Superstructure 34 – Italy and International Fascism

Co-hosts Naty T Smith (@orangeasm), Will Beaman (@agoingaccount), and Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) discuss the rise to power of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni near the 100th anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome to frame the international moment and the ascendance of red-brown tendencies, the urgencies of anti- fascism, and the shape of contemporary reaction. Through the example of Meloni’s election, they explore how monetary austerity, anti migrant tactics, fascist nostalgia, and other ideologies of replacement, are at stake in this global conjuncture.

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Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Can The Little Mermaid Speak?

Will Beaman and Scott Ferguson tease out the multiplicity of voices that shape The Little Mermaid (1989) in order to problematize racist outcries against Disney’s forthcoming 2023 live-action version of the film starring singer Halle Bailey. The co-hosts answer and invert an imperative promulgated by a reactionary meme circulated on social media: “Don’t take away my history” (see below). The meme falsely imagines Disney’s 2023 reboot displacing and replacing a past white heterosexual monoculture. This episode, by contrast, explores the genuinely heterogeneous and contestable legibilities that inform The Little Mermaid’s historical production and reception. Developing Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of “dialogism,” Will and Scott trace the film’s significance across several registers: (1) gender representation in relation to Disney animation history and 1980’s Hollywood; (2) Disney’s imperialist expansions as a multinational conglomerate in the context of a zero-sum neoliberalism and expiring Cold War; (3) abstract animation aesthetics in light of an increasingly physics-oriented blockbuster cinema; and (4) queer culture’s fraught popular expressiveness in the midst of an HIV/AIDS crisis dismissed and repressed by U.S. authorities.    

Meme: 

Note to Animation and Broadway Aficionados: In this episode, the co-hosts refer to “Someday My Prince Will Come” in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) as an original example of what has come to be called an “I want” or “I wish” number in musical films and plays. Here we add a small proviso: Snow White’s “I’m Wishing” song precedes “Someday My Prince Will Come” and thus represents the original “I want” or “I wish” number in the film in a very literal sense.  

Related Viewing:

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Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Making Digital Public Spaces w/ MUSICat

This month Money on the Left is joined by the folks behind the MUSICat project, an online music streaming service for public libraries designed to share heterogenous local music with local community members. We speak with Preston Austin and Kelly Hiser from Rabble, the company behind MUSICat, as well as with Racquel (“Rocky”) Mann, who coordinates the MUSICat service with Edmontonians as Digital Initiatives Librarian for Edmonton Public Library

Launched by the Madison Public Library in 2014, MUSICat has since been adopted by public libraries, including in Pittsburgh, Nashville, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Edmonton and elsewhere. Artists who share music via MUSICat are paid for their work with library funding and are granted other substantial forms of support through the library system. 

MUSICat serves as an inspirational model for mobilizing public institutions and forms that can provision communities in diverse and locally sensitive ways. Exploring what we at Money on the Left have called a hermeneutics of provision, we affirm public libraries’ critical function as creative stewards and producers of regional public cultures. 

Special thanks to Edmonton artist Jill van Stanton for the album art used in our episode graphic. Thanks also to the Edmonton musicians, whose work is spread liberally throughout this episode. Featured tunes include: Shout Out Out Out Out, “Never the Same Way Twice”; Souljah Fyah, “8 Days of Summer”; Farhad Khosravi, “Escape”; Denim Daddies, “Roadrunner”; and The Tsunami Brothers, “Stink Bug.”

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Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

William Saas: Rocky Mann and Preston Austin, welcome to Money on the Left.

Rocky Mann: Thank you. 

Preston Austin: Good to be here.

Rocky Mann: Great to be here.

William Saas: We’ve invited you on the show today to talk about your MUSICat project, which as we understand it, is an online music streaming service for public libraries. Which is an unconventional way for collecting, curating, and distributing music. Could you start off our conversation by telling us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to the MUSICat project and what the MUSICat project has become and where it might be going?

Preston Austin: Sure, I’ll start. I’m the co-founder of Rabble, a company that actually writes the MUSICat software. So I work as a web technology guy in Madison, Wisconsin and my history includes a lot of working with both higher ed and mid-tier media production for the web. So producing audio-video things that work on webpages, especially back when putting audio and video on a webpage was difficult and involved all sorts of plugins and browsers, we didn’t know how to do things. So I had a background in that tech and built a framework for doing things on web pages that was called “media landscape.”

And that mostly had to do with actual stuff like what we’re doing today recording meetings, or presentations to classrooms and producing multimedia from it. That led to me working in a startup that had to do with publishing music for people to consume music collections. And while I was working on that, word got around that I was the music guy for web pages for one of them in Madison, and a music librarian from Madison Public Library approached me and they wanted us to work on a project called the “Yahara Music Library.” 

And I said, “no, it was a cool idea. But I’m really, really busy.” But it remained a cool idea. And so over a period of about a year, I ended up talking to a guy, Hank, the music librarian from Madison. And eventually we said, “let’s do this” and built a prototype. This was based on Iowa City’s earlier music collection online. We built a prototype, and that became the Harlem music library. And that project involved a business partner who will be on the program later, Kelly Heiser, and that all formed a foundation. And we said, this is interesting. Libraries, in general, are going to be interested in this, this is not a one-off product, do you want to start a company to build a platform to make this thing practical? That platform is what became MUSICat. 

And that company has Rabble as the first library partner, and it was really formative. And working with us on that platform was Edmonton, thus the connection with Rocky.

Scott Ferguson: Can you give us a sense of the years here? When did these initial experiments take place? And when did you found the company?

Preston Austin: I’m terrible at this sort of thing. But, I think the initial conversations were happening in 2013, possibly as far back as late 2012. And I think we founded the company in 2014. It’s possible it was legally formed in 2015 as an entity. It was originally in a partnership with a startup that I was in at that time, but we purchased their interest in it. I exited that venture and became full-time focused on Rabble shortly thereafter. Within a few years, we were a completely independent venture. And so currently, Rabble is a company that’s closely held and slowly works with libraries. We have no external investors and we’re not a grantee of any foundation or anything like that.

Scott Ferguson: Rocky, you want to tell us about your background? 

Rocky Mann: Sure. I came to the project in 2016 as part of getting this new position with Edmonton Public Library, the Digital Public Spaces librarian. Prior to that, my background was in music. Before moving to Edmonton, I was pretty heavily involved in the music scene in Victoria on Vancouver Island. I was doing, you could call it “participatory video” or “participatory media,” community-based research with the UBC Okanagan with Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island and all over BC.

The concept of collaboratively built infrastructure online and how to share, distribute, and ensure authority and authenticity with communities when sharing content has always been something I’ve been very interested in and in working on. I started in this role in 2016, which was one year after we launched our collection with MUSICat. But this project with Edmonton Public Library started as part of an internship in 2013 with my predecessor, Alex Carruthers. 

She was looking at: what’s the digital public space? What are other libraries doing? And she came up with a really great trend-spotting report. And through community discussions and things like that, we identified that of all the different types of digital public spaces, people wanted something about music. We’re generally thought of as a blue-collar working-class city compared to Calgary–I don’t know if you should put this on!–Calgary is the Texas of Alberta and Edmonton’s the Austin. 

Scott Ferguson: That’s helpful.

Rocky Mann: We love our arts. Edmonton loves their arts: theater, music, the community is quite tight-knit. She embarked to do an environmental scan of what technology is out there. And from that process, she chose to work with Rabble because it was really important not to work with something that was proprietary. The fact that it was open source, the fact that it was community-based and collaborative, and we can work together to build it. 

Because things change, having that type of relationship was–from what I’ve read from her reports and in talking with her– a key factor. When I was onboarded, I remember the introduction from her and my supervisor, “oh, we’re gonna work with this tiny startup and there’s some challenges, but it’s really great.” I’ve loved every moment of it. And then in 2014, I think our initial feedback–and I wasn’t there yet– was from an “unconference” called YEG, which is our airport code. YEG Band Camp, where we brought in musicians, artists, nonprofits, all the businesses and people who are really active in our music community to talk about what they would like to see in a platform and initiative. So there’s the technology side and then how it branches out in real life. That fed into our early discussions with Rabble: What should this thing look like? What’s our community saying?

Scott Ferguson: That’s so fascinating for a number of reasons. I’m a media studies scholar, among other things. And very often, media studies scholars want to understand social and cultural change in terms of tech as disruptors. What I hear you saying is that, of course tech is playing a big role, but that actually culture and a culture of participation and aesthetic construction is side by side with tech. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

Rocky Mann: Sure. Coming from my background through Indigenous research methodology and the concepts of OCAP, which is ownership, control, access, and possession. Personally, those are really important. And my other portfolio is building an Indigenous digital public space. Similar in the way that we’re working to build it for indigenous content here, but I really see the music community and artists. 

The industry has a historical background that is quite exploitative in many regards. You could really describe artists, upcoming artists, or generally that group, as vulnerable in that sense. So the need to share, the need to be exposed, the need to get your creative works out there often supersedes protecting, ensuring that the standards of who you’re working with are ethical, of a high ethical standard. So my background was coming from that previous research background. 

And every step along the way Rabble’s values seemed to match my personal ones, and the library’s vision of being community-led, which is one of the appeals, foundational philosophies about how we deliver and develop programs, identify barriers, your community discussions, and then, with our communities, find a way to attend to those and reduce those gaps. So it’s a civic gap, participation in your creative community, in your profession, access to technology, access to being a creator and participating in our civic society.

William Saas: Let’s run with that. You mentioned the history of music as an industry, music publishing as having been, well, straight-up exploitative. MUSICat seems to be coming at music making and publication from a very different direction, which seems like it’s probably informed by critiques of some of the larger streaming platforms. How would you articulate your criticisms of the platforms that exist and have existed around music circulation and publication? And how is MUSICat different?

Preston Austin: Who wants to go first?

Rocky Mann: I think I’ll throw that to you.

Preston Austin: MUSICat’s thesis, Rabble’s thesis with MUSICat is that empowering public institutions to invest in artists and with artists together to invest in collecting is valuable, full stop. I want to start there, that the public investment in artists is a thing unto itself. And if you send an artist a $200 check to license their work into a library collection, on very clear terms that are artist-friendly, and leave them able to continue to use their work the way they want to, where they want to, this is a good thing to have done. Somebody gets 200 bucks, and that respects and supports them.

We wanted to build a way to focus on building value. Communities being able to build value and technology that is not disruptive technology really, it’s supportive technology. And I’m not trying to break up the dynamic of how people listen to music and create some new thing that changes the world and deflates the costs and disintermediate people, etc, etc. That gets a little frustrating. So we didn’t build it to compete with streaming services or to replace them or even really to contemplate them. We built it to complement them, we really built it with the idea in mind that it is its own thing. Public spaces for music, a concept that I wasn’t calling it then and had a different notion of before the work with Edmonton. But I really liked Alex Carruthers’ work and Kelly contributed to that. That was a good conceptualization, and we absorbed that value or more of those values. 

What we did is we said, let’s focus on this question of power, local control, local power, artists as real participants in the process, the library as a convener. What is appropriate within that in terms of technology? And what we did was, instead of building a leanback music experience that tries to create an adhesive listening, okay, you’re in there, and now you’re stuck to it. And you’re playing that playlist for a long, long, long time. And we’re trying to get everybody in the world’s music available to every listener in the world, and everybody’s going to pay eight bucks a month or something like that–I just picked that number out of the ether. 

And instead of creating that all to all process, which critically in its incentive structure means that whomever is collecting that money and paying for that streaming is trying to minimize the amount of those monthly revenues that go to the creation because they’re trying to get all the music in the world to all the listeners in the world and they want them listening all the time. So this structure is fundamentally minimizing the return to artists. We designed on the other side of it, we designed on maximizing the public’s ability to invest in their artists. 

And those artists’ ability to invest in their public via the collecting and the community formed around it. And it’s all via invitations, everything is understood upfront, the relationships are personal, the fact that the relationships happen in this public and safe space is important. 

So what’s my criticism of the streaming universe, which I think is what you’re actually asking me to do? It creates a world within which the technical intermediary or the licensing intermediary who licenses art from artists and licenses it to either listeners or downstream services, where those intermediaries’ motivation is to take a piece of that pie. And it does so in a way that really abstracts music into a commodity to be listened to that is valued primarily in terms of listening, and then it turns everything else in the musical community into something around that commodified listening. 

Here we’re saying “no, no, no.” The process of collective involvement in building this collection, building with the library, that these are all part of it. And we actually want the technology to be more part of it, we’re not as open as we want to be. We’re open-source to our library customers, but there’s not a distribution. And getting to that ethos of everyone being able to invest with everyone else around these local nuclei is what we want to do, in terms of the experience created, these collections, we call it “lean forward”, it’s a terminology that I’m not sure if I made it up or picked it up from somebody, but I haven’t been able to track it down. But you have “lean back” listening experiences, you hit a play button and music comes out forever. 

MUSICat and the library collections are leaning forward. It is a collection. It’s more like being in a listening room and being able to look at titles and pick one off the wall and play it on a fancy old-fashioned turntable there and interact with information about the artists, use it as a jumping off place to find their other material online. So we’re not trying to solve the problem of, how on earth would I get music into my ears right now? We’re trying to solve the problem of how would I become a participant in starting as a listener, but possibly in other ways, my local community, my local music community, and were can I make the technical supportive choice in doing that, where can I do that knowing that there aren’t money grabbing assholes, let’s say, in the middle. 

All of that said, it’s a long project, I think we’re about halfway there. So in the aggregate right now, of all the money that libraries spend on artists’ licensing direct to artists, plus Rabble MUSICat fees, money that comes to develop the software platform, we’re not on a very large base of libraries yet. And so the cost of maintaining the software platform is still quite high. When we started, we were probably getting actually two thirds of the funding, there were almost no libraries, and most of the money was going into developing software. 

We’re now at a point where maybe 55% or something in aggregate of the money is going directly to local artists from their local public library if you look at that combined budget. There’s other budgets.That doesn’t include internal budgets at the library and things like that, we’d like to be in a position where more than 80%, possibly 90% of the total spend, inclusive of platform costs, goes to artists, and that’s getting the technology part of it to where it’s just tech that different vendors can compete to do this sort of thing. And then it’s a fairly straightforward and deflated technical process. We’re a few years away from that goal.

Scott Ferguson: That’s so interesting. So can we talk about how, from an artist point of view, how does submission work? And then from a curatorial point of view, how does the review process work?

Preston Austin: Rocky, do you want to take this from the perspective of governing that process? Because from my perspective, it’s a little bit reductive. I can talk about our publishing chain, there’s the artist’s submission and a jury, but I feel like in terms of what it really means for the community, you speak to it better than I do.

Rocky Mann: So I’d say before the submissions, I think the jury and the curators and the terms of reference are the goals, criteria of the collection, which are word for word, but the criteria of the collection being something that a collection that is representing diversity in terms of demographics, genre, and contexts. And perspective, which really matches our Public Library’s collection policy anyway. It’s really important to have representation on the jury that can also speak to that diversity. The balance between ensuring that you have a quality collection, that is of value to be in for an artist. So you don’t accept everything because you need it to maintain a certain standard, but also something that captures all of our niche existences in our community. 

