Pushing Debt out of the Unconscious, a ritual

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Text from A Soft Spot in a Hard Place, an edited book by Zachary Gough.

I was at a Strike Debt meeting in New York in the summer of 2012 when two women came up to me and said, “Are you the Cassie that makes art about debt?”

And I said, “Yeah.”
And they said, “We’ve been looking for you.”
A different kind of debt collection. These two women

were Laurel Ptak and Leigh Claire La Barge, curators of To Have and to Owe. After several meetings with the duo, I realized that this project was more than symbolic. Laurel was viscerally, emotionally, and psychologically interested in debt because of her own experience of it. This project was not just an academic pursuit for her. Once I knew that, the project became much more important to me, and I became interested in why she needed to fill this gallery space with debt.

To begin my work for the exhibit, I wanted to explore Laurel’s relationship to debt by having her visualize her debt
as a thing or space. The debt visualization is a hypnother- apeutic process I developed while getting my master’s degree, when my classmates and I were making so much more debt than art. Laurel and I went to the gallery together and had
a conversation about the scale of Laurel’s financial debt. Like anyone, it was much easier for her to share her theoretical ideas about indebtedness than to describe her own experience of it. After listing her financial debts, we began the visualization. I asked her to close her eyes and imagine herself entering the gallery space, searching for a physical representation
of her student debt.

To start the debt visualization, I have people close their eyes and imagine walking—just feeling their feet on the ground in an imagined place, observing what it feels like to walk around while the body remains still. I lead them
on a search in the unknown, for a thing or a space that they can experience and interact with as if it were their debt.

More than other debtors I had worked with, Laurel was very motivated to explore abstraction—she started by saying, “I should dress like a homeless person because I have negative zeros behind me.” Laurel imagined walking through the door of the EFA Project Space gallery. She described everything she saw, and in moments of quiet, I asked her questions about how she felt.

Laurel described the gallery as a brightly lit room. You can see this in the first image (see page 53), the black- and-white drawing. On the left-hand side of the drawing it said conscious. Things were kind of as-normal over there. And when she crossed over the borderline into the unconscious (as labeled on the drawing), the deeper part of the gallery, things got dark and cold and the walls flickered— disappearing and reappearing again. She said, “I have the sense I’m peeking into the abyss when looking into the other [side of the] room. I’m at the border.” From her description, there was this sense of infinity in this dark, cold part of the gallery. At one point she threw a chair into the unconscious space, and it stayed in perpetual flight, hovering as it throttled forward into, but not through, the wall. So my analysis was this: As Laurel walked into this unconscious space, she entered a reality that didn’t follow the rules that existed in the initial, conscious space. It was as if getting close to her debt actually removed all that she trusted when she thought of what is “real.”

Entering the dark, cold area provided a place with no gravity, no matter. It’s a useful metaphor. What can we trust when we see that the guidelines we have been living by are not in our best interest? The walls wavered and disappeared and came back. When we finished the visualization we dis- cussed putting handles on the walls of the gallery so Laurel could always feel that they were there. In the end we decided not to, because it seemed like it was more important to let
the walls fall.

“I want to mold outside space into a room. I’m starting to feel the wall as a white, real pure form of clay. I can feel how it could be made into a different form, pure without laws of construction, gravity. A space more connected to desire instead of logic. It’s the outdoor space that’s inseparable from this space. It’s become this space. The floor is stable but the walls have become a hut. More rounded features, imprecise. Growing more organic somehow.”

When I think of the pure white clay walls described by Laurel, I see infinite malleability, the pure potential of a clay that is always soft, never dry, never hard, never finished.

This infinite potential that promises never to dry up is familiar to me—it sounds like the potential offered by credit! Maybe Laurel is speaking of a credit that never dries up or becomes hard. What would that be? Perhaps it is untethered to money and responds to desire without threatening indebtedness, guilt, payback—a network of interdependence.

But the fact is that clay gets hard when it dries out. Credit, in a cold, dry financial landscape, becomes heavy and brittle when it transforms into debt. And the fact that a borrower can carry that heavy debt makes them more attractive to predatory creditors, but future loans will always be at a higher interest rate with the threat of a heavy object breaking over the head. The fear that is caused by this threat of something breaking in the future weighs on the unconscious so much, creating mental noise and a fear for survival—such imaginal limitations.

