussels, and Berlin. How, practically speaking, do you work together? You write that in disasters people "tend to each other for help.“ What has working under the looming conditions of disaster given you as a group and how has it enriched you as individual practitioners?
Tessa Zettel: There is a core group who have contributed to projects so far, but the pool is not fixed, so for any given project we could absorb several new people into the team. Some of our members are themselves mobile, moving between projects and residencies as opportunities arise. Others live in Brussels, Berlin, or even Beijing. This means that for proposals or applications we generally work together remotely, and if something is successful then a specific team is formed to take it up, with at least one core member, according to availability, capacity, and interest.
Louisa Vermoere: The platform then allows other members to be contacted for their specific skills or for helping out with the construction, communication, etc. Many hands and brains make the realisation of a project a joyful process, physically being together exchanging knowledge and thoughts which are shared rather than claimed by any one individual.
Tessa Zettel: Most of us also work in other collaborative formations outside of Collective Disaster, that’s a choice about the kinds of professional lives we want to create, but it’s also about building the skills needed to make new worlds possible, forming our own infrastructures of care and capacity to get us through times of unsettlement and upheaval.
To learn more about the work of Collective Disaster, click here.