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= like a monastery it aims to bring together a community of like minded individuals; project is proposed to take place in 2019 as part of the City's bid for the European City of Culture

URL = http://unmonastery.eu/


By Cat Johnson/

" Situated in Matera, Italy, the first official unMonastery aims to provide a select group of changemakers with a place to live, eat and work together.

UnMonasteries come out of the Edgeryder community, a group of young Europeans seeking to reinvent the economy for inclusion, sustainability, and meaningful work. The idea is that unmonasterians will work with the community to solve (g)local problems and act as accelerators for a diverse range of projects. A new concept, the unMonastery movement is still getting its legs, but it’s gearing up to be a focused and sustained way to connect, create and collaborate." (http://www.shareable.net/blog/unmonasteries-collaborating-for-the-glocal-good)


unMonastery: Typically a large building with several facilities, including living and multipurpose working space, situated in a (small) city or town in Europe, self-managed by an international team of 10-20 changemakers.

unMonasterians: Individuals living in the unMonastery invited by the team based on their existing skill-set unMonasterians live and work in the unMonastery for a set period, in service of its goals.

Community: The environment surrounding the unMonastery, including the people that live there and local organizations (non-profit, for-profit and political).

unMonastery is a new kind of social space, akin to co-living and co-working spaces, that serves the local communities of towns or small cities by enabling a process of co-creation and co-learning between the community and unMonasterians. By embedding committed, skilled individuals in places with a deficit of diverse skills and knowledge it can solve social and infrastructural problems by enabling native inhabitants to realise their own potential.

The unMonastery recreates the best of the social functions of the traditional monastery: by giving the unMonasterians a collective purpose, a chance to develop deep relationships with one another and a reduced need to generate personal income so time can be dedicated entirely to serving the local community

The unMonastery has been designed to solve a number of pressing social issues that are becoming increasingly ubiquitous throughout Europe; large numbers of empty and disused housing stock, brain drain from provincial towns or cities and most hauntingly the dramatic reduction in services as a result of growing austerity cuts. Radical times call for radical solutions: unMonasterians practice lifestyle innovation to be able to support ourselves and our peers in helping communities unlock their transformative potential and surface hidden, underutilised or wasted resources. Regardless of whether the market recognises and acknowledges the value of our skills and positive contributions to helping our communities adapt.

The project is unique in that it draws from a large pre-established network of highly skilled and motivated individuals known as EdgeRyders. Edgeryders is an international community of more than 1300 members (of whom 150 are very active) that assembled itself in 2011 as a “distributed think tank” of citizen experts advising the Council of Europe on European youth policy." (http://unmonastery.eu/index.php/goals/about/)


"The historical role of the monastery in Europe involved a range of features, including:

1. A physical place - building or set of buildings;

2. set within or nearby a community;

3. members committed to a particular way of being within their home;

4. and to helping and serving the community that they were located in.

These are features that the unMonastery reproduces. It's the 'Monastery' in unMonastery.

Monasteries historically also involved features such as a strict hierarchy and submission to a fixed religious ideology. These are features that we're not interested in reproducing, which is the reason for the 'un' in unMonastery." (http://unmonastery.eu/index.php/goals/about/)


The UnMonastery in Matera, Italy


"The Italian city of Matera is staging the first prototype of unMonastery as part of its strategy to become European City of Culture in 2019. This will be the first iteration of the unMonastery. A possible venue has been singled out. It is a former call center, property of the city itself: renovated, used for a few years, then abandoned again, but still in good condition. It is fully wired; the bathrooms are quite new and in good condition. It is a huge space, resulting from connecting several ancient buildings more or less embedded in each other; it is around 3000 square meters." (http://unmonastery.eu/index.php/goals/matera/)

2. Nathan Schneider:

"Visible from what became the unMonastery’s patio, down one cliff and up another, are dark abscesses in the rock, their interiors still bearing remnants of paintings from past use as churches and hermitages. Where Matera’s monks and nuns had hours of structured prayer each day, the unMonastery had documentation—the basic act of piety in any open-source project. Before an algorithm can be copied, tweaked and adapted, it must be radically transparent. Monks expose themselves to God through prayer; unMonks publish their activities on the Internet.