After the debt visualization was complete, we decided to arrange the exhibition around what Laurel saw. We installed a thick white curtain that divided the left side, the conscious space, from the right side, the unconscious space. On the left, conscious side, it was brightly lit. There were large infographics and a library of books about debt and economics. There was a bulletin board with information about projects that people were doing to strike debt or barter. The focus of the room was a set of tables where people could read or talk. On the right side of the map, in the unconscious space, it was dark, cold and windy, and a little disorderly. There was a sense of control and clarity on one side and darkness and chaos on the other.

Laurel requested that I plan a ritual for the show’s opening reception. She was forthright about her desire
for transformation in the course of this show. If you look back at the map, you’ll see this blob drawn in the middle of the conscious side. It says: ENORMOUS BURDEN MULTIPLE KINDS, and then it says SECURITY around it (see page 53). This unnamed burden was an object for the transformative ritual that was to open the show.

To make this model of a physical “enormous burden,” I collected hundreds of garbage bags of receipts stolen from ATM vestibules all over New York. With interns and friends and whoever would help me, we cleaned out the wastebaskets of every ATM we could find, mostly in Midtown, because that’s where the EFA gallery is. As we collected receipts we could see that the balances on most accounts were low. So many people had $100 balances, and this is in Midtown Manhattan! Occasionally somebody had $40,000, but that was rare. The receipts were filthy, covered in spilled coffee and other substances. With many friends over the course
of a week, we made a big armature in the shape of a boulder, about ten feet tall. We worked all day and all night covering
it with papier-mâchéd receipts. I would sometimes take walks around Midtown in the middle of the night to get more receipts, and I would come back with strangers who would stay and work with me. As we made this “enormous burden,” we tried not to talk about it or look at it except when absolutely necessary. It had no name, but it was at the center of all our effort.

When the ATM receipts dried, they hardened with a special bluish sheen. Later, I read in a New York Times article that this was because of the PCBs that coat that type of receipt. Despite how this physical piece of debt took on the color and the sheen of a glacier, it always looked like it was on the verge of falling apart. It appeared too big to hold itself up. It was too big to fail! We began to call this pathetic boulder of “enormous burden” the “unspeakable thing.” Prior to the opening of the exhibition, we placed the unspeakable thing in the dark cold area, in the unconscious.

In preparation for September 17, the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, members of Strike Debt organized
a series of actions to take place in the financial district. As I was building the unspeakable thing, we were also painting banners in the space; my favorite one said SILENCE=DEATH. On September 17, I watched from outside as Laurel was arrested for her participation in an action at JP Morgan Chase. There was confetti thrown, and I saw Andrew Ross being handcuffed and walked out of the bank with party favors on the ground around him. It was unclear if Laurel would be released before the exhibition opened, so we began to install without her.

When I first began to construct the unspeakable thing, I didn’t understand what it was for or why I made it. I knew
I wanted to make some debt, and I knew we needed a trans- formative ritual—now more than ever. Two days before
the opening, while Laurel was in jail, I called a witch named George for advice. I had met George in a storefront in Queens during Obama’s first presidential election. He and his coven hosted an election ritual to save us from John McCain. I invited George to help me design a ritual around debt. At this point I was extremely desperate to figure out what to do for Laurel, and for everyone.

“Do you know what kind of ritual you want to have?” No.

“Do you want to create something or destroy something?” Destroy.

“What do you want to help people destroy?” Fear. “Fear of what?” Debt.
“Oh, well that’s easy. Whenever you want to remove fear, you have to place it into an object, and then take that object and incinerate it or bury it. If you incinerate it, the transformation happens really quickly. If you bury it it takes a little longer, but it’s a more thorough change.”

And so we had a ritual: Put the fear of debt into the unspeakable thing through people’s hands, and incinerate it.

