Forms Of Ownership: Interview with Vienne Chan and Boris Oicherman
Published 23 November 2020 by Rob La Frenais
The Rencontres Internationales Monde-s Multiple-s, formerly Rencontres Bandits-Mages, was to be held in Bourges from November 13 to December 6, 2020. But the lockdown has decided otherwise and the festival switches online. Makery joins the exhibition of the EMAP network, European Media Art Platform, and presents the different projects that were to be exhibited in Bourges. Interview with Vienne Chan and Boris Oicherman from Forms of Ownership.
The Forms Of Ownership collective was to meet at M-Cult, Helsinki, to explore new ways of approaching money. As this happened during the pandemic, only Vienne Chan, who has been exploring parallel currencies and modern monetary theory, was able to attend the residency for a few weeks and participate in Money Lab 9. The other members of the group are Obsessive Possessive Aggression, who explore viral techniques like tactical media, subversive affirmation and over-identification strategies like the 300 pro-Trump websites in Macedonia during the last US election; legal theorist and novelist Alan Cunningham; and scientist-turned artist and curator Boris Oicherman. The group created a project called ‘Care Project Administration’ which includes a manifesto and an ambitious proposal for a Money Art project called ‘The Institute of Care’ which looks at economic social action to provide carework with the funding it needs and to create an alternative to private pension funds. I asked Vienne Chan and Boris Oicherman to tell me more about this ambitious idea.
Instructions For Proper Care – Alan Cunningham (Forms of Ownership), trailer:
Makery: In your manifesto and proposal for the Institute of Care, you start combatively, attacking some of the new models for replacing the social functions of the state: “Fuck altruism. Fuck GoFundMe. Fuck ‘Friends and Family’. Money is a right, and rights are a democratic question.” It seems this creative anger is a driver. Would you like to elaborate?
Boris Oicherman: A significant part of the apparent anger is actually a stylistic choice. This is a manifesto, a genre that calls for directness, some degree of exaggeration and provocation. We are also, to a degree, mimicking the style of the “Maintenance Manifesto” by Mierle Ukeles Laderman, whose inspiration we acknowledge. However, some of the anger is real. It is driven by realisation that the single factor that makes human society human – care and interdependence – is the one that is least valued and cared for in all dominant economic and political systems. As artists, we look at this and ask – where should we channel our anger, and creativity, to address this problem?
Vienne Chan: Maybe it’s just that we don’t want to beat around the bush anymore. These things are charity and they certainly help to provide much needed relief, but they are band-aid solutions. Altruism gets so much positive moral value that there is a tendency to not see how these models move rights to a private, individual level that exacerbates inequalities. They are dependent on your existing network having individuals who have extra money they can – and are willing to – part with. They dissolve the organising power of the commons. I’m not sure about the creativity and anger part.
You acknowledge the influence of the veteran social sculpture artist Mierle Ukeles. I remember her large scale Garbage Truck Parades well. Do you hope to have a similar effect?
Boris Oicherman: The most important aspect of Ukeles’ work for us is not any specific artwork, but the legacy of feminizing art, specifically declaring care and maintenance as art. She spent 30 years as a volunteer artist in residence in the NYC department of sanitation – the department that cares for and maintains the city. During this period of time she created several discrete pieces of art that stem from her residency – such as the garbage truck parade – but the most important artwork is the systems of relationships she has built over this long period. These relationships are something that is not possible to represent in any image or text, but is the single most important aspect of artistic work that can enable systemic transformation.
You talk about a currency with the name of ‘X’. How will it manifest and how will it be given value?
Vienne Chan: Value comes from the care services provided, guaranteed across time by the municipality. We initially wanted to call the currency “Fucks” or “FUX” because we hear people saying so often that “they have no more fucks to give,” meaning they can’t care anymore. So we wanted to say, “We give a fuck. We give a lot of fucks.” But then we realised that if we want this project to actually happen, then we might not be taken seriously with the name “Fucks”. We then thought about calling it “Carex” but that turns out to be a condom company in Finland. With the exhibition deadline approaching, we decided to call it “X” for now. Maybe it will be called something else later.
You say, “The state is the biggest collective we have and its institution is the government. The government has a responsibility to care. It has the ability to care. The Institute of Care is not to absolve the government of its responsibility.” But artists, working from the bottom up, can perhaps adopt strategies not open to governments. Can you comment?
