Josh Heller and Nicole Kelly want you to leave your high-priced apartment and spend the summer with them in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s all part of Summer Commune, a diverse and temporary intentional community AKA summer camp with more potlucks and no curfew. About three summers ago I was with Josh and Nicole in Berlin and they were just talking about the idea. What if they could get all their friends with work-from-anywhere jobs to all move to the same small town for the summer, all while saving money subleasing their apartments in high-priced areas? A year later they made it happen with the first Summer Commune which took place in Moscow, Idaho. This year, the band is heading east to Bloomington, Indiana. I caught up with Josh and Nicole to ask them a few questions before they took off. For more FAQ, check out the Summer Commune website.
Andy: What’s the driving idea behind Summer Commune? How did you first come about it?
Josh Heller: Fun + the adventure of a new place + new friends + building the infrastructure to make the summer last forever. The idea came to me while flying over the Alps, marinated while walking around East London, and solidified when people liked the idea on Tumblr.
Nicole Kelly: A couple of things converged at once. Josh had this idea about how a bunch of people should all move somewhere together while en route to meet me in Berlin – we spent a summer there while I was in grad school. I said it would be cool if our friends could experience that place with us. I said I wanted to live in a small town in Montana for the following summer, so I could finish my thesis in a place that was a little less distracting. Berlin was really great — the whole city felt like a hostel, in the sense that no one seemed to be from there, it was very international, no one worked, and it was really easy to meet people. We started talking about recreating that feeling of community and camaraderie and creative energy that we had in Berlin, in America. We started telling people about it while we were still there.
I know you guys went to Moscow, Idaho two summers ago. How was Idaho and how will this summer be different?
JH: I think in a lot of ways with the first Summer Commune in Idaho, we were channeling the spirit of the west. I’m from the west, so it felt close to home. I’m excited that this year’s Summer Commune will be in the midwest, I feel like there’s a different zeitgeist out there, one that I want to experience. It’s the region that harvested the grains and manufactured the products which brought wealth to this country in the heyday. Excited to see how that lingering spirit inspires the project.
NK: Moscow was beautiful and fun and some really great people live there. This summer will be different because Bloomington is different – it’s a bigger town, it’s midwestern, it’s less remote than Moscow. Those things may or may not make a difference, as far as who comes, but each year there’s going to be a different mix of people in a different place. It will be cool to see how the location shapes the summer or the attendees or what we get into. Changing locations every summer means we get to maintain the feeling of experimentation that we had that first summer.
What’s something cool that came out of the last Summer Commune, or the one before it? Projects, something someone came up with while there? Have there been any viable start-up ideas?
JH: I think it was the realization that small cities really want you to come. In Moscow, the mayor told us that the tourism initiative we had put together were better than ones the city had previously paid for. There aren’t any tangible start-ups that came out of the previous Summer Commune. It’s not like anyone built the next #Logjammr, but I it’s been cool to see how people invested in themselves. Summer Commune 2012 helped some people to realize what they really wanted to be doing with their lives, and that’s more valuable than any venture-funded app.
NK: The first time we did this (the only other time we did this), we were really idealistic that people would show up and collaborate on the spot. But no, there were no viable start ups from that summer. I think that summer, for some people, was a really valuable jumping off point for a new and (I think) more fulfilling life. Some people had already quit their terrible jobs and were en route to something new/better. One person came to Moscow for 3 weeks and quit the city for good when she got back to LA. We realize now that this event is not only about producing something while you’re there (though I do plan to finish a writing project). It’s largely about meeting people and having a dialogue about the kinds of lives we want to have as artists and self-employed people and post-wealth millenials.
What would you tell people who are nervous about dropping their lives in the city to spend a summer in what is being branded as the middle of nowhere?
JH: If this idea speaks to you, and you truly want to come, but you feel fettered to things in the city, you should really ask yourself why those attachments are preventing you from living the life you want to live. Plus it’s all pretty easy to just come out for a long weekend.
NK: You don’t have to come for the whole month, but here are some reasons you should: Being in a new place is really good for your brain. Whatever you think you’re missing in the city – you aren’t. You’ll meet a lot of really cool people – and some of them probably live where you already live so, new friends. You can make some extra cash by subletting or AirBNBing your place. Nature! Guaranteed amazing thrifting! Cheap beer!
Much has been written on “the city” inspiring creativity. Does the opposite also apply?
JH: If the opposite of the city is country, then yes I think that being somewhere rural inspires creativity. It’s just that your creativity is derived from nature as opposed to city life. That being said Summer Commune is still taking place in a city with easier access to nature, so you can achieve both creative muses. If you really want to commune with nature, I can introduce you to a friend who lives on an island off the coast of British Columbia.
NK: We think travel inspires creativity, and staying in a familiar place for too long does the opposite.
Are you going to be there all summer? What are YOU working on?
JH: We’re driving from California and hopefully get into town by July 1st. We’ll be sticking around for the entire month. I’m excited to get away for a month, to get to know a place I’ve never been, in a part of the country that I’m unfamiliar with. I’m in a different place right now than I was in 2012. At the time I was actively pursuing freelance writing. Now I’m not because I don’t want to be poor anymore. But I’m not totally sure what I want to do next. I know that the last summer really clarified what I wanted out of life, and I’m hoping this one will too. I’m also very excited to ride bikes.
NK: Josh and I will be in Bloomington for the whole month of July. I’ll be working on a few writing projects – a collaboration with a friend, some fiction. I’m going to build a bike at the bike co-op. I also plan to work on being better at doing nothing.
Are there any plans to build this on a greater scale?
JH: We really just want to wait and see what happens next. We didn’t know what to expect in 2012. And I mean Bloomington is three times bigger than Moscow, so I guess that’s scale right?
NK: Right now, no. A critical mass for Summer Commune is 20-40 people. But we talk about having other, similar events: Spring Break. Winter Commune. There’s always talk of taking this thing to a beach town in Mexico for a week. It would be cool to take over an unoccupied space, like a summer camp or a cruise ship. But it will always be temporary, and it’ll always be about quality, not quantity.
So should we quit our day jobs and come there to work for Thelma?
JH: Yes. It’ll be more fun than a Tuesday night house party on Oranienstraße.