Living Organisation – That Is, Self-Organisation

Binna Choi



As we redefine our perspective on autonomy and self-organisation, and distance ourselves from the notion of autonomy as the establishment of a small, free enclave, let us first consider this passage from On Complexity by the philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin:

However, the machine, is, as a whole, much less reliable than each of its elements taken in isolation. In fact, it only takes a change in one of its constituent parts for the whole to be blocked, to break down, so that it can only be repaired by an external intervention (the mechanic). The living machine (self-organized), on the other hand, is entirely different. Its constituent parts are not very reliable. There are molecules that deteriorate very rapidly, and all organs are obviously made up of these molecules. Moreover, we see that in an organism, the molecules, as well as the cells, die and are renewed, to the point that the organism remains identical to itself even though all of its constituent parts have been renewed. There is, then, as opposed to the artificial machine, great reliability of the whole and weak reliability of the parts.

This shows not only the difference between the nature and logic of self-organizing systems and the others, but it also shows that there is a consubstantial link between disorganization and complex organization, because the phenomenon of disorganization (entropy) follows its course more rapidly in the living than in the artificial machine. In an inseparable way, there is the phenomenon of reorganization (negentropy). There lies the fundamental link between entropy and negentropy, in no way a Manichean opposition between two contrary entities. In other words, the link between life and death is much closer, much more profound, than we have been able to metaphysically imagine. […]

It is a relative autonomy, to be sure – and we need to remind ourselves of this constantly – but an organizational, organismic, and existential autonomy nevertheless. Self-organization is in fact a meta-organization in relation to the orders of preexisting organization, and obviously, in relation to that of artificial machines. This strange relation, this coincidence between the meta and the self merits meditation.1

Again, to avoid objectifying and fetishising disorganisation, here we should emphasise disorganisation as a consequence of living in a way that depends on the weak reliability of the constituent parts of a whole. I experienced this kind of disorganisation in my involvement with Arts Collaboratory, a network of some 20 art organisations, including Casco of which I was the director, all ‘purposing’ art toward their own respective social and political contexts, often with a baggage of colonial legacy. In the collective efforts of the members toward generating life – empasising ‘lifelines’ instead of deadlines, ecosystems instead of wired networks – there has been a constant cycle of reorganisation and disorganisation. I noticed this happening whenever this process got stuck, and I could see the team members starting to ‘fall out of love’, when they did not understand disorganisation as a process of generating life, but rather attempted to control the ecosystem and turn it into a well-functioning machine. This panic then slows down the latent creativity of reorganisation. But what if we all could better embrace disorganisation?


While we need to be cautious not to objectify disorganisation, here I would say that we could unlearn to celebrate organisation. How often are our self-organising processes – the very nature of our life (and death) – oppressed by external interventions aiming to establish order within these processes?


Maid Mina goes shopping
‘Maid Mina Goes Shopping: an Impression of Dutch Colonial Life’, from a compilation of film clips titled Van de kolonie niets dan goeds: Nederlands-Indië in Beeld 1912-1942, published by Tropenmuseum and Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam, 2003.

The sequence of images above shows an everyday scene from colonial Indonesia (or, as it was then known, the Dutch East Indies) taken from a compilation of film clips titled Van de kolonie niets dan goeds: Nederlands-Indië in Beeld 1912-1942 (‘Nothing but Good News from the Colonies: Images from the Dutch East Indies, 1912-1942’). The scene shows a Dutch homeowner correcting her local domestic worker’s flower-arranging. Fortunately, the worker responds nonchalantly and then goes out for errand, which actually turns out be an occasion to spend time with a man with whom she is having an affair. The delayed errand irritates the landlady, who keeps looking at her watch.


The word ‘reproduction’, when understood in terms of life (rather than of mechanical replication), may be seen as a condition or a support structure which makes life possible. This particular sense of the word ‘reproduction’ becomes clearer when we consider it from the perspective of reproductive labour which has been gendered, racialised, undervalued and made invisible – including childcare, cleaning, cooking, doing errands, fixing and mending (the latter may also include for instance a cascade of email communications during unexpected conflicts or falling-outs). In their book Reproducing Autonomy: Work, Money, Crisis & Contemporary Art, Kerstin Stakemeier and Marina Vishmidt argue for a reconstruction of autonomy based on an expanded understanding of reproduction: engaging with reproduction as a context for generating autonomy. This may sound baffling to those who believe that what makes art ‘autonomous’ is its detachment from the usual mechanisms of production. How, then, can we even consider reproduction? Isn’t art all about a ‘just do it’ spirit – even so for those who believe in art’s critical function and its social engagement against the brutal nature of our world? In light of such considerations, Stakemeier and Vishmidt outline a reality which the ‘autonomous’ must necessarily deal with:

The power of capital to subsume areas of social activity which are not directly value producing appears to have massively expanded in 'our' time and it has changed the conditions for art as an economic, as well as extra-economic, entity. This means that within the relations constituting the totality, there is a significant sense in which art has been displaced from the autonomy – relative or absolute – that was imputed to it in the modern period, or in the period of modern art. Art now enters much more directly into circuits of valorisation, be it in luxury manufacturing, brand enhancement, the ‘experience economy’, tourism, or gentrification. Its importance as an asset class has grown tremendously since inflated asset values, and the speculation in them, first became a significant basis for economic growth in the 1980s. It has also become much more visible in the disciplinary domain, with aspects of ‘socially engaged practice’ commonly included in the agendas of neoliberal social management, often in areas ‘plagued’ by disinvestment and ‘diversity’. If these developments reflect additional and more direct roles for art as a commodity or as social palliative, there is a further shift in the exclusive relations between art and labour, as object-critical and post-studio practices emulate various social services, whereas waged labour is encouraged to view itself as ‘creative’ in the most simplified and exploitative terms.2

If we agree with the above observation, then we should also endorse the following statement by the authors, in their pursuit of a redefinition of the concept of autonomy:

An autonomy that is constructed out of the solidarity of art with its own terms of reproduction would not be a private autonomy like the modernist one, finding its critical resources in its own special structure of production and affect, and saving them for a better age. The autonomy at issue here would instead start out from its very integration to win for itself an autonomy with a general, socialized horizon. This is not to forget that this autonomy can only achieved with the destruction of the system that denies autonomy to everyone who lives in it; the point is only that, as a result of its specific position, art does have its own resources for the articulation of means and suspension of ends. Such resources are capable of actualizing dimensions of an as yet only glimpsed social autonomy, which can neither be subsumed into a general ‘supercession and realisation’ (as in the Situationist International) nor treated as a form of inspirational social creativity based on self-evidently emancipatory premises. It remains distinct from that ‘useful art’ which accompanies and even, as in Tania Bruguera’s conception, instigates social movements, but which in the end remains thoroughly dependent on its institutional-material premises and can only jettison its artistic framing as an artistic gesture.3

The authors then propose further, and more concrete, artistic possibilities for such autonomy in the realm of reproduction – for instance, addressing issues of unpaid domestic and/or reproductive labour, and blurring the distinction between art and labour, thus bringing about a condition of non-specialisation (so that labour could become art too, allowing one to consider the conditions of artistic labour – ‘who cleans your exhibition space?’ – and of life itself). The authors also elaborate on subverting the definition of care by characterising reproductive and artistic labour as ‘a potentially negative commons, a productively anti-social streak’.


How then should we understand the valorisation of the condition of being ‘anti-social’ – not in the sense of being apathetic or psychopathic, but rather as the position that resists the normativity imposed by the current social order – in other words, a kind of autonomy? This ‘anti-social’ or autonomous position in fact addresses the valorisation of reproductive labour, and is also related to the idea of the ‘undercommons’ proposed by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, in much the same way as Vishmidt appeals for a ‘negative commons’ or a militant commons, in response to the rapidly growing field of commons-related discourse and practice. Moten and Harney too are wary of the possibility that the affirmative idea of the commons may be co-opted by the neoliberal capitalist economy in order to support the increasing equality it generates and the welfare system it proposes to dismantle. Efforts to strenghten the ‘commons’ in the midst of such rampant privatisation and commodification could thus have a counterproductive effect, and actually serve to consolidate the capitalist economy. However, as Ugo Mattei wrote (and as Vishmidt would agree), we usually expect the commons to be disruptive of existing systems, but not of that which can be co-owned and cooperatively managed. The concept of the ‘undercommons’ seems to be positioned somewhat differently. Rather than the subversive function of collective action, Moten and Harney pursue a parallel track allowing for what they refer to as ‘study’. This concept of study, borrowing from the struggle against slavery, describes a condition of being together in a resistance and struggle that takes place ‘underneath’ the institutional structure. For instance, this type of ‘study’ does not take place in the universities themselves, which Moten and Harney see as neo-liberal machines of professionalism, managerialism, bureaucracy and debt economy, but rather:

They’re building something in there, something down there, a different kind of speculation, a speculation called ‘study,’ a debt speculation, a speculative mutuality. Mutual debt, unpayable debt, unbounded debt, unconsolidated debt, debt to each other in a study group, to others in a nurses’ room, to others in barbershops, to others in a squat, a dump, the woods, a bed, an embrace.4

At a tangent to the ‘negative commons’, they propose a ‘general antagonism’, which seems to propose an extreme form of critical collectivity, within an all-encompassing negation of the idea that existing institutions may be capable of actual change.
Politics propose to make us better, but we were good already in the mutual debt than can never be made good. We owe it to each other to falsify the institution, to make politics incorrect, to give the lie to our own determination.5

Moten and Harney refer to this condition as ‘fugitive planning’. However, to be a liar is no easy task, since we have been taught from birth that lying is bad. Still, rampant bureaucratisation and the breaking down of boundaries between work and private life teaches us to become proficient at lying to institutions, and even to the self when it embodies these institutions. The challenge is thus in maintaining this double track, working for (if not serving) an institution, while doing other things that we enjoy doing together, which are not seen and thus are not acknowledged by the institution. It may sometimes feel impossible to maintain this balance, which is why some will decide to withdraw from the world, while others will abandon the idea of change or of establishing a different social system, but will still join in the survival game within the system while seeking temporary refuge within little private spheres. Otherwise, how to continue living in this impossibility?


biking into the water
biking into the water

‘Impossibility’ was also a recurring theme during ongoing discussions and exercises focusing on unlearning institutional habits (in the context of an art organisation) which took place at Casco in collaboration with the artist Annette Krauss. Krauss drew our attention to the contemporary knowledge economy, which views knowledge as the accumulative matter of capital within a competitive market where lifelong learning is the given policy agenda. In response, she promotes the act of unlearning by introducing a series of situations or ‘sites’ which serve to facilitate a collective engagement of unlearning. Her first example of such a ‘site’ was related to the act of riding a bike. Since riding a bike is unquestionably considered to be useful knowledge, unlearning immediately provokes resistance. Why should we unlearn it? Furthermore, even if you try to unlearn, it turns out to be nearly impossible to do so, since we have come to embody this knowledge. When we ride a bike, we are no longer thinking about how to ride. However, engaging with this very character of impossibility, and with the initial resistance, is precisely what unlearning is all about. Amusingly, Krauss appropriated the famous image of Bas Jan Ader’s performance of riding his bike into an Amsterdam canal – Fall II (1970) – for her unlearning action Site of Unlearning (To Ride a Bike), while adapting it as an exercise for unlearning how to ride a bike.

Additionally, Krauss and the ever-changing Casco team created a photographic image of themselves cleaning together, in this case appropriating the image of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s act of cleaning in front of a museum – Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969) – which claimed such maintenance work as an artwork. Cleaning together has now become a weekly habit within the organisation, after initially being one of several exercises for unlearning art-institutional habits which we have been engaged with under the title Site for Unlearning (Art Organisation). This exercise resulted from the team’s and Krauss’s analysis of institutional knowledge that needed to be unlearned at Casco, which turned out to be the psychosomatic experience of ‘busyness’, with the accompanying anxiety, frustration and eventually interpersonal conflicts, and which upon further analysis was shown to arise as a result of the logic of productivity. If an art institution is useful on the same level as a bike is useful, then its specific usefulness lies in presenting great art, every time, more and better. Yet it seems that such productivity comes at the cost of our body and spirit, and of our relationality, as was manifested in our previous cleaning habits. Only one or two of the team members were actually cleaning the office; the rest postponed or neglected such tasks because they were ‘too busy’. Casco has been relating – and at times working together – with mostly migrant domestic workers in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe since 2011, alongside its long-term project The Grand Domestic Revolution. The structure of perpetual inequality of gendered and racialised labour was however at work within Casco itself, thus replicating the very social system which we criticised. The mechanism that perpetuates this structure is also what hinders what we call ‘deep understanding,’ which should be seen as distinct from knowledge. Deep understanding is a mode of relationality with our life, with what we do, and with others. One may well ask at this point: have you succeeded in unlearning this ‘busyness’ and the order of productivity?

