A 15 Year History of Radical Hosting: From Wooloo to Human Hotel

Martin Rosengaard, Copenhagen
April 19, 2017

2011, NEW YORK CITY: OCCUPY WALL STREET

Zuccotti Park on Saturday, October 29: Day 43 of Occupy Wall Street. Photo by David Shankbone.

On Saturday, the 29th of October 2011, the first snowstorm hit New York City and Occupy Wall Street. My son was ten months old back then and we’d been spending much time at the occupied Zuccotti Park in the previous weeks since the occupation began. He would sleep or look on from his seat, while I would talk to friends old and new before leaving Liberty Square and heading home. It’s hard to make a revolution with a baby carriage, as the Danish saying goes. But it’s also not easy to do so if you live in a wet and cold tent and get sick. It seemed quite obvious: we could host an activist, an Occupier at home. And so too could many other New Yorkers if we just set up a system for doing so.

Despite being an artist, this was something I had experience with.

2009, COPENHAGEN: UN CLIMATE CHANGE SUMMIT

A few years earlier, when my hometown of Copenhagen hosted the 2009 COP15 UN Climate Change Summit, no one yet used the word “occupy.” Nonetheless, it was what many climate activists from around the world hoped to do in Denmark. To be present and loud to influence the climate talks and push for a worldwide agreement. But again, this is easier said than done in a Danish December if you do not have a roof over your head. With the huge influx of UN guests, nation states, and large lobby organisations, all hotels in the already expensive city of Copenhagen were quickly booked out.

This was 2009 and Airbnb had not yet created a global platform for renting out homes as hotels. However, local Copenhageners did just that via local listing sites, renting out spare rooms for astronomical prices. I first learned about the problem from a guy working at Friends of the Earth. Many of their NGO-members from the Global South simply could not afford to go to Copenhagen anymore. One case in particular caught my eye—or rather the eye of my art collective partner Sixten. It was the case of an elderly woman from Peru, the shaman of her village, who was invited to speak at the UN Climate Panel on the topic of indigenous peoples’ rights—and could not afford a place to stay in Copenhagen.

Something was not right.

The housing reality of the world’s most important climate meeting was turning into a microcosm of everything that is wrong with contemporary capitalism. The rich were getting richer and the hardworking people fighting for our common climate were turned down for pure profit. Was this really the moment to prioritize profit over people?

This is when Sixten and I first came up with the idea to create an antidote to the profit-over-people housing situation and instead do the complete opposite: ask people to host a climate guest in their home for free. People laughed at us. This will never work. Why would anyone want to host for free when you can earn? Only our artist friends signed up at first, but in the end—3,000 hosted climate activists and NGO workers later—we had proven that it worked quite well, that the travel purpose of a guest is also a currency of value to a host. Going somewhere to fight for the survival of our planet—you don’t get a much more powerful travel purpose than that.

A Peruvian shaman conducts a ritual for Mother Earth with her Danish host.

2010, ARTFORUM MAGAZINE: DANIEL BOESE

Wooloo created the possibility for strangers to share their homes and experiences, to thus collaborate under the broad goal of addressing climate change in a global conference and treaty. All participants created the work together, unlike public art projects in which the artists serve as teachers for a lay public. Individual acts of hospitality create hope in the face of planetary ecological crisis; strangers can agree and cooperate. But our heads of state did not follow suit, they failed to usher in an age of global cooperation at the summit. Wooloo’s project walked the line between art and activism in a new way, updating tactics pioneered by Beuys, Gran Fury, and the Russian Constructivists. Times have changed, and the problems have only become more urgent.

2014, NEW YORK CITY: PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH

One of the first New Yorkers who joined our initiative to host the Occupiers of Wall Street was Maryna Lansky, a self-employed immigration lawyer for artists who happened to live just across from Zuccotti Park. Maryna often visited the protests and brought food over to help, but since her job didn’t allow her to participate as much as she wanted, she decided to host an activist when we put out the call for hosts. That first guest turned into three more, all Occupiers visiting New York City to participate in the Occupy Wall Street movement from around the country.

Then the occupation ended and things died out for a while.

I moved back to Copenhagen and Sixten and I were busy making new art projects inspired by Beuys and the Russian Constructivists. Presenting our work at international biennials and running the Wooloo.org artist platform, we started back in school.

It was not until September 2014 that a new guest came knocking on Maryna’s door, this time via the very first version of humanhotel.com that we had coded throughout that summer with help from volunteers and a small grant from the visionary Chorus Foundation.

Our very first guest to book via the new online system was Akindeji Falaki. The leader of a climate advocacy NGO and an advisor to the Nigerian government, Akindeji was going to New York City to participate in the People’s Climate March. He had heard about Human Hotel from colleagues who had been hosted by us in Copenhagen and needed low-cost housing for three nights, preferably in Manhattan. We matched him with Maryna, who chose to host Akindeji for free.