The presiding unAbbot was Ben Vickers, 27 years old, with patches of gray on either side of his well-trimmed hair and a hooded black coat worn over his banded-collar black shirt. While also more or less retaining his post as “curator of digital” for London’s Serpentine Galleries, Vickers was the unMonastery’s chief theorist and coordinator; the others generally praised his ability to digest and summarize their various points of view, and to document them on the online platforms they use to communicate. He blasted George Michael while setting up breakfast and found a certain glee in the prospect of failure—a turn of mind probably honed during his days in doomed anarchist squats. But documentation can trump even failure; others can study the attempt, tweak it and try again.

Some of the documentation looked outward. Maria Juliana Byck, an Occupy Wall Street veteran and videographer, was working on a project to map common resources in town, to help Materani connect with each other and collaborate. There was an “unTransit” app in the works for local timetables and workshops on the gospel of open data. Also under way were an open-source solar tracker, an open-source wind turbine, and coding classes for adults and kids in the unMonastery caves.

As in real monasteries, though, much of the unMonastery’s piety went toward scrutinizing the minutiae of daily life. Elf Pavlik, a 31-year-old web developer with pony-tailed hair, had been living for five years without touching money or government IDs. With nearly pure reason, he implored the others to document more and more precisely what came and went, from food to tampons, so they’d learn to budget not by cost but in terms of the resources themselves. Using a software package called Open Energy Monitor, they kept track of the unMonastery’s electricity usage minute by minute, room by room.

Keeping track of the longer view was the job of Bembo Davies, a Canadian-turned-Norwegian widower and grandfather, a veteran of the circus and the stage who updated his WordPress chronicle in august prose. Accompanying material evidence—skeletal floor plans, a mannequin’s headless torso—came from an artist who once helped rewrite the official history in her native Hungary. They talked about the unMonastery, even in its first months, as at the beginning of a 200-year history. It didn’t seem like so much time to ask for in a place that has been around for thousands.

This rhetoric had the ring of dot-com bombast, but mixed with a slower, more resilient kind of vision. The unMonastery sat on more precipices than one—an emissary of the hubristic tech culture it represented, but also a patient attempt at redemption. While planning ahead for centuries, the unMonks practiced the one-step-at-a-time philosophy of Agile software development; if breakfast wasn’t on the table on time, or when they worried about whether they’d done any good for Matera whatsoever, they reminded each other, “Everything’s a prototype.” (http://www.thenation.com/article/181398/can-monasteries-be-model-reclaiming-tech-culture-good?page=full#)


Nathan Schneider:

"The unMonastery’s gestation began in 2011, the year of Occupy and the Indignados, a time of so many ambitious undertakings with ambivalent outcomes. The Council of Europe’s ominous-sounding Social Cohesion Research and Early Warning Division sought, in the words of its chief, “to have a better idea of the extent of insecurity in society.” The international body sponsored the invention of Edgeryders, “an open and distributed think tank” of people working through an online social network and a series of conferences. Anyone could join, but those who did ended up being mostly young, tech-savvy and entrepreneurial, and mostly from Western Europe. What united them was not a political ideology, but the dead-end conditions of austerity and the hope of figuring out better ways forward. They produced a report about the economic crisis—a “Guide to the Future.” Soon the council’s funding ended, but Edgeryders pressed on as an online network with more than 2,000 members and an incorporated entity. The group presents itself as a company in the business of “open consulting.”

At the end of its first conference in Strasbourg in June of 2012, a small circle of Edgeryders, with glasses of wine in their hands and under the shadow of a church, dreamed up the unMonastery. The idea was this: find a place with unmet needs and unused space to lend a building to a group of young hackers. Live together cheaply, building open-source infrastructure for the commons. Repeat until it becomes a network.

