The project imagines the possbility of an economy based on care labour, with an emphasis on elderly care. Here, together with the artist duo Trojan Horse, the artist Vienne Chan worked with elderly citizens in Helsinki in a "Playing Care" workshop to imagine what future elderly care could be like.
Since the pandemic began, financial inequalities haven't just worsened, they also became more visible. What do you, as an artist, suggest to tackle this financial inequality?
I think we need to be much more politically active, but also more politically informed. And we have to be more engaged with the topic of economics, not from a personal savings perspective, but rather in terms of reflecting upon what the state should be doing. And we shouldn’t just talk about Universal Basic Income, because that doesn't actually address systemic inequalities or the value of work.
It needs to be acknowledged what we do as workers. Artists have always had difficulties claiming what they do as work, because so many of us are poorly paid and it’s our “passion.” However, there’s a contribution to society that needs to be acknowledged. Artists play a role for social cohesion and in generating different narratives. And social cohesion is very valuable to society and the economy, otherwise societies fall apart and experience riots, or, if you look at what's happening in Canada right now, whole businesses collapse. In the end, social cohesion is an economic contribution.
How does money affect our relationships then?
Most of the time we only think of money as an object. But if we think of money as a rights claim, a claim to resources, then it's an inherently political subject. Then it becomes very clear why everyone should engage with the economy.
You also describe money as a cultural tool.
Yes, money is a cultural tool and a product of social cohesion. If you offer me €1,000 to do something, I would agree because I know I can use that €1,000 towards paying my rent or use it elsewhere. But if you offered to pay me in chocolate, I would decline because I don’t think my landlord will take it; however, I might consider taking it if my landlord for whatever reasons accepts it as rent payment. In a way, that’s kind of an agreement and the wider this agreement is, the more it can act as a motivator for people who don’t know each other to do things together.
Most of the time we only think of money as an object. But if we think of money as a claim to resources, then it's an inherently political subject.
Would you say cryptocurrencies can fix our broken socio-economic system?
No. First, cryptocurrencies cannot function as a currency. They're not stable enough. Secondly, they de-politicize what money is because it's never really made explicit who the community is, it doesn't represent people who aren’t members of the blockchain, and how conflicts get resolved.
The idea behind blockchain is that you get transparency, but transparency in itself isn’t the goal. Just because there's transparency doesn't mean there is justice. You can have a transparent dictator killing people and you know it’s not just. So, if we're talking about justice, you still have to do the dirty work of looking at the relations involved and how to fix these relationships.
I see. In your “Manifesto of Care” you also introduce a new currency, called X. What’s the idea behind it?
The idea is that X functions as a parallel currency, which an institution can issue to pay care workers. The underlying assumption is that care work is underpaid. With our alternative currency you don’t only pay care work, but also the management and administration that avoids creating a ghetto currency. The institute that issues X is administered and owned by care workers.
And this currency can be used to be paid into a pension fund. Currently, many people cannot afford elderly care. The idea is that the Institute issuing X has the ability to guarantee a provision of care when you retire and therefore it issues this currency to care workers, but also to other people. And people can save their euros for other things.
So, it’s an additional currency, not one that replaces the existing one, right? And it is circulated in a closed system with the very specific purpose of sustaining this system of care.
Yes. It's not a closed system, but a parallel one. We make sure that you can nevertheless interact with other groups. And you still need euros to pay your rent or your holidays, for instance.
If we take the challenge of climate change seriously, we need the governments.
You fundamentally question the role and responsibility of our governments as caretakers. What is it exactly that you criticize?
There’s certainly a lot to criticize and lots of room for improvement when it comes to our governments. I think a lot of the time there is this temptation to give up on governments and think we don’t need them, because they are just controlling stuff, and that we can manage our lives on our own through entrepreneurial thinking or self-organization. This thinking appears both on the left and right side of the political spectrum.
However, if we take the challenge of climate change seriously, we need the governments, because they have the ability to create the highest level of impact. We can do many things, create cryptocurrencies, change our individual behavior, but governments are capable of changing the world on a higher level and much faster than you and I.
You also mentioned the aging population. What will it take to establish a sustainable and overarching system of care for them?
I think we really need a new economy where we understand care as a profession. Care is not just this natural character trait or passion that people have. What if we stopped thinking of the economy as something that’s just concerned with producing stuff more efficiently, and instead make care central to innovation?
With this in mind, we founded The Institute of Care. The underlying idea is to consider care as an economic asset, and how increasing funding for care work might be better for society. Together with the artist group Trojan Horse in Helsinki, we have been doing role playing workshops with senior citizens and care workers to explore how they envision the future of care, and what care means to them, which goes beyond patching up existing failings to think about what people would really love. They all want a space that is open to everyone where there is no judgment, and where people can provide care for each other along with the help of professionals. It also goes down to the little details like taking the time for each other, like giving someone a haircut or painting their nails, even if you see no need for it because they stay at home all day. Another thing that came up was that life and care is about “learning to say goodbye.” We will be working on additional role-playing workshops together to implement some of their visions, even if only for a few days.
I think the most exciting things happen when artists don't care whether they're creating a physical product.
Looking back at all these projects and on your involvement with human rights, would you describe yourself as an activist?
I think I aspire to be an activist, but I don't think I've made it there yet. I would like to play a role in organizing long-term social change, but I don't feel comfortable calling myself an activist, because I have a lot of respect for what activists do.
So, do you think art can change the world?
It depends on which day you ask me (laughing). If you think of the initiative “Kein Mensch ist illegal”, for instance, I think that’s a very successful example of art changing the world. One tends to forget that there were artists involved. Further, there's this thing called the debt union, which counts artists as its founding members. Maybe it's not even important whether these initiatives themselves are art or not. I think the most exciting things happen when artists don't care whether they're creating a physical product.
One last question. Could you complete this sentence for me? To me, this is personal because…
Art is important to me, because it's a way of relating to something that’s outside of myself. It’s not important to me whether what I do is art, but I would like to play a part in making the world a better place.