With America still knee-deep in the recession, and a banking industry that has long lost all trustworthiness, more people are starting to think about alternative systems of monetary exchange and trying to develop new, mainly community based, structures and platforms for the exchange of goods and ideas in general.
Dossier talked to director and media artist Gabriel Shalom about the Future of Money project, DIY tactics and the risks of speaking your mind openly when you’re a bank employee.
Thomas: The whole Future of Money project pretty much started with a very unexpected invitation.
Gabriel: Yeah. Basically the Future of Money project started when Venessa Miemis was invited to speak at this huge banking conference, SIBOS, and she approached me and asked me, could this be an opportunity to collaborate?
Thomas: Where you experienced in financial matters before the project?
Gabriel: No, not at all. This was new territory for me. Although what I did find out as we did our research was, that many of the alternative systems we were exploring were things I was already involved with. So I hadn’t per se used a complementary currency or had time banked explicitly, but I had done things in the last year that, as I worked on this project, I realized were alternatives to monetary exchange. I had traded sponsorship in one of our projects for office space earlier in the year and we had hired people to work on a project for no money but instead for reputation and exposure on the projects website. And I noticed more and more when I examined some of the concepts behind these alternatives to monetary exchange that they were already a part of the way I was thinking about how I was making ends meet, but also the business I have together with Pati Kommerell at KS12. It was funny, it was suddenly familiar once we had gotten a little deeper into the material.
Thomas: After you had gotten the invitation, you had come to come up with ideas for the funding of your project. How did you approach this obstacle?
Gabriel: When Venessa asked if we wanted to collaborate with her on this, we realized that it wouldn’t be so easy to do this for free. But we also felt confident, that there was an audience watching Venessa, what she was going do next and what move she was making. Venessa has a pretty popular blog called Emergent by Design and she’s getting close to 5000 Twitter followers, so we knew that she had a following and we spoke with her and basically planed how we could make this project relevant for the people that were already interested in her. And so we developed a crowd-funding concept and one of the first things we had to decided was whether or not to use Kickstarter. The main reason we decided not to use Kickstarter was that, although we defined a goal for how much money we wanted to raise, we were willing to try out this collaboration regardless of if we would make any money of it or not. Luckily, when we did the crowd-funding, we were pleasantly surprised to see that 50 people in the end made contributions, and four of them in fact made significant contributions, so that we were able to to raise something like $5600.
Thomas: Those four people also became your executive producers. Did that somehow change the way you were approaching the project?
Gabriel: I’m happy to say that the term “Executive Producer” in this case was gifted to the individuals who gave us that amount of money in a way that was more about acknowledging their generosity and less about giving them leverage or control over the project. They didn’t really play the traditional role of a producer in terms of the way films are usually being produced, in so far as they had no say really over what we said, how we said it, the duration of the film or the content of the film. They had no access to that. And they went into the relationship knowing that that would be the way it would be. That was a comfortable position for them to take apparently.
Thomas: Let’s talk a little bit about Amsterdam. I’ve seen some comments on your video blog that I found pretty funny. You were saying that at the big dinner of the SIBOS conference you felt like you were sitting at the kids table and you were mentioning that one day you noticed that you were the only person at the conference wearing sneakers. What were your expectations for the conference and did you feel that the representatives of the project and the project itself were being taken seriously by the other participants of the convention?
