What binds art, finance, and hacking together?
Report by Emma Kraak
Posted: 7 June 2018
What binds art, finance, and hacking together?
Report by Emma Kraak
We are gathered in Brussels’ Kaaistudios for the second edition of The Art of Financial Hacking workshop. We are a curious bunch of designers, educators, investigative journalists, artists, researchers, anthropologists, law aficionados and finance whizzes. Over the next four days, we will explore ways to demystify finance, counting on our group’s multidisciplinary concerns and the guidance of Brett Scott, Paolo Cirio, and Luce Goutelle. What binds art, finance, and hacking together? What can we learn – more importantly, what can we do – when we cross each field’s peculiar strategies?
Getting Behind the Interface
In order to understand hacking, we first look at the notion of the interface. Interfaces abound, especially in our technocratic societies, and refer to interconnections – common boundaries – between people, systems or concepts. Though user-friendly, interfaces are rule-sets for interaction; while they simplify usage, they obscure the mechanisms at play behind their streamlined appearances. Hacking, therefore, is all about getting behind the interface: exploring, mapping, bending, sometimes breaking what lies beyond these common frontiers. At the heart of the hacker’s ethos lies a deep urge for agency, to uncover and appropriate invisible structures and tools. While commonly imagined to be the realm of computer-savvy mercenaries, confined to hardcore coding and shady operations, hacking is first about fostering critical and creative interventions: a mindset for subversive exploration with a hands-on imperative. Urban exploration for example, far from being captured in digital spheres, seeks access to forbidden parts of the city, hacking the use intended by legal and public infrastructures. The Brazilian dance Capoeira was created by slaves to practice martial art under the guise of dance – a hack for taking back power. Creativity, in that sense, becomes a way to find solutions to real-life problems, to navigate constraints through practices as diverse as design, social engineering, technology or art. Or, as Paolo Cirio proposes in the presentation of his work, a way to “create research-based art with agency beyond representation, able to grasp contemporary issues of public interest”.
Finance, undoubtedly, is one of these key issues. Long considered a magic black box, finance has become the object of increasing public scrutiny in the last decade. Starting with the financial crisis in 2007 and accumulating through the Panama and Paradise Papers, the financial sector has gained a reputation for harboring sinister and impenetrable schemes. Despite this critical consensus, the industry remains out of reach due to its real or perceived complexity. Brett Scott gives the example of the Commerz Bank in Frankfurt, its institutional architecture inducing a sense of overwhelming smallness, abstracting its activity behind towering glass walls. The next image shows the bank’s urinals facing the same windows, gleefully inviting its users to relieve themselves above the city. Yet, as one participant with a background in finance points out, even employees of the sector don’t fully understand its workings. Attempting to break down the technical aspects of finance, we are led on a presentation of some of its basic structures: from its inseparability from the economic system to the way money works; how banks operate from ledger systems to fractional reserve banking; and how investment banking adds layers of complexity to it all, culminating in abstract metafinance – finance for finance’s sake.
Slightly dazed by an afternoon of cognitive effort, we gather for an unusual stretching session. Luce Goutelle introduces us to the concept of Open Outcry, a system of financial trading in which dealers signal and shout their bids aloud. This form of communication uses a wild array of hand signals, used on the trading floor to signify which contracts are traded through which banks. Notable examples include a two-fingered mustache for Deutsche Bank and an act of air-saxophone for Goldman Sachs - a double pun used by the French as a reference to Jean-Jacques Goldman, cultural icon and noted saxophone enthusiast. Stretching bodies and meaning alike, we play on the power of imagining new strains of discourse.
Photo by Dimitri Tuttle / Loop-S
Economia is the festival of
Bursting the European Bubble
The second day of the workshop takes us to the heart of the EU District for a lobby tour. Our guides are Lora Verheecke from Corporate Europe Observatory and Aline Fares, former banker and member of Finance Watch. Both organizations share a common mission: to expose the power of corporate lobbying and foster a more democratic access to finance. Lobbying in the European Union is a 1.5 billion euro industry. Beyond this monumental figure, two important concerns come to light: of accountability and transparency and of representation. While in Washington, DC it is illegal not to register as a lobbyist, no such legalities constrain lobbying in Belgium. Anyone can covertly represent the interests of remote groups in a modern institutional game of double agents. Corporations subcontract their causes, first to a plethora of industry federations and consultancy firms, then for individual insiders to defend. While lobbying itself can be a worthwhile endeavor, pleading to secure rights and defend common goods, the numbers speak volumes: 70% of lobbying is done by corporations, 20% by the public sector and only 10% by citizens. As such, the financial industry is estimated to have a 120 million euro lobbying budget; a sum that weighs heavily on the choice of issues that are addressed. These financial strongholds serve to amplify echo chambers, leaving fewer and fewer spaces for people to share different ideas. The legislative process, while painstakingly designed for democratic purposes, has largely become hijacked by the highest bidders. As Brett Scott declares on day one: bankers, in a sense, are some of the best hackers.