The unMonastery vision went viral in the Edgeryders community. It fit into a widely felt longing at the time, evident in many parts of Europe and North America where protest had broken out in 2011, to start figuring out practical alternatives to the failed order. Occupy activists were learning to set up worker co-ops, and their counterparts in Spain laid plans for Internet-driven political parties. This was the period, too, of Edward Snowden’s leaks, of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, of blockades against techie commuter buses in San Francisco. Google became one of the world’s leading lobbyists, and Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post. Tech could no longer claim to be a post-political insurgency; it had become the empire.

As tech achieves its Constantinian apotheosis, old religious tropes seem to offer a return to lost purity, a desert in which to flee, the stark opposite of Silicon Valley. A bonneted “Amish Futurist” began appearing at tech conferences, asking the luminaries about ultimate meaning, as if she came from a world without the Internet. Ariana Huffington cashed in with her mobile app, GPS for the Soul.

For a year and a half, the unMonastery idea developed and grew. Edgeryders brought their favorite conceptual vocabularies to bear: social innovation, network analysis, open source. They brought their experience with hacker spaces, maker spaces and co-working. The “monastery” in their meme also steered them into the generally foreign vocabulary of religion. Alberto Cottica, an Italian open-data advocate and leading Edgeryder, perused The Rule of St. Benedict, the sixth-century text that governs most of Western monasticism. He discovered Benedict to be a network-savvy, evidence-based social innovator.

“Each monastery is a sovereign institution, with no hierarchy among them,” Cottica explained. “The Rule acts as a communication protocol across monasteries.” He compared Benedict to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Linus Torvalds, creator of the open-source operating system Linux. “The rule was—still is—good, solid, open-source software.”

In Brussels, Cottica met Ilaria D’Auria, who was working on Matera’s bid to be declared a European Capital of Culture by the EU in 2019. The bid proposal centered around the theme of “ancient futures”—“in order,” it said, “to give voice to forgotten places, areas often pushed to the outskirts of modernity, yet which remain the bearers of deep values that remain essential.” The proposal talked about Old World ingenuity alongside open data, sharing and crowd-sourcing. The committee in charge of the bid came to recognize the unMonastery concept, with its supporters throughout the continent, as a useful addition to Matera’s portfolio. The city agreed to provide a building, as well as 35,000 euros for travel and expenses for four months, February through May 2014.

In late October of 2013, some 100 Edgeryders converged on Matera for the group’s third conference—this time focused on making the unMonastery a reality. They let themselves get lost in the city’s half-empty, half-touristy mazes. They talked with locals about their needs and winnowed them down to twelve “challenges,” ranging from alternative energy to a lack of intergenerational spaces. Yet the welcome they found in town was uneasy. Materani may have been cooperating and improvising to survive for millennia, but they weren’t used to calling it “social innovation” or “hacking.” It didn’t help that only a few Edgeryders could speak Italian." (http://www.thenation.com/article/181398/can-monasteries-be-model-reclaiming-tech-culture-good?page=full#)


(Un)monastery has nothing in particular to do with religion. However like a monastery it aims to bring together a community of like minded individuals. In this case passionate change makers, artists, activists and innovators. To live and work together on creative world changing projects for 6 months to a year in Matera Southern Italy. The project is proposed to take place in 2019 as part of the City's bid for the European City of Culture.

  • Mine becomes ours: A few of us. living together (somewhere) and changing things?: The (un)Monastery


  • Mine becomes ours: What would you bring to the Unmonastery?


