Hettie Judah on ancient cheese networks and monasteries for the modern age

from the September 2014 issue

By Hettie Judah

The unDocumentary video drone flying over the unMonastery in Matera. Photo: © Alberto Costanzo / Vulture Video

Harry West has studied cheesemakers from the northeast of Turkey to the Basque mountains, from cowshit-spattered shacks in the Auvergne to boutique lactic fermentation outfits in the Home Counties of England. A professor of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London, West has, over the last six years, come to specialise in artisan cheesemaking. He’s photographed earnest men – their forearms puce from scalding milk – kneading heavy udders in near darkness, marinating slices of dried tripe, whacking curds and repurposing whey. Through categorising the different processes and practices, and mapping them between communities around Europe, he has built up a map of influences flowing, via cheese, around the Continent.

The routes of this knowledge transference often coincide with the routes of ancient monastic orders. The monasteries were sites of skill and knowledge, their educated inhabitants able to turn perishable raw materials – milk, wheat, fruit – into comparatively durable and transportable products – cheese, bread, wine. As the monks travelled and the networks of monasteries expanded, the knowledge they carried with them provided a means to sustain themselves in a new community – hence West finding Alpine-style cheesemaking on a Greek island, and tracking a debt of influence from Italian mozzarella to Turkish kasar.

Arising from the Edgeryders initiative – a pan-European community of young people who, whether by circumstance (economic or societal insecurity) or choice, identify as ‘exploring the edge of current society’ – the unMonastery was in part an attempt to answer the question, ‘What would the monastery look like in a networked age?’

I thought of Harry West and his cheese map while listening to writer and network analyst (and sometime curator of digital at London’s Serpentine Galleries) Ben Vickers talking about the unMonastery project at Design Miami/Basel in June. Arising from the Edgeryders initiative – a pan-European community of young people who, whether by circumstance (economic or societal insecurity) or choice, identify as ‘exploring the edge of current society’ – the unMonastery was in part an attempt to answer the question, ‘What would the monastery look like in a networked age?’ (a question that rather ignores the fact that monasteries existed in a networked age – they were, if you like, a network provider).

However flawed the question, the unMonastery project is an interesting answer, and one that looks back to the monastery as a repository of knowledge, as one of many hubs in a network and as an organism that can be self-sustaining and generative. The ur-unMonastery opened as a four-month project in March of this year in the southern Italian city of Matera. Famous for the sassi di Matera – ancient cave dwellings thought to be the site of one of the earliest human settlements in Italy – and currently bidding to be European Capital of Culture 2019, the unMonastery was invited as part of the city’s programme of focused technological regeneration, and attempts to attract talents and creative industries.

During a preparatory visit to Matera, Vickers and a small team of Edgeryders asked locals what might be useful to them, before 14 ‘un- Monks’ with relevant technical skills were chosen first from within the Edgeryders community and then from an open call. Living as a collective, the unMonks share one of the disused sassi and forge links with their Materani neigh bours through the transfer of skills that are, broadly speaking, techno-survivalist. Vickers and his fellow novices are initiating community-level projects in water management, open-source solar-tracking software, tech classes, zero-waste management and a variety of Matera-specific issues, including alternative tourism and public-transport mapping.

The unMonsteries are, at heart, formalised hackerspaces nesting in and creating a role for themselves in a new community

Besides its laudable aims of repurposing large, disused buildings, creating employment for marginalised young people and providing community resources, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the unMonastery project is that it seems to symbolise the hackerspace movement coming of age. The unMonsteries are, at heart, formalised hackerspaces nesting in and creating a role for themselves in a new community. If they are preaching anything, it is the hackerspace ethos: of being a collaborator with rather than consumer of technology, of skill sharing and resourcefulness, of off-grid independence.

As the prototype unMonastery winds down, Vickers is currently developing an ‘unMonastery in a box’ set, including a software package, protocols based on the Benedictine rules and a ‘book of mistakes’. It’s hoped the Matera site will reopen on more permanent footing in spring of next year, and the project has been offered locations in Greece, Poland and Italy. The unMonks are also contemplating setting up the first rural unMonasteries specifically focused on work with food – that ancient cheese network, it seems, may yet flow through Europe again.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue.