From Debts to Gifts...
Interview with Cassie Thornton
Greetings Art Workers!
This month’s newsletter, FROM DEBTS TO GIFTS, has been shaped by ongoing conversations about how to distribute the benefits and burdens of decarbonisation in the art world. How will we spread damages and reparations in a way that preserves the well-being of all? What fundamental changes will this require? Who will have to reduce what? To address some of these questions, I have been thinking a lot about how the roles of subtraction and pleasure show up in our daily lives. As a dear friend reminded me the other week, why do we never talk about how many of us are addicted to the pleasures of fossil fuel extraction? The gifts, goods, and treats that we are inured to?
Since the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, there has been a public consensus on achieving an equitable transition to a low-carbon planet. In theory, poorer parts of the world have longer to wean themselves off carbon than richer nations, who have long-benefited from the luxuries of oil and Petroculture. Recently, I heard two staggering statistics. If the UK are to honour a commitment to an equitable transition, our fair 1.5% territorial carbon budget gives us between 2-12 years at the current rate of carbon emissions. Secondly, if there were regulations to force the top 10% of individual carbon emitters to cut their CO2 footprint to the EU’s average for a single person and the other 90% of the population make no reductions whatsoever, that would make a ⅓ cut in total global CO2 emissions. Inter and intra-equity are key to achieving a Just Transition.
While speaking and writing about an equitable transition, unjust invasions, genocide and occupations continue to rage on in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Western Sahara and many other places. In March I was asked to write an essay about the convoluted histories of renewable energy and contemporary art (more on this next month). In it I look at how many are suffering at the hands of a “clean” energy transition through land grabs, redirection of critical life-sources, exploitation and violence. In 2022, scaling up renewable energy to service all the earth’s inhabitants is critically urgent. But appropriation and dispossession, hallmarks of green grabbing and green colonialism, are less expected in the renewable era, an age typified as supposedly abundant and regenerative.
Art workers of all kinds play a very material role in these realities. In parallel with civil disobedience and action, there is a lot of work to do to grow our understanding about the threads that link us to these happenings and our complicity in these regimes. Self-critical conversations are needed to think about how the circulation of wealth, economic security, and weaning ourselves off of a consumption lifestyle feed into the arts sector and beyond. Discussions that lead to clear-cut actions.
To help me think more about the issues of equity and value, subtraction and pleasure, we have an INTERVIEW with artist and activist CASSIE THORNTON (FEMINIST ECONOMICS DEPARTMENT). She is a marvellous weaver of dreams, desires, and communities, and is using these skills to create projects about radical care and post-work. I spoke with Cassie about ‘Artworld’ abolition and how a gift economy is a viable alternative to the precarity and competition that comes with Capitalist-living. You can read the interview below.
Please make sure to check out our MESSAGES at the end of the newsletter and consider taking our very short Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline SURVEY.
Interview with Cassie Thornton: From Debt to Gifts…
The Hologram (http://thehologram.xyz) is a health monitoring protocol and peer to peer health network that invites people to reimagine their own health as it connects to the health of others. Through regular meetings, a users’ physical, mental, and social health are listened to and supported by members of their ‘triangle’. In its creation, The Hologram drew inspiration from Greek solidarity clinics to imagine a new plan for building a model of non-hierarchical care and support for a post-pandemic future.
1. Tell us about a day in the life of your fast-growing, radical peer-to-peer self-care network, The Hologram?
Yesterday, the first thing I did was re-listen to a voice note from a friend who we will call Astro. Astro is a close companion, a facilitator for one of The Hologram projects and someone I have always called when I needed help seeing a different story than I was able to see on my own. This person is also a member of my personal Hologram, a group of three people who monitor my physical, social and emotional health in regular meetings. Astro sends THE BEST care packages. We had met early this week to discuss how to hire an administrator or organiser for The Hologram. Sometimes I need to reconnect to the friend-conversation after a work conversation because our lives are so intertwined. Tonight, I look forward to seeing Astro again, online, for my own personal Hologram where they will ask me lots of amazing questions about my "physical" health, which might include anything from my home, my body, medicine, food or other material things that affect my health and life.
In the Hologram, the connections involved in organising are very layered. We have developed a pretty tightly woven network of relationships that involve formal and informal modes of caretaking, friendship, collaboration, and post-work. This means that when we need to make a project decision, or have a meeting, we understand a bit more about why someone feels the way they do, or at least we have the grounds to ask deeply about how they act. This approach is key to what The Hologram is but it means things move quite slowly, because sometimes we are waiting for our collaborators who are also our friends to have the space, the health, or the energy to come to a meeting.
