Less an organisation than a flexible collective brought together by a shared vision for social change, the Eroles Project began in 2015 with a series of summer residencies amid the Catalan Pyrenees, and is already expanding into a year-round project, La Bolina, working with migrants and refugees in a village near Granada. A core team of four – Ruth Cross, Mona Rathsman, Maria Llanos del Corral and Alexandra Lagaisse – run the Eroles Project day-to-day, alongside regular collaborators and advisors; Cross and Llanos del Corral are also part of the group of five setting up La Bolina, again in collaboration with a wider team. So far, they have received piecemeal funding (initially through their own crowdfunding efforts, latterly via philanthropists and foundations), but they are seeking more stable funding for La Bolina to support a five-year period.
Mission: catalysing change
Eroles Project began to form in 2014 from a conversation between three people who met at the Schumacher College in Devon (a holistic centre of learning related to ecology and sustainability), each from different backgrounds but wanting, as Ruth Cross puts it, to “shape spaces for transformation”. Cross was a practising artist; Mona Rathsman had studied at business school and worked with the UN; and Maria Llanos del Corral was a social psychologist who had worked with the Red Cross in Lima, Peru and across Africa. Collaborating with a wider group of people, including artists, scientists and activists, they conceived the idea for a residential project that, says Cross, “borrowed from the world of the arts residency, but opened it up to many more disciplines”. In this the group have been inspired by the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt, in particular her argument for the positive, generative tensions of communicating across difference: “It’s key for us that we bring together a diversity of people, from different countries, of different intersectionalities, so that we’re starting to really explore what it is to live with diversity.”
“It’s key for us that we bring together a diversity of people, from different countries, of different intersectionalities, so that we’re starting to really explore what it is to live with diversity.”
The group hoped that from this “space to explore and experiment” would emerge new approaches to “political, environmental, social change”. Activism, says Cross, can “sometimes get caught into quite linear, focused, disciplined, patriarchal ways of seeing the world. We’re trying to look at how to create more synergies, and how to model more creative, responsive ways of living and making change.” Hence the flexibility of the Eroles Project as an organisation: “We’re very malleable in the way we work. Everyone holding the responsibility for the project has studied complexity theory, and that’s foundational in the way that we build what we’re doing. We have a clear vision, but the way we want to reach that vision goes through many different routes.” Likewise, the collective mission statement has changed each year, but fundamental is the commitment to catalysing transformation by “creating the conditions for personal and political change”.
“We have a clear vision, but the way we want to reach that vision goes through many different routes.”
Residencies responding to need
Each residency takes place at the Ulex Centre in Eroles, in the Catalan Pyrenees, simultaneously inviting retreat from general life, a relationship with nature, and “a sense of building a community, building family”. Participants apply responding to a call-out, and will bring “most of the context from practices they’re interested in exploring”. Not all of them are artists, and art isn’t necessarily the focus, but the art practice underpinning each residency aims to “foster openness, spaciousness and a sense of collaboration”. Each residency is themed, in accordance with “what is felt to be the most needed in the world, the most needed thing to respond to”. Themes to date have been Climate Justice (2015), Borders (2016) and Democracy (2017).
The expectation is that “after each residency, an action or a project takes place”. The Climate Justice residency resulted in a substantial collaboration with various activist groups around the COP21 summit in Paris in December 2015: “A hundred of us lived and worked together for about five weeks in a massive warehouse; the way that we were living was creative, and we were making creative demands of politicians, as well as theatre performances that went around the streets of Paris, and running reimagining activism workshops.”
The Borders residency responded directly to the Syrian refugee crisis: “We became interested in challenging assumptions that are in place, politically and in the media, around who is a refugee, who is a migrant.” And it led directly to the creation of a new project to support those seeking safety in Europe. “Initially we thought it would be in a refugee camp, but we didn’t want to be putting energy into a situation that we didn’t feel should be there.” Instead, the group decided to work “somewhere where there’s lots of migrants and refugees arriving”, and to aim to do so long-term.
“We became interested in challenging assumptions that are in place, politically and in the media, around who is a refugee, who is a migrant.”
A sustainable village
The result is La Bolina: a regeneration project with migrants and refugees, that aims to revitalise rural areas close to Granada through creating sustainable livelihoods and community integration. Cross and other members of the Eroles team have spent a year doing research, “understanding the local area, speaking with migrants and refugees and municipalities”. Already they are “running permaculture and agroecology workshops with a group of migrants and refugees who are interested in learning how to grow food, to earn a living from that. We’re using recycled materials to make artworks for permaculture gardens, and using Theatre of the Oppressed to explore conflicts that are arising.” “We have recently moved to a permanent site for the project in a small rural village close to Granada. We are in the process of setting up social and ecological enterprises run by or in collaboration with local people, migrants and refugees and the La Bolina team, very much with an ecological sustainability focus.”
The challenge of communication
As with most results of the Eroles Project residencies, the existence of La Bolina could not be predicted – and this creates a challenge for the group when looking for funding. “The more you can say about outcomes, the more likely it is you’re going to get funding. That’s something we really struggle with, because Eroles has been creating amazing projects – but the project emerges during the residency where people create something new together. So we can’t say what the project is going to be beforehand, but we know it has the potential to be great.”
This creates a further tension between the desire to work as a non-hierarchical collective and the reality that, without core funding, responsibility for both Eroles and La Bolina consolidates around those “who love the project and are willing to work on it for free, which ends up giving more decision-making power to a few”. “So even though there’s a really big pool of people who are part of the project, we can’t support their longer-term participation.”
Lack of funding also opens up a communication challenge: “how we share what we’re doing with the wider Eroles community and beyond”. As a result, some ripple effects of the residencies go unnoticed – although Cross is optimistic that: “in the future we’ll be able to look back and see them more clearly. Every year we write a report that compiles individual and collective experiences from the residency, we also try to capture what people have gone on to do as a result of attending. There are many positive stories.” For instance, two participants from England began an ongoing collaboration that has produced an alternative newspaper, The Eclipse, and a key member of the UK environmental activist group Reclaim the Power has introduced movement work to the group’s meetings to help resolve moments of feeling stuck. Also, a member of La Marea (a grassroots political party governing La Coruna, Spain) who attended this year’s Emerging Politics residency, now uses ‘Dynamic Facilitation’ within political meetings.
A longer-term hope is to foster cross-sector collaboration among the disparate Eroles alumni. “Each residency theme has attracted slightly different people, so for Borders we had lots of people with a background in humanitarian work, activism and community organising; and for Democracy we had people interested in organising politically or looking at alternative politics. Our idea is that through creating a community with people from these different strands, there starts to be a web or a network of inter-relation between these sectors.”
“Our idea is that through creating a community with people from these different strands, there starts to be a web or a network of inter-relation between these sectors.”
That desire for consolidation is reflected also in how the group are thinking about the relationship between Eroles at one end of Spain and La Bolina at the other. “In 2018 we’re thinking the theme will be localisation, food, and the challenges facing people who are working on the land – themes emerging live from the Granada project.” And central to the development plans for La Bolina is “a huge multi-purpose space that can be used for residencies, workshops, gatherings and conferences year-round, so both projects will be benefiting from each other”.
Here are links to two videos about Eroles residencies
Photo: We went with the flow, together. Eroles Project