A worldwide meeting in North Wales
During day time, I am an individual who is involved in the study and practice of learning communities, the economy of the commons and open cooperation.
As my partner in life belongs to a rare community of artists, I happen to hang out with BUBBLERS. Artists and performers, male and female, older and younger, brought together by a higher purpose - by the beauty of blowing soap bubbles. This is what my partner does: he brings beauty and the sense of utter fragility, he presents perfect moments to a public. He makes soap bubbles.
In the last days of September, we travelled to Bangor, North Wales, where a hundred of these Bubblers gathered like migratory birds, to perform publicly in a three-day public festival and then conferred during a three day workshop to share their knowledge and practice.
From Malaysia, Singapore, Argentina, Mexico and the US, from every reach of Europe and Israel and NZ. More than 20 countries were represented in this 5th edition. Previous editions had run in Boston (2016) Copenhagen (2013) and San Francisco where it all started, and where the earliest ‘DAZE’ had been held in 1989.
From the very beginning I was dazed by understanding how open this event was : Bubble Daze is all about sharing passion and knowledge, performing together and learning from one another. Quite the opposite of magicians’ community, said to be very secret, closed and competitive.
Knowledge as a common? Does it take inspiration in the Free Software Foundation, and Richard Stallman’s ideas ? or the Peer to Peer Foundation? What are the unwritten rules of this tiny worldwide community ? Are they actually a true community of innovators ? I decided to explore these questions whilst observing the whole process and engaging in conversations with several of my partner’s colleagues, many of whom he was finally meeting for the very first time.
What I was to discover during these 6 days was as fascinating as the bubbles themselves.
An extraordinary diversity of personal backgrounds
How would you describe today’s community? I asked to a tall bubbling man with a steampunk violet hat, one of the ‘locals’, who had driven down from Manchester, only 2 hours away. I had breakfast this morning, he replied, with Dr Isenberg, a scientist, a circus guy from Argentina living in Italy, a travelling street artist and some other people with completely different backgrounds. A microbiologist told me one day that the most important things in the living world, the most creative events, would happen upon boundaries. That is where we are standing today !
I had discussions with an anthropologist, a psychotherapist, dancers, jugglers, physicians, a lawyer, shopkeepers, yoga and reiki masters, musicians, clowns, magicians, computer scientists, editors, engineers, teachers … Diversity of backgrounds is a good basis for sharing points of view on a subject, in a respectful and open-minded way. And the importance of sharing values and points of view is far more important than competition.
I felt warmly welcomed when I suggested I write an article about this. I was easily included, even being recruited as a translator and a facilitator during the workshops.
Sharing before the era of social networks
It all started before the era of the Internet. At the time, starting with bubbles was an adventure, There was not all this information, Sterling Johnson gently says to me. Sterling can be counted as one of the founding fathers of the community with Tom Noddy and Brian Lawrence, three strong Californian personalities that brought together the spirit of the 70’ (Sadly their peers, Kalvin Klunt, Keith Michael-Johnson and David Stein were unable to be in Wales for this event) - Each from environments that were from the very home to the culture of knowledge sharing.
A mailing list started to link together the Soft Bubbles Fanciers in the 90’s, giving birth to a wiki that is now providing the community with a living encyclopaedia on bubbling… and the social networks have been magnifying this since. Today, a tiny worldwide bubblers’ community exists in the first place through FB posts and numerous FB groups connecting 100 to 600 people each.
There are very few occasions for bubblers to meet in flesh. Bangor’s gathering has been the first one to put together more than a hundred of these people together… and to have two major artists, American Tom Noddy and Catalan Pep Bou, shake hands and hug for the first time in their lives !
Building a sense of belonging to a community
Paola Dyboski-Bryant and Caroline Ainslie, as Bubble Daze 5 organizers, chose to design several high-time moments for building a strong sense of belonging, all based around a public festival, with performances, lectures and the All Star bubble show.
