Social Repair

Modernity created unprecedented material wealth but at unprecedented ecological cost. Post-Cold War technological and economic change has further undermined many of the progressive ideals of the post-WWII era. The world is deeply damaged and divided. Social repair is direct action taken by ordinary citizens to reimagine life and remake the social fabric, for example, through efforts to build inter-personal trust, communicate across different viewpoints, and make workplaces more democratic. While not aimed at immediate systemic change, social repair helps offset the penetrating forces of capital, technology, and the authoritarian state, and lays the basis for more profound transformations.


The Nearby

The nearby is a lived space where one encounters people with diverse backgrounds on a regular basis. The nearby is often neglected in the age of globally connected social media, as the public mind tends to be preoccupied with the very near (the self) and the very far (the nation and the planet). The nearby, where different forces intersect in a way that can directly impact individual lives, escapes attention. As a result, public opinion swings between calculations of self-interest and abstract, essentialising categories. Working with designers, artists, journalists, and activists, we probe concepts, works of art, and toolkits that call citizens’ attention to their nearby. The nearby perspective brings into view worlds in which people can act.


Fair Halle

 “Fair Halle” is a long-term programme of research, teaching, artistic creation, and open workshops about, and with, the Halle public. Working with local partners, particularly Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design Halle, we strive to learn about local concerns and practices of social repair, seeking to make local experimentation a concrete reference point in global thinking.

The history of the region means that fairness is an important concern in Halle. The post-socialist transformation and de-industrialisation still cast shadows over the present. Halle now faces the challenges of transitioning to a post-carbon economy, and from a relatively homogeneous population to a diverse society. How have people defined and fought for fairness in these transitions? Is a winner-loser divide inevitable? How is the perception of fairness related to other feelings such as resentment, resignation, cynicism and social mistrust? How can fairness be restored as a means of social repair?


Xiang, Biao. 2021. “The nearby: A scope of seeing.” Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. 8 (2 & 3) 147-165 >


Social Art Workshop

Seeing the First 500 Metres

11 June - 30 August 2022; Guangzhou, China

This three-month long workshop attracted more than 400 applicants. The 40 selected participants included artists, scholars, officers, technicians, and unemployed young people. The participants engaged in intensive discussion, carried out brief field research in Guangzhou, and developed artistic projects. We co-organised the workshop with Jason Ho from South China Polytechnic University and Duan Zhipeng from The Oslo School of Architecture and Design.


Ecology, Technology, and System: Rereading Gregory Bateson and Eric Wolf

30 November 2021; MPI Halle

2022 was the occasion for at least two notable anniversaries in the history of late twentieth-century anthropology: the fiftieth anniversary of Gregory Bateson’s (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind and the fortieth anniversary of Eric Wolf’s (1982) Europe and the people without history. Although Bateson and Wolf are thinkers of somewhat different species, what benefit may there be today in tentatively drawing their work into conversation – particularly their contributions on ecology and technology? If the challenges that citizens confront today in social repair so often involve tensions over environmental upheaval, economic overheating, and political polarisation, what can we as contemporary anthropologists learn from how Bateson and Wolf inventively drew on intellectual resources in anthropology to create texts that proved such timely and enduring contributions regarding environment, economy, and politics; books that enabled readers –well beyond the discipline of anthropology– to think in a joined-up way about challenges they were variously confronting around the world in the late twentieth century? Indeed, what lessons may there be for economic anthropology in the early twenty-first century, particularly as we head toward that other anniversary in 2022 – the centenary of Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1922) Argonauts of the Western Pacific?


Mediating Economic Life: Relation, Operation, Experimentation

19 November 2021; Harnack House, Berlin

Co-organised with Scott Lash (Goldsmiths, University of London)

This workshop aimed to explore new research questions and tools that capture some defining dynamics in ongoing socioeconomic change, based on conversation between media technology theorists and economic anthropologists. In particular, participants discussed “human relatedness” as a concept for exploring socioeconomic dynamics in the digital age. Human relatedness has many manifestations. Friendship, care, dependence, and dominance are some of the familiar types. Human relatedness also includes connections between human and nonhuman agents, for instance a person’s emotional attachment to an object, or tracing routes between a data centre and an individual. While social relations are always the backbone of economic activities, human relatedness is now identified as a major source of profit, and a central unit in economic operation by commercial actors themselves. Data may be the new oil in the platform economy; but more important than the oil is the pipeline – the digital routes between computer servers and human users, and among human users. These connections enable data collection and message targeting. Based on such relatedness, platform companies “capture” people and secure their structural dominance, not only in a market, but also in public life.

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