Travel Account by Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider:

"The idea behind the unMonastery was this: Find a place with unmet needs and unused space to lend a building to a group of young hackers. Live together cheaply, build open-source infrastructure for the commons. Repeat until it becomes a network. Monasteries ushered civilization through the Dark Ages; perhaps unMonasteries, sparing the dogma and self-flagellation, could lead a way through the Great Recession. The governing class of Matera, a spectacular and ancient town with little to offer its youth, took the bait and provided a section of caves in the Sassi. The unMonastery promised, and would only sort of deliver, hacks like online transit tools, irrigation solutions, and tech training for kids.

The dozen or so unMonks in Matera when I arrived talked about the unMonastery, still in its first months, as at the beginning of a 200-year history. It didn’t seem like so much to ask in a city that had been around for thousands. While planning ahead for centuries, though, the unMonks practiced the one-step-at-a-time philosophy of Agile software development; if there wasn’t enough food in the refrigerator for dinner, or nobody came to a coding class they offered, they reminded each other, “Everything’s a prototype.” Another entry for their Book of Mistakes.

Documentation is the basic act of piety in any open-source project. Before an algorithm can be copied, tweaked, and adapted, it must be radically transparent. Monks expose themselves to God through prayer; the unMonks tracked their lives on the Internet. They posted records of what they took in and consumed, the money they spent and the arguments they had. A little Raspberry Pi computer ran a program called Open Energy Monitor that analyzed their power usage, day-by-day and room-by-room. Documentation can trump eve failure, because others can later fork the code, adjust it, and try again.

The unMonks themselves had come from an array of trajectories, many passing through the winds of 2011. Ben Vickers, the 27-year-old unAbbot who wore nothing but black, had been part of London’s squat scene. Maria Byck was a filmmaker I’d known in Occupy Wall Street. Elf Pavlik had been living for five years without touching money or government IDs. Bembo Davies, a Canadian-turned-Norwegian widower and grandfather, was the house chronicler. He wasn’t much with computers, but he took it upon himself to hack my meta-narrative with cryptic utterances.

For instance, Davies informed me that the 200-year history of the unMonastery was always expected to include a Great Schism. The only question was whether it had happened yet. It only took me a few days in town for me to realise that it most definitely had, and that the hackers were themselves being hacked.

Ksenia Serova was there the night the unMonastery concept was born—at the end of a 2012 conference in Strasbourg, under the shadow of a church. She spoke with a deep, dead-serious voice, in bursts of precise English with a Russian accent. Growing up in Soviet Moscow, she said she was taught to take apart an AK-47 in school at age nine. She worked a while for her parents—“capitalist pigs,” she called them—lived in squats, and spent a lot of her grown-up life in France and Sweden. She smoked a large metallic electronic cigarette that glowed neon blue, and she talked the talk of network analysis. At the unMonastery’s pre-launch event in late 2013, Serova met David Bovill, and they decided from the outset that they’d be the heretics. Any monastery needs some.

Bovill was older and greyer, a programmer from London who fondly recollected his past failures in medical research, start-ups, various kinds of intentional communities. “For most of my life I’ve been trying to figure out how groups of people can work together on projects without money,” he said. To this end he had been tinkering with experiments in cryptocurrencies, liquid law, and liquid democracy. He referred to any kind of problem, whether digital or social, as a “bug.”

His latest project was a peer-to-peer education platform called Viral Academy. For a while he was fixated on writing an app built around hexagons because, he said, the number six has special powers for making ideas spread. Just as monasteries have often been home to schools, a network facilitating free education seemed like a good project for an unMonastery.

Serova arrived in Matera first, without formally applying or being accepted, and Bovill, who had been accepted, followed. There was no clear consensus on whether there existed a rule against couples in the unMonastery’s shared bedrooms—or any rules at all—but Ben Vickers was against it. Bovill refers to this as the Sex Scandal. “I would love to be in a project where everyone was having sex with each other, but people can’t handle it,” Vickers contended. “When you’re doing a prototype it’s okay to say you’re not going to deal with certain problems for the moment.” Yet Bovill and Serova persisted in living as a couple.

