Transcending Debt: Meet the Feminist Economics Department
Recently, MIT researchers showed that escaping poverty in America requires 20 years of nothing going wrong — no diseases, no job losses, no car accidents, no sick kids. That demands protection, and today, protections come through the marketplace, carrying financial and psychic costs.
The artist Cassie Thornton invites us to imagine the “psychic architecture of financialization” — the structures built and reinforced by debt, precarity, depleted attention spans and collective distrust. Thornton’s work is a series of radical interventions that leads us to see these traumas as systemic problems and to address their repair collectively. As Thornton asks, “Is it just me, or does everything that supports your thriving ultimately destroy your thriving?”
Thornton created the Feminist Economics Department to examine the unconscious effects of debt, economic precarity, and the constant search for an elusive security. Through dance, yoga, public interventions, new media and other forms, Thornton seeks “a feminist economics that acknowledges trauma and asks the undercommoners who are tired, hiding, scared, or in bed now, who have been stolen from, ignored and violated, what could be offered to repair what has been broken by power and finance — and how.”
Eryk Salvaggio talked with Thornton ahead of her performative lecture at swissnex San Francisco, Feminist Economics: Dismantling the Collective Psychic Architecture of Financialization, part of the You had to be there exhibition at the swissnex Gallery.
Can you define what feminist economics is for you?
For me, the simplest way to talk about it is to think about an economy where the decisions that we make aren’t based on how much money we have, but on what would increase health or support life the most efficiently.
How do you bring this forward in your work?
I think of my work as being site-specific pedagogy for people that don’t necessarily know they want it. So this means that I get invited — or I invite myself — into situations where I can create an experience where people don’t necessarily know that they’re experiencing the possibility of a feminist economics, but they are anyway.
So one of the early projects is a hypnosis project, where I’d get all kinds of people — different class orientations, races, locations, work, etc — and I’d invite them to imagine their debt as an image or an architectural space.
After the financial collapse of 2008, I wanted to think about the relationship between financial debt and the unconscious. So I did as much as I could to learn about the global economy and the way that debt works as a system. Then I’d convince people to trust me enough to talk about their debt — and then I would hypnotize them. They’d imagine their debt as an image, and these images became metaphors. Afterwards, I found that I could talk to people about debt without the same stigma that followed the word at that time.
It’s important to say here that to me debt is not only financial, or personal. I think the debt we are living with is often collective, connected to histories of colonialism, racism, debts to history and to the future, debts to the people who support us and who need us, as well as the predatory global financial instruments that our contemporary states and municipalities are built on. It’s overwhelming when we start to see that the economy is not actually about money, it’s about the way we have and will treat each other, and for many people it’s outside of what they have time or space to imagine.
I had started doing this in grad school with student debtors, but at one point I began to do debt visualizations with people like investment bankers and hedge fund managers. As an artist with a commission from a gallery, I’d ask to meet their board of directors (who almost always work in finance or law), and then their board’s friends, and their friends. I got to see how debt manifested as an image, or as a space inside of those people’s imaginations. I got to see patterns that connected what the wealthy saw with the visions of the poor, and to see that nobody was doing particularly well, whether they were rich or poor, because some kind of specter of debt was haunting everyone.
I started to take those images from the visualizations and create objects and architectural installations based on them as a way of creating a kind of public access tour of debt as a political subject, instead of a personal issue. I tried to make situations where the things that we avoid — the obstacles we go over without thinking about it, especially as it relates to economics or capitalism — were physical experiences, not just haunting ideas. These things include very austere playgrounds, piñatas, soundscapes, and immersive performances.
GIVE ME CRED
What’s interesting about your work is that it asks you to step outside and see that architecture for what it is. How do you approach making work that makes that explicit?
In my career as an artist, I’ve done a lot of secret interventions into people’s lives that they didn’t know were coming! So I’ve been creating these situations where I have a chance to be with people and help them situate their personal story within a set of social, political and economic conditions that cause them to feel like a part of society, for better or for worse. When it works, people can be liberated from the shame of “failing” as an economic subject, and replace that with angst against the system that is causing them, and most everyone else, to fail.
Here’s an example: When I lived in San Francisco in 2010, there was a huge influx of tech workers coming into the Mission, which displaced a lot of lifelong residents. It became really hard for displaced people to find a place to live. So many of my friends were expelled from our city, some with their heads down.
One of the many weapons that kept people from getting apartments was (and is) that landlords check your credit score as a way to judge whether or not you were a trustworthy applicant. If you have medium-to-poor credit — you know, if you have an interesting life, or more likely, that you paid an expensive emergency medical bill late, it is very easy for a landlord to reject your application for housing. People with bad credit at that time were spending up to two years searching for a place to live, while the cost of rent was ballooning by 1000% in just a few years.