So, for example, when the initial jury came on, it wasn’t a call out to who was invited… members of the jury were nominated, basically, through discussions with the community. Who does the community respect, celebrate? Who does the community think can make really rich decisions on what music is important here and important to represent? So then we would invite those people that were named to those discussions, then what happens is, as submissions go through the years, and through holding open calls, each time we assessed the collection. What’s missing? What are the gaps, what do we have a lot of and what do we not have a lot of and why? 

For example, Edmonton has a very, very active and large indigenous population, and we weren’t seeing music from that community in the submissions. And there wasn’t really representation in our curators group. So reaching out actively to that community to find somebody who would be interested and also a really good fit. And then for the subsequent round, that curator or jury member, I know two different terms are used. We’ve always used jury, but we’re considering going to curator for our refresh in 2023. I’ll stick to the jury for the purposes of this discussion. I do really like “curator”, but there’s something about “jury” that’s exciting during this admissions process.

Scott Ferguson: I had no idea when I was using that word, “curatorial”, that I was walking into a minefield of semantic complications.

Preston Austin: It’s a nightmare, where we’re at right now, to the degree that we have an official line on it, the role is curator, which is both a public role and an internal role and the process and the group formed is jurying and the jury with respect to a round of submissions, that’s how…

Scott Ferguson: That makes a lot of sense.

Preston Austin: That’s how I try to clarify it. However, there’s a long history of discussion around this. And so that is far from normalized language across all of MUSICat. 

Scott Ferguson: Did you want to keep going?

Rocky Mann: Sure. I’ll save that other rant for later. Then those jury members or those curators are active in their community. So they’re reaching out and they’re connecting with other musicians and artists, and encouraging their submissions or just by being present. I think their presence can encourage groups to submit. So on that end, I think the representation and the participation in the community by each jury member is really significant for what it has an impact on what submissions that we receive. 

The submission process, we’ve been through a few practical iterations of it, I think initially, we were going for four times a year. So accepting 100 albums per year. And really quickly… There was one before I came on board, and I think 50 albums were added. There were some big celebration concerts in the city. It was really exciting. And then, after going through that process, I did the next one and realized, well, it takes three months to prep our marketing and communications department to be sending out the message encouraging people, notifying people that the call is open, then it takes a month for that submissions period to be open, then it takes a month or two, depending on the support needed by the jury or lives are busy to select. 

And there’s also always like, Oh, this album or this track didn’t upload. So there’s always technical support needed. So another month, maybe a month and a half for the jury to go through the submission, then another month to support artists who have been invited to the collection, and uploading their submission, uploading their album, creating their profiles, and then another month or two, to celebrate the new additions to the collection. So that’s a six-month process. So I think now, our model is once a year, and to have up to that full amount. So 100 albums a year is what our collections budget has been set aside for. 

Which I’ll say, too, in the submissions, what I really love about Edmonton Public Library’s model– is they have permanently integrated the budget for new albums through capital city records into our regular collections management and access budget. So it’s not with digital initiatives, my department, which is always exploring new technologies. And some things live for a long time, some things fade out, it’s with our permanent collections budget, just like any other type of collection that we have, physical or digital, which I very much appreciate. So it does give that sense of commitment and sustainability. 

With artists’ admissions, too, I do a lot of active work on the ground, we really want it to be inviting. So I’m part of, I don’t know, 20 local music community Facebook groups, I’m going to events, I’m talking to people and making sure that everybody who might be interested is aware, I keep a list of artists who email me through the year with inquiries and I make sure to add them to this list of those who wish to be notified every time something happens just so things don’t get lost in the very overwhelming fear of internet and communications. So it is a very supportive thing. 

If a submission isn’t quite working, or I’ll reach out personally to say, “hey, your track, the quality isn’t so good. Do you have another one?” I would not like to see somebody not be recommended because of a technical barrier, for example.

Scott Ferguson: Is the basic unit of submission an album? That’s what I thought I heard you saying or can a band submit a song or a few tracks?

Preston Austin: Let me speak to what’s possible first, and then the library-ality maybe. So the submit form, the initial process entry point into the technical layer of publishing is a short form and it gathers very basic metadata. And metadata is going to come up later probably in the conversation because it’s so important. But we gather very basic metadata; the album title, or the work in question, the artist’s name separately from the act, so the name of the individual versus the act, which are often not the same, some very basic high-level genre information. 

And then the library administering the collection has control of additional meta information that they might want and ensure and process. And what that includes is how many tracks that are going to collect. So they could collect just one or they could collect many if they want to make many tracks available. And that does vary across collections. So some libraries, for example, they only collect albums, they have minimums and how many tracks they want. And they want to see three tracks presented to the jury so that they can make a judgment across that. So that’s like a very high investment, both for the submitting artist and for the jury in terms of how much is involved there. 

We try to remember all that later, so that nobody ever has to redo any of that data entry, or uploading. But they can also ask other questions. So if they just want to ask a question of the artists they can, and two questions that have become standardized, and I think these actually didn’t both come from Edmonton, but I can’t remember right now where they came from the two questions that have become standardized are basically where have you been playing out? And then how would you describe your connection to the musical community? And so they were these two long-form questions in the submission that are basically like, tell us why you are connected locally. So that’s the technical layer of the process. And that produces a package that you get many, many, many pending submissions that the jury can work with.