Gabriel: Our executive producers took us very seriously and I think the Innotribe team, which was the innovation team at the SIBOS conference, were big fans of the work and very supportive and glad that we were there, but you have to understand that all those individuals added up together constitute lass than half a percent of the SWIFT organization and even a smaller smidgeon of the attendees at the SIBOS conference, because there were 8000-9000 people there. On the whole I would say that I had little expectations going into it and I wasn’t particularly disappointed. I didn’t think that the message we were communicating would resonate strongly with that audience. I also didn’t think that that was our objective. I sort of saw the purpose of it as being some kind of transfer of lots of high level ideas at a very compact and high speed format, that would probably not register consciously for most people that saw it and so my feeling was that if anybody in the audience had any kind of aha-moment or epiphany because of what they saw, that then we would have somehow succeeded on some minor level, because I already felt that we were up against odds, which were very, very low, in terms of connecting. One thing that really struck me though was a connection I made with this young man from Suriname, who was actually working the door of the innovation area. He had a laser scanner in his hand and every time somebody came into the room he was obligated to scan their badge for statistics for the SIBOS conference. And I got into conversation with him and he was asking me why I was here and said that I seemed out of place a little and I said, well, you’re right, I’m not a banker, I’m a filmmaker. And I explained him our project and he said that he had actually peeked into the room when we were showing it and I asked him if it made sense to him and if it represented any of his values and perspectives. This guy was probably in his early 20′s, from Suriname, living in the Netherlands, studying, but planning on eventually going back to Suriname, and I was really surprised how readily accessible the ideas were to him. And he was someone who was not specialized, he was not someone who was, at least not yet, particularly highly educated, but he was somebody who was bright enough and of the right age, that I felt that the ideas were readily accessible to him. So what I thought at that moment was that even if we had some inability to connect deeply with this banking audience, we still made a piece of video that communicated generationally very strongly and that felt good.
Thomas: I remember that on your video blog you were saying exactly that thing, that you had gotten very little direct responses to the video by the bankers that saw the video and that you think that it really could be problem of generation or even of vocabulary.
Gabriel: One of our patrons told us that her husband, who was a banker for many years, first saw the video and speechlessly immediately rewound it to the beginning and watched it again and again and again. And after he had watched it four times without any comment, he kind of just held his head and said, we haven’t been thinking about this stuff at all. That anecdote really moved me and it only came secondhand, because I think we have to remember that the people at that event, that did feel sympathetic to what we had to say and maybe even wanted to stand up on our behalf are alienated by corporate structures and that they don’t have a voice because they are afraid of getting fired. Anything they say or do in that kind of context we were at at SIBOS is grounds for them to risk their job. If they speak out, if they any subversive or alternative opinion too loudly, then gossip or observation by their colleagues can give them a very bad reputation quickly and I think it takes empathy and sensibility to acknowledge that that kind of internal censorship and self-censorship is going on and that one has to accept the fact that there may be more fans of this project in that community than we are able to to actually perceive.
As much as we might perceive the banking industry as inhumane and full of people who have little to no moral compass and are only concerned about money, there are some people – how many I can’t say – who are really decent human beings working inside of these large organizations. So, maybe more people got it than we can actually perceive. That’s not a conclusion that leaves you very optimistic in general, cause you’d like to know how many people in the banking industry really got these ideas, but if you accept the fact that that industry is like a silo with this self-censorship and this kind of authoritarian power structure then you kind of have to shrug your shoulders and say that you hope that the ones who can change stuff internally will do, and that you hope that the ones that should be defecting quit, and just wait and see what happens.
Thomas: For what I’ve seen in the video I think that probably the biggest difference between what you’ve been doing and what other people have been doing at the conference, was probably that Future of Money was a personal and passionate project, whereas other things were just jobs. Did you come across any other interesting projects at SIBOS?
Gabriel: In terms of producing a piece that’s personal and has an opinion that’s more of an artistic expression: No. In terms of more independent though: Yes. The guy from ZOPA was there and talking in one of the innovation sessions. Again a lot of what he said didn’t seem to get much reaction, but he’s part of a company in the UK that’s at the forefront of peer to peer lending and his perspective was quite different about what the future of lending and borrowing could look like. I think some of the other individuals at SIBOS that were a little bit more black sheep were funny enough the venture capitalists, which you don’t necessarily immediately from a distance think of as the the loose canons or the radicals, but in the context of an industry which is as conservative as banking venture capitalists end up being pretty radical and they are radical because they take risks in their work. That makes them a bit more passionate, a bit more lively and generally much more free thinking than a lot of the bankers we encountered.
