The horror of finding a writer where you could contemplate a horse.
What matters is not to produce, but to understand.
And understanding means your ability to perceive
the sum of unreality that enters into each phenomenon.
In February 2022, I was looking for a place to revise my latest novel. It was already written, it was just a matter of reading it over again one more time before it would be set in stone forever. In my search, I consulted several sources for a place where I could carry out that task. A place where I would not only find a conducive environment to work, but where I could also become involved in some way with a community. If possible, a group of people who shared a set of ideals that were compatible with my way of thinking. It wasn’t so complicated, a community that was sensitive to artistic processes and critical of social conformism.
On the last day of February, I arrived as a resident in Bravos, a small municipality in northern Galicia, where A Ferrería is located. As its name well indicates, it is an old blacksmith shop founded in the 15th century whose historical development makes it interesting in five fundamental points: it was a strategic blacksmith shop for the Spanish monarchy of that time, it was involved in several timber conflicts with neighboring populations, the troops of Napoleon razed it after their passage, the De Cora family was loyal to the power while they ran the place, and since 2018 a new current of critical thinking seems to have settled in the place, erasing a dramatic chronology, one more in rural Galicia.
It is important to keep in mind throughout this text that, after a while, things are not usually as they happened, but as they are remembered. I remember very well that my first step was to consult several friends about a place with the characteristics of A Ferrería. The next thing was to write requesting more information. After making the decision to go, I told myself that since A Ferrería is an artistic residency, perhaps it would benefit from a donation of books. I sent four boxes of books that arrived a few days before me. There they were, at the entrance, they still retained that smell of farewell in Barcelona. My arrival took place at night, I had enough time to meet some people who were part of the project. I chose a room. I changed a metal chair for a more comfortable one and went to sleep.
My first decision was to dedicate more time to my personal work than to the community. And so it was that I placed my work table by the window and dedicated myself to rereading old compositions. Cutting here, adding more text there, refining this dialogue better, giving intensity to this encounter…And as in any writing process, reading also demanded my time. On occasion, I would go down to read by the mill, behind the chapel, in the agroforestry area with its beautiful views, next to a hórreo, on the esplanade to the left (one day I imagined this place with a jetty with a beach next to the river). A Ferrería has several points of escape that are essential if what you are looking for is total isolation. You just have to walk a couple of minutes and the tranquility embraces you.
A week after my arrival, I attended the first assembly of A Ferrería. I longed to be able to participate in an assembly, on this occasion I brought a series of points to share on topics that could be developed in a community space. I was excited to see how a community was articulated around the moment of vertebrating itself, or of rendering accounts, or simply of showing affection. I learned that an hour earlier a volunteer assembly had taken place, that is, people who had decided to contribute to the A Ferrería project in exchange for a place to sleep. I was curious to understand this type of barter and I left it on my wish list to be able to participate later in one of those moments. Gathered around the kitchen counter, my first assembly began. There were two things that surprised me that first time: that it was called social, social assembly is a pleonasm of the street, and that they invited me to start the assembly, oh wait, I just arrived. Not knowing very well where to start, I thanked everyone for making me feel so good in that my first week in the house, then I drew my dagger and began to share a series of thematic axes by which the actions of A Ferrería could begin to be articulated: environment, art, decolonization, technology, micro politics and feminism. When I raised my head from my list, I realized that I had done it again. The looks were lost looking for how to land the concepts I described in my list. It was not time to start with everything. Before, it was necessary to finish a series of infrastructures in the house itself that would allow us to continue building a dream space. And between the construction and the maintenance of the spaces, the time of the volunteers was going. Maybe later, I thought. And so it was that these thematic axes were going to be timidly mentioned for the rest of my stay, some of them such as the environment or feminism were already scheduled in actions such as planting an edible forest or monthly meetings on feminisms. My persuasion to take it to the max did not take into account the tender reality: A Ferrería required a series of everyday actions just to keep the place afloat. The rest of the assembly consisted of each member of the house telling how they felt, how to resolve certain expenses, or proposing certain activities in common with the aim of ensuring that work was not the only meeting point. To tell the truth, A Ferrería had a larger volume of work and maintenance than the availability of volunteers. In the face of this, I decided to lend a hand to the volunteer work in the way that I could combine volunteering with residency. That is, a few hours for A Ferrería, a few hours for my personal project. And I started doing it from the day after the assembly.
