The Australian publication Dancehouse Diary has published a conversation between me and Cassie Thornton, of the Feminist Economics Department. It is part of a really interesting special issue about Money and can be found here: http://www.dancehousediary.com.au/?p=3179
Cassie Thornton: Where does crowdfunding sit for you? Is there any potential at all for activating the public through financial support? Is there any possibility of using it as a way to work on a larger scale by accessing people through their spinal tap to the market?
Max Haiven: I think, in a way, it’s one of the worst new developments of contemporary “cognitive” capitalism, and also one with a hidden promise. From one angle, it’s just another way that the market and the state can transfer risk onto the individual and their community, a perfect example of how, as workers, we are tasked with not only having our bodies exploited, but also having to compete to actualise our dreams by tapping every “resource” imaginable – including social networks, friend circles and family. On the other hand, though, one thing it can reveal is just how much power we have, the vitality of the commons that surround us, the “resources” at our disposal within our communities. Crowdfunding appeals to us in part because it offers up to us, in fragmented, monetised form, a holographic shard of our collective potential. So for me, the key question about crowdfunding is: how can this be used not only to boost our individual commercial dream, or facilitate our merest economic survival, but rather to build tools and toys for us to, collectively, exit capitalism and capitalist social relations?
CT: Is there such thing (theoretically or actually) as a pure or clean financial model for supporting art beyond avoiding money altogether?
MH: I don’t think there is, but who really wants purity or cleanliness? I think, in a way, art as “art” and modern forms of money have always dirtied each-other, and in fact emerge together, dirty as sin, in the forging of colonialism and capitalism, in the 18th century. Before this time, “art” doesn’t really exist separate from craft or entertainment or religious propaganda. It emerges as a tool or toy for the European male bourgeoisie to legitimate their claims to intellectual and cultural superiority, in contrast to both the working class, women and colonised “others” who were held to be inherently incapable of innovation and creativity. But it’s no accident, I think, that modern forms of financialised money emerge at the same time, from the same toxic soup of social forces. From the Dutch Golden Age to the English Restoration to 19th Century Paris to 20th Century New York, the connection between “contemporary” artistic production and increasingly abstract financial speculation is undeniable, and filthy to the core. But it works both ways. We tend to imagine that money infects or sullies art, but financial history could equally be narrated as one in which increasingly abstract figuration, surreal visualisation and aesthetic chaos seep into what is presumed to be the antiseptic, mimetic rationality of the market. Which is all to say, I’m for the abolition of capitalism (the rule of society by money) and also the abolition of “art as such.” And I think until we get there (and maybe after) support for the arts will always be dirty. But maybe that’s a good thing, if we can leverage it, right?
CT: What would the performative embodiment of your desires or plans for a collectively run economy (if that is your desire and master plan) look like? On what scale would it exist?
MH: I think a lot these days about randomness and how gloriously important it is. So I’m really interested in systems like the one presented in Ursula K. Le Guin’s masterpiece about an anarchist planet The Dispossessed, where a computer just sort of randomly distributes the shitty work in temporary allotments amongst everyone in society. What is missing in that book, and that we can observe in other civilisations, not as obsessed with certainty and “risk management” as our own, is the way we humans create rituals aroun
d randomness and create Gods and supernatural forces to explain chance. I’d be interested in how, in that future world where a brain surgeon might end up also working sewage duty or in a day-care once a week, we would develop dances and chants and incantations to help us deal with it. Of course we already do. Who doesn’t practice these sort of private, superstitious micro-rituals when we buy lottery tickets, or take a plane or do one of a million things where we roll the metaphorical dice? Usually it’s so lonely, so individualised and shameful. And there’s a lot of scholarly literature on the financial sector which indicates that a lot of financial models and instruments are little more than superstitious fetish objects, used to provide the illusion of control over an uncontrollable market. There’s a modernist dream that we could have a society without such fetishes, superstitions and games, where chance is tamed. But I actually think we should have more, so long as they are an organic, non-coercive and a kind of a shared joke in a society where we all have what we need and most of what we want. So to answer your question, I’m for a republic of giggling.
Max Haiven: In a lot of your work you use hypnotic visualisation, song and creative movement to collaborate with unusual suspects (teachers, financial workers, university students, retirees, children) to evoke a collective expression of our relationships to money, finance and debt. Within and between all of these, have you met the market? Can you tell us what it’s like, truly? What does it fear?
