This paper reflects on an ongoing artistic research project, Plan Bienen, outlining the terrain in which it operates and sharing some of its initial outcomes. The project is a collaboration between its authors, Sydney-based artists and writers, which developed from a 3-month residency undertaken in 2014 at the ZK/U – the Centre for Art and Urbanistics, Berlin.
Plan Bienen set out to investigate real and speculative relationships between two parallel contemporary crises – one in bee ecologies and the other in European economic systems. In an era being variously called the Anthropocene and the Sixth Great Extinction, our proposition was that by overlaying these two objects of study we might find new ways into broader concerns that both intersect with, bound up in the increasing tension between the expansionary logic of free-market capitalism and the necessary reductions in emissions and consumption required to avert widespread irreversible ecological breakdown. Bees, our micro-political entry point into these much larger-scale questions, have long been a vessel onto which human ideological positions are projected – by turns having been cast as model capitalist producers and collective communist bodies. As transdisciplinary researchers, we were curious to explore potential ways of thinking from and with them, towards other ways of living together in the city via revised ethical and ontological positions.
One commonality we drew between bees and economics is that our relations with both are at present governed predominately by modes of exchange that are literally not able to be sustained, they are ‘defuturing’ in that they take futures away (both ours and other species’) and appear more or less to be heading for a kind of collapse (Fry). In Berlin, where our research began, we could nonetheless see in both spheres other sorts of relations at work, practices demonstrating different ways of generating, measuring and exchanging value, either being developed now or nestled in the city’s many pasts.
This then is what the territory of the project came to encompass – on the one hand the various problems facing bees (but extending out to other species), and specific linked approaches to urban beekeeping; and on the other histories of fiscal crisis, and responses to that including share economies and non-monetary systems of exchange. Emerging as crucial within this net was the political agency of ‘non-humans’ and the right to the city or urban commons discourse, particularly as it intensifies alongside gentrification in the city of Berlin, where all of these things have a special resonance and converge in unexpected ways.
Our research involved meeting with beekeepers, researching (and using) share-networks and alternative economies, and interviewing economic historians and community economists. Working closely with feminist beekeeping collective the Moabees, we initiated a non-monetary exchange network in which local beekeepers traded honey for services and labour—including translation, singing lessons and help with honey harvesting—to rethink understandings of value and reciprocity as well as our relations with other species. We produced a series of notgeld—emergency bank notes—to commemorate each exchange, as well as hosting discursive events, meals, high-frequency trades and focus groups, and wrote texts and performance-lectures.
Engaging with various economies throughout, we have taken care to be attentive to what parts of an exchange are overlooked or ignored, what exactly is being shared with whom and on whose terms, and what are its limitations and potentialities.
To begin with the bees, as sociologists Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut point out, “only when bees vanish do they tangibly appear to us” (Moore and Kosut, Among the Colony 517). The phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (as named in 2007), in which an entire hive of worker honeybees just disappears, first surfaced in the pollination industry in the US, prompting fears that this sudden threat to Apis Mellifera would jeopardise the future of many crop species that it pollinates. The condition was attributed to a complex situation in which a new type of systemic insecticide, neonicotinoids, combines with factors including Varroa mite and Nosema, a lack of biodiversity, effects of climate change such as ‘season creep’, constant moving of hives, and immune systems weakened by generations of being fed sugar syrup to replace extracted honey.
The crisis drew worldwide attention to the conditions of industrialised hives, galvanising much support for this little co-habitant of the world-within-a-world that we humans have constructed. Urban beekeeping took off over roughly the same time frame, especially in post-industrial cities like Detroit and Berlin where an impoverished state unable to afford city maintenance left many public areas to grow wild, offering more biodiversity of food for local bees (and less pesticides) than rural areas dominated by monocultures. In Berlin, this resurgence is inflected by the city’s embedded cultures of urban resilience and self-sufficiency as well as specific local histories of beekeeping in relation to city planning and the state. With around 900 beekeepers (still only one quarter of the numbers seen there in the 1950s), beehives are popping up in every neighbourhood, across school gardens, rooftops, empty lots and cemeteries.
Amongst the many different approaches to urban apiculture on offer last year at Prinzessinengarten’s annual Stadt Honig Fest, we find one bekeeper who tells us her honey is ‘a gift from the bees’, which she is permitted to take (commonly known as ‘robbing the hive’) as long as she promises to pass it on to others, giving jars to friends and tradespeople to acknowledge a job well done. We also meet Rainer Kaufmann, who unlike those in the honey trade managing hives for maximum yield, only harvests a tiny amount of honey for himself after winter when it is no longer needed for the brood, and doesn’t give his bees sugar to sweeten the deal. When we invite him to participate in our micro-honey exchange network he politely declines; his garden provides for all his needs, and besides his honey is too precious to trade. Erika Mayr, Berlin’s celebrity beekeeping advocate, is however keen – she already uses her own rooftop honey to pay for dental work and the DJs in her bar. In fact, during the DDR many people kept bees in order to trade the honey for desired commodities; they could even sell it back to the government at a fixed price, constituting a rare source of extra personal income. Today honey, like jam, always circulates within a gift economy, which as Marcel Mauss made clear, is not to say that there are no sticky two-way (or more) transactions involved.