Scott Ferguson: That’s so fascinating. I was thinking about comparing that process to what used to be the process of getting verified on Twitter. Which is like, show us your numbers, show us your raw numbers … this is totally different: write us some, give us some language about how you’re connected to the community. It’s so different.

Preston Austin: Sorry, go ahead.

Rocky Mann: I was just gonna say, it’s really important not to restrict what it means to be part of a music community. So our criteria we asked for, I think we have a field for a postal code, but it’s a greater Edmonton region. So it can be you either are born here, produce your album here, or have significant activity within the community here. So we want it to be local, it must be local somehow. But there is always room for that gray area for that one-off or that person who is really important, or that group that is really important to this community, based on their description, so we don’t want it to be a hard line of territory or region.

William Saas: Rocky, when you were talking about the process for soliciting submissions, it sounds to me a lot like canvassing, political canvassing. And the community organizing that you’re doing resembles workplace organizing. A couple of questions. One is: did your background that you were describing before, coming to the Edmonton Public Library, seem to entail some of that organizing work? How did that inform your approach to the submission process? Was it a one-to-one? What’s different about it? And then also, as you’re doing this work, I wonder how often local political community issues come into the conversation? And do you see potential within this territorial juried process, the community music community building that you’re doing there? Is it just inevitably also a political project?

Rocky Mann: It’s interesting the words you select. I would say that it’s more outreach. There is an organization part. But the public library, Edmonton Public Library, first and foremost, is really about outreach. So before this role at EPL, I was a community librarian. Basically, my job is to drive around, look at what’s there, and talk to people. So I might drive by a building and see a sign. Some group or organization that I’ve never heard of that might not even have a website or be in the phonebook. And I’ll try to connect to see what, what they’re up to. 

And the question of, what are you up to? What are your goals? What are your visions? And how can the library support you? So what are the barriers to doing what you want to do in this community and for yourself? And then from those, from that “discovery interview” to use traditional library terms, we try to find ways the library can support. Versus I would say, and I think the platform supports this as well, because it’s collaboratively developed, this community based feedback. We bring that to Preston and Glen, and try to see it technically applied in that in a technical way, how can that technology support that need? 

So we take what they’re saying… This is opposite, I think, of a corporate model where a business says “we’ve built this amazing thing. Now, you should probably want to use it and this is how you can use it.” That, to me, is very like if you build it, they will come where the focus is on the company or the product versus the process. My background is really, process is just as important as product. When I’m reaching out during the submissions process. I’m trying to build a relationship. Everything is about relationships. 

Everything is about trust. I think Capital City Records and the MUSICat platform is the foundation of a safe place for sharing creative works, not just for the artists, but also there’s a gap of access for our Edmontonians, for example, and the world to access local content. A lot of this stuff may exist elsewhere on Bandcamp, or SoundCloud, or other things, but to be part of this collection, that is recognized by the library that is seen as this something that has value in that sense. There’s almost that, for lack of a better word, there’s an authority there, people trust the library, people know that there is very, very strong values, ethics process behind selection, and a historical commitment to intellectual freedom and things like that in a way that, there’s a lot of hot debate around those subjects as well.

And there will never be a clear answer. But the library is the appropriate place for those decisions to be made, as I’ve discussed before. So how do I recruit, how does that all work into it? Relationships are of the utmost importance, whether it’s an individual or group, making people aware of what’s available, but in that talking to people to learn what they need, and then feeding that into creating something available. So it’s ground up that way. And that’s powerful. It’s wonderful, I can reach out to an artist I maybe connected with once and it’s always a pleasant interaction.

I see them in my community on the ground, I really see the technology in the platform as the foundation for that. It’s the foundation for education, artists’ education, artists’ awareness, organizing around it, connecting people in real life on the ground, building those communities between artists and the rest of Edmonton and celebrating the culture and identity here, which in turn, those strong communities helps for that mutual support. That identity of what we are historically and now is really important to this global divide in places. I know it’s so strong between political views, you talked a lot about politics. 

The politics that are thereI hope that this project can help curb that socio-economic gap between access to equitable distribution sharing and representation through the technology and the initiative. But it’s also about taking the politics out in a way that’s about–it’s first and foremost, the people and their works, and the perspective that might encompass politics, but it’s never neutral. But we strive for equity. Long-winded answer.

William Saas: Solidarity maybe?

Rocky Mann: Solidarity and strengthening community access, it excites me so much. And I know the biggest needs because I constantly get feedback. I’ll tell you how the artists really influenced two parts of the submissions process and how we do things, but I constantly get feedback and ask for feedback. What do they need now? What is of interest? So music business industry education, embedding metadata, we could get into that, too.

There’s so many overwhelming aspects to participating in these creative new industries that really important things like having proper metadata to protect your creative works is something I don’t think most artists know how to do or really are informed about. And so there’s that and even in our honorariums, I would say originally, I got some feedback being like, “hey, I’m an experimental artist and my album is two tracks and 40 minutes long.” 

