The Foundry: Heterotopia in the Spanish Countryside

“The Foundry” ist ein para-akademisches Projekt, das seit Ende 2017 in einem kleinen Dorf in Nordspanien entsteht. Dort sollen in Zukunft alternative Formate wissenschaftlichen Austauschs stattfinden: ein Ort für kritisches Denken weit abseits universitärer Bürokratien und Rahmenbedingungen. Wir haben mit dem Berliner Initiator gesprochen, der im Interview anonym bleiben möchte.

The Foundry in Spain
© The Foundry #zulocopter

“The Foundry” is currently being built and developed in a small village in Spain. We would like to know more about your project and plans, but first, could you tell us a little bit about the site itself?

The Foundry is a site in Galicia; it’s called la Ferrería de Bravos in Spanish. It’s a 26.000 square meter piece of land with some buildings on it, surrounded by a small stream and a large forest, and about eight kilometers from the seaside town of Viveiro. The site has a long history; I’ve been able to reconstruct some of it through texts that people gave me and by talking to locals, though it’s hard to be sure about details. A royal decree from 1478 in which the people living there were granted the right to work with iron is probably the first textual trace of the site, and it’s also where the name comes from. I have a copy of the royal decree, but I can’t read it; if someone can, I’d be very interested to know what’s in it. Maybe it has some information on what they were producing: horseshoes, cannonballs, whatever…

The Foundry in Spain
© The Foundry

According to cadaster records, the Bravos ironworks fell into decay around 1720. Towards the end of the 18th century, someone wanted to build another foundry in the region. Locals opposed the idea, because these foundries took down so many trees. The guy who tried to get a permit wrote a letter in response, arguing that in some cases that had indeed been the case, but that was just because the exploiters only cared about making money. The Bravos foundry is the only example he mentions by name. I don’t think people had our ecological sensibilities at the time; there was no notion of a global climate in the 18th century. But it’s fascinating to see that the border between a sustainable form of industrial capitalism and an excessive and unsustainable form was already debated in rural regions at the time.

During the Napoleonic wars (1808-1814) everything but the church was destroyed. After the war people rebuilt it, reusing materials from the previous buildings. The centerpiece of the rebuilt ensemble was the manor house, from which the Cora family administered surrounding farms. The Coras were an illustrious aristocratic family that lived on the site for many generations; three members were actually buried in the church in the 18th century, one of them in military attire. They are still there, under a huge tombstone. During the civil war (1936-1939) the Coras were close to the Nationalists: Jesús de Cora was a high school friend of general Franco, and the Guardia Civil was stationed at the Ferrería to protect Teresa de Cora, who was afraid the Maquis – groups of guerrilleros hiding in the mountains – might kill her. The war also left architectural traces: Franco’s fascists made holes above the main entrance to shoot at uninvited guests, and a makeshift prison to lock up communists before moving them to the city. The war did not put an end to the aristocracy, but urbanization and general decay did: somewhere in the 1970s, the last members of the Cora family left.

And now your project: What’s your vision for the near future?

We are at the very beginning. We stand in front of 140 year old stone building ruins with natural slate roofs and exposed timbers; large fireplaces for cooking with iron pots; and animal stables incorporated into their ground floors. We will build a space where artists and intellectuals can work together, outside of the conventional structures of academia and the arts. It is an attempt to take the site out of the circulation of capital, and make it into a common space. The discourse of the commons has been fairly present on the left in recent years, and it is etymologically related to the notion of community. What will happen in this particular space depends on the community that develops here, but I expect it will fulfill a double function: it will be a retreat where people can work on their own projects, and a site where events (workshops, seminars, etc.) take place. The events will probably be concentrated in the warmer months. We will try to do without staff, but there are certain costs like taxes and electricity. To cover them, after the first year accommodation will cost a modest fee, probably less than 10 euros per day. We hope to come up with a system in which people with institutional support (whose institution pays for their stay) are charged more, so some others can go for free, but much like the question of legal ownership, this will all have to be worked out in due time.