My hands, accustomed to floating over the keys of a computer, drew the attention of the locals for their softness. It was only a matter of weeks before they stopped being surprised. Cutting wood, lifting stones, transporting planks, whitewashing walls… Every night I felt the relief of going to bed, there were no more intellectual storms in my head about how to continue a scene or where to tighten my novel. Physical work took care of balancing intellectual work, and in the midst of it all, it allowed me to get to know my roommates in depth. As García Márquez once said, each person has a public life, a private life, and a secret life. And in those encounters with volunteer work, our conversations wandered between these three lives.
It is worth noting that in a society so fragmented, where everyone is becoming more and more of a specialist in something, it is appreciated to land on the intellectual shores of each person, without any competitive spirit, with the sole purpose of returning to places that we no longer remember leaving one day. These are details that are appreciated in community life. And in A Ferrería, as the weeks went by, the conversations had a marked personal character. Then there were the endless Scrabble-like debates: We’re thinking about getting a rooster to accompany the chickens, the chickens should go out of the henhouse from time to time, from time to time I have strange dreams, strange dreams could be associated with the history of the place, the history of the place would not be understood without the blacksmith shop, the blacksmith shop was abandoned in the 1970s, the 1970s in Galicia represented a boom in emigration… and so on until everyone was satisfied… or so it seemed.
One of the values to keep in mind when you come to A Ferrería is the surrounding community. Just as I came one day to do a residency, before, there have been other people who came to make a life. Most of these people are couples who seek to detach themselves from the monotonous circles that the city offers them. Around A Ferrería, alternative projects of education, environmentalism, bioconstruction and art are being cooked up. Although the most common activity is construction, for obvious reasons, it also happens that most of these projects are in their embryonic phase. A large part of the people who make them up work to emancipate themselves economically from their places of origin. It is still early for that, but it is the right time to take a walk, meet them and be part of a rural community that is getting closer to being self-sufficient every day. The vast majority of this surrounding community continues to frequent A Ferrería, for them, it is a kind of catalyst for possibilities.
In my experience with these surrounding communities, I can add that something differentiating has happened to me between residing in A Ferrería and living with the people who make up this community, and those are the affections.
Why do I mention affections? The most perceptive people will know what I mean. It is not the same to know that you come and go from a place doing your volunteer work in exchange for a room, to design your life counting on the realization of your ideas, until you see them finished, putting your heart and soul into carrying them out. In this sense, for me it was not enough to dedicate my time and effort to reviewing my novel, I needed to feel that all that natural wonder that surrounded us, and that made us feel privileged, could somehow facilitate introspection in other types of relationships, probably open another type of communication more honest, without filters or pretensions. This movement is in contrast to many other people who once passed through A Ferrería and considered that if they only came for a while, perhaps the important thing was what they would return to their place of origin. On the contrary, I came to the conclusion that if I stayed beyond my personal project, the important thing would be what I gave to others. In other words, it is not the place, nor your personal project that makes an experience special, it is the people, our daily life, our love for what we do, for how we feel, the way we make ourselves loved … And in all this field of possibilities there is no distinction if you are basically that person who can combine love and effort in abundance, being honest, I don’t think it’s a majority, or that other person, like me, who needs a small stone throw, or to fall out of bed one night, to realize it.
I felt that small stone throw one day while I was reviewing the Instagram posts of A Ferrería. In the second post on the account, I read the word heterotopia, a concept coined by Foucault in one of his lectures that could be simplified as «a place where everything happens but nothing remains.» Voilà. This small connection between Foucault’s words and certain unfinished projects at A Ferrería led me to think that perhaps there was a small short circuit between volunteer work and unfinished works.
Perhaps it wasn’t just at A Ferrería where this short circuit could be glimpsed. In other emerging communities where volunteer work takes place, there is a thin line between what a person offers to the place and what that place gives to that person. In general, the exchange is simply a place to sleep, but other alternatives to the recognition of altruistic work could also be studied, less material, closer to the knowledge of each person. Why not a new organization of volunteer work where people work by project fit? Works that contribute to the growth not only of the place but also of the volunteer, at both curricular and emotional levels.
Sometimes I get the impression that all those people who every day contribute from the shadows with their time and effort to crystallize community projects, continue to be the great forgotten of each generation, and in this sense we have to thank art for bringing them to light. Thanks to Buñuel, Remedios Zafra, Jim Jarmush, Andrea Abreu, J.K. Toole, Yolanda Domínguez… to name a few examples.
