Cassie Thornton Wants to Heal the Economy
Last October, Cassie Thornton popped up a tent in a downtown Oakland plaza offering “Luxury Real Estate Facials.” This was one of a series of collaborative projects under the title Desperate Holdings Real Estate and Land Mind Spa, using clay gathered from the construction pit underlying San Francisco’s newest and tallest skyscraper, the Salesforce Tower. While her invitations to real estate agents went unanswered, other workers on lunch break and passers-by stopped, talked, lay down, and received facials. They often fell asleep while Cassie read to them from a pamphlet poetically deconstructing the metaphorical and all-too-concrete dynamics of real estate speculation, hyper-inequality, liquidity/illiquidity, insecurity/securitization, and the resulting distortions in the mind, body and spirit of people living under predatory capitalism.
Flash back to another project in fall 2017: a group of men lay on their backs on the floor of a London black box theater with balloons stuffed up their shirts, breathing heavily in time with each other. Cassie Thornton and a crew of female friends strode around in dark balaclavas, spraying them with water. “This is what generosity looks like!” they yell. “We’re doing this because we care about you.” This was a labor ceremony, a birth rite for a new feminist cryptocurrency.
Both of these projects are perfectly logical extensions of Thornton’s career as the director of the Feminist Economics Department (FED).
Thornton’s experiments with debt, exchange, and radical imagination are anchored by her own family experience of having lost a house to predatory lending during the subprime mortgage crisis, a decade teaching in NY public schools, as well as being displaced by gentrification in the Bay Area. I first heard her name in connection with Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Strike Debt organizers started a project called Rolling Jubilee, raising funds to buy up uncollected debt on the secondary market for pennies on the dollar. Then, they notified debtors that their debt was absolved. To date, Rolling Jubilee has abolished almost 32 million dollars in debt.
Thornton graduated from the California College of Art’s graduate Social Practice program in 2012 and currently lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, also known as the racism and murder capital of Canada. With her partner, Max Haiven, she runs a little institute at Lakehead University called the ReImagining Value Action Lab, or RiVAL. They also co-founded University of the Phoenix, which teaches “courses for the dead that the living can attend,” and is currently developing a series of radical “financial literacy classes”. Under the FED moniker, Thornton’s work includes performance, hypnosis, yoga, visualizations, revenge consulting, do-it-yourself credit reports, interactive gallery installations, a children’s book and grassroots organizing.
The following segments are remixed from two different interviews with Cassie, in October 2018 and December 2019.
My work has two sides. First, there’s a direct line of care. And then the other part of it is quite vengeful—about burying some radical politics within a service like yoga or a facial or a workshop or whatever.
I didn’t really realize that my work was absurd until recently. I’m from a situationist tradition, from a lineage of performance artists and magicians, but I always thought that all of my projects were really straight. I really thought that I was a person who was going to get a TED Talk, be on Oprah. I made a series of online yoga videos about confronting authoritarianism, confronting our addictions to cell phones and social media, and going beyond financialization to another world. The goal of making the videos and doing live performances was to figure out how to be a good enough yoga teacher to go into corporate yoga studios and deliver a kind of radical politics that nobody knew they wanted. I thought that wearing all black and making these very dark yoga videos was going to be super commercially successful! But I wasn’t very good at hiding that this project holds at its centre some aggression. It reveals how yoga is a weapon used by capitalism on us, and questions what it would mean to heal from that.
Most of what I offer is stuff that people don’t want. Or they don’t know they want it. And so they are not going to pay for it. Maybe eventually they would come back for it. But at that point, I don’t really want to give it to them anymore.
A couple of years ago in Miami, I had a residency and I asked to meet with the board of directors of my hosting organization, who are all pretty high level finance workers and corporate lawyers. I did interviews with them about their history of borrowing and lending and then I had them do a hypnosis project where they imagine debt as an image or place. For them, debt is mostly a commodity. We talked about it, we visualized it. A lot happened in the process where people confessed to me about really bad things they had been involved in, and how they felt trapped within the financial system that they were also on top of. This work helps me understand that everyone is suffering and everyone wants a transformation but nobody knows how to do that, because it would mean completely changing their lives, and no one can imagine how to do that alone.
Everyone’s suffering right now. There’s a lot of fingers being pointed sideways, and not enough fingers being pointed directly up to the things that are actually smashing us. Specifically on the left. We need to support each other to punch up. One of my projects is revenge consulting. It’s my job to remind people what the root problems are, problems that are ruining the planet and ruining our ability to actually live together at all. Tech giants are a great example. I think we have to figure out our collective targets. Our targets can’t be each other. Many of our common targets have names, addresses, and wives, and we can confront the powerful. That’s my game. For me, revenge is most beautiful when it’s collective and it’s about bringing down something that is collectively oppressing us. Revenge against an economic system, revenge against forms of power and control that are actually dominating our whole experience. And I am not opposed to vandalism either:)
University of the Phoenix and the Radical Financial Literacy Tour
I started a project called University of the Phoenix with my partner, Max. We stole the name and image of the University of Phoenix, which is the biggest, most predatory for-profit school in the US. University of the Phoenix really takes advantage of suburban and rural people of color and poor or working class first generation college students. They get a horrible education and spend the rest of their lives paying off a debt for a university degree that actually hurts their ability to get a job. We are like their ghost institution, haunting them and stealing all their nice graphic design.
