Money is a Cultural Tool
Money is a Cultural Tool
Vienne Chan on Social Cohesion.
I think we really need a new economy where we understand care as a profession.
Vienne Chan is an artist and researcher. This dual role is very close to her heart. Chan’s performative-speculative projects revolve around socio-economic issues, focusing on systems of care, financial inequalities, pensions, and the idea of money as a social contract. Her work is driven by an urgency to question the role and responsibility of government and to offer alternative governance models. Born in Hong Kong, Chan has worked in various parts of the world including in Tel Aviv. She now lives in Düsseldorf and works as a Research assistant at documenta Institut. Chan’s work has won several awards and has been exhibited in international venues including CCA Tel Aviv, Kunsthaus Dresden and NGBK (Berlin).
Vienne, it's nice to have you today. You always underline that you are both an artist and a researcher - why is that dual role so important to you?
I feel that as an artist I need to learn more about what people in other disciplines are doing and thinking about to address the social issues in my work. It’s important that I understand why things are the way they currently are, and how things could be different. That’s what I do as both an artist and researcher. I think the difference with being an artist compared to being an academic researcher is that artists have more liberty to speculate and make concrete proposals how things could be otherwise. Whether these proposals are taken seriously is open to question.
Some time ago you were also engaged in supporting human rights.
I didn't actually work as a human rights activist, but I really wanted to be involved with human rights. For a while I was working with asylum seekers, helping them fill out the refugee status application forms by UNHCR. Just because you fled from your country, you may not be legally recognized as a refugee, which is a weird discrepancy. You aren't considered a refugee before filling in that form and passing an interview. And at some point, you realize, they are refugees, obviously, but what can we do?
So what can art do?
I think art doesn't have the same kind of machinery as human rights activism. It's a much lighter form of change and it can more easily provide the space for people to experience different roles. In one of my projects, for instance, I worked with people with Down syndrome, creating a setting where they can play a different role rather than the one of a disabled person or a welfare recipient.
Artists have more liberty to speculate.
I’m guessing you mean the project “Down to the Economy.” Tell me about this.
I had had no real contact with people with Down syndrome before, except for through my flatmate whose brother had Down syndrome. One day I was thinking, how would people with a different, kinder intelligence design the world? Once you start this thought experiment, you realize how the whole world could be different. We are such a technologically oriented society, we need a lot of stuff on earth, and this stuff is always limited. However, most of the things we really value have to do with people and our relationships to each other.
So, I decided to speak to people with Down syndrome, because they seemed very good at caring, as I observed. In my first interview, I spoke with a guy in his early twenties I asked him: What do you think is the most important thing in life? And he clearly said: not to have Down syndrome. I was trying to be cool, but I was shocked.
What do you mean by being “shocked”?
I thought: what’s wrong with our society that we have created this situation? Many people I spoke with participate in theater groups because it “lets them be free.” People with Down syndrome get a bit of pocket money, but the biggest decisions they might make are whether they can spend it on gummy bears or a bar of chocolate. Many of them also work in “Werkstätten” where they basically spend their days folding pieces of paper or working in the laundry room for less than minimum wage. Imagine: it's legal to pay people less than minimum wage! And the rationale for that is because they are not as productive as “normal” people.
How would people with a different, kinder intelligence design the world?
How did you turn this insight into action?
I started thinking about meaningful work, because this idea of having to be productive to deserve minimum wage seems ludicrous. People have done harmful things to society and have been paid more than the minimum.
People with Down syndrome really value work, they take it very seriously. Maybe it’s their way of showing: we also have something to contribute to society. When I talked to Philine, another woman with Down syndrome, she told me one of the main reasons why she goes to work is because her co-workers cheer her up. This idea of work as a social place was extremely important to her. In contrast, we often think of work as a horrible thing. Most of the work experiences I observed are more negative than positive. What if we can put more emphasis on the relationships at work, and not merely focus on what is produced?
Working closely with people with Down Syndrome, this project aims to articulate a vision of a society that operates by more inclusive values and principles. In addition to long conversations, Vienne Chan and Katja Meier have been using theater methods in the project “Down to the Economy”, where the participants play the role of Ministers and adopt a decisive role in shaping society.
Following these conversations, how did you encourage the participants to adopt another role?
In addition to the long conversations, we used theater methods, where the participants play the role of Ministers. So they were basically given leadership roles shaping society.
If we give a more prominent role to people who are really good at building relationships and caring for other people, we might change the socioeconomic discourse. I started with a handbook, asking questions I would normally ask politicians, like: what can we do about the aging population? Or how should we deal with the housing shortage?
What was the outcome?
At first, the answers didn’t make sense to me. But you actually need to go deeper and consider your own biases. And then it becomes clear that people with Down syndrome aren’t that different from us. They value the same things like sharing, family and friends. And they try to find solutions for how to take care of people who are not being cared for. At the same time, they have a really strong work ethic.
To what extent did the ideas you developed together turn into something that you could actually implement?
Once I asked Mila, another participant about the housing shortage. She just pointed to all these fancy buildings in Hamburg and said homeless people could live there, just for a month or so. First, I didn’t understand: those are all commercial spaces, so maybe you can stay in a hotel for a week or maybe two weeks, but they're not permanent living spaces? But it turns out that commercial real estate is considered a systemic financial risk. We just saw this during the great financial crisis in 2008, which happened mainly due to the over-creation of mortgage-backed securities. A similar thing happens with commercial real estate, which is dependent on monthly rent payments by shops and businesses.
Commercial real estate makes up about 20% of the GDP across economies. In some places like Singapore or Switzerland, it’s way higher. All these assets are chained together and many actors depend on them. If this chain breaks, there might be a structural collapse, similar to the great financial crisis. This systemic risk has actually been addressed by the IMF.
Even before the pandemic, the value of retail space was shaky because of the growth of e-commerce. So why doesn’t the state buy this commercial real estate and convert it into more social uses, for example senior care homes, housing for refugees, students or young adults?
It needs to be acknowledged what we do as workers.
Did you have the opportunity to propose this to the people in power?
No, I have no idea whom to talk to (laughs).
You also founded the collective “Forms of Ownership” and issued a “Manifesto of Care.” What does it propose?
The manifesto is about the importance of care in society and it includes a suggestion for reforming pension systems. It’s basically a diagram based on a parallel currency model. The idea is to create an alternative currency that supports people doing care work.
Whom do you address with this manifesto?
I think society at large. There is often an underlying assumption that if you are smart, you will earn money. Money comes with many moralistic underpinnings. Especially when we do things like charity or crowdfunding. Sure, mutual aid is important, but why aren't we addressing bigger social issues systemically?
You’re saying charity is more like the medicine used to treat the symptoms, but it doesn’t actually tackle the reasons for being sick.
Yes. And it places the responsibility completely upon people with the least power and resources.
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.
Questions by Antonia Lagemann