Interview with Cordula Andrä, ZEGG Centre for Experimental Cultural and Social Design
ZEGG stands for Zentrum für Experimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung – Centre for Experimental Culture and Social Design. It is an intentional community living in the small town of Bad Belzig, an hour away from Berlin. ZEGG has existed for more than twenty years since its foundation in 1991 and reinvented itself more than once over the years.ZEGG’s press coordinator Cordula Andrä kindly met us on a sunny fall afternoon in their garden, which feeds the community and their guests to fifty percent with organic vegetarian food, the rest is bought from organic farms and producers. Two white chairs are blinking in the sun under one of the trees, inviting us to sit down and start our conversation about ZEGG, its intentions, goals and activities.
Cordula, do you like living here?
Oh yes, I do! I don’t know how much you know about ZEGG, but you might have heard some of the rumours…
You mean, such as everyone running around naked making love with everyone?
Yeah, and ZEGG being a sex sect with a guru, I heard these rumours before I came here… But when I came here for the first time, I realised it’s not like that at all. There is no guru, the community is organised democratically and in flat hierarchies. We do experiment in the field of love, relating and sexuality, but that is not the only focus of the community. It might have been different in its early years when the founder Dieter Duhm was still around. He was perceived as some kind of leader, even though he left to Portugal to found Tamera1 in the beginning of the 1990s. But ever since his departure, ZEGG focused on finding ways of organising without the need for a strong leader.
Why did he leave?
I don’t really know. I think that one big issue was the bad reputation of the community. They received a lot of negative attention from the press. This prevented them from having a positive effect on the outside world, which was one of their main ideas. I guess it needed him to leave to be able to start all over again. In Tamera, they learnt from their mistakes and used an entirely different Public Relations (PR) strategy for many years — the topic of free love was not brought forward at all.
(We start walking towards the ZEGG area to visit some of the buildings and get a coffee and cake from the village pub (‘Dorfkneipe’), while continuing our conversation)
How does ZEGG present itself to the outside world?
We present ZEGG in a self-confident and solid way. In the beginning, there used to be ideology and dogmatism, but ZEGG has changed and became a tolerant place that is open towards different ways of living. It is not focused on one topic only. Ecology is one big theme, but also other important things in life are considered, such as how to live and work cooperatively, finding out everybody’s individual needs and dreams together. And the love and relationship issue is also important. I find that very comforting.
We try to show only what there really is, no more and no less. It seems to work.
If you could put it in one sentence: what is ZEGG today, what is its vision?
I’d describe it as an experiment put into practice. We also have it in our name, ZEGG Centre for Experimental Culture and Social Design. We constantly try to find new ways of socialising, living ecologically and making a livelihood out of it. What makes it special is that we try to bring all of these social areas together instead of separating them.
What is special are the connections between, for example, our seminar centre and community life, where our seminars and courses are interwoven with our lives. Here, you can see our restaurant and guest house where we have around 14000 people staying overnight each year, so it’s going quite well. In summer, we put up tents and we can host around 300 people per night, in winter we can host around 100 to 120 people per night.
Where do your guests come from?
From all over Germany, also from Austria and Switzerland and other parts of the world. During summer, people can come here to work and support us, so we have many young people from all over the world. ZEGG is quite popular and famous in the ‘community scene’.
What do you think has made it last for so long?
That’s a good question! Somebody else just recently asked me the same thing. I think there are many layers to it. One important thing is the balance between our business and the community. They are very interrelated. The community owns the business. Many community members work in the seminar centre, such as the kitchen, the guest house, giving seminars, organising festivals and so on. The community on the other side is our social form, dealing with the more personal questions. So there are conflicts between the two naturally. But the business never took over the community and vice versa, the community never ran down the business. It is vital to keep both things alive, to be able to have a stable financial basis for our social experiments.
Another thing is that we don’t always have the same people living here, people come and go, but usually they do not stay for the rest of their lives. Together with the lively exchanges we have with our guests, we never end up seeing only the same faces every day.
So people don’t come here to stay?
No, usually not for a lifetime. We are around eighty adults now, and there are maybe ten or fifteen of them who have been around for very long or from the very beginning.
We were talking about why ZEGG still exists…
Right. Well, running our business has actually also led to a lot of disagreements and discussions. Many think it is taking over too much and would like to separate it more from our community life. It can be quite stressful at times with seminar participants running around your backyard every weekend, even if you don’t have to deal with them personally, they move around the same spaces as you, arrive, leave, and ask, and so on. Public and private spaces are strongly crossing over into each other, which can be strenuous at times. So we are planning new housing in the community area, so that there is more privacy for community members.