But we have tiers for honorariums. You asked before, can people submit one song or is it albums? It’s not just one track. We don’t have submissions for if you have a single, although I was just asked about this, and maybe that needs to change because singles are a very important thing these days. Maybe that’s a future discussion. But it is an EP, so originally, it was three tracks as an EP and above six tracks is an album and 12 or 10 plus gets the highest honorarium because we do want to attribute work somebody who’s invested in an album-length work, we want to compensate them for that contribution for maybe for an EP length or something. But we were doing by number of tracks, and that really wasn’t equitable. 

So, upon that comment, I further reached out. I did a survey of all 300 artists. Tell me about your work. Tell me about what you consider. So now it’s an either or. So if you’re out and I based it on LP length, so a 7 inch how many minutes of music can that hold? 10 inch how many minutes of that and an LP–12 inch–how many minutes? And everybody agreed, that seems fair. So now the honorariums are based on either this amount of minutes, or this many tracks, because a punk or country album, which might have 12 short songs, but still be 15 minutes long.

Like my album is a full album, but it’s not as long as other genres. So out of all my creation trends, genres, and these works was all through those conversations, and then they result in our submissions process. And how we compensate. Two rants.

Scott Ferguson: Can you discuss a specific example of how artist participation changed the tech?

Preston Austin: Sure. There’s really a bunch. I’m trying to think of some that are odd and core to it. My mind is still on this question of album lengths right now. So which has ended up by the way being a constant area of work? So we’ve revisited again and again and again and again and again. So I think a key area where artist feedback changed the tech that I want to talk about in terms of responsiveness and the fact that this is a public platform and stuff like that. We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, or not, depending on who you ask. But if you’re asking me, it’s still going on. 

And at the beginning of that, we had a situation where everybody whose work was not considered a societal priority, and whose work depended on getting a bunch of people in little venues and rooms together just went away, all over the place. And so, we saw this situation where people who wait tables and artists who play in the venues where people who wait tables, and artists who play in small venues and cities and venues themselves, and we’re all just saying, “oh, we used to do things, and now we sit around at home, and this is ruining us. What should we do about that?” 

There was push-back in a lot of spaces that were non-commercial, to say, “okay, how can we support each other?” So our libraries, we’re hearing from artists, a little bit of, “hey, basically can we do more to link out to places where we can generate revenue?” And so our reaction to that was twofold at Rabble… actually threefold, we did three things. One, we put up a product, which actually I need to take down on the webpage because we can’t afford it anymore. But we put up the product which we said, okay, for the duration of the pandemic, if you will support your local artists, if you have a budget for artists, we will bring up your MUSICat collection rate. And we actually still have one, I’m not going to say who because I don’t like to reveal who’s paying and who has not. 

But we have a city that actually does not pay anything for MUSICat for a major urban market because they wanted to support their artists. And we said “fine, we won’t charge you anything, get a budget worked out when you can when there’s money.” That was one thing we did. Another thing we did though, and this is changing platform in reaction to artists, we added the ability for participating libraries who want to do it to offer their artists the ability to put up links to peer-to-peer payment platforms as part of the artists page that did not exist as a feature. And we just straightforwardly said, if people want to be able to jump off to give the artists money, we’re going to make that an aspect of the artist page. 

So somebody in Rocky’s role can turn a feature like that on or off and an artist can opt into it. And if they want to put in links to things like CashApp, or Venmo, or Paypal or whatnot, we recognize those and offer those links on the page. And that was just one of the ways people are supporting each other during this pandemic, artists in particular are being hit hard by these, small local artists are being hit harder than artists in general, we’re just going to do this. So that’s a durable change to the technology that was just completely in response to that. And then the final thing we did is for two or three months as a company, we put down all of our work at MUSICat completely. 

We built a separate platform for people to simply give money to local servers at restaurants. So we just built something called tipyourserver.org. We built it around a simple spreadsheet driven product that somebody named Emil Wimmer had built, which was cool, we thought that’s awesome. Let’s build a way for people to just give money to people during this pandemic, who were working at restaurants who they normally tip. I don’t think by the way that there should be a tipped minimum wage, I don’t think anybody should be paid in tips. I think that that’s all crazy. But that’s the reality of the world. And we knew there were social relationships there that would support people. So we built tipyourserver.org, which basically leveraged the same approach. Let people say what restaurant they worked for in what city and then jump off to a Venmo, or CashApp or whatever. And we don’t track things in a way that would allow me to know who does what. We’re very anti-surveillance. 

But we did do a little bit of basic logging of how much that got used. And we did some analysis of some of that use from users. Basically, these platforms helped early in the pandemic move, tens of thousands of dollars a week at the scale of a city like Madison into the hands of people who needed the money to buy groceries. So these are reactions in technology. I’ve gone a little afield maybe from when we’ve started. But I think it’s an important aspect of where we’re at and how we’re trying to react to library values. We work with libraries. When the pandemic came, libraries dropped everything in order to become local support institutions for their communities, because they have a public mission. And so they do what’s important if they can, they don’t… this gets to Rocky’s point. They’re not trying to sell their product, they’re trying to react to their community needs. We have to do that, too. So that’s what we tried to do in that case.

Scott Ferguson: So we had a question that I think the language was spin “spin off projects.” But I almost feel like that question is wrongheaded. Because from your answers, it’s clear that the tech and the community and creating values and it’s all related, and everything spills into everything. This is as much about streaming local music as it is about local outreach as it is about supporting people during a pandemic who are restaurant workers. 