We teach “courses for the dead that the living can attend.” For me, thinking about the dead helps me understand that what I’m working on right now might be the work that someone else started, and someone else may finish my work after I am done. It takes the pressure off, because we’re connected to so much and to so many people whom we can’t see and who we don’t understand. Bringing death and the dead into the room changes the idea of where we are and what we value. It opens up time and a sense of who we are outside of being financialized subjects (for example, the dead don’t worry about rent). With the University of the Phoenix, we occasionally do séances. We brought Ursula Le Guin into the room and we brought Hannah Arendt right after Trump was elected. Within these big anti-capitalist rituals, we’re trying to create transformative situations where we all confront the unknown, and it’s funny but it’s not a joke. We work hard to create paranormal situations where the world as we know it doesn’t seem so closed because we are connected to more than we can see, and a lot more is possible than just continuing to live and work and eat and sleep and consume.
As University of the Phoenix, we also teach a radical financial literacy workshop to help people who feel really mired in debt or other impossible economic conditions. In these workshops for anyone, we specifically focus on the idea that financial survival is not actually an individual responsibility. It’s impossible to survive or flourish in this economy, and that’s a collective, political, and a social problem. And the only way that we’re going to fix things so that more people can thrive is to actually change the economic system. In the workshops we show people how the economic system works, what is it doing to them and to everyone they know, and what it would take to actually confront it as a collective problem and not as a personal issue.
Every institution has so much funding for financial literacy. If you say “financial literacy,” it’s like a secret passcode, and suddenly a door appears where there was once a wall, and there’s a thousand dollars behind it. All over the world, people have decided that everyone needs financial literacy, which could really be called ‘capitalist obedience’, and there has been so much money thrown at it. Then we show up, and we say, actually financial literacy means understanding you’re a part of society, and your financial problems are linked to the financial problems of every other person you know, and to a government and to a set of corporations that are not making it very easy to live. We did a group of workshops last year in Thunder Bay where we got our footing and figured out how to teach the course, and then we just recently went to Minneapolis and did it in a bunch of libraries. Now I think we understand more about how to make it actually work for people so they don’t just leave happy, but with a set of skills and a project that would help them feel like there’s some practical steps to take towards a better situation.
One thing I love about teaching these kinds of workshops is that we get to do a lot of show and tell about different social movements around the world that succeeded when people got together and decided to work on each others’ behalf or stand up against different forms of austerity. It’s amazing to show people who have never been exposed to social movements a little bit of what has been happening. Showing little clips of documentaries where working class folks can see people who look like them having a really good time while seeking justice on behalf of themselves and others. That’s the mystical thing, that’s the missing link for people, because so many North American workers never thought of themselves as potentially more than workers. Many have never thought of socializing in these other ways, and they’ve definitely never thought about how fun working on collective liberation could be. That’s basically the secret weapon that comes at the end. People get super hyped to understand how much is possible and how much is always happening under the surface. The hard part is what you do with all that excitement. We’re always looking for new groups we can partner with so there’s something to sign up for, for our workshop participants. We need somebody who’s going to contact them and bring them into a social movement where there’s now somewhere to practice. We always refer people to the Debt Collective, which came out of Strike Debt—a giant debtor’s union.
Money and exchange within project funding
Some of my current projects can get funded because they do somehow “register” within the art world, and I’m trying to organize how I redistribute that funding. For instance, now that I live in Canada, I sometimes work with wealthier institutions like the Canada Council for the Arts, or Ontario Arts Council. So how can I take that money and sustain myself and also sustain my other [unfunded] collaborators and projects where I need to foot the bill and pay the workers? I need and want to support people who are not working within the art world, who don’t have money, or who are unfundable because their work is anti-capitalist, so they can afford to spend time doing radical post-work with me.
I have to constantly remember that the way that I’m valued in different situations looks different. Sometimes I’m able to actually receive money as a form of value, and then there are a lot of times when I’m not. And I would usually much rather work in the situations where I’m not able to get funding—where I’m doing something too weird, or I’m doing something that is in service of something that has such radical implications or demands that there’s no possible way it’s going to get funded. That might mean that I’m using funds from another project to pay someone to help me.
I started to try to think through a way that I could receive a sense of exchange from nonprofit galleries when I work with them. A lot of times you do a project at a small gallery, and maybe it’s the most awesome gallery and so many cool things are possible there. Maybe it’s cooperatively run, anti-capitalist, or an activist space. Those places, especially in the United States, never have money, but that’s where the most stuff is possible. So, what could I ask for? I don’t only want money, because we’re trying to build a new world with new values now, and the gallery can’t afford to pay me anyway. So instead it’s become my policy to ask the gallery for a favor. And my proposal is for the people surrounding the art space to try something socially-experimental with me; for example, to take phone calls with me, to set up a workshop, or to introduce me to five of their board members.