You said you were organised in flat hierarchies before – what exactly does that mean, how do you organise yourselves now?
Basically, we have two structures: one is dealing with our business, for which we have been using a holacratic model2 for around three years. It is a sociocratic3 form of governance that emerged from the integral scene in the United States.4 It is a new form of management, but also a philosophy.
If there is a tension between or within co-workers, it is considered an impulse for action and becomes central topic for a meeting. Tensions are seen as something positive. We try to separate the factual from the emotional. The system is flexible and agile to allow immediate solutions without being too worried about possible failures. A sort of trial and error system to tackle problems. Nothing is irreversible. Therefore, risks can be taken much more easily.
Our business is organised in teams that are each responsible for an area of activity, such as the garden team. In the management team representatives from each circle come together to decide about larger issues.
The other structure is the communal one, where the whole community comes together once a week to decide about social issues such as housing, how we socialise, who moves into the community and other such questions. This works as a plenary.
And how do people live?
Most live in shared flats, just a few live by themselves and those are mainly the older ones.
Do most people also work here or elsewhere?
I’d say around fifty-fifty. Half of the people work here and most of the people who live here have a mixed model, making a living with seminars whilst doing something else on the side, such as permaculture or gardening. Some people even work in Berlin or as web-based freelancers. In fact, it’s not so easy to earn money around here. It’s a topic of discussion, not only around here, but also in the surrounding region. Wages are low and jobs are short.
I wondered whether there are alternative currencies and economic models around here…
Yes and no. In the beginning we had a model that said: everybody contributes what they can and in return they can eat and sleep here. That model didn’t work out. After some years ZEGG was almost bankrupt and debts were piling up, so they started to develop a model based on hours. You get paid according to the hours you work. Everyone earns the same hourly wage, no matter whether it is for working as a managing director or as a cleaner.
Regarding self-sufficiency, we have our own energy supply, the garden produces fifty percent of our fruit and vegetable consumption. So to some degree, we are self-sufficient. It was never our goal to be completely self-sufficient though, definitely not!
How does the ZEGG community perceive the outside world – as us and the outside, or us with the outside?
In the past years, we’ve been doing a lot of networking in the region on both economic and social levels. For example, we buy our eggs locally, employ local craftsmen and so on. ZEGG has opened up a lot in the past years and has therefore become more integrated in the surrounding region. A lot more than in the beginning when it was perceived like some sort of alien element. Shortly after its opening the first negative articles started to appear, so one can imagine what people’s common opinion looked like.
The other day, a Social Democratic Party (SPD)5 politician who had always been always against us paid us a visit. We had invited him because we wanted to show him our positive attitude. He used to work on the premises at the time of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), so he could tell us some stories about the history of our grounds. We actually do a lot to achieve better relationships with local stakeholders.
Did you ever try to collaborate on projects with policy-makers and politicians? It could be quite interesting for them to get inspired by your small-scale experiments…
Yes, we did indeed! For example, the city was interested in our energy concept. We installed a very modern eco-efficient heating system and they asked us for our plans.
The other day, we had a very interesting visit by a lady from the region who said she had always wanted to visit our community for years since her children go to the same school as some of ours. She said that ZEGG people are always so friendly and positive, so our special social and communicative skills don’t go unnoticed by our neighbours and people around.
How do you deal with all the interest from visitors and the press?
Well, it’s nice that people are interested. The only thing I find annoying is that many press reports end with the final message: “Kind of nice what they do, but I could never imagine anything like that for myself, and it would never work for the whole of society.” Mostly, people pigeonhole community members as some wild-haired hippies who don’t know what they are doing.
For us, of course it’s still the sort of feedback which makes us question what we are doing for the rest of the world. Why do we have to do our own little thing outside of society, why not within? It’s a constant field of tension. For many years I worked for the green party’s parliamentary group, and at some point I really started questioning where societal changes actually happen. My own experiences in mainstream society led me to the conclusion that it’s the small citizen initiatives and NOT the policy-makers who make new things happen I wanted to be part of such a group to experience, feel and become part of something tangible, even if it’s a little weird or crazy, without having to be concerned about eligibility for the next election.
I really love ZEGG’s name – Zentrum für Experimentelle Gesellschaftsgestaltung – because it includes the term ‘experiment’. You don’t pretend to know it all. It’s an ongoing experiment and it’s OK to fail and try again. It leads me to another term included in your name: design. (With our work), we try to expand the common understanding of what design can be. Design as a transformative process that includes all as agents, similar to Beuys’ notion of the social sculpture6 which sees society as a piece of art that can be sculpted together in ‘designerly’ ways. Do you think there is any way to scale up existing structures and ways of organizing that came out of the many years of experimenting and designing?