Vienne Chan: The question is somewhat problematic because in order for artists to have access to strategies that the government does not, then there is an underlying assumption that artists are somehow separate from government, however we must abide by the laws of the state we live in, just like everyone else. Many artists in Europe are dependent on some sort of government funding, whether directly or indirectly. In this sense, we might even be considered as a strategy of the government. At the same time, I don’t want to be an artist that comes in to be the cleaning lady after the government, as Claire Bishop puts it in ‘Artificial Hells’. (I use cleaning ‘lady’ very specifically in reference to how often women and people of colour end up having to do the “dirty work”, unacknowledged, as in Ukeles’ text).
Perhaps the question is what makes artists different from other occupations that makes us particular apt for such a situation. Maybe the artist today is less tied to one specific discipline, so we have more tools at our disposal to imagine a better society and the ways towards it.
You say “Money is a cultural product”. Can you comment on how your project is similar (or not) to other artists like Luce Goutelle of Unbewitch Finance, or as we mentioned in our conversation, Paolo Cirio’s work on tax havens and also the Trillion-dollar coin?
Vienne Chan: Money is a cultural product in that it is a social contract. And law is a cultural product. It is a particular set of rules embedded within social values. I think Luce Goutelle has done an excellent job at showing us how finance isn’t always a science and her work has pushed me towards trying to understand the mumbo jumbo. I’m a big fan of Paolo Cirio’s work as he uses with the rule of finance, using the same rules to construct something different. I am also a big fan of the Trillion Dollar Coin, aka “Mint the Coin” – it’s a proposal put forward by the legal scholar Rohan Grey that’s part of a bill introduced by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Simply put, Mint the Coin proposes that the US Treasury mint 2 platinum coins for $1 trillion each, and then distribute this newly created money into households directly to provide every person in America emergency relief from the COVID 19 pandemic. It’s absolutely rooted in law and constitution itself. It’s not in any way put forward as an art project, but I find it tremendously artistic the way it uses the actual stuff of the medium to form new structural possibilities.
The project shows that law and its values have been divorced but at the same time show how things can be reshaped. While law tries to be as complete as possible, it is inherently incomplete and requires interpretation because the possibility of human experiences and situations are infinite. That’s one of the criticisms concerning ‘smart contracts’ in that they are inherently very confined in their scope and it might not be so smart to assume they can replace human judgement that can account with care for things like differences, the unforeseen and other things that fall out of the system’s norms.
As you said when we spoke, pensions are not the sexiest of topics. But we all have to grow old some time. I’m in my late sixties and never bothered with a private pension, but have a small state pension. When I was young I never thought about this. How do we bring the need for care and pensions into the domain of the younger artist or activist?
Vienne Chan: To be honest, it’s only something I thought of recently while looking at financial markets and the massive influence pension funds have. Yet it doesn’t add up to what their mission is or should be. Their mission at a superficial level is to make enough money to provide for our wellbeing in old age, but the key part is wellbeing and the means they employ don’t add up to it. The pandemic helps to bring senior care and care (in general) into the light, especially in the beginning when there was a lot of talk about how old people can just die. The counter-response demonstrates that we do care. We also care about underpaid care workers. There are actually a lot of art projects about care now.
I think young artists and activists often tend to be more concerned about others than themselves. That’s not a bad thing, but more recently, there’s been more talk about self-care as a political act. Self-care should be more than just taking an evening off and drinking some tea, but also thinking about our own future. For example, in the case of the refugee crisis, a lot of the right wing capitalised on the fear of lack of money for our own wellbeing so therefore “we can’t take in any more refugees”. This speaks to a lot of people because they fear for their retirement and don’t think they can afford a reasonable standard of living. This fear is perfectly legitimate too. So maybe we can think of how these things all connect together in the bigger picture.
Perhaps it’s also because artists and activists aren’t usually concerned with ‘accumulating wealth’ and this is what a pension system purports to help people do. It’s hard for me to speak on behalf of other artists and activists, but I think a lot of us might not have enough regular work to even think about paying into a pension. For those who pay into the system, maybe it seems to make basic logical sense – put away money for a rainy day and then some experts in finance will make sure there will be enough when we can’t work anymore. But the current pensions system is not working, otherwise we would not see countries raising retirement age across the board. The dominant narrative is that we need to work harder and to save more. Until we reach retirement, we probably don’t realise that it’s still not enough to live on. By then it’s probably a little too late. Maybe then we will just regret our life-choices. Or maybe we simply accept that it comes part and parcel with being an artist – that personal sacrifices have to be made. But what’s rarely discussed is the state’s responsibility to care for the old and weak – and actually for all its citizens regardless of ability to contribute economically. Yes, there is a state pension now, but unless something changes, it is unlikely there will be a state pension in 20 years. Countries around the world are pushing towards private pension funds as the solution and asking everyone to save. But how can we save when most of us don’t even have steady jobs and are already living hand to mouth? This isn’t just about artists – the general labour market is becoming increasingly fractured and precarious. As long as we rely on a private, profit-driven pensions system that is simply failing its mission, there will not be enough money for senior care. Carework will always be driven by profit, denying careworkers the time and resources to do their jobs properly, while proper care will only be available to the rich who can afford it.