But I guess maybe to ask this question in a slightly different way. Clearly, this is a project that goes beyond just a streaming service. Rocky referenced a concert that had happened. What kinds of other projects that are music based, have spilled out of this music streaming project?

Rocky Mann: A lot, so many. I guess I’ll start. Concerts were always part of the goal. And also part of that community building aspect. We started with concerts, every open round we’d have a concert and then there was this thing we were seeing that Capital City Record artists were really excited to be in Capital City Records together and wanted to put on their own Capital City Records events. 

Which is usually they’re hosted by the library or a partnership with an organization or, or venue or something. So that was really cool to see.

William Saas: When you say “in Capital City Records,” do you have a physical space in addition to the catalog?

Rocky Mann: We do. We have a theater and a stage in our downtown library. I think our initial concerts were held in the park beside one of our other libraries, but also in other local venues. It’s really important to be supportive. Those music venues. And those local businesses aside from nonprofits and organizations are the heart of our music community. And especially during the pandemic that was really tough on our venues, who are the most… they’re really actually our pubs and our bars, who put on live music are really trying to be identified as culture hubs versus pubs or bars for funding and other reasons for their contributions. 

So we like to work with those groups, those businesses as well. Concerts can happen anywhere. We started partnering with festivals to have a Capital City Record stage where if you showed your library card, which is free, you could have free access to the Capital City Record stage, because a barrier to participating in local culture is access to music, festivals and events. All our events are free. We don’t charge for anything when it comes to the community accessing Capital City Records work or events. So concerts were one. And they really spread the gamut of what kinds of events are shared.

Sometimes we just support another group if they want to use Capital City Records artists, so we’ll recommend and we’ll make that relationship connection for them as well. The second thing was a podcast with our local radio station here, CKOA Songs of the Week, which was so cool, because it was starting to connect other local celebrities with the collections. So they come and pick their favorite artists or track, and there’d be a five minute mini-podcast about why they love it. We’ve had the mayor on there. It could be anyone. So that was really great. We had two seasons of the podcast. So it was a partnership. 

The technology when Rabble created the playlist, so getting other record stores or local music enthusiasts to also share their picks and playlists just like in other aspects of the library. We have people give book lists and things like that. So that was really important, Matt has been really great for little projects. Then, there’s the Posters Archive Collection, that was a side project or not a side that was always built in. It’s something that I really hope to have the resources to expand. 

I love that as a piece to the site. So I know in Alex’s notes from that original report and transcending that it’s not… There’s the contemporary music collection, which is the submissions process, but it was really important that the platform also celebrate Edmonton local music history, as well. So it’s not just what are the albums in the last five years or that a part of submission? It’s what’s the history that feeds into what makes the community today. So the Gig Posters Archive is part of that. 

Then we had a group of protest, the community group called Legends of Edmonton Music Scene Society, who have probably spent thousands of hours passionately collecting information and media about Edmonton music life. So it started off from the Shoebox Radio Show where Pete The Rocker was interviewing local legends. It’s quite amazing. He’s very passionate about it. These legends are here right now and he wants to celebrate them and make sure that they have a name and he will cry. 

He has a lot of emotion talking about it because it is important. It’s important to those artists themselves, their families, and the community. It’s been a long… It’s an intensive process, but immediately Rabble said, “okay, let’s build a showcase.” We need something on there that can offer the opportunity for libraries to build other types of collections. There’s five categories, musicians, bands, venues, media (media is really important for a thriving music community). Who are those players in media who have really boosted artists in the past? And what are their stories? Builders. So who’s the music community builder that’s a category in the Legends of Edmonton Music Scene Society collection. 

We’re trying to support a volunteer-run group to build a really beautiful collection, celebrating Edmonton music history, with old archive radio shows and other things. That’s another not side project, but that has come from those relationships and that has also fed into new aspects of the technology and platform. And there’s music videos, the video feature that Rabble implemented, we were getting requests to showcase music videos or other projects in the community, there was one called Northern Sessions or the Dead Venues Documentary that was all about our historical venues. So I think originally, we made a separate page that was linked in to MUSICat. 

But then they built it right in. So now it’s part of the product. It’s part of the platform, which is awesome. And now it’s being used in so many different ways by all the libraries who use MUSICat. So I love going on to all the different libraries that are using the platform and seeing what they’re doing with these features and what their other projects are. Because the ways that you can use the technology are endless. There’s so many ways you can represent the community. Aside from the album and submissions collection, then one of the more excited ones was… I think we’re maybe the first public library to press a vinyl compilation. 

So we’ve been building as makerspaces. And making becomes part of a lot of public library services, as it’s seen as another type of literacy and route for civic participation. We built living recording studios, we’ve had them for a long time. And when our downtown library was going into renovations and revitalizing it, we really set up and so we were doing fundraising. It was part of a fundraiser for these new recording studios that are complete and in full use. Very beautiful. But also it was from one of our members on the City Council at the time, who was very passionate about the arts community and he said let’s press a record and I said “well, that’s my idea, too.” 