“It was great support for my trip,” says Akindeji from his home in Abuja, Nigeria. “And without a boring moment. Maryna and I were able to connect and discuss all kinds of things ranging from family, religion, law, migration, environment, culture and intellectual stuff.”

On the first night, host and guest went to a panel discussion on climate change, then on to a jazz concert. The next day they marched together alongside former US Vice President, Al Gore, and on the last day they took a tour of downtown Manhattan where Maryna has lived for almost 20 years.

“When you are hosting people for something like Occupy and the Climate March, it’s like you are chipping in for the movement,” says Maryna. “If you are in some cause together, it helps your understanding of that cause, your growth within that cause.”

That September in NYC, the common denominator between Maryna and her guest was their shared passion for environmental activism.

“I work with grassroots mobilization, public awareness, education and feedback on government policy from the citizens,” says Akindeji. “For me it is not just work, I use my life to campaign for the cause of the environment, so it was only natural to respond to the call of the People’s Climate March [like] half a million people around the world.” He continues: “Maryna accompanied me to the Meet and Greet event before the March, and she participated in the March too. It was great. This was truly historic and I am glad to be part of history.”

2016, BERLIN: HUMAN HOTEL’S THIRD BLIND COMMUNITY DINNER

“We’re artists and come from a background in site-specific interventions and eccentric forms of social interaction. We will always be excited about Human Hotel as a large-scale experiment in communal cooperation, but more important than functioning as a Beuysian social sculpture, it’s crucial that Human Hotel can be used by you as a tool to improve your travel experience both economically and socially.”

It’s something like this that I’m saying in my short speech to the twenty people seated around the table in Berlin-Kreuzberg, in the apartment of Nathan Peters, an artist and painter and one of our new Human Hotel hosts in Berlin. This is the third Blind Dinner we have conducted in as many cities since we’ve turned Human Hotel into a members-only travel community for creatives and visionaries in the summer of 2016. We call them “Blind Dinners” because we curate a specific group of Human Hotel members in a given city and cook dinner for them in a private apartment without people having met before. As it turns out, someone always knows someone else and that’s one of the signs of a strong community. It’s already there.

We still use a big portion of our time on personally inviting interesting individuals to join the community and I’m often asked in what way Human Hotel is different from platforms like Airbnb and Couchsurfing. My answer is that they’re a sort of mix between the two.

In the start, when we only did free hostings with no money between guests and hosts, we learned a lot about curating encounters where strangers can enjoy experiences, share knowledge, and engage with people passionate about the same things as themselves. We continue to apply this knowledge by having human curators match every guest and host to create surprising personal and professional connections, but we also appreciate the fact that many of our members need to earn money to support their life and work. So while we still have around 10% of our hosts who accommodate other members for free, the other 90% are charging the guest a price—a community price, however, that is always below that of the Airbnb market. As we learned in Copenhagen at the very beginning of this journey, the market is not smart enough on its own and does not necessarily support the folks making this world a more fun, fair and resourceful place. So we have to support each other.

At the time I am writing this, the Women’s March on Washington is bringing so many participants to DC that Airbnb prices are much higher than usual. Supply and demand they say. Or “Smart Pricing,” as they call it at Airbnb, in their constant effort to assist hosts in charging top prices, and thereby creating the highest profit margin for the company. But is it really that smart to make it harder for people to attend the Women’s March in DC or meet up at the next Climate Summit? It seems pretty dumb to us.

2017, NEW YORK CITY: BACK WHERE WE STARTED

Maryna still lives across from Zuccotti Park and she is still hosting for Human Hotel.

I ask her: Maryna, you could earn quite a bit of money renting out rooms in your apartment on a commercial rental site. Why do you prefer to host with Human Hotel rather than with a service like Airbnb?

ML: “Well, because the people on Airbnb are random tourists. They just need a place to sleep before going to see the Statue of Liberty or whatever. I’m not interested in that.”

But what about a service like Couchsurfing then? Where it’s about hanging out with your guest?

ML: Again, it’s too random. People just bumming aimlessly around the world. You don’t know who they are. But if you have something in common with somebody it is a different story. You know, when you first connected me with Akindeji, I thought, if he’s coming all the way here for the Climate March, we obviously have something in common. When I first came to New York in the late 1970s I didn’t know a soul here. Not a single person, nobody. But my brother had a friend who had been in Vietnam, a doctor, and he knew some people at Rockefeller University and via them I ended up living in someone else’s home at the University. So that was kind of like Human Hotel. We need places to sleep, but most of all, we need other people.”

Artist Niki Singleton illustrated a summary guide to the “Host an Occupier” movement that began in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street.

Martin Rosengaard

Martin Rosengaard

Together with Sixten Kai Nielsen, Martin Rosengaard has run the Wooloo.org artists network since 2002. The duo has exhibited their work at a wealth of international venues — including Manifesta 8 and the 55th Venice Biennial — but these days they focus all their time on Human Hotel, a curated travel community.

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