The Communes and Prefigurative LARPing
By Stanton Taylor
Image: Courtesy Black Swan
According to guildsman Spinoza Medici it was an intemperate taste for transparency that brought about the Fog, though no one knew for sure. What we did know was that after the event, some kind of local amnesia set in; no one seemed to recall how exactly they got here, or what exactly they were supposed to be doing. Those hit hardest reported fits of paranoia and nostalgia for a world they could no longer remember—phantom pains for an amputated past. Others were simply exhausted by living in constant confusion. A loose organization of specialists called Black Swan settled into the remains of a hollowed-out edifice known only as the Institution. Supposedly some kind of temple where circuits of knowledge and culture once flowed, it now seemed but an endless series of echo chambers. From far and wide, they convened those least affected by the Fog in the hope of finding an answer to this curious situation. Most had given up on the hope of ever going back, the question was how to move forward.
Slowly, the 42 members of the assembly trickled into the Institution’s uppermost floor, rations and sleeping bags in tow. In the first few hours, a member of Black Swan called the Writer took us through a series of rituals to prepare us for the world to come. We closed our eyes, breathed slow, got in touch with something deeper—though I’m still not sure what. We spread ourselves throughout the space, let ourselves be guided by strangers and allies. Looking inward, we spoke of the worlds in our dreams: oil-drenched palms glistening black on the horizon, polychrome monkeys singing songs like machines. At times we groaned and chanted; at others, we raised our voices as high as we could. The Writer asked us to leave behind what little we still knew. Forgetting started with a scream.
Soon enough, we were grouped into our communes according to a questionnaire: Which slogan suits you best? Which tribute will you offer your commune? Which form of organization resonates with you most? We came up with private languages, defined the rules of engagement, and gave ourselves new names. Mine was the Researcher, and as I moved between the groups as a participant observer, I was struck by the diversity already unfolding. Some communes made many gestures to indicate the varieties of disagreement; others only had one to signal assent. The first commune on my tour was the Cult—a group of seven assistants fanatically devoted to the whims of a single artist. Early on, they decided that the artist would be a dynamic position called LAN which any cult member could occupy. All the same, complete devotion to LAN’s vision was unconditional. Each commune’s task was simple yet immense: to develop a proposal for art after the Fog and figure out the best way to realize it. My task, however, was a little different: I was to document whatever unfolded over the next 36 hours. My account is what follows.
Eventually I learned that the structure of the communes was determined by an ancient artifact that Black Swan had recently unearthed: a treatise called The Structure of World History by Kojin Karatani (2014). In his tome, the pre-Fog philosopher argues that it is not the relations of production within a specific group that determine their social structure. Rather, it’s the modes of exchange between groups that determines each group’s respective organization. For him, these were fourfold: Mode A is free association and the reciprocity of the gift, corresponding to the archaic filial structures of the Clan. Mode B is conquest, rule, and protection, best expressed in the buccaneering ways of the Guild. Mode C is the reciprocal, “free” trade of commodities, manifested in the centralized transactional structure of the Cult. And finally, Mode Ddenotes a quasi-religious attempt to re-enchant the world with a sense of community—within existing relations of domination and trade—which lies at the heart of Venture. By simultaneously restaging each mode in the form of a commune, it seemed like Black Swan was trying to do a speed run through what little was still known about history—a kind of meta model of socio-economic organization that wouldn’t just point the way into an uncertain future, but also highlight the impasses of our present.
Roughly five hours after the initial assembly, Black Swan’s members visited each commune to sow their resources. These had been assigned in advance by the silent stakeholders and were split into liquid capital, physical space, media platforms, or access to knowledge in the form of oracles or gossip, as well as self-minted cards that each commune could use to trade their own skills and services. Crucially, the resources weren’t just tradable tokens effective for the duration of our assembly. Rather, they were tools that could still be used long after the communes disbanded and their members returned to consensual reality.
It initially seemed like Black Swan’s pre-Fog philosopher was something of a fraud. More so than any particular mode of exchange, it was the communes’ internal structures and the predetermined assignment of resources that defined their relationships with each other. For example, it took several hours before the most well-endowed communes—The Clan and The Cult—were even willing to speak with any of the others. The Guild and Venture, on the other hand, immediately tried to hold talks with each commune and sleuth out their respective resources. However, as communication intensified, functional differentiations started emerging in each commune. Some communards took on the specific role of envoys, while others concentrated on realizing technical tasks needed by the collective. Venture, for example, soon set up a dedicated livestream that members of any commune could use as a broadcasting platform. Meanwhile, The Cult quickly transformed into a full-fledged production studio, with dedicated performers, musicians, cinematographers, and editors. The Guild even had something like a secretary who pasted the minutes of their meetings onto the wall.
Perhaps the biggest exception was the Clan, whose mode of exchange was restricted to gifts. Hostile to outsiders, they put a premium on open debate between Clans folk, and their theoretical discussions raged into the early hours of the morning, replete with personal insults and slammed doors. What did it mean to give a gift? Could generosity be a form of control? Was there really any difference between a birthday present and geopolitical aid? They emblazoned the door to their common room with a slogan by another pre-Fog philosopher, this time Jacques Lacan: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” And according to at least one cranky clansman, the ultimate gift you can give is death.
As their sleepless night of philosophizing failed to yield much in the way of consensus, the members of the Clan consulted their oracle Ben Vickers, known for his work in various pre-Fog institutions like the Serpentine Galleries and Ignota Books. How, the Clan asked, would they ever be able to agree on a long-term plan in such short time? The oracle responded from experience, suggesting that a fixed plan wasn’t as important as adapting the organizational structure to the task at hand and identifying a key group of people who could keep the momentum going as long as possible. In what by now had become classic Clan style, Elder Ji asked if he had any experience with shifting existing balances of power within his past institutions. The oracle, in turn, tersely dismissed her question as idealism, emphasizing instead the pragmatic importance of identifying what he called “bridge people”—people capable of mediating between the values of different groups, some of whom may have more power than others. Alienating bridge people, he warned, would only lead to a zero-sum game between conflicting groups. Curiously, the only example he gave of such bridge people was himself.
On the flip side, the autocratic Cult couldn’t have been more different. Productivists par excellence, they came up with their plan for art after the Fog long before the resources were even sown. They envisioned art as a kind of emotional release that could be monetized within the economy of emotional labor in the form of tear coins (TEARS). More interested in clout than capital, they rapidly sketched out a speculative value chain and started shooting mood trailers for their online campaign. Soon enough, they publicly demonstrated their product to the other communes in the hope of stimulating demand. In the early hours of the morning, they held a mass emotional release ceremony, where anyone could experience their proprietary method with the help of a little tiger balm and some trademarked tear catchers. The response was lukewarm at best, with one guildsman quipping “while you were crying, we only had tears in our eyes.” Unsurprisingly, the Cult’s belief remained unshaken. As one cultist later remarked, letting go of self-criticism is ultimately what enables them to create.
20 hours into our assembly, the resource exchange was scheduled to close and the communes started compiling their final proposals. The mood went from hectic to outright frantic. Last minute deals were hatched in the blink of an eye and old alliances swiftly abandoned. Early on, Venture had opted for an administrative vision instead of an authorial one. By now they had managed to persuade the communes to pool the majority of total resources into a communal DAO, which they generously offered to manage—a simulacral mise en abyme of Black Swan’s own organizational structure. However, sustained scrutiny from the other communes eventually forced Venture to concede any managerial control. Meanwhile, the Guild had initially tried to make up for their meager resources with assertive communication and strategic planning. But upon realizing they had committed months, if not years, of personal services to nebulous projects in order to achieve their goals, they promptly defaulted on all commitments and donated whatever little they had. The Cult, too, had parted with most of their hand, albeit to acquire the specific resources necessary for their crying economy. And the Clan…well, they were still debating what to do.
More than anything else, the final presentations served as testaments to the communal journeys that unfolded over the 36 hours, with concrete proposals few and far between. In any case, there would be more than enough time to figure them out later on. Afterwards, Black Swan guided everyone out of the fog, disbanded our communes and onboarded us onto the Discord channel as well as their signature Cygnet voting platform. Once online, new proposals for the communally held resources in the DAO abounded: from cryptocurrency workshops and establishing educational institutions to private flute serenades and building a virtual yacht. In the coming weeks, even the Cult faithful started waffling on whether they really wanted to make a new economy out of tears—weren’t our tears exploited enough in the existing one? Interestingly enough, the Clan was the only commune to embrace internal differences by gifting resources to individual members.
Regardless of what came next, the thing most communards are likely to remember are the lively, if at times interminable, discussions about collective organization and strategy. Shortly after the assembly officially ended, the Cult’s otherwise gung-ho disciples worried that it was ultimately their autocratic structure that got things done. One member emphasized that even though LAN was a dynamic structure, it was all still the original artist’s idea. Another chimed in by pointing out that the tear idea actually came from someone else entirely. And in summing up, a cultist called Etienne ventured that maybe their centralized structure wasn’t that bad after all, since most ostensibly “open” structures without clear deliberative processes just end up reproducing existing hierarchies anyway. Only clearly defined decision-making procedures could ensure that everyone got their share—a simple enough observation in itself, though it left some wondering whether the whole experiment was just Black Swan’s way of demonstrating a long-foregone conclusion.
If there was anything in the way of a new proposal for art and culture, one could call it a shift away from representations towards models. It seemed that the pre-Fog idea of visual art rested on the idea of representations that isolate some fixed features of the world as experienced for further reflection, be it a tree, a table, or the artist’s own perceptual effects. A model, by contrast, isolates a dynamic set of variables and their relationships, allowing users to rework the world as they see fit, and maybe even themselves in the process. The result thus becomes a kind of simulation that blurs the distinction between the user and the used—an uncomfortable effect that hardly went unnoticed by the participants. In the end, it wasn’t about what collectivity looked or felt like, rather how it works.