Recently I started to do this experimental form of health records keeping—a viral, anti-capitalist health project. And I thought, if places can’t pay me, maybe they would help me experiment on this project. I move around so much to do projects, and I’m pretty new to Thunder Bay where I live. I don’t have a big community of people to try ideas and projects out on yet. And so what I really needed was people that would be willing to try this health project with me. Maybe they’ll let me have a workshop with their workers. Or maybe they would let me work with three other people for a three month experiment. That could be happening underneath the project that is public facing, or before or after the project comes together.
If you’re responsibly asking for a favor you think is within somebody else’s capacity, it could be much better for them than paying you money. It opens up a conversation about value, and allows you both to discuss time and energy. If you already have the means to survive, maybe there are ways to honor your time and work without more money exchange. Just because we’re used to using money as a way to show that we appreciate something, doesn’t mean it is the only way. Money is not the highest form of flattery!
The Value of Poetic Labor in an Activist Context
What about doing work in a context where the artist is the initiator, seeking collaboration with people who have not asked for it? Before I came to grad school, a lot of my public work was very practical, very service-oriented, especially when working with activists. I’d be like, tell me what you need—I’ll get the cardboard. I’ll produce the visuals for you, I’ll host the space and build your props. I’ve been very cautious about asserting my own voice as an artist in those collaborations. But it becomes an unequal exchange and I burn out.
For instance, I have a longstanding involvement in housing activism in the SF Bay Area. Here in Portland, I’ve been trying to make work related to housing with a more open-ended approach that includes more emotional and poetic elements. It feels clunky—I’m asking myself, what am I offering people when they step closer to the table or take my phone call or meet with me? How do I work with people who are super busy dealing with really concrete conditions around housing and policy and I’m offering them something poetic?
I totally understand what you’re saying. The one really poisonous thing (I got many good things too) that I got out of grad school was feeling like a burden when entering a space where they’re doing “real work.” Say you want to work with the labor union. All these organizers are working their asses off and you’re like, “I want you to do this project!” The goal is to get to a point where you know that by being there, you are offering something really valuable, and that they will want to eventually have an exchange with you—because you are an expert in what you do, you’ve done this so many times, and your labor is valuable. The kind of work that you do, Zeph, does have value. You really support people to transform their ideas, situations, and themselves by showing that something more than they realized is possible. Exchange is pretty important, because otherwise you’re in a generosity mode, or a white benevolence mode. You’re classing yourself if there isn’t exchange in some way.
All of my projects feel much better to me when I’m part of social movements at the same time. That allows me to really think strategically and collectively, what does it mean to heal? What does it mean to create change or help somebody? I need to be grounded in a sense that I’m actually doing something before I can fuck around doing the more abstract, symbolic or aggressive work around healing or economics.
In Thunder Bay, I get a lot of energy from participating in a group called Wiindo Debwe Mosewin (formerly called the Bear Clan of Thunder Bay) which is a feminist indigenous-run project that means ‘Walks in Truth’. We do an alternative street patrol and make sure people on the street are ok. At RiVAL, we do lots to try to help people figure out how to organize or start anti-racist social movements. There are a lot of people here trying. Positive change is possible, but maintaining the imagination of what we actually want, besides what we’re actually being offered, is pretty hard sometimes. Being in touch with other artists and keeping up with what other social movements are doing really helps keep my radical imagination alive.
Cassie Thornton is an artist and activist who makes a “safe space” for the unknown, for disobedience and for unanticipated collectivity. She uses social practices including institutional critique, insurgent architecture, and “healing modalities” like hypnosis and yoga to find soft spots in the hard surfaces of capitalist life. Cassie has invented a grassroots alternative credit reporting service for the survivors of gentrification, has hypnotized hedge fund managers, has finger-painted with the grime found inside banks, has donated cursed paintings to profiteering bankers, and has taught feminist economics to yogis (and vice versa). She has worked in close collaboration with freelance curators and producers including Taraneh Fazeli, Magdalena Jadwiga Härtelova, Dani Admiss, Amanda Nudelman, Misha Rabinovich, Caitlin Foley and Laurel Ptak. Her projects, invited and uninvited, have appeared at (or in collaboration with) Transmediale Festival for Media Arts, San Francisco MoMA, West Den Haag, Moneylab, Swissnex San Francisco, Pro Arts Gallery & Commons, Dream Farm Commons, Furtherfield, Gallery 400, Strike Debt Bay Area, Red Bull Detroit, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Flux Factory, Bemis Center for the Arts, Berliner Gazette and more.
Zeph Fishlyn (pronouns they/them) is a multidisciplinary visual artist dedicated to personal and collective storytelling as nonlinear tools for reinventing our world. Zeph’s participatory projects, drawings, objects and installations nurture alternative narratives by questioning, dreaming, distorting, celebrating and demanding. Their most recent work explores absurdity, embodiment, intimacy and playfulness as sources of resilience and creative subterfuge. Zeph is also a serial collaborator with grassroots groups focused on social and economic justice and LGBTQ liberation. Zeph is an MFA Candidate in the Art and Social Practice program of Portland State University.
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