Wild Domesticity

“The Five Skins” by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. [A Black and white circular diagram of the “five skins”: 1 epidermis 2 clothes 3 houses 4 identity and 5 earth.]

Along the horizon, dishes pile up in a carbon sink clogged with moral expectation. I lay my body under the geoengineered shade as a fever dream spins out of the walls, spitting bolts and cables like a tornado in protest. Yes, ever since the sourdough started en masse, my notion of stability had become a mirage and home a distant memory. 

I had never made a point to eat this kind of bread, pandemic or not. My housemate liked to bake and soon lined up a handful of friends scheduling pick-up orders over DMs. Her loaves sold at the price of loyalty. I enjoyed helping with the daily feedings of flour, sugar, and water, and marveled at the microbial mess of a kitchen pet seemingly spun out of nothing. These goops of small things were temperamental in a strangely therapeutic way. Their ebbs and flows seemed to materialize the desperate chaos of humans staying home to avoid other small things in the air. The pandemic still defies past or present tense three years later. Mostly, we seem to avoid discussing the staled crisis altogether. As flights take off again and technological developments promise solutions for climate and community alike, new options abound for where to settle our anxieties. Solidarity wanes along with the stimulus checks — caring about care is trite in a world where imagination itself requires funding. This is the year of rebalancing equations to get to some sensible bottom line.

Dough house. Image by Alice Yuan Zhang. [A black and white line drawing of a house that looks kind of squishy and sagging, like it’s made out of dough.]

Are you still living in Los Angeles? I worry about this question. It is the place where I’ve been the longest, but have never chosen. The pandemic only postponed my deliberation. I spent my time trying to understand the ecology, the people, the history of the land and how it got mangled into such a frustrating layout of concrete, but the hostility of this city still manages to escape me. I struggle with the steep rent, austere policies, parking tickets, and the car itself. Like many of us, my attention moved increasingly online under lockdown. I organized experimental gatherings most weeks as part of an artist collective. We did all we could to keep digital fatigue at bay, making a point to recognize land, body, and each glitching breath. Nonetheless, my eyes began to glaze over at some point, enough to witness the screen bearing its material self as an unassuming end-point of sprawling data centers, electricity grids, metals, minerals, and mining rigs. I grew concerned with the carbon footprint of the internet, ironically set to surpass that of the airline industry. More than that, I grew concerned with our appetite for community-as-a-service. Echoing Helen Lewis’s observation of this nontrivial shift in human behavior, what do we lose as media technologies render ever more frictionless the option to bond by common interests online, rather than by geographical proximity?

Scrolling the streets of a networked village, we let our curiosity be led by algorithmic curation. Feeds serve neighborly interactions as a basic commodity in exchange for advertising, blurring the ability to discern signal over noise. Meanwhile, trustless transactions are poised to breach the need for human integrity, and wallet addresses replace profile handles as the new digital identifier. Benignly, we follow the flow of technocapital to become voyeurs of an apocalypse by theory.

Global village. Image by Alice Yuan Zhang. [A black and white line drawing of a satellite dish, telephone line, solar grid, data center, etc. all in a kind of composite landscape of technology and connection.]

The mind may wander but the body still has to live somewhere. Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser stretches the concept of the body into an onion-like diagram called “The Five Skins,” in which the most immediate membrane of the epidermis is enveloped by the next layer of clothes, then house, identity, and outermost layer, the Earth. Likewise, the Greek word for home is oikos, a basic unit of society and intuitive prefix for the broader spheres of ecology and economics. We have formed infrastructure at each layer to facilitate a sense of domestic stability, from the microbial to the planetary, and as creatures of habit, we expect these infrastructures to hold. It is precisely when they break, fall short, or refuse access that we are forced to reckon with the gravity of our many dependencies. Tracing disturbances along our toilet and trash routes, we unravel the consequences of having invented waste as a practice. Under each square foot of mortgage valuations lie the legacy inequities of neighborhood planning. War-exacerbated price tags at the pump lay threat to cars trying to draw from the fuel body to transport the blood body. Alexa’s occasional confusion glitches the promise of an always-available circuit of goods. Under globalization, privilege orchestrates extraction across an ever more anonymized set of hands and lands and bolts the door when responsibilities come knocking, but the climate is borderless in its wrathful demands of more honest accounting.

