From August 22 to September 2, Henk Bovekerk from Amsterdam visited The Foundry, a heterotopia in the Spanish countryside. Among other things, Henk attended a wedding, followed a workshop about metaphors and talked to other visitors. In his essay, he reflects on his experiences with an unconventional project.
Life is a journey that, on August 22, 2019, brings me from my home in Amsterdam to a bus station in Burela, Spain, by bus, train, airplane, and another bus. Two men driving a black Mazda 3 pick me up for the final stretch to the Foundry, an autonomous free space for artists and intellectuals in the making. Straw rests on the floor mats of the car and a vast amount of loose change clusters the gear stick. At the wheel, tall and blonde and wearing a funky sleeveless T-shirt, sits Dennis, my fellow Dutchman who has invited me to the Foundry for his wedding party a week from now. Next to him, a 33-year-old Taiwanese-American historian of science named Hansun inhales an odorless vapor from what looks like a USB-stick. His glasses are mended with Scotch tape and his black hair is held up in a tiny palm tree by a red elastic band. Before the wedding party, I will attend a workshop at the Foundry that he and another academic named Roland have organized, about the use of metaphors and analogies such as ‘life is a journey.’
The Foundry intends to be “a non-profit space for intellectuals and artists who seek to work outside of the institutional confines of market and university.” The anonymous founder envisions the space as fulfilling “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.” This coming week’s workshop about metaphor and analogy, titled ‘Thinking Figuratively’, will be the first of its kind, a test run in which I — a 33-year-old writer working mostly within the institutional confines of the market, having studied philosophy and history within the institutional confines of the university — will on most days be the only participant.
Next to me in the car sits Jonas, a Swedish nurse with dark beard and thick glasses, holding a green plastic bag with the name ‘Science Fiction Bokhandeln’ imprinted. Jonas and I rode on the same bus from the airport in Santiago de Compostela to Burela, a bumpy three hour ride in the afternoon sun, me next to a window with no curtains and Jonas in the back of the bus reading. At the station he told me his luggage had gotten lost at the airport, but he didn’t worry. He also told me that he met Dennis several years ago at a rooftop bar in Kathmandu, where Dennis remarked on the weirdness of his trousers. Dennis laughs upon hearing this and says that he remembers that he initiated the conversation by inquiring whether Jonas might perhaps carry any substances.
We stop at a supermarket in Viveiro for supplies for the coming twenty four hours, including a disproportionately large amount of Milka chocolate bars and bottles of orange juice. As we continue on to Bravos, the road winds and narrows. We pass a sloping field with two grazing cows and reach our destination, a large valley surrounded by trees with an assemblage of old stone buildings. The Mazda crosses the field and comes to a stop besides a semi-open and fully dusty kitchen. Next to the kitchen stands a majestic apple tree, and under its branches a U-shape of tables overlooks the valley. In the meadow are two or three hay stacks and several young fruit trees, and in the corner sits a small church, its whiteness radiating in the evening sun. Three igloo tents are situated on the other end of the field, and as I get out of the car, I hear a river flowing in the distance.
The main building on the premises was at different times an iron foundry, a castle, and a manor house. Iron blooms are still scattered around the property. Since 2018, funded with the returns of a modest 2011 Bitcoin investment, a varying ensemble of men and women have worked on transforming the building into an accommodation with bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, library, dining room, theater room, and there are plans to construct a hottub in an old mill by the river. I carry a mattress from the third floor to a large dusty room on the second with a newly laid wooden floor and glassless windows. Clean sheets and towels are neatly folded in plastic boxes in the hallway near the staircase, where a Spanish woman named Inez is painting a larger than life monstera on the walls. Sanitary facilities in the house are not yet operable, but a shower and ecotoilet are located behind the outdoor kitchen, on both sides of the roofed-in DJ booth.
Before dinner, all people present at the Foundry sit around a table underneath the apple tree and discuss matters from cooking and cleaning to the organization of the wedding party. At the start of this assembly, Hansun Hsiung and Roland Bolz introduce their workshop and invite everybody to participate when interested. Roland, the second organizer, is a soft-spoken and curly-haired Dutchman working on a PhD in Berlin on the subject of analogical thinking. The reader for the course (ten texts in philosophy, linguistics, history of art, and history of science published between 1979 and 2013) can be distributed digitally, if anyone wants to join. On the topic of finance, everyone agrees to put some money for drinks and food in a donation box in the kitchen, and on the chalk board next to that box we draw a cooking schedule for the days to come. Afterwards we drink, grill meat and vegetables in the dark (veganism is optional at the Foundry) and sit by the fire while passing around a small, rolled up piece of paper containing various herbs.