I saw that it was too easy for a landlord to deny someone an apartment based on a credit report, even if the decision was actually based in racism, or wanting to have some wealthier, Silicon Valley type of people move in and raise the rents. This situation leads the most radical people to become super obedient, afraid of making a mistake that will upset their credit — because it has real consequences. I thought that there might be a way to help the landlords see what kind of a bad system they were upholding, if they could see that there was a different way of making decisions.
So I started making Auxiliary Credit Reports from an alternative credit reporting bureau I called ‘Give Me Cred!’. I advertised on Craigslist and put posters all over San Francisco that said “If you’re having a hard time getting an apartment because you have a bad credit score, you can participate in an experimental process to get a different type of score.”
People would send me their credit report and their resume, and I would interview them. “Why did you stop paying your bills? Why did you stop working for these years?” I would start creating a profile for them, a short bio about what was going on behind that credit score. Then I created an official looking document that they could staple to their credit report and give to a landlord or potential employer.
And they’d go to their next interview and get an apartment! Maybe the form worked, but really what worked for people was talking to someone who was paying attention to what was going on, politically and economically, and who could say “There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s a lot going wrong with what’s around us, so let’s figure out a rationale to get you to believe you deserve to have your basic needs met.”
Most of those people had a medical emergency, or a death in their family, and things fell apart. Because of the economic conditions around them, their credit score wasn’t good. But they weren’t bad people and their credit score had nothing to do with how trustworthy they were. After our conversation, they would feel like they deserved an apartment, or a job, and that they weren’t criminals or failures.
The piece on display at swissnex Gallery, The People’s Virtual Reality (2018), documents an intervention, too — can you describe the process behind it?
When I started the project that resulted in the video at swissnex, I wanted to figure out how to sneak into yoga studios and teach a course on feminist economics, using yoga as a delivery system. I felt that feminist economics, which is a social science, could actually be a really good practice, and I wanted to offer it to people who didn’t know to want it. So many people didn’t know they wanted to hear Angela Davis, Silvia Federici and The Coup while they removed their nervous system from the global economy as an asana!
Yoga is the excuse for me to be with people and work with rigorous subject matter without entering academia. In yoga class, people are open and willing to listen to the news that they have to change their lives in order to stop perpetuating the systems that make their lives suck. Basically, I’m trying to use the space of a yoga class to create the same type of experience as I did with the credit reports. I’m trying to say — through words and somatic movement — “we are all set up in a society that does not actually support us, that doesn’t mean that you are bad, but you may need to change your habits so you don’t reproduce it.” In the yoga class, I use the social occasion to practice new forms of trust and experimental togetherness that might actually be the opposite of most of our socio-economic experiences.
This project is trying to use yoga as a secret delivery system for a lot of information and experiences that are extremely difficult, and that is why pairing the political and economic theory with movement is really important. I also use the visualization techniques I learned when practicing debt visualizations. One set we frequently do involves asking people to imagine themselves moving through a wall of financialization, and afterwards they explain what they saw to the group. The video installation at swissnex represents some of what those visualizations have looked like.
Yoga is an interesting platform, because it’s been very corporatized, at least in the Bay Area.
I think that yoga has been disappointing politically — it’s a social technology that has been neutralized and turned into a type of neoliberal self-help that we can only use to help us fix ourselves, and only just enough so we can continue to participate in a predatory economy that teaches us to hate ourselves if we don’t produce. I can’t believe more people aren’t trying to manipulate yoga for political means — to inspire a collective political movement. Obviously many people are manipulating yoga to make money, which is so boring.
But yoga is this incredible, recession-proof technology. When the economy tanks, the yoga industry grows. This is because for many people, these classes are their only relief from a life of constant lifesucking work. It’s humbling for me to enter that space of relief and repair. My will is to subvert my role as a yoga teacher. I am there to take advantage of the openness, and to use the class to push students to rethink their social and political habits and take responsibility for changing our society, together. I’m really torquing the “poses,” pushing people to think and move in new ways that can be intense.
The number of Americans who participate in yoga, in one way or the other, is huge. I want to throw a cog in it! What if you had a network of subversive teachers who were trained to help people think about their political agency, using their bodies, and their power as potential social movement organizers? It’s such an opportunity.
The more intensely cerebral and intellectual our culture gets, the less embodied it becomes — and the stupider our decisions get, because they’re all from an intellectual place, but not in a way that’s observant of what is right in front of us. Obviously yoga is being manipulated by a mindfulness movement which is super neoliberal, and pushed by tech companies and corporations, and is becoming vapid in that way. But it has so much radical potential, and it grates at me that it’s so easily dismissed, when what we really value as a society are the things that ruin us. But I’m trying to navigate the yoga world for its political and artistic potential.
Once called "the Harry Potter of the Digital Vanguard," Eryk studied new media art and journalism at the University of Maine and Global Media at the London School of Economics.
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