Image: Michelle Campos Castillo

Contributors

Background

Across my research fellowship with 221A, I have been taking time to think more deeply about economic systems and relationships of trade. Considering systems of exchange has continually been at the back of my mind as I engage with seeds are meant to disperse (2015–ongoing), a project where I offer seeds saved from my garden for trade with others who might want or need them. Saving seeds is a part of my everyday, and became a more deliberate practice when I learned more about seed copyright and its role in shifting the bulk of global seed stock into the control of a handful of corporate entities. From the project’s description:

Seeds take time to grow, to harvest, to prepare, and to share—an act that I see as a gift as much as necessity and survival. As such, the seeds are offered as trade or gift, in an attempt to encourage and support alternative systems of exchange. As the seeds are gifted and grown, they are meant to help others imagine building a world different from the trajectory it is currently on.

As an ongoing and forever-growing project, I continue to adapt and rethink strategies as the work strives to be more aware of itself: of the ways in which it might help draw attention to food security & sustainability, species diversification, seed copyright, climate change, urban renewal, and anti-capitalist forms of exchange… seeds are meant to disperse.

Trading seeds with strangers who discover the project online, often across geo-political and natural borders, gets me thinking about the nuance within the act of exchange: how it occurs and where expectations lie within it. I’ve revisited the language surrounding the project a number of times as I continue to learn from and adapt its overall framework. Initially, for example, language of “barter or trade” was used to describe the exchanges I hoped to engage with through the project—I eventually realized this was not quite the sort of exchange I was striving for. Of course, negotiation is at the heart of the project overall, but when seeds are offered to others, I’m not interested in the transactional negotiation that barter implies, especially not in terms of value. For me, saving seeds ultimately began with gift-giving at the centre of the exchanges, and I wonder about how that sense of exchange overlaps and entangles with that of a trade (how, for example, a trade may shift more concretely into a gift when the second half of the trade isn’t seen through). To me, the value of seeds goes beyond economic equivalence: the value in exchanging seeds, as I see it, is relational.

Thinking through where my comfort lies within the notion of exchange has led me to consider economic models and the ways they might be imagined anew. A starting point for my research fellowship with 221A was to expand thinking I had begun within my PhD dissertation Disaster as a Framework for Social Change: Searching for new patterns across plant ecology and online networks. At the time of writing, I had looked quite superficially to boom and bust cycles, and wondered:

How might [the] ‘boom and bust’ cycle be framed differently? Robin W. Kimmerer outlines the strategy of mast fruiting employed by pecans, offering an example of how the model might shift: “nut trees don’t make a crop every year, but rather produce at unpredictable intervals. Some years a feast, most years a famine, a boom and bust cycle known as mast fruiting.”1 Nuts work this principle of boom and bust into their very structure via their hard, almost impenetrable shell as a way to ensure that they are protected and able to be stored for long periods of time: “Nuts are designed to be brought inside, to save for later in a chipmunk’s cache, or in the root cellar of an Oklahoma cabin. In the way of all hoards, some will surely be forgotten—and then a tree is born.”2 Similarly, they “are designed to be food for winter, when you need fat and protein, heavy calories to keep you warm.”3 Pecan trees work together in unison in order to survive.

It is a model of the boom and bust cycle that doesn’t result in crisis. Imagine if, instead of the fallout of boom and bust seen in communities dominated by the oil and gas industry, in Alberta for instance, where recession, mass addiction, and destabilization rise and fall with the capitalistic cycles of extraction, we followed the pecan’s model of prioritizing preparedness in sustainable ways. What might it look like to prioritize a network of beneficial exchange instead of the one seen today that is centralized by those with power and money? Our current network necessarily ends in disaster since, as Cazdyn has stated, the model is dependent on crisis. We need to develop networks that better assuage disaster in the first place.4

During my dissertation defense, I was challenged: why strive for boom and bust at all? This rightful questioning is where I wanted to begin with this new research. I realized that I needed time to think more abstractly about exchange itself in order to get closer to potential alternatives in an economic sense.5

My strategy of approach throughout this research has been to centre conversation, and to learn from and alongside others in ways that are reciprocal, take time, and offer an opportunity to discover at a casual pace. This publication won’t outline all of my research—consisting of a number of conversations across many months, it is too convoluted to outline within this space entirely. And, it is (forever) ongoing, primarily through artistic works that seek to experiment with strategies of approach.