On Saturday morning the workshop begins. Like most days to come we have a two-hour session after breakfast and another after lunch. Roland or Hansun introduces a text, I ask questions, we discuss the material and end up talking about things only slightly related. This morning we discuss Lakoff and Johnson’s study Metaphors We Live By, a book about metaphoric systems such as ‘argument is war,’ from which you can derive sentences such as ‘your claims are indefensible.’ In the afternoon we talk about the final chapter from Hofstadter and Sanders’ book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking. The chapter presents a silly dialogue between Katy and Anna on the difference between categorization and analogy-making, which turn out to be one and the same thing. Yesterday Roland has confided in me, in a grave manner, that he has an interest in humor, and at the end of today’s second session he reads a story he wrote, which is actually quite funny. The story is about a mathematician so bright he or she sees analogies between analogies but now struggles to make sense of the analogous analogies ‘Time flies like an arrow’ and ‘Fruit flies like a banana.’ Both hold at the Foundry, too, with the difference that here it’s gigantic Asian hornets that crowd our fruit supply.
In the following days we discuss texts by Paul Bartha, John Bender and Michael Marrinan, Barbara Stafford, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Derrida, and Philippe Descola. Dennis sometimes joins but mostly occupies himself with construction work. Often we sit underneath the apple tree, and more than once an apple falls dangerously close to our coffee cups. One afternoon we carry the antique table from inside the church into the field, where a 9-year-old Russian boy named Vladimir joins our discussion to talk about his favorite videogames. When rain falls, we retire to the church, where we sit underneath a lit chandelier and next to the family grave of the aristocrats that lived on the site for many generations.
What I take from the workshop and the readings is that we understand our world through analogy-making, that we understand abstract things such as ‘life’ and ‘love’ in terms of simpler things such as ‘a journey,’ that the boundary between words and images is indefinite, that reading Derrida with a hangover is more difficult than usual (I propose the neologism ‘diffécult’), that there’s a short story by Borges called ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ that I must read, and above all that doing philosophy is a wonderful way of spending one’s time. After the sessions, usually before dinner, we play the card games toepen or bongo. Roland transforms into a competitive card player and amuses the children with improvised card tricks. Hansun, a highly educated historian who speaks seven languages, asks others to shuffle for him when it is his turn, incapable of rearranging a pack of cards by sliding them over each other quickly.
Although the Foundry is nowhere near the city of Segovia, I brought Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls with the idea of ‘reading on location.’ Contemplating about his time in Spain, the hero tells himself that “it isn’t so much what you learn as it is the people you meet.” To this I want to add that you learn a lot through the people you meet. Take Carlos, a 34-year-old man from Chile, and his girlfriend Charlotte from England, who do construction work on the premises. Carlos has long black and grey curls and eyes like glowing coals. He tells me he learned to work with his hands when he was thirteen years old. Chile after Pinochet had a fake democracy and many people didn’t have access to the education system. Carlos joined a movement that went from place to place on the outskirts of Santiago to build schools. When I was thirteen, I pretty much played on my Nintendo all the time. Later Carlos studied psychology to understand “how people can do bad things to each other,” left Chile to work in New Zealand “because change is not possible in Chile” and moved to Denmark to further “decolonize his mind.” He used to think all Europeans were numb from their wealth, but in Copenhagen he met many inspiring young anarchists. He joined the collective Makvärket for several years before hitchhiking to the Foundry with Charlotte, following a benevolent “flow,” as he calls it mysteriously. His girlfriend Charlotte is a twenty-something English architect who previously held a job designing homes for people over 55 years of age and partied on the weekends until she experienced a general sense of pointlessness, quit her job and joined the same collective in Denmark. Now they renovate the Foundry’s buildings.
I meet a kind and stern looking Russian woman by the name of Alöna, who made some money with a chain of cafés in Kazan. She informs me that the KGB had a division of psychics who tried to hack people’s souls. Putin still consults psychics, she claims. She knows this because she herself is a psychic and knows many. She can ‘read’ people and knows how her friends far away are feeling at this very moment. Her son Vladimir has built a treehouse up in the apple tree where he hides chocolate bars to melt them above the fire or in the oven as a midnight snack. Her man Alberto, a 42-year-old Spaniard from the mountains outside of Madrid, works on a LED-sculpture on the edge of the DJ booth. He stays up late and wakes up early to finish in time before the wedding party and tells me over coffee one morning that he needs “a vacation from his vacation.” He has lived in Amsterdam and recounts the story of an illegal rave at a squatted warehouse that turned into catastrophe in november 2004. A fire broke out and some sixty people were trapped behind a blocked door. In a lucid moment, Alberto ran to the bathroom and kicked in the little window so everyone could escape. One man went back inside to look for his dog. He died, while his dog was already outside.
