To Have And To Owe is a research platform focused on debt and the social relations it engenders. This is a project in collaboration with Leigh Claire La Berge whose academic work examines cultural representations of finance. With our first exhibition and series of events at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts from September 21-October 27, 2012, with future activities being planned, the project seeks to widen discussion on topics like debt as discipline, equitable and inequitable redistributions of wealth, money as a social medium, banking crises, debt peonage, credit worthiness, collectivizing debt, philanthropy as debt in reverse, and debtor strikes among numerous other subjects related to credit card, healthcare, student and mortgage debt as well as the national debt and indebtedness of nations to one another.
Of particular interest is the way in which debt has been inscribed as a fundamental mechanism of power, force and subjugation in contemporary society. While debt is front and center as an issue in both politics and our personal lives, the basis of its control seems directly related to the fact that it is experienced opaquely. Debt exists simultaneously as an absence and a form of presence. And though debt is socially enforced it is almost always individually experienced with this fundamental tension rendering it difficult to represent collectively. So what happens if we work towards undoing debt’s unrepresentabilty? What if we experienced debt as a shared cultural form that is perceptible, communicable or materializable? How can debt be rendered as a nuanced historical, philosophical and even aesthetic problem in all of its social thickness inside American life?
Inside this framework, a range of artists, theorists, designers and others will offer lectures, performances, workshops, infographics, discussions, quilting sessions and visualizations, exploring the subject of debt and opening up a space in which its aesthetic and social dimensions may be considered as part of its economic register. All events free and open to the public.
Artist Cassie Thornton leads the audience to engage with debt’s physical representation, activating it as a malleable substance that might change through collective re-evaluation. OWS working group Arts & Labor hosts an open discussion and collaborative quilting session to address how debt functions in the art world. Theorist Richard Dienst considers the social worlds created by debt and looks at indebtedness as a social, economic and political bond as explored in his recent book The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good (Verso, 2011). Media artist Fran Ilich hosts a meeting of the Diego de la Vega Experimental Economics and Finance Research Group, discussing debt as an instrument used historically to organize society, considering topics like money as abstraction, sovereign debt, ecological debt, and neocolonialism. Theorists Leigh Claire La Berge and Annie McClanahan share their respective work on cultural representations of debt, from the language and metaphors of finance to photographic depictions of foreclosure. In a workshop about the theory and practice of barter, artist Caroline Woolard will demonstrate the power of relationships based on mutual credit (not mutual debt) while performing a ritual of erasing money. NYU Professor of Art and Public Policy and Director of the Graduate Program in Arts Politics, Randy Martin will lecture on the cultural logics of financialization, unpacking what a derivative is and explaining why it matters to the production and circulation of art. Curator Laurel Ptak hosts a weekly reading group discussing David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011) and Maurizio Lazzarato’s The Making of the Indebted Man: An Essay on the Neoliberal Condition (Semiotext(e), 2012). An installation of infographics by designers Brendan Griffiths, Zak Klauck, and Mylinh Trieu Nguyen provide alternative models to mapping and realizing economic knowledge. And in collaboration with Occupy University’s fall exploration of debt, To Have And To Owe, will provide space for educational activities that the university will organize including teach-ins by George Caffentzis, Yakes McKee, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Andrew Ross and others.
Over the past thirty years, the United States’ economy has changed profoundly. Some political economists and historians date this to the early 1970s and the suspension of the convertibility of the United States Dollar for gold——a moment that marks what many social and cultural theorists have referred to as the “dematerialization of money.” Others date it a bit later, to Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker’s decision in 1979 to “break unions and empty factories” by unleashing rising interest rates and unleashing a tremendous recession in the U.S. that has come to be known as the “Volcker shock.” Nearly all observers agree, in the words of Giovanni Arrighi, that “something fundamental has changed about the way capitalism works,” many have argued that the increased presence, indeed, the leading presence, of the financial industry is the central cause.
As finance’s role has increased in the American economy, banks’ presence has increased in the lives of many Americans. With real wages stagnant since the late-1970s, daily social reproduction has become for many funded by private bank debt: student debt, consumer debt, mortgage debt, second-mortgage debt, and so on. While being in debt as old as human civilization itself, the structure of that indebtedness has changed. Today, credit card and student loan debt account for trillions of dollars of wealth——and although many people are in debt, it is much less clear that they have the ability to pay it off——ever. Rather, many of us live in a state of constant deferral, a relationship to an uncertain future when our debts will come due and the collection agencies will begin calling. To be in debt is to have one’s future tied in with another and in the contemporary American case that other is probably a bank. One used to be condemned for lending with excess interest; now it seems it is the debtor who must pay her or his “debt to society”.
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Image: opening performance by Cassie Thornton at Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space, 2012