Some of the key questions that have come up across this research include:

  • How is crisis built into our current economic models, and how might we imagine them otherwise?
  • What alternative models are currently being discussed? How might they approach and respond to crisis differently?
  • How might we imagine a new economic model that is more just and more equitable to both human and non-human entities?
  • How might this new model be applied to online environments?
  • How is it that strangers come together for exchange? (How to go beyond just gathering around a particular good/item? What about need?)
  • What strategies exist for setting expectations and understanding around exchange? (How do ideas of exchange get filtered down to the most basic of understandings?)
  • How is value fundamentally determined and agreed upon?
  • How do we build systems based on trust (ie: where trust is a given and mutually agreed upon, even prior to negotiating an exchange)?
  • How does time factor into notions of exchange (short term versus long term exchange)?
  • What might plant systems (as come to via x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》at 221A’s Semi-Public, and seeds are meant to disperse) teach us about systems of exchange?

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Drawn in response to a conversation around forecasting and speculation, 2021, courtesy of oualie frost.

1: Economic Models

I started my research by diving deeper into economic models and theory—especially those that offered alternative solutions to those that dominate.

I had begun this inquiry prior to this fellowship, but as models were being rapidly reconsidered and new strategies implemented in response to COVID-19, the timing of revisiting the subject felt critical. When coupled with the other crises we currently face—income inequality, systemic racism, social injustice, climate change, etc.—it was clear from the start of the pandemic that global economic strategies would surely result in either a doubling-down of the path we are currently on, or some new model taking its place. It seemed a critical moment to imagine ourselves outside of the unjust framework that neoliberalism has bound us to.

Examples of new models that gained press at the start of the pandemic, which I was curious about, included:

The Doughnut model in Amsterdam: a framework for sustainable development created by Oxford University economist Kate Raworth. It is a model which attempts to balance the needs of people without harming the environment. “The theory argues that 20th century economic thinking is not equipped to deal with the 21st century reality of a planet teetering on the edge of climate breakdown. Instead of equating a growing GDP with a successful society, our goal should be to fit all of human life into what Raworth calls the ‘sweet spot’ between the ‘social foundation,’ where everyone has what they need to live a good life, and the ‘environmental ceiling.’ By and large, people in rich countries are living above the environmental ceiling. Those in poorer countries often fall below the social foundation. The space in between: that’s the doughnut.”6

Modern Monetary Theory discussed in Canada. The idea that governments don’t need to raise new taxes in order to increase spending, but rather, can borrow from their own central banks in order to keep spending, and in turn create economic growth and jobs until inflation kicks in. ie: this is Canada’s response to COVID.

The Green New Deal in the USA: essentially a shifting of priorities working within current models; along with, and in comparison to the Green New Deal in Canada as proposed by the LEAP Manifesto which, in my view, offers a more conceptual framework and overall cultural shift, because it has been developed along with voices representing leaders from Indigenous, social justice, environmental, and labour communities.

Additional models and frameworks I spent time considering include cryptocurrencies, gift economies, and social currencies7 that run alongside dominant models.

I wondered: How do these push against current models? How do they replicate them? How might we use them as jumping-off points to challenge and develop even more radical models? What other models for economies are being experimented with and considered? How does scale factor into these models?

When coupled with the other crises we currently face—income inequality, systemic racism, social injustice, climate change, etc.—it was clear from the start of the pandemic that global economic strategies would surely result in either a doubling-down of the path we are currently on, or some new model taking its place. 

