Sharing is Caring

Good agreements make good friend

By Simon Baetens

Working horizontally, sharing resources, a sustainable economy: these are values that many organisations and institutions strive to achieve and are keen to pretend they put into practice. But how exactly do we do that? How do you reconcile the good intentions in a vision statement with everyday reality? A few months ago, a group of experts, each with a different set of tools and history, gathered to draw a handbook to help make living and working together as smooth as possible.

Their backgrounds – ranging from cooperative housing, to artistic operations, to food distribution – complement one another, helping to generate a list of values and points for attention rather than absolute objectives or targets. This list can serve as a guideline for any organisation, young or old, in which sharing is a central factor. It is a collection of the interlocutors’ practical experiences, mistakes from which they have learned and goals they permanently repeat themselves.

Assuming that absolute perfection does not exist, the following is a tool to keep operations in motion and stimulate self-evaluation.

Take up no more space than you need

Many organisations with buildings of their own have extra space. Instead of trying to fill that space or rent it out, it is possible to open it up. There is always a demand for space – the local bridge club, social organisations, young people in search of somewhere to hang out… Communicate clearly to the outside world that you are opening up your building so that those in search of space can approach you. Map out the needs of fellow residents and neighbours and make these transparent so they become something that can be openly discussed.

Live with, not alongside one another

Ensure that different groups that give substance to your location do not just exist next to one another. Provide space and moments where everyone can meet, such as shared lunches or open get-togethers. A certain demarcation is important. The proverbial locks on some doors and cabinets, with clear individuals responsible for the keys, are indispensable. Together, create a pleasant environment: dirty toilets are not cool, just irritating.

Good agreements make good friends

It is not for nothing that this is an age-old saying. Clearly expressing what you expect from one another and what you can and cannot offer is the fundamental principle of balanced cooperation. When you invite someone, explain why they are being invited, why they are meeting with you in particular and how the organisation you work for functions. A contract or charter can help. We may be quick to think that this is just an institutional reflex, but it is often a demonstration of mutual respect. You trust one another and formalise that trust in a document and then set to work with each party doing what they are good at. If something goes wrong, or if you want to evaluate the collaboration, refer back to the text that you made together and use it as your guide.

Involve your team

Everyone who works for you must know and express the philosophy of your organisation. Involve everyone as much as possible in discussion and meetings. Only when someone is informed about what is happening is that person able to contribute to the mission of your operation. Who can make decisions? How many layers of consultation do you really need? Commit yourselves to being a ‘yes team’: a team that assumes that in principle, everything is possible. Ensure there are clear responsibilities and mechanisms for decision-making so you can translate that vision into concrete actions.

Determine the limits of your own abilities

Do you have difficulty making it clear who can call on your organisation and for what? Make lists of things that are and are not possible and use these as parameters. Here are some examples: “Quality takes precedence over quantity”. “No public activity is aimed at generating profit”. “Vacant property is lost potential”. With such lists of limiting principles, you can make well-supported decisions. If the entire team knows and propagates these principles, almost everyone is able to answer a question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in a short space of time. Needless to say, lists such as these are always in motion. Allow them to grow with your plans and needs.

Provide enough duct tape

Now and then, things break. If you give a lot of parties, it happens regularly. Keep sufficient duct tape on hand to make rapid repairs possible. Ideally, you also ensure that more durable repairs are possible, but experience teaches that these can take a long time. Everyone can use tape.

Make time-outs negotiable

Living and working together can be intense. Every one of us also has a separate life, in addition to the project(s) we are engaged with. Come up with a formula to indicate that people can withdraw for a while or limit their responsibilities without that being a problem. Why not set up a time-out work group, which one can be part for as long as they think necessary? By making your break explicit, by joining others who are also taking a step back, you remain involved in a gentle way and rest is also acknowledged as a form of engagement.

Do not store away what another can use

The tendency to hang on to all kinds of things that ‘might come in handy one day’ is very human, but it generates large-scale storage spaces full of untouched potential. Avoid dead stock. Keep an inventory of whatever you store, and make it available to those who want to use it. Do not worry if your storage space is suddenly empty: it will fill up again soon enough. See storage as a temporary solution, not a final destination. In preliminary discussions, decide what will ultimately happen to items that are purchased or produced for a collaboration: who owns the materials after the end of the activity? Can they be shared or reused? Who will store them?

Breathe oxygen into your budget

Wherever possible, be creative with money. Keeping correct accounts is of course crucial, but that does not mean that you cannot provide space for financial whims. If, for example, you have a system in which people can declare expenses on condition that they advance the money themselves and keep the receipts, you will not be reimbursing gigantic amounts. Be transparent about your liquidity, so your partners can be transparent about theirs. In case you are sharing your budget with diverse players who do not put equal amounts in the till, you can experiment with need-based models. Not everyone’s contribution and received share has to be an equal percentage. Depending on their capacities and need, the portion of the total budget of each partner can be transparently discussed. If you need to generate income, give a party and sell beer at a democratic price.

Standing still is moving backwards

Do not get stuck in patterns that cause your operations to stagnate. Continuity and expertise are beautiful qualities that can go perfectly hand in hand with a sense of experimentation and contrariness. In particular, recipients of structural subsidies can fall into repetition by allowing the rhythm of applications and justifications to determine their everyday operations. What if you apply for a building permit every five years so that you can continuously transform your building? If you see the threat of falling into a rut, be timely about creating space for unpredictability: delegate a part of your budget, enter into an unexpected collaboration, or if it is what you need, dare to do nothing for a given period. Take on a project in a different country or invite activities that you feel a connection with. Organise a symposium, a group for reflection, or a project in a location where you are in an unfamiliar context. Opening up your process to outsiders is the most active form of reflection.

Are you facing a difficult period of an existential nature? Do not avoid asking yourself if your organisation should exist forever. Dare to see that it might be finite because it has achieved its goal, or thanks to a new team with total autonomy, that your organisation can follow a different path according to new ideas and needs.

Embrace crisis

Now and then you will make decisions that you question after the fact. You can overlook something, or go through a difficult time. Build in evaluation as a permanent part of every collaboration. Try to see crisis as a moment from which you can all learn from your mistakes together. Losing your way can help you sharpen or even regain your focus.

It’s the people who make it

Be open to the fact that how you work changes through the presence of others. Do not engage in partnerships merely because they are strategically interesting. See the way you fill in your time, budget or space, temporarily or in the long term as an essential part of how you operate rather than as something marginal to it. Communicate openly about those who are staying and/or working around you. Be open and vulnerable towards each other so you can learn from one another. See your organisation’s DNA not as something that is self-evident but something that moves along with who and what is present in your organisation.

Collective of Collectives Chess

Developed in 2022 by Gudskul (an educational knowledge-sharing platform formed in 2018 by three Jakarta-based art collectives ruangrupa, Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara), The Collective of Collectives Chess was part of documenta 15 and can easily be re-created at home.

The four player’s chess is a quick strategy game that simulates the making of a collective of collectives. The main objective of this game is to make a new set of chess pieces inside the 4x4 neon orange square in the middle. This new set must consist of 16 chess pieces from all chess sets, where each player shall contribute four chess pieces of any type. Players take turns in a clockwise direction to move the position of each piece without capturing and removing other’s pieces. Players shall cooperate on how to give space for one another, delegate which players shall cooperate and delegate which pieces will be combined in the middle square.