At a seminar on the multiple modes of dwelling in Tiergarten—Berlin’s ‘Central Park’— we meet Viennese philosopher Fahim Amir, who declares bees the quintessential ‘emblem of green capitalism.’ Gesturing at the beehives installed on the roof of the building we are in, Berlin’s iconic Haus der Kulturen der Welt, he challenges us to recognise ‘naturecultures’ being put to work in the neoliberal city. Here bees produce honey to be sold in the gift shop as a boutique locavore product and service eco-friendly public relations. Just as their pollinating activities produce conditions desirable for us to live in, the presence of bees on prominent skylines performs symbolic work, assisting the city in its efforts to re-brand from an urban playground and post-communist social experiment to a green ‘lifestyle capital’, making it an attractive option for investment capital and facilitating the march of gentrification.
This role can also shift, as for Oliver, a physicist-turned-apiarist who sells his honey direct to people on the street over the hedge of his schrebergarten. In addition to their more obvious perambulatory role in the garden (a local law requires every gartenkolonie to have at least one beekeeper), he sees the bees as contributing valuable PR and visibility to their kolonie, important since there is talk of the land being sold off by its adjoining owners; it’s now good real estate in a desirable part of town.
Following Amir’s provocation, we can understand city bees as an ‘insect working class’ whose labours are both utilitarian and abstract. It is tempting then to imagine the disappearance of bees within industrialised agriculture as a kind of workers’ strike—or as Amir has put it a ‘zoooperaism’— a strategic political action undertaken to sabotage the human-centred mechanisms of global agribusiness production in which they are ensnared.
In such a critique we somehow lose sight of the bee again; Moore and Kosut, studying urban beekeeping in New York City, warn of our limited ability to ‘know’ bees using human senses, terms and concepts. They call for instead ‘new modes of embodied attention and awareness’—ways of standing back, intra-acting and just ‘being with’—essentially following the bee through its social transactions with objects, humans and insects, apprehending it as operative within its own world of meaning. In this they recognise other kinds of agency that bees have in the formation of engaged alliances within urban landscapes, through their embodied labour of pollination even constituting us physically as a species. Bringing together ‘the idea of the bee, humans’ material relationship with the bees, including use of them, and the actual bee as its own thing’, Moore and Kosut describe ‘an ontological murk of relations’ that leaves behind strict distinctions between species and their surroundings towards a relationship that is intimately ‘enmeshed and porous’.
Thinking further through interspecies relations wherein the terms of exchange are reconsidered, states like Bolivia and Ecuador have recently conferred the legal rights of subjects to nonhuman entities that include lakes, plants and the Panchamama. But what would a legal multispecies framework in a contemporary European city look like, and how could non-humans effectively defend those rights?
Berlin-based biologist Herbert Lohner is currently working on a ‘white paper’ that makes recommendations for state policies on ‘green infrastructure’, incorporating the wellbeing of bees and legislating such things as a minimum number of kleingarten to be built along with each new apartment. This is also about the right to a certain kind of green space, a commons that is not fully ‘public’ but necessarily involves interspecies sociality, providing a value not so easily quantified in monetary terms.
The Berlin Summt initiative, responsible for the hives at HKW, also hosts beehives across hundreds more of the city’s iconic buildings, including the Abgeordnetenhaus (House of Representatives), where Heinz Risse keeps 50,000 bees so that they may directly influence the decision-making of the parliamentarians inside. Heinz and Rainer are directors of the activist association Mellifera e.V., which works explicitly to ‘interfere politically on behalf of the bees’, recently helping to secure a temporary ban on neonicotinoids in the EU which is now being followed in parts of the US.
These moves can be traced back to the footpaths themselves; many of Berlin’s most famous streets are named after the flowering trees that line them – Kastanienallee, Unter den Linden – living traces of the influence of beekeeper lobby groups who in the late 19th Century shaped the ecologies of the growing city to ensure food for bees throughout the year (and of course honey for themselves).
In Berlin the practice of beekeeping sits alongside a broader culture of DIY economies and radical social formations that evolved over periods after reunification where there simply wasn’t much money around. Certainly times have changed, and such activities are now framed by the global ‘sharing economy’ which Cameron Tonkinwise observes has become ‘overwhelmingly an antiregulatory, precariat-creating way of monetizing social interactions’ (Tonkinwise). At last year’s annual OUIShare summit, a sort of trade fair mix of entrepreneurial social innovation start-ups and more radical grassroots initiatives, punters browsed such stands as a cargo bike-share platform, the free shop Leila, and the citizen-science project Open Source Beehives – standardised beehives that monitor bee health and behaviour in different parts of the world to address limited scientific knowledge about pollinator species and the ‘wild’ ecologies that support agricultural landscapes. Also present were LebensmittelRetten (foodrescue), an organised operation with partners that include the organic supermarket chain Bio Company, who operate a network of public fridges for distributing waste food across the city. The fridges fit into well-established modes of circulation and exchange that are in a sense built on the failures of an economic system driven by constant growth and wasted surplus. Such practices also tap into the momentum of an urban farmer-maker-hacker movement developing and sharing food sovereignty in a way that links localised autonomy from exploitative global markets with open source knowledge infrastructures.