On a fine Saturday in March, the first feminist meeting I would have the opportunity to attend was scheduled. A few hours earlier, the A Ferrería hall was filled for a yoga class. In that session, women, men, children, and some other animals wagging their tails participated. Suddenly, the surrounding communities had taken a liking to A Ferrería. After class came a succulent meal, and for dessert, the feminist meeting.
This type of meetings, where each person arrives from their own wounds, or from new learnings, are usually very interesting to get a sketch of who and how. In my opinion, the meeting started with what could be the final question, let’s see, what is feminism as a starting question would open up a myriad of opinions that would be difficult to align in common proposals. And so it was. The men once again occupied two thirds of the conversation and it was impossible to move forward.
My final proposal was to organize a meeting of masculinities among men. To study and debate some basic concepts of our privileges. To know the origin of our male behavior and, if we could, put into practice new masculinities. That proposal translated into a kind of effervescent well-being among women, who pushed their partners to participate, while the men asked me over and over again what topics we were going to talk about. As the date of the meeting of masculinities approached, the uncertainty became more evident, then the men started to experience an effervescent well-being while the women asked me what topics we were going to talk about.
Beyond the content of the meeting on masculinities, what was really emphasized was the community’s acceptance of suggesting and embarking on new learnings. The most valuable thing, I would say. To go to a rural area of Galicia and have free rein to share concerns, and for them to be accepted by the community, speaks very clearly to the transformative potential that these types of places offer. It is true that in other places, these initiatives would have to go through a regulatory council, the wonderful thing about A Ferrería is that it is still a beautiful territory to cultivate.
We left the meeting on masculinities with a clearer idea of the origin of our male behavior, we talked about the influence of our fathers on our way of being, of certain micro-machisms and the macho concept of always being right, we didn’t have time for more. Each one did it from their own trenches, with sincerity. We put our hearts into our words, the rest was a matter of putting it into practice each one in their day-to-day life. It was still premature to predict changes. The first step had been taken.
Easter bloomed in Bravos as a prelude to spring. The legendary camellias in front of my window had stopped blooming. The chickens were basking in the sun. And the feast of San Isidro was approaching. The chapel next to the river would attract neighbors on May 15. Weeks before, A Ferrería was organizing to celebrate a community party. On the one hand, the first mass organization rehearsal, on the other hand, the biggest event on micro-politics that I would experience in Galicia.
In the meantime, the course of my novel continued on the deadlines I had set for myself. Being aware of the flow of arrivals to the house allowed me to plan the volunteer work with the editing of my novel. I am one of those who require total isolation when I write, therefore, I was looking for a way for each activity to have its own time.
One of the other remarkable aspects of the arrival flows was that each group molded the place to its expectations. In other words, A Ferrería is a chameleonic space. The only things that are fixed are the meeting times, and even those sometimes change. The assignments for cleaning and maintenance change, the methods change, the activities change, and I’ve even seen responsibilities change. The organization of the San Isidro festival was a good test for detecting these changes. For example, the person in charge of building a forge was also in charge of entertaining children with non-competitive games, the person in charge of whitewashing walls was the coordinator of the music groups, a degrowther and a social worker kept the accounts, the president of a cultural association was at the grill, the person in charge of the vegetable garden was at the bar serving drinks, and so on.
In the face of such multitasking, I felt obligated to take the microphone and speak to the public. I presented the place and the effort of the people who had been involved in the organization, as well as setting the foundations of an inclusive and respectful place. I think I did that well, but my idea of making a roulette wheel could have been better. It was made, yes, but the profits only covered the costs of its manufacture. I don’t think it was a bad idea, it’s just that people aren’t used to it, or at least that’s how I console myself.
The festival program turned out to be quite attractive. With the chapel open and illuminated, we started with a few hours of gaiteiros music, followed by circus performances, basically a raffle, the roulette wheel, and some juggling, to give way to contemporary music groups. The closing of the festival was spectacular with an improvised concert inside the chapel. Those who wanted to had a great time, I was one of them. The vast majority of the audience were people we knew, although I was surprised to talk to neighbors that I would have never met otherwise. Good work of micro politics.
After the storm comes the puddles. Nobody expected the San Isidro festival to be so successful, nor did anyone expect less people to come than expected. Drinks and food were bought as if Napoleon’s troops had planned to come to apologize for what they did to A Ferrería in the 19th century.
In any case, the reading after the San Isidro festival shed light on the fact that the people from the surrounding area who came enjoyed it. Whoever wanted to go to the chapel went, whoever wanted to dance did, whoever wanted to listen to gaiteiros, also. At that point, it could be said that the promotion for the following year was already done.