After I listened to Astro's voice note, which was about our parallel recoveries from difficult things, I wrote an email to a small group of us who are working on a long-term project. For about 6 months a small group has been discussing and planning a conference using The Hologram to look at gift economies. I then read the feedback I had received from one of the people I collaborate with most to keep the larger organisation together. We will call this person Jadwiga. I had sent Jadwiga a list of 10 questions at the beginning of 2022 about how their experience and growth was while working with me and on The Hologram in 2021. I had used money given to me by a charitable foundation to support Jadwiga to be my co-pilot for last year. My intention was that they would dethrone me a little, since I am the founder. I wanted someone to take some of my power away and to be with me through what I expected to be a challenging year. I read their honest, heartfelt responses and got a lot of energy and clarity from them. I am a person who asks for feedback all the time, but who has trouble facing it once it arrives. This was a little transformative experience for me.
I rushed to shower so I could go meet Jadwiga with another collaborator we will call Creek, at a cafe. It was one of the first sunny days of the spring in Berlin. We were meeting with a woman who had built a tiny house, who had offered to let us use it to open a Hologram clinic. We met with this person for an hour to discuss what it would cost to use this tiny house and if it was viable. Afterwards we discussed the way we might be able to use Artworld money to buy this house and then how we would quickly give it to a person in need of a home once we were done. Ultimately, it still felt and feels a bit too close to property ownership, a drag that The Hologram might be too wise for.
I went home after and read an amazing article sent to me by a friend who facilitates meetings for The Hologram. The article was about how people imagine what post-work is, and how it connects to care. I fell asleep for an hour before I went online for a hologram gathering online at 9pm, which lasted about 3 hours. At The Hologram gathering that night, which we call the PRACTICE PORTAL, new people were welcomed into a situation with many well practised hologrammers. Astro was there, Jadwiga and Creek were there. It is interesting to recount how many times and in how many ways we who organise The Hologram are entangled. It is more than interesting how much a project can become a world.
2. In 2022, we rely on costs to shape how we engage with one another, rendering every decision within the prism of what is the cheapest option. In the US and the UK, people are being turned away from hospitals because they can't afford a doctor or are reduced to using food banks to feed their families. Health, care and social systems aren't just broken—actually the fact that many have little whilst a few have a lot—is, arguably, how much public infrastructure was built to operate. It often feels as if capitalist relations are the blueprint for all interactions. Comparatively, a gift economy model prioritises living beings’ needs as the way to determine social interplay. Theoretically, in a gift-based society, no one would go without care or be hungry because their needs would be met. The gift economy challenges what it means, in a social sense, to be in pain, to dream, or desire. Can you say something about the potential gift thinking has?
I recently participated in a salon with Miki Kashtan, Vandana Shiva and Genevieve Vaughn. Miki Kashtan described how, when two people have needs, (for example, a wealthy doctor and a poor house cleaner) the needs of the housecleaner are heard less than the needs of the doctor because money's demands are louder. The power of money will allow one person to get better care faster and the question of who needs the care most will not have any impact on how the care is delivered. It was the first time that I began to imagine what it would mean to live in a way where resources were distributed based on need.
If resources were distributed based on need, I think that exchange may not take place in the same way. It might be that the person with the need simply receives the medicine, the care, the water, the food. And that's it. No debt, no paying, no guilt, no feeling like a failure for not having everything you need.
Genevieve Vaughn is, for me, the mechanic behind the gift economy. She describes in granular detail how and why we must separate giving from receiving. If we as a society could give based on need, we would not automatically give everything to the most powerful or richest people. Resources would not be so unequally distributed.
I've been speaking about care models with fellow artist, organiser and co-founder of Virtual Care Lab, Alice Yuan Zhang. Alice has been observing and thinking about what she calls "informal mutual aid" by watching her mother, Hongmei, organise home visits within an informal network of friends in LA. "Partly coming from tradition, from Chinese culture, also from Buddhist teachings, immigrant survival tactics, and collectivist instincts, I think that what my mom does creates a way to embody solidarity." Alice has described to me the way that her mother makes home visits when people she knows are not well or when she worries about them. She has explained to Alice some formal steps that she takes to observe and respond to needs in a way that is both friendly but also a structured home visit. A home visit includes bringing fresh foods, and other gifts that can help an ailing person. But the interesting thing is that "there's the 'home visit' (拜访) as a colloquial Chinese etiquette thing, and it's part of what she knows... but I would just note that she's not doing any leading, devising, or formalising. It doesn't have to happen at someone's house or even in-person (lots of WeChat voice messages and gifts at the door during the pandemic instead). It's really just a deeper way of checking which is this shared instinct that these folks have with each other, including my mother."
