Exploring the Roots of a Systems Practice

How formative experiences nourish systemic sensibilities

The safety and freedom of the womb

Reflecting on my youth an image that comes forward is that of the womb. I grew up as an only son of worker parents in a rural environment, part of a small but tightly-knit extended family. That social setting offered a womb-like experience of sorts. Which was reinforced by the spatial surroundings in which I found myself. My world as a kid revolved around the cul-de-sac where my grandmother lived. The street was barely 150m long and deadlocked against a railway. It felt like a separate, sheltered world. Luckily for me this compact haven bristled with children of a similar age. There were days of excruciating boredom when I kept kicking a ball against a blind wall and nobody would come out to join me. But sometimes magic would happen and we would be swept up in the flow of unplanned, celebratory play. My youth unfolded in a nested series of these safe spaces, stretching out from the privacy of my own room, the garden and fields behind the house, to my grandmother’s street and the village beyond. These locales gave me the opportunity to roam, to feel the pulse of the place, and to improvise, solitarily or collaboratively, without parental supervision and of course without the distractions of the internet age. My bicycle was my main exploration probe. I have always wanted to recreate these kinds of wombs — paradoxical settings of safety and exposure, of freedom and constraint — to play, learn, and work.

The beauty of self-facilitation

There’s a rebellious streak in me that resists hierarchy and what I perceive to be unjust and unmotivated imbalances of power. The freedoms of my youth were counterbalanced by a rather rigid upbringing. My father wanted the best for his son and was exacting (though certainly not unreasonable) in his standards qua behaviour and performance inside and outside of the school. However, he had the judgment to relax his demands when he felt I started to resent his parenting approach. In my teens I also started to question my grandmother’s pernicious role in family politics, which I understood to cause lots of conflict and pain. It would lead to a total and final break between us. These experiences alerted me to the potential cost of power differentials and triggered an impulse to make conscious choices about relationship making, maintaining and breaking.

The call of character

My upbringing set me on a path that would inevitably estrange me from my own roots in a worker’s family. I was the very first to obtain an academic degree. The old suspicion from workers vis-à-vis intellectuals made itself felt also in our relationships. In addition, the conflict with my domineering grandmother and the wayward choices in shaping my professional path — moving decisively away from the safety of well-earning jobs in big organisations — set me increasingly apart. Being a foreign body, a ‘Fremdkörper’, in my own family felt lonely and unjust at times. But I took it in my stride as I was very conscious of the potential cost of ignoring ‘the call of one’s character’ (Mari Ruti) in return for shallow stability and consent in social relationships.

The pull of potential

I feel that potential is bleeding into every second of our lives. The world out there ís potential. The future ís fundamentally abundant. This is probably the ur-experience that nourishes my systemic sensibilities. I have trawled my memories but I can’t recall how or when I became cognisant of this apprehension. Maybe I need to revisit the psychogeography of my youth to discover its root. Because at the confines of the nested wombs I was so familiar with, loomed an unknown that seemed to hold both promise and risks. Or perhaps it was my overpowering acquaintance, aged 12, with the vastness of the alpine world that kindled the apprehension of potential. From the get-go the mountains were for me a hallowed space. They offered a raw, pre-cognitive sense of immense space. And the volatility of their cloud- and waterscapes imbued me with a vitalist conception of life on earth.

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?