Paola : ‘It was really important to us to have a way to share this incredible gathering with the wider public, and for me in particular to share my work with the local community as a way of giving back’. Paola’s work, and gift to the bubble world, was to organise a visionary gathering of 400 local people, together with the bubble artists all making giant bubbles in Caernarfon Castle. The final gathering was on the last day before everyone went their separate ways, was a time for celebration, bubbling together, high in Snowdonia mountains around a gorgeous lake.
Open space methods were chosen to set up a collectively self-organised schedule for the workshops, with guidance from Brian Lawrence and Eduard de Jong. It created a sense of empowerment and responsibility, leading to a powerful sense of belonging. There are no passengers on this boat, said Brian Lawrence introducing open space schedule building. Everyone is invited to contribute and play his singular and unique part.
Circle practice has been used in several workshops. Sitting in a circle is a form of ‘social container’ in which each individual can see the face of all the others and, in turn, be seen… It establishes a sense of equal value between all, it is a strong basis for sharing and creating a sense of belonging.
Generosity vs free riders attitude
Giving, receiving and giving again is the anthropological pattern for the economy of giving (Marcel Mauss). Much in use in small human tribal communities, this social scheme is at revival with the economy of the new commons, as theorized by Michel Bauwens or Bernard Stiegler. It applies pretty well to non-physical and non rival goods such as knowledge or software.
Giving appears in the first place… before receiving. What about people joining the community whose primary motive is to take? I asked around about free riders attitude and how to handle it. As a matter of fact, the general spirit was an incredible generosity and the desire to share knowledge, skills, techniques, recipes and art. But this did not apply to everyone. Some would put a lot of energy to display their own marketing, make lots of contacts for the future and not sharing their skills and art… What I observed and heard was that other people would very quickly become aware of it : Well you can see it easily, someone will start by asking you all the details, but then, give nothing back.
There is a tolerance in the short term, although, most particularly because more interesting things were happening elsewhere: Some people are rude and respectless. They copy designs, texts and products. I prefer to put energy to creativity rather than into fighting.
Regulation through reputation
Elinor Oström, a researcher who received a Nobel prize in economics for her work on the commons, established a series of 8 rules for a community to jointly manage a common resource. One of these rules is about having regulation specifically targeted towards free-riders.
I imagine that among bubblers, regulation comes through one’s reputation. There is a consensus that there is no place for copying, and everyone is invited to take inspiration to develop their own art. Nobody would like to be taken off the invitation list for the next Bubble Daze edition, would they?
Competition and business coexist next to sharing
Bubble Daze 5 has welcomed competition as well, with a dozen of Guinness World Records broken during the last day of the public festival. Competition can have a place, and it was great to see the mix of individual and collective records that were attempted. There was also a market for buying and selling ropes, nets, sticks, soaps or bubble machines that was going on throughout the festival and workshops time in an informal way. A happy combination of competition and cooperation, sharing, making contacts and business. I wondered, what is the secret?
Very much alike a community of social innovators
At this point, I tried to draw a parallel with my previous research about the learning communities of social innovators. My conclusions had settled onto 4 conditions required for such a community to maintain and thrive.
A community of practice or a community of learning on social innovation needs :
- To be embedded within a community of values and the sharing of a higher purpose (1),
- To provide their members with a high degree of human relationships (2).
- The online network needs to be balanced with real life meetings (3).
- The sense of belonging to a community helps keep it going in the long term by balancing out the sense of being isolated in mainstream society and culture (4)
It seems to me that this amazing community of soap bubble fanciers is very similar to a living community of social innovators !
Making the invisible visible
Bubbles are not what we think they are, they merely exist on the edge of what is physically possible, says Tom Noddy during his show. Making the invisible visible, this is probably what bubbles do. Contemplating Caernarfon Castle, so full of bubbles gave me a new perception of this space full of light and wind. It gave me happiness and filled my heart with joy.
This is also what open space technology is doing between human beings working together, peer to peer: framing the invisible in a visible frame, letting creativity and emergence take place in the middle.
I am so grateful to have lived this unique experience with the Bubble Daze community. It brought me joy, I met wonderful people, and I was able to create, on these boundaries, new links between the commons, open cooperativism and art. Thank you to all the “bubbleologists” I met !