However, in the evaluation meetings, points more related to how we would like things to be organized were questioned, rather than who really deserved credit for something that we had never done together. I don’t know if it was the time to personalize responsibilities, but I suspect that, starting with my public presentation of what A Ferrería was, someone must have thought that I had to repeat the talk a few times.
And so it was that from then on, I not only had my novel ready to be revised, but also, every morning, I fed the chickens, cats, and dogs. I reviewed the entries and exits of people in a shared Excel sheet. I kept the box of expenses and income. I carried the watering cans with rainwater to the vegetable garden. And when I discovered how to use the brush cutter… I killed two snakes.
And all this without counting the days of rain without a roof, when I had to dry and insulate the wooden floors while waiting for the workers to put on the new slate or at least insulate the roof.
If Kafka represented his metamorphosis through a cockroach that could not put its legs on the ground, my metamorphosis could be summarized as that same cockroach without being able to put its back on the ground. It was as if I had turned the hourglass over. Everything that I never thought I would do, I was already doing. And besides, I had finished revising my novel.
In A Ferrería, the weeks went by and far from feeling pressure from my new duties, I sensed that I was in the right place and at the right time to be happy with each new task that I committed to carrying out. I slipped all responsibility for the accounts, administration does not mean exercising the power of decision-making. I described the place through my own appreciations, a new sign of freedom. I received the love of the animals, plants, and people with whom I cohabited at that time, taking a step forward with the heart is rarely contradictory. In short, I arrived as just another resident, with the firm purpose of finishing my novel, and I ended up embracing the phrase by Cioran that gives title to this text: The horror of contemplating a writer where once you could see a horse.
It could be said without fear of being wrong that for a short period of time I was administering A Ferrería. This new situation did not give me the authority to make any decisions about others, on the contrary, it allowed me to believe that in the respect for the rights of others lies peace, as Kant said at one time.
For a long time, I had been jotting down in my notebook of fluctuating ideas how I would imagine A Ferrería. What works would barely need to be touched, I would retouch the volunteering with the nuances I mentioned before, while the residencies would no longer be in the central building. My A Ferrería, from an architectural point of view, would have a series of cabins around the central building. In these cabins, artists whose disciplines allowed it could sleep and work. In short, the central building would house the workshops and the composition and exhibition spaces for those other disciplines that require it. In addition to the kitchen, the fireplace, and the dining room. In the new workshop, as it is projected, there would be a library and a silent room on the upper floor, while on the lower floor a small auditorium to see audiovisual projects as well as small theatrical performances. The vegetable garden would also be surrounded by its own cabins, new greenhouses, and a germination laboratory. While the second workshop could be dedicated to bioconstruction, also surrounded by cabins, with shelves where all those tools that seem to have a life of their own can be identified at first glance.
Once the mold is made, we go with the dough. Fortunately, in recent years we have been witnessing the flowering of community projects that wander between the environment, bioconstruction, and art. Fundamental ingredients to understand where we are going. In this sense, there are several examples of abandoned villages or surrounding communities that, beyond congratulating themselves for being neighbors, seek to integrate magnificent values into coexistence. And it is precisely at this point where A Ferrería has the wonderful opportunity to not only be a catalyst space but also a space for artistic, environmental, and community thought and development. To achieve this, it is possible that we will have to have great doses of patience at the beginning, but impossible, what is said impossible is flying with your hands. Try it and you will see. Every organization relies on a plan to support it. In this planning, I would develop a roadmap with 3 projects to be carried out throughout the first year, one artistic, one environmental, and one on bioconstruction. The second year would include one more project, probably on the axis that worked best the first year. While in the third or fourth year I would propose to have about 6 projects running at A Ferrería. One project every 2 months. How would it be possible to build this elephant with multiple heads? Perhaps by changing the concept of coming to A Ferrería because it is an idyllic place to leaving A Ferrería after participating in an inspiring project.
I am writing these musings after having spoken them. I am not throwing a stone into the ocean. I am only thinking about how a group of people as wonderful as those I have met these months in A Ferrería can feel happy to belong to the surrounding community. They give all the meaning to this place. And for them, and for those who are yet to come, it is worth planning and putting into action possible futures. As Faulkner said: “You can’t swim towards new horizons until you have the courage to lose sight of the coast”.
I would like to express my gratitude to all the people who have made my experience at A Ferrería possible. With special mention to Dennis for creating a space so full of possibilities.