Date of Publishing:
December 17, 2023

Photo credits: Leo Hosp

Organizing Dizziness: A Conversation with Dorothea Born

Ruth Anderwald + Leonhard Grond, Dorothea Born

In 2021, the Ludwig Boltzmann Society and the University of Applied Arts Vienna established the Action for Sustainable Future (ASF) hub, a laboratory for developing innovative, creative ideas addressing the multiple crises we are facing nowadays. New collaborations between science and art aim to foster a transition towards a more sustainable society. Until the end of 2023, the ASF hub funds six citizen-led projects that work on sustainability from different perspectives.
“Following the approach of “fund, facilitate, follow-up”, the ASF hub does not only provide monetary funding, but also guidance in project work from conceptualization to implementation, demand-oriented artistic and scientific expertise, networking opportunities, and space for reflexivity” (Avkiran, Born, Hosp, forthcoming).
This is the excerpt of our conversations with Dorothea Born, the coordinator of the ASF hub.

Ruth Anderwald + Leonhard Grond: Dear Doro, we are looking forward to our exchange. To start, could you describe your position within the ASF hub?

Dorothea Born: I’m trying my best to fulfill the part of being “a jack of all trades”, but of course there are some things that I can do better, and others less so. For the moment, I’m holding all the threads together. It is unsustainable to have a person so deeply connected to one position. The biggest learning for me was to identify what to delegate.

The hub is constructed like a big web. My position is right in the middle, with other structures woven around it: the management board with a person from each involved institution, the sustainability board as a sounding board, external academic/artistic experts, and of course the project teams. I’m in the midst of all of this, trying to navigate the different expectations and needs of all of these threads. It can get quite dizzying!

Commonly, funding bodies just provide you with money; maybe they ask you to jump certain hoops like writing reports, but a support on eye level is unusual. The ASF hub is an experiment involving a research-founding body, an art university, and citizen-led projects. Such a new approach is bound to come with some uncertainties and difficulties.

Some things certainly have become more stable with time, but I think a certain instability - or let’s call it flexibility - is a specific trait of the hub. It can be a burden, but also an interesting challenge.

I see its strength in overcoming hierarchies. We all have the same goal of saving the world – so why not get together and learn from each other while doing so? If I can interact on eye level with the project team members, it’s much easier to support them, to find out what it is they need in the first place, and also to receive their honest feedback.

There are very clever and well-written papers about this approach called “fund, facilitate and follow-up”, At the Open Innovation in Science Center we call this approach “fund, facilitate and follow-up”, the idea being that you don’t just leave the projects with the money and in the end collect a report, but that you really help them overcome issues during the runtime. Everyone who’s ever written a project plan and then tried to execute it knows that it never works in the linear way we put on paper. In the end, when writing up the report, we might try to make it look like a straight line again. But all the chaos in between, the things gone wrong, can be productive. Why not see these struggles as challenges and make something out of it - isn’t that also what dizziness is about?

The idea behind the citizen-led projects was to provide them with external expertise if needed or wanted. I remember one of the first meetings where we asked: What kind of expertise do the project members actually bring to the hub? There was so much there. So many connections and networks, so much lived experience. There’s great potential in their respective expertise because the projects can actually support each other. That was the idea behind the “Community of Practice”: to be able to tap into the whole potential of the crowd-knowledge.

I remember a participant at the first meeting said that in order to build a community of practice you also need to practice community. I agree: There needs to be more time and resources allocated to this task of practicing community.

In social contexts such as the hub, dizziness seems difficult to pinpoint, it exerts a more atmospheric impact. Do you think practicing community can be a possibility to move through such situations in a more sustainable manner?

Maybe some project team members experience themselves as being part of a larger community and others don’t. I certainly do. I also think there exist common values and a clear common purpose within all projects. They are all super idealistic and want to create a better world; and they all believe that in order to do so we need participation, direct democracy, as well as the possibility to take action.

But there’s also something - or rather nothing - I considered too late and which Leo Hosp pointed me to: We need “room for nothingness”. I always thought about a lot of things to do during networking meetings, when, in fact, the projects would have just needed an extended coffee break.

We often get caught up in habitual logics we deem productive. Getting back to the structural, if you could now just speculatively build a different version, how would this aspect be included?

I would start by bringing a lot of different people together and give them time and space to really co-create projects. Maybe half a year of just meeting in workshops, brainstorming, building visions together. This first phase is always forgotten in inter- or transdisciplinary work, but it is so important. If we ask for a perfectly written, well-thought project proposal without giving this first phase the time and space it deserves, it only favors ideas that were already there.

What did the experience with the hub teach you about dizziness?

The whole concept of dizziness as a state of being, but also as a resource to learn from, as something you can embrace as a possibility to create something new, has been extremely helpful to understand what is happening - to me, to the project teams, to the hub as a whole. There is no blueprint. For participatory projects, there never is. When these moments of dizziness occur – and they will occur! – it just matters how you handle it and take it as a learning experience. So seeing a moment of dizziness as an opportunity in order to achieve something better next time has helped me to not perceive myself - or the hub - as a failure.

Has it altered how you address and balance out states of dizziness?

I really like the image of a person stumbling but not falling. When my kids learn something new, like roller skating or biking, and they fall, I always tell them that now they learnt something and will not make the same mistake again. So for us the question is: What are the micro-muscles for participatory projects that we need to train in order not to fall when we get a little dizzy?

What do you need to grasp in order to stabilize yourself in your position, but also as a person? What resources do you need to fall back safely?

Institutional support has always been very important for me. To know that when there were challenges or things that I felt I could not handle on my own, I could always go to Patrick Lehner and ask him for help and he would understand and find a solution. I think Patrick, and Bernhard Kernegger, too, did a good job in sometimes taking away the burden of having to be the “bad cop” in communicating with the projects.

In general, I need an environment where I can be myself, where I can be open and also feel safe to communicate my struggles (both personal and professional). I mostly feel respected with the project team members of the ASF hub. Of course, I am closer to some members than others - then again, it can be difficult sometimes not to take criticism personally. I guess, overall, I need to gain a more professional distance.

Thinking with and through dizziness can suspend normative theories of learning. How can an epistemic justice and solidarity between academic, practice-based, artistic, and laypeople be developed?

Very good question! I will answer it in my habilitation (laughs). But really, I think it’s a long process and impossible to give a definite answer.

Some learnings from the ASF hub in regards to epistemic justice and solidarity could be that a community needs to be created, a sense or feeling for community fostered. I like the term “epistemic justice”: To me, it means that different epistemic positions, experiences, and expertise can be valued in their uniqueness. They are seen for what they are, without judging them to be “more something” and “less something else”.

And I think solidarity needs to be established over the common goal: We all are fighting the same fight. What the ASF hub shows is that this process needs time. We need time to grow together and learn from and with each other. Maybe this is even the final goal of a project such as ours.