Financial debt wants security. If you have a lot of debt, you want to hide under your security blanket, safe from predatory financial institutions, safe from others who might judge you. If you are a bank and you give a lot of credit and own a lot of debt, you also want security, to protect your assets from the debtors, who want to kill you and take advantage of you. Thus, I hired a security guard to maintain the principles of the unspeakable thing: no acknowledgment of the debt (sight, touch, or discussion) was permitted. I hired a friend, artist, healer and dancer, Shizu Homma, to play the role of security guard during the opening. She is the woman
in the image of a dark room, with the unspeakable thing in the foreground. During the opening, she was at her post guarding the sculpture all night. If people came into the dark cold unconscious side of the room (which you had to pass on your way to the bathroom), she would yell: “Don’t look at this or touch this!” If visitors acted in violation of the rules, Shizu would issue them a quick citation that said get back here at 7:30. Through the protection of the debt, its presence grows and takes up more space. As visitors must go out of their way to avoid the debt, they are also forced to pretend they are not experiencing it.

shizu guard

Now look at the image of a mirror, where you can see there’s a sign taped to it. That mirror was in the bathroom
of the gallery, and you had to walk by the debt to get to the bathroom. The bathroom was low lit with blue light and filled with smoke from burnt sage. The sign read: DESPITE WHATEVER AUTHORITY KEEPS YOU FROM IT, TOUCH THE THING. As people returned to the dark cold room after exiting the bathroom, Shizu yelled at them again, but now they touched the sculpture anyway. Shizu issued them citations that ordered them to return to the debt at 7:30. Eventually most people received a citation.

At 7:30 all the visitors migrated from the bright room into that dark cold room, surrounding the thing but not looking at it. The performance of “pretending not to see” was really funny. After a few minutes of standing in a circle filled with discomfort and quiet, Shizu abruptly ordered the circle of people: “Look at it, and walk towards it.” She waited for the group to obey, then breathed deeply and touched the thing, and everyone followed. Her voice completely changed when she said, “Now while touching it, imagine all of the indebtedness in your body going into this object. Your fear of debt is leaving you as it empties into it.”

This was a powerful moment! We stayed together touching debt, a group of about fifty people, for three or four minutes in silence. Shizu broke the silence with movement, signaling for us to push the debt into the light, through the curtain. As we shoved it into the other room it began to fall apart. When it made it to the center of the conscious side of the room, it was carefully, silently reconstructed. Shizu asked everyone to lie down on the floor, where she led them to imagine their collective debt, which was in this rock, pouring into the ground, where it was neutralized by the earth. At the conclusion of the visualization, she explained how the rocks were going to be incinerated in Laurel’s backyard in a month, after the exhibition concluded. To close, Laurel sprinkled
rose water on the debt sculpture, as prescribed by George.

It occurs to me that the fetish object, as Max discussed, connects to this physical form of debt we made. In debt we automatically invest our fear, faith, and value, giving it power over us. It makes us desire security as it instills competitive survivalism and a sense of scarcity. I’ve always likened debt to an idea form, or something that is made into a physical experience by our pure collective belief in it. The more people who fear and respect it, the larger and more ominous it gets. Max (and Marx) related the fetish object to money, and I would like to replace money with debt: “We imagine that [debt] has this power in and of itself, but in fact it’s just our collective creative power reflected back to us in a dark mirror.” But since it’s an abstraction without physicality, you can’t see debt, so you just keep staring at the mirror. By using art to make the debt physical, it becomes something to look at in the mirror instead of only looking at yourself.

Reading this text from Max makes me reflect back on this project differently. It now feels as if we experienced the making of a fetish object as a transparent public process. What if we were always able to intentionally imbue objects with value in such a clear way? And what if we could remove the harmful power that we’ve installed in money? How would we remove our belief from it?

A change in where we put our value would require a change in our belief of what is possible, which is something that the Rolling Jubilee did. When the Rolling Jubilee began, a friend wrote on my Facebook wall, “I didn’t know people could act like this.” It’s not that Rolling Jubilee was about altruism, but it was about revealing a different story about debt that removed its mysterious sanctimonious power over us. In a series of debt buys, the omnipresent monolithic power of debt was disproved. Instead of looking at debt and seeing a mirror, we just saw a flawed system with holes that we could reach into. I always think of the Rolling Jubilee as being the first soft spot in a hard system, when we’re so used to systems being so slick, impenetrable, and seamless.