Hongmei spoke (reticently) with Alice about some of her strategies for such multimedia home visits despite the perception that they were "nothing special". Upon meeting a friend in their home, she would look closely at their face to assess how they are doing. Do they look happy? Do they have colour in their face? Do they look stressed or tired? She also listens closely to their tone of voice for a change, and looks around the house. Do they have what they need? If they are sick, what are the financial strains they are suffering? Based on what she sees, what other people in the network offer, and prior experience caring for people, she would bring her friend the things they need to heal, but also to feel cared for.
This is really interesting to me, because in discussions about care, many people have revealed to me that they are afraid to offer such direct support. They feel insufficient, or like they might make a mistake and hurt someone. There is a cry for expertise, or a fear of giving support without being an expert. I wonder what makes the difference between being afraid to help and actively doing it? Is it an emergency? Is it practice?
In many less collectivist cultures, it seems that it is hard to receive care without a direct exchange. In Alice's stories about her mom (Alice and I are from the US, thus we use mom) and the informal mutual care network that she is observing, it seems that there is more of a culture of care than an exchange. It is okay to receive care from friends and know that there is enough to go around. I am guessing that sometimes there aren't actually a lot of resources (whether that is time, energy, money, or supplies) but it doesn't matter when there is a group who is sharing what they have.
For me, being able to experience the separation of giving from receiving (and vice versa) necessitates the understanding that we are a part of a community where there is enough to go around, and we trust that we do and will have what we need. It means that we can give freely without feeling like we are owed something. It also means that we can receive without feeling in debt to someone or something.
3. A core concern for Sunlight Doesn't Need a Pipeline is, how are we going to distribute the benefits and burdens of decarbonisation? In other words, how will we spread damages and reparations? What fundamental changes will this require? Who will have to reduce what? And how much will it cost; economically and morally? To realise any form of just transition depends on a radical transformation of the political and economic world, where we see human and multispecies get into better relationships with the forces that organise their surroundings and move away from dominant and destructive relations of wealth, power, and money. Recently, you've been researching the Gift Economy, a mode of exchange where valuables are not sold, but rather given and received. As a concept, gifting excites me a great deal. Conceiving things as gifts changes our relationship to our surroundings in a profound way and allows us to imagine society and social relations beyond market-based capitalism. Can you tell us more about your particular interest in gift economies and how you propose to use it in the arts sector?
I think the arts sector as we know it should be abolished. There are more old and sick people than ever. I think that art institutions should turn into creatively run clinics, hospitals, elder care centres, childcare places. I think artists should become caregivers and they should re-imagine what medicine and care can look like outside of capitalism.
When I say that I want to abolish the artworld, I am talking about the professional art “world”, as it has been developed according to market-based capitalism where only the most "special people"(mostly people from wealth and education) are welcomed to produce things that contain a magic form of value. I think that if we lived in a gift economy, art and creativity would be a part of everyone or anyone's life. It wouldn't have to be a job or an identity or a market. I think the art world as we know it produces a lot of narcissistic characteristics in the people who are trapped inside of it. People who are trained to survive in the North American and European art world economy are led to believe that all they need to do is represent themselves very well. It is enough to speak and work symbolically as the world burns. I think the artworld is necropolitical at this point. To work symbolically, to focus on self-improvement and the growth of a passive audience, and to continue to put energy and money into the artworld feels like a death wish at this point while we are enduring so many emergencies.
I am interested in helping people out of the artworld and academia, where they may find purpose. I am not totally in the clear, I also may need a hand to step all the way off the boat. There are many people who work with me on The Hologram who are not interested or a part of the artworld and they really help hold me to my ideals, and not to get sucked into working for prestige instead of transformation.
I think that The Hologram can help people to step out of institutions. My vision is to offer The Hologram as a practice and an idea to anyone who will take it. Having repeated attention and questions from three people, over time, can help anyone to see themselves and connect to what they most want to do, and what is most needed. It can also give people confidence that they know how to offer really good care. It might also give a small slice of a feeling that one is inside of a culture where there are enough resources, that there are moments of being seen and safe among others who also are. This can also create stability from where artists or other artworld people might be clear headed and brave enough to make fewer compromises.