The Foundry in Spain
© The Foundry

It is not without irony that this land was in aristocratic hands for hundreds of years, and that it is now the site of a work of communization, of putting-in-common. Around the time the Cora family was leaving the Foundry, Garrett Hardin wrote his famous text on ‘The Tragedy of the Commons.’ This tragedy lies in the question of stewardship: private interests will lead to the abuse of common lands, and no one will want to invest time in maintaining them. This is precisely why people in the region protested the building of another forest-burning ironworks at the end of the 18th century. The problem that Hardin addresses is global (population growth will wear out the earth’s resources), but the Foundry is also an attempt to work on these issues in a more local and practical sense. That begins with making the space inhabitable. Structurally most of the buildings are intact, but for forty years they have only been inhabited by birds and bats, so there’s work to be done. I would like it if part of that work was done with people who have a relationship to the space that is not merely financial, so everyone who feels some affinity to this project is welcome to come down. Much of the work does not require any particular skills – I have no useful skills at all, but I’m still getting my hands dirty. There are some sleeping places already, and they should get increasingly comfortable and plentiful as we progress. If you want to get a sense of where it’s going, you can check our Facebook page.

You mentioned the “commons” as a reference concept for your project. How will the group around “La Ferrería” be organized?

Indeed, repopulating the site is just the beginning, and the questions of stewardship and governance will not be resolved when the construction work is done. How do we decide what events take place here? How are tasks distributed? Should we start a foundation, or which legal form best suits the work of communization? Regarding this last point, we want to make it impossible for the site to re-enter the market. In Germany, the Mietshäusersyndikat is doing great work on taking real estate out of the realm of capital circulation; we will have to figure out what’s the best way to accomplish this for our site. For the moment, questions of organization and legal form remain open. We hope the first events will take place this summer, though if they happen they will be semi-improvised and small-scale: our maximum capacity will be around 15 people then. More professional events with invited guests will have to wait at least another year. It would also be nice to combine the early events with menial labor, whether it be cooking, gardening or fixing stuff. Considering the fact that the site is not particularly well connected (we pick people up by car from Coruña or Santiago airport, but to get there you might need to transfer in Barcelona or Madrid), it also makes little sense to travel all the way for just a weekend.

The main skill required in a project about creating commons is care: care for people, care for environment, and care for materials. We hope to set up a place that can support self-determination in dialogue with a community. This community is real to each person in-so-far and as-much-as they participate in the project. Here, there is a possibility to transform the social paradigm of exploitation of our environment, networks, and bodies into a social paradigm of care in the form of maintenance and repair of buildings as well as the generosity of giving something to a fledgling community… as well as giving something to ourselves – time.

The Foundry in Spain
© The Foundry

Would you like the events “The Foundry” will be hosting to be exclusively academic?

We have circulated a few short texts on the website, and their focus was generally on the para-academic side of the project, which has a lot to do with my own biography. But of course, with a site like this, it would be silly to just read books. It goes without saying that modern urban life has led a lot of practical knowledge to be lost. Or, in fact, this knowledge isn’t lost: it is concentrated in certain corners of the global economy. We don’t need to know how to make a chair, filet a fish or grow a potato if capitalism does it for us and we are not confronted with the externalities. I am no Thoreau and I am not advocating a return to nature: I am happy I can buy my potatoes in the supermarket. But I do believe there is something empowering in reappropriating those lost knowledges. We have a ton of land, so maybe someone wants to do permaculture; we are close to the sea, so maybe we can catch and filet a fish; we have a forest, so maybe we can figure out how to turn a tree into a chair. I don’t think these will be our main activities, but the space does offer these possibilities as well.

Where does the idea of this project come from?

