(variously; RADMIN and The Thorny Question of Art and Economy 20200220, Eros & Thanatos, MONA.)

Let us begin with a disclaimer: This lecture discusses techniques often frowned upon in our techno-materialist society. If some of what I say sounds dubious, please substitute our words with others that you might be more comfortable with. Magic, for example, can otherwise be referred to as “advanced technology”. Those who resonate with ceremony may be comfortable with spirits and spells, while those of you who align yourselves with more pragmatic lineages might prefer calling these things “clear mind” or “prayer” or “contemplation”. And - for the more hardline - rationalists or skeptics, you can consider this as an experiment in meta-belief.

Like ceremonial magic, myths and fairy tales, this lecture relies on ritual repetition. It is made from an amalgamation and rewilding of words, sounds and images from other places and other times. Story lines tangled together to address some thorny questions of the Here and Now.

During the lecture we will venture near some “avoidance zones”, such as “funding” and “labour”. We do so with explicit permission of the forces behind this event, and for the purposes of banishment only. We will speak of art and economics, of dark arts and grey areas, of deserts and desertification, of care and ruin, “and many other things which may or may not exist.” In the words of Aleister Crowley “It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; [You] are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.”

So make yourself comfortable, and let the words, sounds and images absorb you.

In a world enthralled by market economics, sooner or later every artist is faced with the existential question—How do I finance my work? Day jobs? Commissions? Subsidies? A gallerist? Applied mathematics? The informal economy of the precariat? None of the above? All of the above? Whatever form the financing might take, it almost always requires an engagement with bureaucratic institutions, profit-driven corporations or individuals with motives different to yours. Over time, these engagements can gradually infiltrate all aspects of the work.

Administration has spread through other domains like a plague of zombies. In its wake crawl hordes of burnt-out, semi-living artists, scientists, academics, SMEs and miscellaneous members of the cultural proletariat. Researchers who spend more time complying with bureaucratic procedures than conducting research, Artists who are so overworked by endless fundraising that they have no energy left for creative pursuits. Social entrepreneurs whose business acumen is overrun by the red tape involved in transparency and accountability.

Rather than allowing business administration to infect our creative process, how can we reclaim its tools? And how do we realign these tools with more inclusive ethics and an aesthetics of generosity? First of all, we need to acknowledge that we can't escape. We can try to fight, but we will likely lose. Resistance is futile.

Whatever we do we must not freeze, blocked by fear of a complicated spreadsheet. Instead, we can try to calmly attend to it, while keeping a tight watch on our own boundaries. Administration must be confined to heavily guarded summoning grids; to protect ourselves and our loved ones from its ever expanding, time-sucking appendages.

You might wonder — why would I engage with business administration at all, if it poses such an existential threat to my wellbeing? Because as much as you’d like to pretend that you can't be touched by it, administration is always and already here. Oscar Wilde was onto something when he said “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss Art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss Money.”

Considering that many of us depend on some form of funding for our livelihoods, those who control the funds can seem to acquire supernatural powers over life and death. Engaging with such faceless entities was traditionally the domain of dark arts; of magicians, witches and fortune-tellers. They know that the entities they engage with are not innocuous. They also know that communing with these entities has the power to transform lives and occasionally even reality itself. There are similar Entities found in the economic sphere. They can bring out the worst in us. Binding ourselves to them shares many of the dangers of black magic, of the Left Hand Path.

So, could the tools of the dark arts help us engage more productively with bureaucratic and economic strategies deployed around us?

When it comes to fundraising, we don't have to dig deep to find kinship with magic. Applying for funding is obviously a form of invocation. In any invocation, the force of intent is directed to convincing forces beyond our control to help with a given predicament. This could equally be a divinity, a spirit, or a disembodied many-headed bureaucracy. The purpose of both casting spells and fundraising is essentially the extraction of favours from a fickle universe. We ask for favours because we can't achieve something on our own; Be it unrequited love, gold at the end of the rainbow or money to develop a new project. A key to both invocation and fundraising is that you need to be fully committed to the process without attachment to any particular result. If successful, the reality you want to invoke will become legible to the funders, who in their turn become enchanted into giving this reality their blessing. And if it happens, you can unabashedly call yourself a mage of chaos magick. If we look at funding and administration not as vehicles of absolute truth, but as manifestations of a particular belief system, we might improve our chances and our agency.

Let’s zoom out a bit, to consider some wider economic realities around us. Economies can be seen as specific kinds of belief systems. These economic beliefs are encoded in legal statutes, financial conventions and patterns of behaviour. You probably believe, that, if someone gives you a few metal discs called “dollars”, you will be able to exchange them, with someone else, for a sandwich. Most of us engage in this most straightforward economic exchange, without much thought. By trusting that we can use money to support our livelihoods, we become complicit in maintaining this particular belief system, reinforced by governments, central banks and international markets.