Thomas: Georg Zoche of Transnational Republic said something very interesting in one of your videos. He said that even though we handle money every day, its still mysterious and alien to many people. And some key words I’ve been hearing in most of the videos are trust, transparency and self-organization. Would you say that your project is a pledge for a more personal and humane access to a financial system or money in general?
Gabriel: The reflections I have had about this project are mostly how we need to experiment with our definitions of what we value and that we need to understand that if we only value money were limiting ourselves emotionally and psychologically. Ultimately people who value money to an extreme exhibit psychological imbalances. If you look at the very, very wealthy, they are often isolated, and their money is often the reason for that isolation. I guess coming out of this my biggest “aha” is that as an artist, as someone who is interested in self-expression, someone who is compelled even to express himself, I’m finding this project an affirmation of the capability of those of us who have a talent for self expression to find the support that we need in networks and that we don’t have to continue to feel dependent on hierarchies to support our creativity. I predicate this statement with the word “talent” because I do think that there’s a certain amount of requisite talent, but the good news is that its not nearly as high as the hierarchical system made it before. You can’t just be some bum with an acoustic guitar and no ability to sing and no ability to write songs – and I’m not gonna tell you that you’ll make it as long as you create a blog and a MySpace page and a SoundCloud account – but if you got talent and people around you like what you do and if you are interesting and if you have something to say then you have a good chance. It’s not about connecting with a global audience and outdoing every one else that does the same things you do in this hyper-competitive landscape that it used to be, its much more about connecting with the people that care about what you do. There’s this magic number, that if you have a 1000 true fans then you can sustain yourself as a creative person and you can actually get a message out that needs to be amplified on a much more massive level. This project showed me that we’re in an era where self-organization is something we can actually embrace in practice, we can do it and play with it and see what happens. Oftentimes I joke around with people who work more in this direction of this way of thinking and they say: Be careful what you wish for. Because I really feel that the internet is a manifestation machine at this point. If you put enough energy out there about what you want, you can and maybe will get it, if you’re talented enough and if you’re honest enough with your audience. And that becomes the big existential question for creators and for anybody really: What do you really want in your life and are actually ready to ask for it and receive it?
Thomas: One of the tools you used to promote the Future of Money project was Twitter ,and I know that you are a big Twitter fan. So for the project you pretty much asked people what kind of questions they would want you to ask at the conference. Can people still contribute to the project or get involved in it in one way or another?
Gabriel: There are different ways people can interface directly with what we’ve built. Obviously they can comment on the blog and we’ve created a Facebook page. Also people are encouraged to circulate the video, to remix it, to mash it up, to incorporate it into larger bodies of work, as long as its non-commercial. That’s the idea of the creative comments licensing behind the project, that we want people to take this information and use it and do stuff with it. I also think that its important to say that we consider ourselves communicators. And that goes for all of the people involved in this project. Jay Cousins is a physical communicator, Pati Kommerell is a graphic communicator, I’m an audiovisual communicator and Venessa is a text-based communicator. And we are messengers. We’re here to spread information and to tell stories around that information. So if people are looking for a movement or a larger structure they can become a part of, now that this project is winding up, then really their own autonomy is the only thing stopping them from finding it. Because I don’t know if if I or Venessa or the people involved in Emergence Collective will necessarily continue with this theme of the future of money indefinitely. We’ve set some very good momentum into place and there’s the possibility there of being more work done. But I think ultimately its about following what makes us passionate. So if the passion dies out on this project, it doesn’t mean that the content isn’t still important and it doesn’t mean that other people can’t get passionate about it.
Thomas: So, what is the immediate future for the Future of Money project?
Gabriel: It is to finish what we’ve started. I think you’re gonna see at least one more video blog, which will just sort of wrap things up. There’s going to be an research visualization of the work that we’ve done so far, that people can use as a resource if they wanna get deeper into the universe of things we’ve been talking about. And we’ve got to consult our four executive producers. And then after that we’ll see. I can say that I’m already aware of at least one other opportunity where the Future of Money project could be publicly presented, but I can’t really talk about it yet, because its not confirmed 100%.