Here too is a history here stretching back a century or more. In the 1920s when the German economy collapsed due to war reparations, hyperinflation pushed a loaf of bread up from 150 marks to 200 million in a year or two. Many regional municipalities responded by producing their own independent local currencies, or Notgeld, which had to be used regionally and before the expiry date (spent not saved). Being pictorial histories of desire at such a time – they show fields, cows, even beehives – as collectibles they accrued a different kind of value altogether. Commodities like coal and butter also became informal currencies, since they could not could lose all their value overnight, and were inherently less unstable than money – which as economic historian Winfried Bogon reminds us, is nothing more than a system of trust that functions only as long as everyone believes in it.
Operating on a tiny, pilot scale, our own notgeld functioned partly to capture some of the disproportionate quantities of labour needed to facilitate an interaction experienced by only a handful of participants. Each banknote (in an edition of three – two for the traders and one for the bees) commemorated one honey exchange in a micro-visual narrative. The B (bee)-side elevates their critical role within this transaction; clearly they make the honey, but there are also other things that a beekeeper receives in exchange for the care and home that they provide; many will speak of falling ‘in love’ with their bees, of being somehow changed by them. The bees themselves are further engaged in their own exchanges of pollen for pollination with the city’s flora, both wild and carefully planted.
As Tonkinwise puts it, sharing is about the messy negotiation of access to goods, which in the interests of futuring necessarily become scarcer. One salvageable value he finds in sharing systems today, or their potential for shifting mainstream values, lies in the friction caused by new socialities not defined by the alienated service roles of work. In this sense value must be negotiated person-to-person, sometimes awkwardly, in other words “capitalism is an alienated way of handling those negotiations; sharing forces you to negotiate with aliens”. Our honey trades were indeed examples of economic relations with ‘social thickness’, resource flows (how many jars is one singing lesson worth?) being placed upfront in a novel social relation. The process involved determining value outside a reductionist equation of money, what a jar can be sold for in the supermarket for example, as well as an assessment of one’s own capacities to meet the needs of others – human and non-human – that we share our cities with.
In the context of an economic crisis that, for Massimo de Angelis, is a capitalist crisis of social instability, the creation and maintenance of the commons become an imperative of social production. De Angelis defines commoning as a process of “socialization, communication and the transformation of subjectivities and social relations”, in which “the other is no longer alien but a coproducer of life in commons” (de Angelis 140). Drawing from the theories of physicist-philosopher Karen Barad, Moore and Kosut advocate a practice of ‘intra-species mindfulness’, which may also have resonance in considering how we organise together in urban communities. Contra to many scientists or beekeeper who attempt to figure another species out, they encourage their readers to figure bees in, and in doing so urge us to move outside our human selves to understand both ‘human’ and ‘other’ as cultural constructions. (Moore and Kosut, Among the Colony 520) Intra-actions are the material-discursive exchanges that co-constitute entities and refute the idea of bounded “entities in themselves”. As artists working with social relations, we’re heartened to hear that it is “relationality all the way down” (Haraway cited in Gane 141)—that the very fabric of life is itself somehow socially contingent.
Plan Bienen, being a pun on ‘Plan B’, references an imagined (even imaginary) ‘exit strategy’ to relations subsumed under capitalism. It may be that our best chance out runs in another direction, following the bee to a kind of thinking that seeks to undo the human, in an attempt to re-configure our relationship with other species, and by extension the common lifeworlds that we co-produce.
Plan Bienen blog: http://planbienen.net/
de Angelis, Massimo ‘Plan C&D: Commons and Democracy’, in Collectivize! Essays on the Political Economy of Urban Form ed. Marc Angélil and Rainer Hehl, Vol. 2, Ruby Press, Berlin.
Fry, Tony, 2011, Design as Politics, Berg, New York
Gane, Nicholas, 2006. ‘When We Have Never Been Human, What Is to Be Done? Interview with Donna Haraway.’ Theory, Culture & Society 2006, vol. 23, no. 7–8, pp. 135–158.
Kosut, Mary and Moore, Lisa Jean, 2014. ‘Among the colony: Ethnographic fieldwork, urban bees and intra-species mindfulness.’ Ethnography, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 516–539.
Kosut, Mary and Moore, Lisa Jean, 2014b. ‘Bees Making Art: Insect Aesthetics and the Ecological Moment.’ Humanimalia: a journal of human/animal interface studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Spring )
URL: http://www.depauw.edu/humanimalia/issue10/kosut.html Accessed: 26 September 2015.
Tonkinwise, Cameron 2014. ‘Sharing you can believe in: The awkward potential of sharing economy encounters’, Medium.com URL: https://medium.com/@camerontw/sharing-you-can-believe-in-9b68718c4b33