There are certain predecessors. For one, there’s the Performing Arts Forum in France (PAF), which is probably the most similar kind of project. It’s an old monastery north of Paris, where some people live full-time, others come to work on their projects, and others come to attend events, mainly the four week summer school. It’s very open, and an incredibly productive environment: it’s a space of work, not a space of leisure. The scale is much larger: We can host about 40 people (unless people sleep in tents), they can host around 200. Like the Foundry, PAF is a non-profit project, that has no staff and only charges as much as they need to maintain the space.

Another project that shaped my ideas about para-academic spaces is The Public School (TPS), a now defunct platform for auto-didactic activities. TPS primarily existed as a website where people could put up class proposals, and members of local communities (there were schools in New York, Los Angeles, Helsinki, Brussels, Berlin…) could indicate if they were interested in taking that particular class. If enough people showed interest in a class, the local committee would try to organize it: a curriculum from below, so to speak. There was no money involved, and you didn’t get a certificate; it was about people getting together to discuss things they cared about. Sometimes there were teachers, other times people would just have an open discussion about a topic without anyone taking the position of the sujet suppossé savoir; a more Rancièrian approach to education, perhaps. It would be great if at some point we can implement a similar system of class proposals on the Foundry website.

Bravos Foundry in Spain
© The Foundry #zulocopter

I would say a third influence is Tiqqun. What I like in Tiqqun is their focus on space, on freeing its use, creating autonomous zones, and experimenting with different relations. This process of experimentation is important, and setting clear aims would be counter-productive – at the Foundry we also want to retain a certain openness. The reappropriation of knowledges into forms-of-life whose very existence is inscribed in an antagonistic situation is also something you may find in Tiqqun. That being said, I would modulate certain accents. The texts produced by the people around Tiqqun are often oriented towards the future: they talk about a coming insurrection, about building the Party, about preparing for the inevitable social collapse that we should then turn into a revolutionary situation. As much as I sympathize with these aims, I am less messianistic. I see neither collapse nor revolution on the horizon, and we are not building the Foundry to prepare for some event that may or may not come; taking this space back is an aim in itself. Another difference is perhaps that the addressee of Tiqqun’s texts is quite exclusive; they always speak to their “friends.” The Foundry is more inclusive. Of course, we’re not trying to include everyone; if someone wants to offer a Google Search Optimization workshop, they should probably find a more fitting location. But more than a place of activism, or a place that only includes people who subscribe to a particular kind of radical politics, the Foundry should be a place where people can do work that their regular professional life prevents them from doing.

PAF, TPS and Tiqqun are all examples of some kind, but the main example is a negative one: that of existing university structures, the sadness of inhabiting them, and the lack of intellectual enthusiasm they tend to excite. The tragedy of an academic existence is that when you succeed in obtaining a position in the upper echelons of the hierarchy, the work you are forced to put into the maintenance and reproduction of the institution will prevent you from following the inclinations that made you choose that career in the first place. When you don’t succeed you’ll end up in a limbo of half-year-contracts. I imagine similar issues play in art education, but am not qualified to talk about them.

You requested doing this interview anonymously. Why?

I think personalizing the project might distract from what it’s about. We are trying to build a space together. I don’t see why that space needs to have a face.

Foundry in Galicia
© The Foundry #zulocopter

But perhaps there’s another point to make about anonymity. I’ve spent a good part of my life in universities. Universities have their own mechanisms of legitimacy, that are generally tied up with systems of authority: if a professor with a big name writes an application for a new graduate school or research cluster, it’s more likely to get funded than when a nameless PhD student does that. Names have a particular function in a state-centered funding system. The Foundry is not funded by the state, nor by any NGO’s or political organizations, but by a modest 2011 Bitcoin investment. There’s a different set of problems associated with that, but practically, it means we can do without the authority of names: you won’t find a list of advisors on our website that gives the project a semblance of institutional legitimacy. I hope some big names will eventually show up to organize workshops or seminars, or also just to work on their own projects, because the people behind those names often do interesting work – but they should come because they want to do something in the space, not to validate the space itself.

Thank you for the interview!