Contemporary economic actors also deal in more “oblique strategies”, including offshore finance, complex derivatives, or blockchain based autonomous organisations. There are creative accounting practices with seemingly harmless names like the Double Irish, Dutch sandwich or Single Malt. These occult economic strategies inhabit or create legal and ethical grey areas.

Grey areas can be seen as places where different beliefs about how the world should work overlap. Where they interfere or create gaps. In grey areas, fixed rules dissolve into edge cases. They point to flaws in existing systems. They allow economic outliers to emerge from legal limbo. They can also become a temporary refuge for people whose lifestyles don’t always conform to consensus reality. Artists working with communities across borders. People working between monetary and non-monetary economies. Migrants who fall between the gaps of national tax regimes. To name but a few.

If you’re interested in operating in grey areas, you need to remain vigilant. Rules and regulations keep changing. What might be perfectly legal one day, could be a definite no-go zone the next. But… if you are comfortable with a degree of uncertainty and enjoy being somewhat adrift, grey areas can be fertile grounds for experimentation.

Let’s look at a specific example. Most of us have heard about offshore finance. In it’s simplest form, offshore finance involves transferring payments, debt or fees between legal entities in low tax or low administration jurisdictions. Most entities who use offshore finance do so to avoid administrative or financial obstacles that exist “onshore”, in their home jurisdiction. It’s most commonly associated with secretive investments, money laundering, criminal syndicates, corrupt politicians and tax avoidance by opportunistic multinationals.

Yet what if you could use some of these instruments to pay your collaborators who are unable to get work permits in your country? Or if you could facilitate sharing of infrastructure amongst distributed collectives?

One of the most peculiar grey areas that's emerged over the last decade, involves cryptocurrencies and public blockchains. What began as a twinkle in the eye of a few - self declared - crypto-anarchists, has captured a small (but significant) shard of the popular imagination. Cryptocurrencies can provide decentralised, peer to peer digital cash systems. They can enable transactions between people without the need for trusted third parties, such as a bank or a state. With cryptocurrencies, trust shifts toward supposedly impartial, decentralised, heavily encrypted digital systems. By extension, we also place our trust in those who are programming or attacking them. It is therefore crucial to engage with programmers, computer security experts or other blockchain wizards, to ensure that the systems remain as inclusive as they promise to be.

There's fertility at the interface between digital and local economies. Between people and the trustless technologies that the blockchains rely on. Blockchains could provide us with insight into grey areas, where machines are beginning to gain agency as economic actors, increasingly involved in daily life. From self-driving cars to e-governance, technologies are emerging to make decisions on our behalf. While we may be relieved to outsource paperwork to AI, what hidden costs might there be? What riddles are we misunderstanding? What sacrifices will need to be made?

In Estonia, for example, there is a growing concern around algorithmic-liability laws. This discussion is too abstract and complicated for most of us to follow. So instead of wrapping the issues in techno-legal jargon, the Estonian public administration draws on the language of folk tales. In particular The “kratt” — A magical creature from stories familiar to many Estonians. It's usually assembled from household objects by a greedy or lazy protagonist. The protagonist must ask the devil to give the kratt a soul. Once it acquires a soul, it will take on any task it is given.

However, and there is always a “however”, the kratt must be constantly put to work, otherwise it becomes a danger to anyone around it. So the stories involve increasingly impossible tasks, and at some point, the kratt will inevitably run out of productive things to do. As you can imagine, this usually goes very wrong. They have been known to self-combust, burn down houses and destroy villages. They almost always ruin the livelihoods of their owners in unexpected ways.

The kratt stories warn about hidden costs and responsibilities. They warn of engaging with entities capable of affecting the world on our behalf. As complex technologies (like AI) become increasingly involved in our economic and governance systems, they will almost certainly create grey areas that we can’t even begin to imagine. Grey areas that could bypass humans altogether.

There are already experiments to assist landscapes in becoming co-operatives, or to help rivers act as legal entities. In this grey area we’re looking at the birth of exonomics, a field focusing on what were traditionally seen as economic externalities, like clean air, or the beauty of the atmosphere. We may eventually study animist exonomics alongside free markets, modern monetary theory or steady-state economies. Here too, we might call on techniques from the dark arts, shamanism or animism to enable us to commune with “planetary others”.