The assumed neutrality of infrastructure, particularly in the “developed” world, must be reckoned with so that what does not serve the whole ecosystemic body may be finally un-developed. Like stubborn medicinal weeds through concrete, we can work our way into hegemonic cracks to seed possibilities for healing. Along the way, we lift diverse ancestral practices from the deliberate erasure of the last few hundred years to graft onto contemporary struggles.

A domestic structure facilitates behavioral affordances, relationship norms, and whole worldviews. The Amazonian Indigenous maloca, as Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar observes, raises a relational world. The longhouse is built with natural fibers, the roof keeps cosmological time and the space is large enough to host several dozens of inhabitants. In comparison, the archetypal suburban American home shapes a culture of decommunalized individuals, separated from neighbors and the natural world. Each thread of the societal fabric operates by deliberate logic spun from a legacy of values. To darn, undo, and knit anew is to reclaim our life-affirming agency.

Tree generations. Image by Alice Yuan Zhang. [A black and white line drawing of three trees at various stages of life.]

This is a time of wild domesticity — crises remind us that resilience lies not in the false security of some sterile structure, but the foundational habits of service that we practice with each other. When I heard that trees were migrating north due to the rising heat, the first image that came to mind was a constellation of walking arboreal creatures, each determined to find sanctuary along the horizon. But forests operate on intergenerational time, as new trees gradually sprout toward more hospitable directions. A single tree stays rooted throughout its lifespan; after all, each is itself a home for many. Only by committing to place can one practice symbiosis, providing for as much as it is depending on its local relations. Nomadic shepherds in rural India are another model of interdependence in motion, roaming widely for most of the year. Arriving in each village, they ask for their flock to graze on the recently-harvested land. Incidentally, the full-bellied sheep leave the vital gift of manure for the next season. I write this not to glorify the violent reality of migration cases rising globally at an alarming rate. Rather, diasporic communities know well that as we move for survival, we thrive by strengthening our bonds wherever we are.

A tree without roots falls at the slightest breeze. Like the Khasi root bridges that strengthen over time, as I grow up and older, I too want to grow down, deep, over and under in a situated people-map of care. Critical theorist, artist, and fellow L.A. resident Mandy Harris Williams is perceptive to call out, “I think people extract on the premise of community more frequently than they nourish. Generally, I really wish for a lot more service orientation among my peers.” A place owes us nothing but its historicity and many possible futures — it’s up to us to sow what we wish to reap.

How to check on a friend 

Recipe is passed down from my imperfectly fearless mother, tried and tested with her community of working-class migrants. Success may vary based on cultural norms and emotional weather. 


- Time, intentionally carved out of your day

- A working level of trust between you and your friend

- An honest sense of your own boundaries

- Belief that care should be unconditional

- Willingness to come off as “a bit too much”

- (Optional) Network of mutual friends


1. Go to your friend's house with a big bag of fruit. 

2. Notice their 脸色 - literally translates to face color, this means to check on the general state of their spirit. 

3. Look around their living environment. Notice whether they need help with daily tasks like laundry or watering the plants. 

4. Consider access to material resources. Do they have what they need to be okay for the next week? Month? 

5. Ask about recent updates and play out non-obvious causes and effects. Could they lose their job because they got sick? 

6. If you can’t get a good read on how they're doing, pull the gossip card and ask mutual friends for additional context. 

7. Use your intuition to sense what will make their life easier. Extra cash, some company, a home cooked meal? 

8. If you have identified a critical need that you don't have the skills or capacity to fulfill on your own, seek out resources across both your networks. 

9. Serve in the most timely, holistic, and unceremonial way possible. Try not to demand the labor of gratitude or expect anything in return. 

10. Pay attention to how they respond as a learning opportunity to understand their needs more acutely.  

11. Keep a consistent practice to build the muscle of community care with each other in the long run. 


This piece was originally published in the Are.na Annual 2023, available here.

Alice Yuan Zhang 张元 is a Chinese-American media artist and cultural organizer. Her transdisciplinary practice operates on cyclical and intergenerational time. Along the peripheries of colonialist imagination, she works to bring technology down to earth by devising collective experiments in ancestral remembering, interspecies pedagogy, and networked solidarity.