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2: Technology

Overall, my research is interested in looking closer at technology, especially the internet, as a place to not only measure the ways in which culture is shifting, but also to find examples of how connections and community are fostered and nourished within it. I’m interested in looking at the ways that current economic models are entangled alongside models of the internet, as well as the alternative models and understandings that are engaged with online.

On a basic level: we continually engage with various forms of exchange quite invisibly as we utilize the internet. In my dissertation, I lean on Alexander R. Galloway who explains the process for accessing the website rhizome.org:

First, the root server receives a request from the user and directs the user to another machine that has authority over the ‘org’ domain, which in turn directs the user to another machine that has authority over the ‘rhizome’ subsection, which in turn returns the IP address for the specific machine known as www. […] Only the computer at the end of the branch knows about its immediate neighbourhood, and thus it is the only machine with authoritative DNS information. […] Because the DNS system is structured like an inverted tree, each branch of the tree holds absolute control over everything below it.8

Trust remains at the centre of various forms of exchange online—often invisible and implied, without true intentions revealed. I’m interested in looking to technology and how it facilitates and shapes these engagements. Our current online infrastructure is dominated by corporate and financial gain: with the drive to extract our personal data at the centre of it all. At this point, the overlap between the social and the economic is next to impossible to twist apart online.

I looked closer to technology and strategies that were being developed online for tactics to pull from. While full of potential and intrigue, the sector often reasserts capitalistic models at the centre of their ideas, which was disappointing to me. It’s not a surprise that our online ethos is shaped to sustain the capitalistic status quo, since startups driven by financial gain dominate the system, but I continue to look online for strategies that align with social and just frameworks.  

Instead of reinscribing some of the ideas proposed within that realm, I’ve included some of my personal notes below. These comments were written after reading numerous white papers offering ideas about how the technology sector might engage alternative economic strategies and solutions:

[these still rely on humans so much, it’s weird to me—also the idea that it functions on people wanting to build their reputation (philanthropy)—I dunno…]

[It’s all very burning man aesthetic.]

[Like, why not get rid of capitalists all together?]

[Wut?! This is not necessarily true!]

[I just don’t think this is true.]

[But they assume the forest wants to define ownership in the same way capitalists do. This is so weird.]

[I just don’t understand why we have to imagine the future this way—first as post-human, and then as post-human but with human bullshit concepts still operating?! Wut?!]

I often think about Jaron Lanier’s work when considering the role that the online world plays in shaping our future. Lanier, a computer scientist, technologist, composer, artist and futurist who has played a significant role in the development of our online, virtual, and technological reality (not the least of which as a pioneer of virtual reality technology in the 1980s), has written extensively about internet economies, and offers critical frameworks for how tech regulations might be reformed. While I am taken by his approach to solutions for big data—especially the imbalance of directional flow of money from users to corporations—I’m somewhat skeptical of his insistence on remaining within the confines of a capital-driven model of exchange. Still, I do love some of the questions that Lanier poses and the issues he raises through his work:

What does it take for people to recognize a dystopia?

We’ve created a whole civilization based on tricking each other.

You’re giving away everything in exchange for almost nothing.9

I looked at a number of models to pull from within the technology sector, like quadratic voting and mechanism design, and considered how they are being used to reshape the technology entwined with our economic and social paradigms (in the case of quadratic voting, how it might be used as a funding strategy of support within the realm of the “public good”).

An inspiring alternative to how technologies might shape networks and systems otherwise can be found in 221A’s ambitious research initiative Blockchains & Cultural Padlocks. I’m grateful for the timing of its release while I considered potentials for the role that technology might play in more just futures.

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3: Plants

Overall, my research is interested in looking closer to plant systems for examples and strategies to pull from. Taking inspiration from the x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》garden at Semi-Public, a public art site managed by 221A, I wondered what could be learned from looking to plant systems.