Whether you believe in other-than-human sentience or not, the idea of a multispecies, animist exonomics is an interesting proposition. A lure for feeling a world that might be… A world in which everything is animate, consciously engaged in reciprocal relationships. If we pay attention, we can notice such multiplicity of worlds and worldviews already around us. When engaging with art and economy, there is not a clear-cut dualism of black and white, us and them. All of us exist in grey areas. The sum total of our actions consists of many shades of grey, many shades of shadow.

In our struggle to survive the contemporary economic climate, we may cross lines defined by our own ethics. You can expect that you will continue to be confronted with ethical dilemmas. You will have to straddle different beliefs and worldviews. Because there is no single, clearcut way out of the convoluted circumstances we live with today.

It’s becoming essential to increase our economic literacy. If for no other reason than to demystify strategies that corporations and institutions deploy on us. Or, as a more tactical approach, to re-mystify existing financial instruments; on the edges where simple monetary transactions become entangled in complex cultures of exchange.

I can’t help but worry” says Anna Tsing “when the scrap metal will run out, and whether there will be enough other stuff in the ruins to make continuing survival possible. And while not all of us enact such a literal figuration of living in ruins, we mostly do have to work within our disorientation and distress, to negotiate life in human-damaged environments. Without the singular, forward pulse of progress, the unregularized coordination of salvage is what we have.

And yet, we do know how to work with contingencies. All of us still wake up and and get to work on things that we believe are good, without any certainty of success. Whether we create artworks, run co-operatives, host workshops, teach, learn or play. Our contingency reserves are not just stockpiles of money, food and medicine, but also relationships, carefully cultivated over time and across continents. Relationships with people and places that give us hope. When we think of it this way, every activity, even business administration, has the potential to become a re-animating force, an act of caring…

To care, to cure, to comfort. To be with. To help cope, regardless of the situation.

Being with” involves allowing yourself to be touched by the joys and sorrows of another. To be touched by external circumstances. Thrown off-course by the sheer rawness of the moment, by your own inability to make things better, by our fragility, impermanence and mortality. We learn to “be with” when looking after a sick child, tending to a garden, or when caring for the dying. “Being with” a person or a process that you can’t quite understand can be frightening and uncomfortable, yet it can also become an instrument for discernment, a compass for navigating ambivalence. Care first, do later.

The work of care in the Anthropocene is a struggle with scale and scope and sentience.

What does care for a burning forest look like? For an unstoppable flood? For an economy in crisis? For the endless migration of humans and other animals? For an out of balance microbiome in one’s gut?

If we assume that the entire material bestiary has some form of sentience, how do we respond to climate change, mass extinction or speciation? Even if we are not directly responsible for the causes, each of us is responsible for how we live with the consequences. Responsible to and for each other.

Do you care? How do you care? Where do you learn how to care? How can you care for something, able to consume you completely?

The space of care exists in parallel to the space of “problems” and “solutions”. Underneath the litany of blame and judgement. Beneath economic systems and ecosystems. Beneath worldviews and opinions. Deep, deep down in a place where words and worlds are intertwined. Where myths and metaphors grow from the direct experience of entangled relationships. Transferred through a touch, a broken bone, a bedtime story.

The patterns of care solidify through repetition. From thoughts to words, from words to actions, from actions to habits and from habits to character. From a person to a clan to a culture. This process takes time. An instant in geological time, generations in human time. Maybe in order to care across spatial and temporal scales — to care for a loved one as much as for an eroding hill or decaying infrastructure — we need alternatives to the current cultural imaginaries. They need queering and complexifying. We need new stories to live by. New or alternative myths, drawn from ever more diverse mythologies.

Perhaps most urgently we need stories that can cultivate our internal landscapes. Widen the reach of the human sensorium. Activate the unknown. Transform reactions into responses. Rewire our neural pathways. Embody other mindstates. Entangle our grey matter with machines for seeing otherwise.

Until we stop taking ourselves so seriously (or not seriously enough). Until our individual identities are shattered and smeared and re-congealed innumerable times. Until we understand that we exist because of and despite relating to everything else. Until we understand that we are hydrogen ripped from its context, mixed with the dust of dead stars. That we are endlessly recycled water and crystalising cyclones. That we are teeming civilisational hosts. Most importantly, that we are capable of care. To care for humans and to care for the earth. Care as an antidote to nihilism, greed or indifference. Care as the potion we can take to remember that we are inseparable from all animate matter.

Take heed from the Overstory. “Keep still. Wait. Something in the lone survivor knows that even the ironclad law of Now can be outlasted. There’s work to do. Star-work, but earthbound all the same.”

  • dark_arts_grey_areas.txt
  • Last modified: 2020-04-10 03:28
  • by nik