Will this burn down my house?

Posted June 19, 2020 by Kate Rich and Maja Kuzmanović

Tracing our paths in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic led us to challenge what or where is considered 'home', and what our homes could become. The questions that gave shape to our conversations, and this essay, were gleaned by machines and humans from the back catalogue of FoAM's writing. These questions were asked, answered, picked apart, elaborated on or ignored. In the process the 'I' has become interwoven, sometimes reflecting a singular experience, sometimes overlapping or blurred.

When worlds collide, what possibilities arise? What conflicts and frictions?


In March 2020, I found myself catapulted into a new, if temporary home in Tasmania (Australia), an island off an island, with intensity and commitment. Personal movement was curbed, and as national then state borders clanged abruptly shut, I was keenly aware that the social atmosphere was shifting rapidly to something less conducive to outsiders. As a visitor with overlapping, indeterminate statuses - a citizen yet not a resident, a traveller not a tourist, on 'business' but not in employment - I am also someone whose sense of community is deeply enmeshed in non land-anchored connections and relationships. Along with the enforcement of territorial boundaries, I sensed an escalating attention to what the unit of the 'foreigner', the matter of out place, might be. First it was about non-Australians, then state versus state, then the city against regional areas, right down to the unit of the household. Questions of identity and legitimacy, belonging and welcome surged to the fore.

My situation has a lot to do with falling outside of the usual categories of displacement. Temporary visa holders, refugees and asylum seekers, backpackers, package holidayers, international students, migrant workers, expats and digital nomads are categories invoked in the large scale processing of human movement within this crisis. Yet suddenly there is no language, no category and no way of addressing those whose home (and its uprooting) is found in the density of networks, and is intentionally or existentially, by nature and by process multi-jurisdictional. In this dislocating moment of homing in an incoming pandemic, my Tasmanian networks flung out a lifeline and I leapt for an offer of open-ended hospitality here.


We were in transit from Australia when our return flight to Europe was cancelled. After landing in Taiwan, a cough in the wrong place at the wrong time lead to a very polite, yet very firm refusal of accommodation in the interest of Public Health. As the Covid-19 epidemic was fast becoming a pandemic, anyone from ’elsewhere’ was assumed to be a potential vector of contagion, a Covid-Mary.

The official advice was to return 'home', but for me there was no immediate clarity as to where this would be nor how to get there. My partner and I have three nationalities between us yet none are in common. Our residence permits match but for a country where neither is a citizen. Wherever we choose to land, at least one of us remains a foreigner. An unenviable status, while xenophobia was spreading as if part-pandemic itself. Rushing to get through rapidly narrowing borders gave rise to flashbacks of the Yugoslav War in the 1990s, with all its detrimental personal and social implications.

After some rapid decision-making, incomplete information and unpredictable consequences, we took refuge in Singapore. With a history of maritime trading, a hub for international finance and logistics, Singapore's approach to what is 'foreign' seemed porous enough to provide temporary shelter for travellers and the 'non-essential'. We had found ourselves here before, during the tsunami in 2011. Then, as now, a translocal web of social connections has been key to creating a home against a background of growing uncertainty.

Where is your home? How are other entities engaged? How do you celebrate its existence?

Home can be everywhere and nowhere. What the dash for cover and the often jarring moments of transit brought home to us is that home is as much a mode as a place. It's grounding, elemental, a real, practised state of being. It might be vested in relationships of hospitality, the spirit and practice of reciprocity between host and guest, or generated through the routines and rituals of a temporary habitat. Home might be makeshift or transitory but always provides a refuge, able to accommodate both solitude and conviviality. It's built through co-occupation, its existence anchored and celebrated through the acts of homing amongst the entities involved - humans, plants, construction materials, sunlight, wireless internet. While temporary and sometimes fleeting, such relationships can be more foundational than any residence contract. This sense of being at home in hospitality can include places shared expansively by others even in their absence: a cave, a mountain hut, a city apartment, a caravan.

"If I’m going to write about home, I need it to be as filled with absence as for it to be telling about what’s present. That narrative ambiguity is what makes for a heightened rendering" —Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, Kitaab.

Living without a home is possible, but can be emotionally depleting, closer to sheer survival. Not feeling at home is like living on the edge of my own plane: it's a bodily sense of being displaced and decentred. The centre of the map has slipped perilously away.

If these are appropriate metaphors, what are inappropriate metaphors?

The official 'Stay at home' guidance could define by its oversight a void at the heart of the prospect. Its orderly instructions hum with an underlying tension in never pausing to explain what or where 'home' might be.