Pouring water over the staircase
Pouring water over the staircase



This order of productivity is embedded in the prevailing model of economic growth – a model which has led us to the situation, as expressed by Isabelle Stengers, in which we are confronted with a ‘coming barbarism’, the irreversible environmental disaster that comes in the figure of the earth as Gaia, destructive of humanity but not of herself. Currently, as Stengers explains, there is a ‘cold panic’ maintained by the current social order of accepting and perhaps broadcasting contradictory messages: on one hand, the necessity of a paradigm shift in face of the exploding environmental crisis, and on the other hand the necessity to continue or even accelerate trends of competence and competitiveness within the current economic model. Unlearning resists such a ‘cold panic’ – rather, it is a process of making the impossibile possible. This is not only a hardship, but also (or rather) a joy that comes with such ‘work’. Stengers distinguishes such joyful thinking from other existing forms of knowledge:

Joy, Spinoza writes, is that which translates an increase in the power of acting, that is to say too, of thinking and imagining, and it has something to do with a knowledge, but with a knowledge that is not of a theoretical order, because it does not in the first place designate an object, but the very mode of existence of whoever becomes capable of it. Joy, one could say, is the signature of the event par excellence, the production or discovery of a new degree of freedom, conferring a supplementary dimension on life, thereby modifying the relations between dimensions that are already inhabited – the joy of the first step, even if it is uneasy. And joy also has an epidemic potential. That is what so many of the anonymous participants, like me, tasted in May 1968, before those who were to become our guardians, the spokespersons of abstract imperatives, dedicated themselves to have us forget the event. Joy is not transmitted from the knowledgeable to the ignorant, but in a mode that itself produces equality, the joy of thinking and imagining together, with others, thanks to others. Joy is what makes me bet on a future in which the response to Gaia would not be the sadness of degrowth but that which the conscientious objectors to economic growth have already invented, when they discover together the dimensions of life that have been anesthetized, massacred, and dishonored in the name of a progress that is reduced today to the imperative of economic growth. Perhaps, finally, joy is what can demoralize those who are responsible for us, bringing them to abandon their sadly heroic posture, and betray what has captured them.6


The following sentences are speech fragments that I heard and wrote down during a five-day workshop in Berlin (January 31 to February 4, 2018) with a number of Arts Collaboratory members, where we attempted to implement a reorganisation in the midst of disorganisation, as part of the Arts Collaboratory self-organising process facilitated by Maria Scordialos in partnership with Irene Vanikiotis. I hereby wish to thank all of the workshop members, especially Maria.

Self-organisation is chaos until patterns appear.
Until self-organisation becomes the capacity to operate, there needs to be a group of people to facilitate, not manage.
We are moving from ‘what’ to ‘how’!
Allowing multiple purposes while aligning them.
Controlling the purposes, not controlling others.
We are getting lost in endless discussions. How about going back and working alone?
Now we need to ground ourselves.
Unpacking Discomfort: it’s about hosting oneself, knowing one’s own hotspot.
Self-organisation is like water with no container: sometimes it needs a topology.
Self-organisation is brilliant when we can maintain continuity.
Self-organisation is about interdependence.
Looking at / evaluating what is not working generatively, by looking and listening through three lenses:
which treasures / potentials are hidden in what seems like failure? What constitutes challenge, and where does it begin? Which tangible steps / practical ideas can we take moving forward?
Rather than a paradigm of ‘plurality’, why not instead ‘spectrum’ (which is more inclusive)? Why not allow a space for all of us to have different perspectives / entry points?
Don’t try to problem-solve; don’t evaluate; focus on the roles of listener and speaker.
Let’s cluster when you hear, instead of repeating.
‘The real leader is purpose’: what are we experimenting around?    
You need to build a capability.


Date written
Binna Choi
Literature & Footnotes

1. Edgar Morin, On Complexity, Hampton Press, 2008, pp. 17-19.

2. Kerstin Stakemeier and Marina Vishmidt, Reproducing Autonomy: Work, Money, Crisis & Contemporary Art, Mute Publishing, 2016, pp. 38-39.

3. Ibid., p. 65.

4. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013, pp. 67-68.

5. Ibid., p. 20.

6. Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, Open Humanities Press, 2015, pp. 155-156.