An example from plant ecology can help to re-imagine economic systems and relationships of trade. Research has found that plants and fungi have evolved a system of exchange based on fair trade: “Fungi provide plants with phosphorus they can’t get from the soil on their own; plants provide fungi with carbohydrates.”10 The system of exchange has incentive and reward built into its very foundation in order to maintain this beneficial balance. In a controlled study, evolutionary biologist Stuart West found that species have developed a unique method for exchanging phosphorus and carbon: and that the more phosphorus a plant received, the more carbon it would provide as reward to a nearby fungus.11 What is more, both species make decisions on the individual level: “A plant can identify the function of an individual fungus and reward it accordingly, and a fungus can identify the function of a host and reward it accordingly—they know who the good and bad guys are.”12 What would it look like if we adopted the strategies of fungi and plants in our own systems of trade?13

T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss’ x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》 is more than the plants growing within it, though:With a deep knowledge of this territory’s medicinal and edible plants, Wyss develops her work by respecting the intelligence of biodiversity. She teaches us how to heal, create, and connect while nurturing healthy coexistence with the plants and pollinators of this territory’s ecosystem.”14 New Growth is attuned to the needs of those welcomed into the garden with a keen eye toward the community it both builds and sustains. In order to look toward plant systems of exchange to help visualize alternative economic potentials, I considered the underlying relational frameworks that operate alongside their biological foundations.

I met with those tending to x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》—Grace, Valeen, Sol, jaz, and Oli, all part of the pollinators cohort invited to learn from and engage with the garden—and have learned so much from them. Hearing about those plants brought into the garden by others (birds, rats, and others); how value is negotiated and shared within the garden; how they intuit the sort of engagements they would like to see in the garden; and how they view and consider community around it—especially as the neighbourhood shifts—has become an invaluable part of my research. You will find contributions from Grace, Valeen, Sol, jaz, and Oli as part of this publication as well.

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Drawn in response to a conversation around forecasting and speculation, 2021, courtesy of Althea Balmes

4: Speculation

At the heart of market capitalism is speculation, and in my dissertation, I considered how the concept might be utilized in order to help reimagine the future.

For nowhere is speculation currently more present in the media and in popular culture than in it its association with the irrational, and irresponsible excesses of contemporary high frequency financial trading practices, market dynamics, and stock exchanges (MacKenzie 2006). Such practices, which seek to bring about and profit from the highly volatile fluctuations of markets and their uncertain futures (Pemmaraju 2015), are now understood to be acutely implicated in the recent global financial meltdown, as well as in generating ongoing disasters such as algorithmically induced flash crashes (eg SECC 2014).15

I was interested in thinking through some of these ideas along with others, so one of the first engagements I facilitated as part of this research was a series of conversations with nine individuals in March of 2021. We came together for two conversations, and I’m grateful to Althea Balmes, Lanny DeVuono, Tao Fei, oulie frost, Jesse McKee, Rehab Nazzal, Becca Taylor, Nicole Kelly Westman, and Alize Zorlutuna for their time and engagement. The ideas and inspiration from these events continue to reverberate throughout my thinking. 

As an introduction to the conversations, I shared a list of ideas, quotes, and thinking with the group prior to meeting:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about systems of exchange, about how they operate in society (mainly thru capitalism), and looking to other systems for models of how these systems might one day be different.

I’ve been wondering about how systems operate within crisis, and how we might utilize the cracks and rifts that crisis exposes to help usher in new systems of exchange. How might we utilize what we’ve learned from recent crises—and how do we hold onto these learnings and pull from them to alleviate future crises?

I’ve been looking for alternative systems by investigating various models; attempting to trace the shape of these models and imagining how we might learn from them and project them into the future. I wonder what kind of model it is that we need, and what it might look like.

I’m inviting you to think these things through along with me and a small group of others. Essentially, to create a (human) algorithm as a preparatory strategy for future crises (thinking about “algorithm” as a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem).