What if one's legal residence, citizenship, property, household, street address, sense of home and current or chosen location don't neatly align? What if they are multiple, overlapping or blurred? The colliding worlds have exposed contradictions, gaps, slippages, so the emergency instructions literally do not register. Stay at home. Do not travel. Return home immediately. How do I decipher these orders? Which voice is 'my' government and what are they saying to me? Where exactly would I be repatriated to? The public discourse adds further layers of dissonance. The pandemic has effected a terrible social norming of 'home', even in some of our closest circles. Friends and colleagues invoke family, or ask how they can help us 'get back home', seemingly oblivious to the contradictions.

For those whose home does not conform to the reality of a 'household' in a 'homeland' the dangers go beyond mere misunderstandings. With my home in movement uprooted, I risk transiting into the category of the uninvited foreigner. An intruder with no clear destination and no right to belong. No matter how quarantined and considered my distributed home might be, my presence is seen as an encroachment, taking up precious local resources. An illegal immigrant. A colonizer. An infection. A virus.

And yet there might be openings for leverage or arbitrage.

How to decentre without falling: HOW DO YOU MAKE IT WORK? How do vegetables get to travel?

As an artist and trader I can draw on a rich inventory of experience in managing the transport of groceries under complex conditions. What documents and tickets of passage, but also which kinds of behaviours, stances, timescales and stories are needed, to keep routes open for different kinds of movement?

As an artist and futurist, I have access to a generous stockpile of techniques for navigating ambiguity and uncertainty. How to 'prehearse' multiple futures? How to scan the horizon and prepare for the times when the unthinkable becomes the inevitable? How to home in unpredictable circumstances?

What current obstacles that you are facing could be overcome with experiments in grey areas?

Amidst the directives to 'stay at home', my own apartment, for now in a far off jurisdiction, feels far less like home to me. It's begun to feel like a resource, like infrastructure: a node and shelter with expansive potential for use. How do we collectivise when our household units, family groups, communities and nationalities collide with the systems of recognition and legitimation? How to create undergrounds through that? Can we still be at home in movement? Not just internationally, but also between city and country, node to node.

Staying at home in movement assumes a level of responsibility and commitment to the people and places along the way. It also fosters a belonging which is trans-local, rooted in mutual recognition rather than nationality or indigeneity. What are legitimate reasons to move between nodes of a distributed home during a pandemic? What speeds, durations, temporalities and modes of planning are viable?

Beyond administrative tricks or hacks (although these can be vital for those who fall between administrative categories) we also need to consider how to establish trust and find common ground. What would a trustworthy health contract look like, something that would manage risk of contagion? Which roles provide a mandate: envoy, trader, health worker, cargo carrier, agricultural supplier? Where are the essential trade routes? Could we build semi-fictional organisations that are recognised in more than one location? What if we all become supermarkets? These questions open up grey areas for further exploration. They can help us find ways to enable reasonable movement within reasonable constraints in unreasonable and constantly changing conditions. Finding careful and care-full ways home.

How do we make a good job of living through difficult times?

While the pandemic dominates our attention, it's a symptom of deeper instabilities, some of which might be impossible to eradicate. Grasping for stability of a 'new normal' is futile. During erratic times we must learn to be at home with uncertainty, as we learn to cultivate adaptive homing as a critical survival skill.

What if we reconfigured networks like FoAM to include homes for displaced friends or colleagues in movement? Some could be inhabited, while others may be empty. Home might appear in the shape of a string of nodes. One could re-materialise as a live-in library, supplying ideal conditions for temporary isolation, whether from a pandemic or the attention economy. Others could be homes where people live collectively yet apart, like monasteries or convents. Some might even become secular versions of such places, offering collective health services - uncertainty clinics, institutional therapy, isolation training, existential healing or disaster drills. Closed-down cultural spaces could reopen as feral supermarkets, where pick ups and drop offs of vital supplies can help maintain the lifeblood of sociable connections between near or far flung neighbourhoods.

Living well through difficult times requires a commitment to preparedness. In contrast to popularised ideals of prepper-survivalism (planning for a specific apocalypse that may never come) we are already watching worlds decay and be reborn. Rather than the heavily armed defence of single isolated households, it calls for opening up resources, sharing skills and keeping doors ajar. It demands stockpiling for enough to share and scaling up local solidarities across time, distance and semi-permeable boundaries. it's a spiralling through the ends of some worlds and towards (re)generation of others.

We can begin by putting out feelers and weaving together possible strings. We can experiment and adapt, prepared for the downside, ready to embrace the upside. We can forge connections and build in redundancies for intermittent yet recurrent homecomings. Then home will be the way it always is. Vital, precious, expansive, generative.

"We must learn to be at home in the quivering tension of the in-between. No other home is available. In-between nature and culture, in-between biology and philosophy, in-between the human and everything we ram ourselves up against, everything we desperately shield ourselves from, everything we throw ourselves into, wrecked and recklessly, watching, amazed, as our skins become thinner." —Astrida Neimanis, Hydrofeminism: On becoming a body of water.