Well, I don’t think ZEGG can be transferred directly to larger society. There is this new buzzword that seems to come up in each interview, social innovation. But actually it’s a justified and very good question. There’s a lot of social innovation within ZEGG. I started wondering how our cultural techniques can be applied elsewhere. We are now just beginning to question our practices and learnings to find out how that could work.
I’d be curious to learn more, there is so much potential in small communities. One important part for ZEGG’s resilience over the years has been our culture of self-reflection and conflict resolution. Every conflict is considered to have many layers; as I said before, personal and factual layers need to be separated to resolve a conflict constructively. In resolving a conflict together, everybody’s opinion needs to be accepted as part of the collective intelligence. There are no personal fights between two individuals, everybody is part of the whole system. Resolutions come into being through the collective exchange of ideas and statements.
Non-violent communication is one of our basic philosophies for the way we communicate. What we use a lot is ZEGG-Forum,7 a method of group communication that was created here in ZEGG. It is very popular with other communities already. Most communities and people-driven initiatives fail due to people-driven conflicts that are impossible to resolve.
There are a lot of interesting approaches such as co-design and design thinking methods to tackle problems creatively together with many people. It’s interesting how these different methods can support such co-creative processes which are democratic in their best case scenarios. How can each voice be heard?
Of course, not everybody can always be happy with every solution. But it helps to let go of certain things when you realise there are people enthusiastic for something, Why not just let them do it and put trust into them? I am happy to let go of certain things. Together it’s less work and leads to better outcomes because people are passionate and feel like they are doing something meaningful for the general good. To be part of a larger thing bearing the same philosophy creates the social glue so necessary for a well-functioning community.
Are you planning to live in ZEGG for a long time?
Definitely, I still want to stay here for some more years. The way people treat each other, the way people communicate genuinely and the way people deal with their emotions is very distinct and comforting. The roles people have to switch between back-and-forth constantly in larger society is replaced by a general very open-minded authenticity that adds a lot to one’s quality of life.
Transparency seems to make people take over more responsibility for their actions; in larger society, it could be applied to the effects and functions of social media and the internet with all its positive and negative effects. How does transparency work in ZEGG?
Yes, transparency does link to responsibility for actions. Also, people often hide aspects of themselves that are very beautiful. I think a lot of emotional and personal depth is lost if we don’t deal with our inner selves and feelings. This is one of the main qualities of living here, besides the organisational structures here and other things. And part of the social innovation in ZEGG.
How do you communicate internally?
Mostly, we just talk to each other directly. Otherwise, we usually use emails or our physical post boxes. Cell phones are not so popular around here. I’d really love to have an intranet for ZEGG, which was just recently begun by an enthusiastic new community member, so let’s hope that we get this functioning. But let me show you another important place for us…
We arrive at the postal room, where a black board and other walls display meeting reports, notices, adverts, open calls, a gift table with unused stuff free to take… We continue our walk to the ‘university’, the biggest common room where seminars are held. Cordula provides me with a pile of informative and inspirational print material.
All images: CC Katharina Moebus
1 Tamera is a ‘peace research project’ and intentional community located in Portugal. Their goal is to develop and create a model for a future society free from hatred, lies, violence and fear. More info: www.tamera.org
2 Holacracy is a system of organising in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout self-organising teams rather than being concentrated at the top of a hierarchy’. Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holacracy
3 ‘Sociocracy is a system of governance using consent-based decision-making among equivalent individuals’. In a wider sense, sociocracy means the rule by the “socios,” people who have a social relationship with each other. Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociocracy
4 The integral scene is based on integral theory as promoted by Ken Wilber, a ‘theory of everything’ that aims to synthesise the best of pre-modern, modern and postmodern reality. The growing subculture is also referred to as “Integral Culture” or as “Cultural Creatives” by Paul H. Ray. Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Wilber and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cultural_Creatives
5 SPD stands for the Social Democratic Party in Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands), which is one of the two major political parties in Germany along with the conservative CDU/CSU.
6 ‘Joseph Beuys was a German Fluxus and performance artist as well as a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, art theorist and pedagogue of art. His work is grounded in concepts of humanism, social philosophy and anthroposophy, culminating in his “extended definition of art” and the idea of the “social sculpture”, for which he claimed a creative, participatory role of every citizen in shaping society and politics. He is regarded as one of the most influential artists of the second half of the 20th century’. Source: Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Beuys
7 More info: www.zegg-forum.org