Below is some of the research and writings I have been pulling from (in the form of gathered quotations). A number of models are provided [see headings in blue: MODEL]—offering examples of ways that such systems are imagined, predicted, and forecasted. Consider their shape and how those shapes align or mis-align with your own ideas regarding paths to the future.

At times, I’m inviting you to speculate [see headings in pink: SPECULATE] on prompts and questions that linger from across this research, and how the future might be different. I’m inviting you to consider what we might need in the future and how we might best prepare for it now.

As part of our conversation, participants were asked to trace a path to the future:

The final speculation asks you to trace (draw) a path to the future using the materials I have sent you in the mail (watercolours from BEAM Paints, paper, and brush). To imagine what a model or path toward the future might look like; to map the distance between now and the future; and to trace it forward.

Please bring your drawings (traces/maps) along with your speculations to share with the group as we build on ideas and imagine different futures together in two (casual) conversation sessions in February and March (dates TBD).

After our first conversation, we re-traced these paths again. You will find examples of the traces across this publication. They offer unique ways of envisioning the entanglements and complexity around the ways we engage with one another, with the land, and with the systems that we are impacted by.

[S]peculative possibilities emerge out of the eruption of what, from the standpoint of the impasse of the present seems, in all likelihood, to be impossible.16

And evidence of these traces are included within this publication.

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Your Government is Spying on You for “National Security,” picture taken in New Orleans, (C. Battle, June 29, 2013).

5: MESH Networks

I first started intently reading about MESH networks in 2013, when Mother Jones wrote about the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network—then framed as a tool to maintain privacy while online: “How to Keep the NSA Out of Your Computer: Sick of government spying, corporate monitoring, and overpriced ISPs? There’s a cure for that.” As austerity conditions worsened in Greece, MESH networks began to be contextualized in terms of disaster response: a way to provide access to information, often framed as a practical technological survival strategy.

I thought it was an interesting infrastructure to consider—especially the multiplicity of strategies the networks provided across contexts and their potential to reshape critical elements of society. I later came to think about MESH networks beyond that of hardware alone and instead considered the ways they might both facilitate and shape community building. As I dug deeper into the potentials of MESH networks, I became taken by the work that The Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC) was developing across neighbourhoods in their city. Especially their insistence on recognizing the role that community played alongside the technical accessibility such a network affords: “‘Sharing vibrant neighborhood information is valuable,’ Schloss says, but it can only work with adequate collaboration between technologists and communities themselves.”17

I knew I wanted to engage with MESH networks alongside the x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》garden at 221A’s Semi-Public, and knew that thinking through exchange would be a way to begin to consider how it might be developed.

Similar to how community crisis response is often outlined across the field of Disaster Studies, MESH networks rely on local infrastructure. I continually wonder: who do I want to be in relation with in times of crisis? Relying on a network response out of local convenience can be overly romanticized given the social strife we BIPOC folks continually face in the neighbourhoods we live in. I don’t want to be in a network with those neighbours of mine who have a confederate flag up in their back shed; or those continually attacking Muslim women across the city; or those refusing to acknowledge that the systems and structures uniting us as a nation have been built upon a continually unfolding genocide. How does one consider the role that exchange plays in times of crisis within this context?

I continually wonder: who do I want to be in relation with in times of crisis? Relying on a network response out of local convenience can be overly romanticized given the social strife we BIPOC folks continually face in the neighbourhoods we live in.   

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6: Infrastructures

Ultimately, in order to begin thinking about how our economic model might shift into one that is more caring and just, I knew I needed to first consider exchange in an abstract sense:

in advance of an ideal scheme for seizing the means of production, how can design introduce extra, rival markets—especially spatial markets where value derives from arrangement and other physical attributes apart from finance?18

I knew that I needed to focus on the broad strokes, and especially on: infrastructure.

With the ultimate goal of facilitating the building of a MESH network beginning at, and spreading out from, the x̱aw̓s shew̓áy̓ New Growth《新生林》 garden, my approach is to first consider how exchange might be considered as the network is designed.  