4. Climate Emergency requires a radical shift from the conventional worldview that fossil fuel companies rely upon to continue their work of extractivism. We need to change from a world where we burn, consume, own, enclose and bomb to something abundant. Lately, I’ve been thinking about Robin Wall Kimmerer and her writing on reciprocity as one of the core principles of a gift economy. If we saw everything in terms of gift-giving our relation to the sun, sea, and air are fundamentally changed. Of course, I am definitely not advocating for a utopian “return to the land” far from it. But to imagine a worldview where the sun’s rays, the tides pull, the wind’s strength are not resources to be used for our sole benefit. It is to recognise something that is greater than ourselves but is also a part of ourselves. This co-operative responsibility seems at odds with a western-northern hegemonic mindset and I have begun to critique much of the communication around renewable energy as a continuation of the configuration of power as opposed to something truly regenerative. Could you tell us more about your thinking on the social and moral agreements of reciprocity and what a web of reciprocity might look like?
When I lived in Canada and began to harvest plants and medicines with badass Indigenous women and Two Spirit people, they laughed at me because I didn't know how to speak to plants, and I didn't foresee their needs or desires. You have to put down tobacco before you take something from a plant. You need to talk to it and ask permission, let it know what you are up to, and why you need it. Then you thank it. But no one gave me instructions or forced me, they just showed me by doing it. One day I was harvesting pine needles with a friend so we could make traditional baskets at the women's prison. I heard laughing when I tried to speak with the trees. My friend had a special Ojibwe name for a laughing tree. The friend noticed that the trees were a weird colour for fall. She got very quiet for the afternoon.
If you recognise, as many Indigenous cultures do, that humans are land, then it is impossible to continue life as usual if you notice that your friend or family member, the land, is sick. I am not there yet but I know it is possible because I have seen it. Everything would change if we felt like we WERE the land. If the things that came out of the land were also us, they wouldn't be resources. They would be friends.
In a story written by Ursula K. LeGuin called Newton's Sleep (1994), a privileged and healthy sector of society leaves a decimated earth behind, and begins to live on spaceships that exist as utopian human islands of activity in a vast universe. As the first generation of children are born there who have not touched earth, the inhabitants of this space ship begin to have collective visions. First, many people begin to see a woman who is lurking around the ship, who is burned all over. As the story unfolds, there are many other visions shared by groups of people, where they see other humans, vegetation and animals that were neglected and left behind on earth. In a purely tech landscape, a vine grows. The visions seem to haunt the humans with what they attempted to forget about Earth.
If people are land, they are the earth, and wherever we go, we will bring Earth and what we have done to it, with us. If we see the fossil fuels we take out of the ground as resources, but we recognise that we also come out of the ground, we also see ourselves as resources. What if "we" were more than resources for financial capital? How would we treat ourselves and each other if we weren't trying to make ourselves into the most valuable resource in an economy that systematically cheapens and depletes all valuable resources?
I really am not so advanced; I just have been told very important things. My hope is that by creating systems where people can experience solidarity and can see themselves in each other, they will begin to see themselves as more than resources. I think this will make it easier for them to see other people that way too. And in some way I think that is what is necessary to create a web of mutuality and reciprocity.
Thank you so much for your time, and your honest and considered answers.
Cassie Thornton is an artist and activist from the US, currently living between Canada and Berlin, Germany. She refers to herself as a feminist economist, a title that frames her work as that of a social scientist actively preparing for the economics of a future society that produces health and life without the tools that reproduce oppression— like money, police or prisons. She is currently the co-director of the Re-Imagining Value Action Lab in Thunder Bay, an art and social centre at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of The Hologram Feminist, Peer-to-Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future available from Pluto Press.
✍✍✍📝📝 The Sunlight Doesn’t Need a Pipeline SURVEY One of our goals for SDNAP is to involve the voices and needs of the communities it serves. We are keen to listen to as many art and/or education workers to find out more about what is useful, important and urgent to work on. We would be immensely grateful if you could take 10 minutes out of your day to fill out this short survey on decarbonisation and the arts by 30 April 2022.
Take our survey! https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/FF1V6G/
🧑🏻🔬🧑🏼🔬🧑🏽🔬🧑🏾🔬🧑🏿🔬👨🔬👩🔬 Kingston University (KU) Green Impact Scheme Across 2021, Kingston University launched its Green Impact scheme. Green Impact is a United Nations award-winning programme designed to support environmentally and socially sustainable practices and behaviours and breaks down the often-complex world of sustainability into simple, meaningful, and manageable actions. If you are associated with KU and would like to get involved please check it out: https://greenimpact.org.uk/kingston
🌼🌸❀✿🌷 Hogsmill Community Garden The flowers are starting to bloom and Kingston School of Art’s (KSA’s) Architecture Department are currently constructing their (sustainable) design proposals for a new building in the garden. If you are in the area, please do check it out! https://www.facebook.com/hogsmillcommunitygarden/
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