Others at the unMonastery told me they tried working on projects with the pair, but they didn’t seem to follow through on things. Or do dishes. From Serova’s perspective, she’d been cornered—“bullied by bitches.” The breaking point came when Bovill’s teenage son arrived in Matera, raising the prospect that he would sneak yet another person into the house. There was a meeting, and Vickers went ballistic. They had to go. They couchsurfed, then moved to a bed-and-breakfast in town. David’s profile on the Viral Academy when I was there described him as “Monk in Exile.”

Monastic orders have always grappled with the give-and-take between solitude and community, isolation and immersion. With their exile, Serova and Bovill became less like Benedictine monks than like Franciscan mendicants, adrift in the urban environment. They made new friends in town—going to parties, taking Bovill’s son to kung fu classes. They schemed with his teacher about building an app. It seemed to them that the unMonastery should have been structured the mendicant way all along. They complained about the “open fascists” at the unMonastery, obsessed with transparency at the expense of privacy, and about consensus-type democracy. Serova had learned while living in squats that, when everyone has to agree, “you just end up with something boring as shit.”

They were both headstrong and voluble, and interruption seemed to be their primary mode of communication. But as heretics generally are, deep down they were true believers.

“The unMonastery project is completely fucking dear to me,” Bovill said. Serova planned to help start a new unMonastery in Sweden.

On a windy day in mid-May, gusts blew through the unMonastery’s first-floor caves, blowing from the walls various coloured sticky notes and hand-drawn posters that looked like they’d been made in heady meetings of excitement, promise and hope. They were schedules, sets of principles, slogans to remember, lists of things to do. A maxim for the doctrine of do-ocracy, for instance: “Who does the work calls the shots.” These relics remained on the floor for a day or more, apparently provoking insufficient motivation to pick them up.

In the early weeks, there had been a kind of monastic routine at the unMonastery. At specified times the group would sit in circles to share feelings and discuss concerns. A flying drone had once captured footage of the theatrical morning exercises that Bembo Davies orchestrated. But by May, the circles and the exercises were on indefinite hiatus. After the 7 o’clock wake-up bell rang half an hour late one morning, Davies groaned on the way to the shower in his underwear, “We’re sliding into a prehistoric condition.”

By this point the unMonastery’s communications had become a jungle of platforms, many of them proprietary, with few clear lines between inward and outward: the public Edgeryders website, public Trello boards, a closed Google Group and open folders full of Google Docs. On the Edgeryders website in particular, Bovill trolled the contradictions in the private-public process by which the next round of unMonks was being chosen—first demanding less democracy, then more. He targeted Maria Byck in particular, since she was the one who had taken it upon herself to ensure that there was a formal process in the first place. Offline, Serova laid into Byck one night, cruel and expressionless, over a crowded dinner table.

The self-contradictions were at least familiar. All over again, it was the stuff I’d seen in the camps of 2011—the impossibility of good order, the anxiety around the very possibility of rules, the gruesome hari-kari that results. The kindly and clever hackers hack each other into withered bits because hacking is what they know how to do. Still the unMonks would catch themselves being seduced by the beauty and antiquity and residents of Matera, which came as a troubling reminder of realities might someday hold them accountable.

On one of my last nights in town, Serova and Bovill and their crew came over with the kung fu teacher and a plastic jug full of wine. Later on came one of Matera’s better known citizens, a reggae-singer-turned-rapper who performs as Bobo Sind. He recorded a song for the kung fu studio’s new crowd-funding video. “From the belly of the heart—” he cried at the start of the track, the only English part of it, with a rapid-fire voice at once precise, desperate, and hoarse. The belly was Matera, whose name comes from the Latin for mother.

“Before man, there was the Sassi,” Bobo Sind told me afterward. “Here, with the Internet, we are still in the caves. In the Sassi, we are a living museum.” (http://www.therowboat.com/books/why-we-hack/)

More Information

  1. https://twitter.com/unmonastery
  1. Alberto Cottica is one of the project organisers.