Rosemary Heather’s essay What is a MESH network? helps to imagine the possibilities that a MESH network might afford, especially as a thinking through of how it might both respond to and shape community anew: “Communities that opt for MESH networking are similarly self-organizing; a network happens through reciprocity, whether between devices or within communities through forms of mutual support. […] A MESH, however, makes one thing abundantly clear: a network is made up of people.”

In April, I invited Stephanie Wakefield to lead a talk, Infrastructure and the Back Loop, where she outlined new ways of considering infrastructure: “I think we can think about infrastructure, not just as critical infrastructure or as this governmental project, but we can think about it as a term for the basic systems that make any way of life possible. We call it infrastructure now, that we might call it the means of life.” I’m really taken by how Stephanie emphasizes new collective imaginings of the future as a strategy for finding our way through this current moment.

I wanted to further investigate the ways that artists and cultural workers were thinking through ideas of exchange; how community is shaped, maintained, and considered; and the ways in which artistic practice might offer potentials and solutions for considering exchange anew.

Zach Ayotte and I had a number of conversations thinking through subscription models. As he shared his thoughts and findings around Amazon’s security and smart home company, Ring, the questions of what we gain and what we lose through the give and take of such models raised critical questions.

Eugenio Salas got me thinking about new ways of imagining relationships between artists, art institutions, and publics, and raised critical questions around our expectations within exchange: “How do you fulfill commitments while accommodating an evolving process?”

Patrick Cruz and I had a conversation over a shared meal (at a distance) as we contemplated the ways in which artistic practice can offer a generative space for unique forms of exchange to occur and allow for a nuance of looking at value from a position that includes complexity.

Leila Timmins and I shared a number of conversations around economic models as we attempted to think through the abstraction of exchange. As we considered the ways in which our economic system makes invisible much of its underlying framework, our conversation turned to the overlap that conspiracy plays in the overall system.

This publication documents a number of the conversations that took place across my fellowship with the aim of finding and asking questions situated around the abstraction of exchange. We need alternative models of approach now—this project wonders how we might find alternative systems which are more caring and more just (to both human and non-human relations), and how we might spread these ideas outward into the public sphere as a way of contributing to their collective visualization.


[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013): 28.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Christina Battle, Disaster as a Framework for Social Change: Searching for new patterns across plant ecology and online networks (2020): page 94-96.

[5] I’m grateful to Dr. Tony Weis for this questioning and encouragement to think even further outside of the box. https://ecologicalhoofprint.org/

[6] [see also: https://doughnuteconomics.org/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4i4chaMp0I]

[7] Here I am referring to currencies developed within social communities, like those alternative currencies seen in the Global South, although considering “social currency” from the perspective of online influence has also been interesting for to me to think through.

[8] Alexander R. Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, 9. Cited in dissertation.

[9] Jaron Lanier, “Jaron Lanier fixes the internet”, New York Times, produced by Adam Westbrook, September 23, 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/09/23/opinion/data-privacy-jaron-lanier.html

[10] Ferris Jabr, “Plants and fungi share fair-trade underground market,” in New Scientist, 11 August 2011.

[11] Jabr, “Plants and fungi share fair-trade.”

[12] Ibid.

[13] Christina Battle, Disaster as a Framework for Social Change: Searching for new patterns across plant ecology and online networks (2020): page 94-96.

[14] Semi-Public.

[15] Martin Savransky, Alex Wilkie, and Marsha Rosengarten, “The Lure of Possible Futures: On Speculative Research,” in Speculative Research: The Lure of Possible Futures, eds. Martin Savransky, Alex Wilkie, Marsha Rosengarten (London: Routledge, 2019): 5.

[16] Savransky, Wilkie, and Rosengarten, 7.

[17] Jamilah King, “A Tech Innovation in Detroit: Connect People, Not Computers,” Colourlines, Oct. 3, 2012, A Tech Innovation in Detroit: Connect People, Not Computers | Colorlines.

[18] Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso Books, 2021): 49-50