Child care is important too. But I think senior care differs is that it is caring for someone who has no more labour to give for economic contribution. When we care for a child, there is still the possible logic that the child will become a worker or what not and has the potential to contribute economically. But by retirement age, our labour is over and therefore our economic potential too. It’s the economically “useless” class – how we take care of people who have nothing to give us economically says a lot about our social values I think.
You say money systems are the biggest social system. Could we ever replace exchangeable currency with direct bartering for work (as maybe portrayed in the utopian societies of SF writer Ursula LeGuin in The Dispossessed – An Ambiguous Utopia)?
Vienne Chan: I’m not sure whether direct bartering for work on a large scale is practically desirable. Money is just a representation, a notation system. Analogies are limited, but it might be helpful to get a grasp on what money is. For example if you don’t like a piece of music, but the notation the music is written in is not the actual problem. And even if you feel that the music notation system is limited and decide to create a new one, you still end up creating a notation system of some sort if you want to write a score.
It seems to me that if you try to replace money systems other forms of exploitative interactions natural emerge, as we saw in ‘Communist’ societies before the fall of the Soviet Union or the ‘Great Leap Forward’ in China, with an active black market for the privileged. How will your group factor in this issue?
Boris Oicherman: We are not revolutionaries. The goal is to repair the system, not overturn it. Operating with concept of repair and care necessitates a persistent nonviolent approach, something that can be called ‘militant nonviolence’. ‘Revolution’ is retired in favour of ‘Unlearning’: a conscious and careful unrolling of conventions that cause the current ‘careless’ situation and doing this in a hyper-local, small-scale, relationship-based way. The large-scale, systemic change is expected to emerge out of such local ‘acts of care’. Therefore, exploitative interactions never enter the equation.
Vienne Chan: We are not suggesting to replace money systems, but to add to the current money system so that other social forms can be better acknowledged. To expand the money ecosystem so it can better reflect (local) needs as well as the needs of those who are currently under-represented. As for black markets, are we actually free from those ills that plagued Communist countries and why are black markets a bad thing? Firstly lack of compliance towards safety standards etc. – that’s why we have the municipality as an administrative arm as well. Secondly, exploitation – well, how’s that not already happening?
Interview with Vienne Chan (Forms of Ownership), 2020:
In a postscript I asked Vienne Chan about her own work and how she moved towards social practice.
I’m a self taught artist and video was my first medium. Visual aesthetics used to play a much more central role in my work. So a more traditional approach to things you might say. Then at one point, two things happened. I was in Berlin doing the ‘typical young artist’ thing, but couldn’t find much meaning in it. Secondly, I started watching Bela Tarr films over and over again and realized I could never make anything like that and decided that I should just quit art.
Then I got involved with the refugee community in Tel Aviv. Not intentionally, it was just the neighbourhood I was living in because I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else – and did the project Photo Green Land, an event-based work, in which I invited the Eritrean refugee and photographer, Semere Teklay, to set up his photo studio in the gallery. Semere ran a photo studio on the streets called ‘Photo Green Land’ with his brother, Angosom. They would take photos of refugees and migrant workers against exotic backdrops. Somehow, the experience of being in a gallery was very special for Semere. He said that he felt like he could be “just like a white man” and that made me think of what else art could do for people. That’s when I finally decided to go to art school.
Out of the Forms of Ownership group, I probably have the most complicated relationship to being an artist. I am a big fan of Charlotte Posenenske‘s manifesto and that text and her following action – quitting art to be a social worker – really touches me, but at the same time, it seems nothing has changed since she wrote it. Of course, I’m sure she changed the lives of individuals as a social worker, but the general landscape is still the same, and that is hard to accept. And I’m trying to embrace the fact that I am an artist, and that somehow the way we (artists) think has something to contribute to society.
More about Forms of Ownership.
MoneyLab by the Institute of Network Cultures.
The European Media Art Platform.
Forms of Ownership’s Care Project Administration at Rencontres Internationales Monde-s Multiple-s.