Cassie Thornton: The market is alive inside of us. We want what it wants because there hasn’t been a lot of time or space away from it. I feel as if I have had many more conversations with the market than I have had with anyone else. I don’t think the market has fears. I think it is a cancerous growth and its only function is preserving its own multiplication. If it had a fear it would only be that it might stop or slow its own growth. But that won’t happen so long as we allow it to fill all the soft or sleepy parts of us. I’ve asked many people (for science) what they would do if they had no financial limitations whatsoever, and they typically say “go on a vacation to Europe and eat whatever I want.” For how long? “A month. Or hell, maybe even 6 weeks.” So anything is possible, yet what you say you want is a fancy experience of eating meat in some globalised city that wants you to invest in its generalised cultural capital and real estate, all so that it can secure its borders against people who cannot afford its fancy meat? That’s not the person wanting, it is the market. It has possessed them and taken over their entire sense of reality and desire. So the reason that I have been hypnotising people is that I want to understand, or even touch, real human desire, I want to try to meet the person without the interference of the market. So I invite them into a rationalised limpness, where they can relax and expose a part of their minds that is living in secret below the financialised layers of programming. In different ways, I ask people to “visualise” the market as separate from themselves. What does it look like? What is it made of? It always surprises me that so many people are able to want this, but people seem to be looking for a way out of fancy meat cycles.
MH: In previous pieces ,you spent a lot of time observing and coordinating the movement of people in financial institutions, such as banks. For instance, in your piece Physical Audit (2012), you and a team of dancers visited multiple New York City bank branches in order to, in a coordinated way, touch their various surfaces. What do you think these sorts of projects teach us about the movements of money, and the impact of money on our movements?
CT: Have you ever seen two people use an ABM (Automatic Banking Machine) at once? How about ten people? I think it is an important thing to witness. The Physical Audit existed as a form of pedagogy for us, the dancers. We went to banks and performed a series of actions that were counter to what one is allowed to do in those spaces. We learned that taking physical risks in the bank is outside of regulation. We began by going to the ABM machine in pairs. Eventually, we took over banks by touching everything. To begin, one person closed their eyes and gave the other person their ABM card and their PIN number. This person, the blind person, was then lead into the bank by their partner, who manipulated their body to use the ABM. The blind person’s hands were held to the touch screen by their partner (a relative stranger), and their accounts were accessed with their body, but without their control. At one point, five pairs of people were in one Chase Bank vestibule. We almost left because we were so afraid of the cleaning service man who had come in while we were working. He didn’t do anything; he just cleaned while we worked. And we were afraid of the customers who came to use the ABM, but they got in line, avoided eye contact, and pretended not to notice. Then, we were afraid of the police who walked by. They didn’t look. And finally we were afraid of the cameras, whose eyes we could not see. We were not gratified by an outside disciplinarian, not even chastised or warned. We were only allowed to do what we could allow ourselves to do. This group was primarily young, female, queer and culturally diverse. But, if our genders, ages, or aesthetics had been different, it is clear that people other than ourselves would have sought to police us. As a collective practice, we gave one another a framework to stay in our bodies and to play inside these very “clean” and tightly “regulated” banking spaces. Using the body to break through collective mental and emotional blockades in this way, we created muscle memory and strength that we can and will reuse and share.
MH: If you were to design a public, state-funded arts program today, one specifically crafted to support critical work about money and economics, what would it look and feel like? What would its objectives be?
CT: In every town and city, an annual convocation would be held for artists, activists, interested people and property owners. What would take place would look like a court hearing, where every property owner must present documentation of how their property is creating value for the community. This testimony would be taken into account by the people in attendance, who would then decide collectively on how each of the un-useful, latent or speculative properties should be used. As the result of the meeting, each property owner would be given a contract that would stipulate the uses of the property as defined by the group. The hearing would also define the amount of taxes to be collected from the owners of inactive or unbeneficial land, and this would define the amount of money that would be available for a living wage for every person who desires this support (with special funding available for projects that activate or reveal unfound privatised spaces). This program would coexist with a large-scale, self-reproducing, viral, free school that would appear to expand naturally around a shared but morphing set of ideals against private property (think of the Alcoholics Anonymous model). Its social events would take place inside the dormant real estate. Standard events and classes would include workshops that illuminate and creatively deal with our attachments to property, money, hierarchical tendencies, coercive power and so on – all taught by local artists, activists and people.