Under an unusually hot Belgian sky, we drift through tall buildings and glass ceilings, most of them owned by BNP Paribas. The neighborhood itself has become transfigured into a private concrete bubble hosting swarms of nebulous activity. On Square Meeùs, suits lie in green grass while Fleishmann Hillard’s security guard gives our group a bemused glance. This public relations firm, under the guise of such nomenclature as “Reputation Management” or “Strategic Integration” has been known to stage fake protests, paying dummies to demonstrate for issues in accordance with their clients’ interests. Their motto, unironically displayed on their web page: “The Power of True”. To reverse this theft of tactics, it is our turn to infiltrate the district. Luce Goutelle introduces us to Pierre Bernard and Vincent Alexis, co-organizers of the Wild Life Festival. They invite us on a dérive through the district, inspired by the Situationist idea of psychogeography, in which participants let themselves be drawn by the attractions of a terrain, studying its emotional hold with the intention of creating Situations. Having been prompted to dress in corporate outfits, we are given a few additional guidelines and props. Today, we will be part of Slowdown Solutions, an obscure company with mysterious activities. Each of us is given a business card with another participant’s name and the title of Independent Researcher, inviting us to shape new identities and motives. In small groups we embark on a journey to burst the European Bubble, slowly wandering at first, gradually awakening to a sense of free, collective purpose. Following a swarm of corporate employees, we mingle with well-shaved faces and fluorescent security, ready to transform the Event that seems to be brooding into a full-blown Situation. Some of us manage to be escorted into a building, almost making it to what appears to be an internal corporate gathering. Others gain free coffee at a conference on fishery regulations. As the afternoon turns into evening, we take to Place du Luxembourg, infamous for its happy hours in which deals and information are bargained, counting on loosened tongues and the complicity of cigarette breaks to gather inside information. While serious deals appear to be confined to back rooms flowing with champagne, we do hear the confessions of burned-out employees, perhaps implicitly drawn to our shell company’s promise of slowing down.
The Financial Hacker’s Toolbox
On day three we meet on the 25th floor of the former World Trade Center in the northern part of the city. The location used to be owned by the Belgian Dexia bank, before the financial crisis forced it to dismantle. Today it is occupied by artists and design collectives working on open source culture. We take a closer look at hacking tools and methodologies in order to kick-start our own financial projects. The first set of these methods uses mapping, exposing and exploring. Scale plays an important role in this set. Zooming in, collecting physical objects and artifacts to make abstract systems tangible. Or zooming out, seeking interconnections between agents. Some examples include Map the Banks, which uses scrapers to map the financial flows between countries and financial actors, shedding light on their dependency; conceptual artist Mark Lombardi’s Narrative Structures, in which each node or connection documents purported financial and political frauds by power brokers; The Activist Bloomberg, an open-source and open-access alternative to (the highly expensive) Bloomberg, collecting and distributing critical data on high finance. Our next set gets its hands a little dirtier through jamming, bending and breaking, often by playing with legal structures and financial instruments. Some interesting examples include activist hedge funds. Robin Hood Coop is an investment cooperative which places its members’ funds on the Wall Street stock exchange, managing their assets with the help an algorithm called The Parasite and keeping track of them through the Ethereum blockchain. All profits can be reinvested or used to fund projects that expand commons and the public domain. Alternatively, The Rolling Jubilee is a network of debtors who pay out other debtors through mutual aid, essentially buying debt to abolish it. So far, they have abolished over 14 million dollars in people’s medical debts and 13 million dollars of student debt. Other methods use algorithms or automated agents. Paolo Cirio’s Daily Paywall, for example, used an algorithm to hack thousands of articles from financial newspapers, re-editing them online and in freely distributed physical copies. Readers could earn one dollar for responding correctly to quizzes about featured articles, and journalists were invited to claim compensation for their writing, creating a circular economy promoting critical reading of socio-economic issues. Another method to engage users on financial topics in an interactive way is gamification. Taxodus, for example, is a web-based game that allows players to create their own tax evasion schemes using real financial data, making the impact of the offshore economy visible. Last but not least, rituals are a powerful way to connect finance to emotional, cathartic experiences, mobilizing affect in a way mere information can’t. Examples include Burning the Books by Alinah Azedeh, a performance on debt and absolution, inviting participants to burn a collective volume of their (financial) sins. Finally, debatable as it should be, the project Burn Your Money by artist Jonathan Harris has ceremonially burned over a million British Pounds.
High on these newfound potentials, our brains storm for novel ideas. Aided by a plunging view of the cityscape, the day ends in a suspension of possible interventions: a knowledge Tinder for activists, matching up skills on issues that lack collaboration; a Tax Salvation scheme, in which a set-up church redistributes tax-free money through charity; a board game to lower your taxes and raise your income; micro-targeting bankers through Facebook ads; and finally, in a restless urge for some direct action, to gatecrash the contemporary art fair taking place around the corner, marking our contempt with the financialization of art as a commodity.
This article is written by Emma Kraak as originally commissioned by Institute of Network Cultures
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