Then there’s Beni from Finland, a calm and meditative man who looks after the vegetable garden. Beni was a photojournalist at the Åland Islands, until the stress and pointlessness of working in a commercial media environment became unbearable. He walks his dog Bianca on a long leash three times a day. Beni takes pictures and builds giant coal-spewing fires, stirring the orange ember with a long stick of hazel he found by the river. There’s Jonas from Sweden, the globe trotting nurse, who tells me that the worst thing about being a nurse is when young children are brought to the first aid, suffocating. “The Heimlich maneuver doesn’t work on small children,” he says. “You should hold them upside down and slap them on the back.” He studied biology for a year but quit and ended up doing a variety of “shit jobs.” “Every shit job you do will serve some useful purpose some day,” he tells me. Jonas puts a lot of work in, keeps a steady flow of coffee coming to our workshop table and often pleas with Dennis for more order and organization, which Dennis doesn’t oppose but will not provide. There’s Fernanda, a Brazilian amateur jeweller and professional psychoanalyst, and then there’s her husband Dennis, who aspires to be neither a husband nor a leader nor any sort of authority figure, but who puts a love and energy into the Foundry and has ideas for the future.
Though in my normal life I sometimes ventilate my Leftist political views and read books about the climate crisis and prefer vegetables over killing animals and so on and so on, I have never before visited a place where people my age are engaging in the creation of a space for an alternative way of living, an alternative to the capitalist-consumerist society. In a variation on the words of George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, here at the Foundry I have dropped more or less by chance into a community where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism are more normal than their opposites — and I enjoy it tremendously. The Foundry provides an opportunity to put ideals into practice, and the people I meet make me want to contribute to a Cause.
During the course of my stay, the Foundry undergoes a series of changes. Bathrooms emerge, paths are gravelled, windows installed. Large, stainless and intimidating is the new indoor kitchen, finished just upon my arrival. The day is Monday, the hour 8 pm and I have just had several drags of an innocent looking rolled up piece of paper. On the first floor, the Mexican lady responsible for today’s meal is voicing some complaints to Dennis in Spanish, which can be heard all through the house. Feeling dazed I walk to the outside kitchen for a drink and a moment of contemplation, where I find Dennis’ 5-year-old son Dominic Napoleon staring at what is supposed to become our evening meal. In his high-pitched little man’s voice he asks: “Why is there smoke coming from the pan?” It’s not smoke but steam, I explain, and I save the soup or sauce by adding several cups of water. Jonas enters the scene, tells me that the chef has decided to leave the premises and he promotes me to be the new chef. I explain my slightly imbalanced state of mind, but he says I’ll be fine, and that besides we have to eat as it’s already past eight. Beni joins the conversation and proposes, helpfully, to fry yesterday’s potatoes. Jonas says they will be too soft, Beni answers that they not be sliced too thin. Fifteen minutes later I find myself face-to-face with the new indoor kitchen. I light the stainless stove and switch on the table-sized extractor hood, the sound of which brings to mind several large aircrafts. The blast from the furnace is vicious and the whole experience slightly frightening, but the potatoes turn out deliciously crispy. We eat and drink in a candle-lit church that night due to the rain, and it is beautiful.
After returning to Amsterdam, I pick up two books by Slavoj Zizek, inspired by the Foundry to read more challenging texts. Zizek writes many difficult sentences, but there’s one in Welcome To The Desert of the Real that resonates especially: “the only way of breaking out of the constraints of ‘alienated’ commodification is to invent a new collectivity.” That is what the Foundry is and does. To those who ask doubtfully whether this collective of idealistic millennials will succeed, I answer with a passage from the introduction of Living In The End Times. Zizek recounts how in Kubrick’s film Spartacus a pirate asks the gladiator whether he is aware that the slave rebellion is doomed. Spartacus’ answer is that “their act of rebellion itself, whatever the outcome, already counts as a succes, insofar as it instantiates the immortal idea of freedom.” Are we slaves? you might ask. Well, are we?
Henk Bovekerk is a writer from Amsterdam. He holds a master degree in History from the Radboud University in Nijmegen.