Councilor Scott McKeen was really wonderful on that. So he just rallied, helped us rally a bunch of players. We had somebody who was an expert in working with visual artists to help us with the artwork. Long story short, Edmonton Arts Council also came on board to fund it. We had a separate jury onboard of very… they didn’t have to be in Edmonton, we had Cadence Weapon from Edmonton, but like a huge mentor and celebrated artists here in Canada, on the jury, so we had a separate jury, we invited artists to really submit tracks previously unreleased in physical format, because again, we didn’t want to limit the ability for artists to be sharing through this long year, wait a whole year for this album to be pressed before they could continue on with their business. So that was awesome. 

We worked with the radio station to curate the record once the submissions were selected. Everything was local, we had a local press here, press the vinyl. The artwork was from a muralist from Edmonton. So that was a really exciting project, you can see the artwork from behind me.

William Saas: I’ve been admiring most of the entire show, our conversations… that’s awesome.

Rocky Mann: There’s… she calls them easter eggs that are inside jokes and the music community you can find in the artwork. But I’ll say that through that process, the feedback from that project was, it’s so expensive, some artists, there was such a range of people present on there like Juno Award winners, and people who maybe recorded that track in the basement, who would never be able to access or afford to have at that time, their music pressed on wax. So it was just really exciting. 

And a challenge to make a compilation across genres. We have the north side because Edmonton is split by a river and there’s a joke of like the north side of the south side. So all of it really celebrates the city. So we’ve pressed a record, we’re hoping to do a volume two. We’ve also had projects during the pandemic through Capital City Records for virtual concerts. So we were holding interactive people on Valentine’s Day and other concerts and streaming them in hospital wards and long-term care facilities where the artist would share messages from between loved ones. So we were making connections between those artists and different kinds of community groups. 

Which led to another realization that not everybody can attend a physical concert I have to say a positive thing came out, the platform and these spin off quote “spin-off” projects that come out of it help us realize other barriers that music lovers and music makers face in connecting their art with local art and culture. And that was one. So we’re continuing to do those even if live venues are open again.

William Saas: How long have you been doing the MUSICat project? That sounds like 10 years.

Rocky Mann: That’s how I started in 2016. Oh, and we started a physical collection of CDs, which is interesting.

William Saas: Amazing.

Rocky Mann: So hoping to represent physical works from the digital collection, alongside local authors and things like that. But, 7… 6 years. And now we’re partnering with the Juno Award. So I’m hoping that can become a thing, too. We’re talking about a song… a music expert, or musician residents like the local poet laureate. So that’s very new. I don’t know where that will go. 

But it’s something that the education artists education and support through the initiative, all founded through the platform and the technology that is the base for all of these other things. It opens up so many opportunities to bring people together. And I think that’s why we determined a digital public space, is because this technology is so deeply entwined into all the ways that we can connect and support artists and Edmontonians. That was a long rant, but there is so much.

Scott Ferguson: Beautiful, it was so beautiful. This is all just so glorious. I think it’s wonderful. Maybe we can have a bit of a meta-conversation about what else we want to get on record. So we’re holding maybe some of the technical discussion for when Kelly arrived. Do we want to do some of that? Preston?

Preston Austin: I’m absolutely happy to. Kelly started this project as the representative. She was doing a public humanities fellowship during her PhD in musicology at University of Wisconsin Madison, she went to work at the library during that and built in the way that a super high-end intern can do moving freely in an institution built the foundations of a few things. One of them was everything internal to make possible the collaboration. So we’re one week into that process of working with her and I go talk to one of my business partners, and I’m like, “wow, like this Kelly Heiser person, holy shit. Is she good at absolutely everything?” So she’s getting her PhD in musicology. 

But she’ll be like, “well, how does the tech work on this?” Then two days later, she comes back, and she’s gone and read StackOverflow, or whatever. It’s not magic work. But she just puts in the work and brings it back and is unafraid to try things. And so I think we were probably less than a month into this collaboration with Madison, when I was like there’s gotta be a way I can work with Kelly in the future on something. I don’t want this to end with this fellowship. And so that’s a little bit of a history of how they came to be Rabble. And I think actually, when she first invited us, when we first said to her, “hey, do you want to start a company or something like that?” 

I actually think that is much like with the art music library project. I mean, I’m pretty sure the answer was no. And I was like, well, I won’t bother. But then opportunity opened up. So as a musicologist and as a scholar and as a participant from the library side, initially, she brought an abundance of theory to this. A thoughtfulness around sound, we can talk for two hours about sound. What is sound? Kelly and I used to go on at great length about how annoying it is to deal with people in technology who are obsessed with fidelity, with linearity, with the reproduction of objectively perfect sound. What the hell does that even mean? I’m not going to do that on your program.

Scott Ferguson: Oh, please.

Preston Austin: Not without Kelly. I have somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and conversation. Otherwise, I’ll go too far out of land of some bullshit exposition on a topic. So anyway, there’s no aspect of the history of building Rabble MUSICat that I’m not also a party to. It’s just worth understanding that she founded this company, and I worked for her during the period of time prior to and the first few years of Rocky’s work in Edmonton and the establishment of the core values and all of this. There’s never a point at which that’s not under Kelly’s leadership. And I just think that’s important. And there’s Kelly!

Scott Ferguson: There’s Kelly!

Preston Austin: I have invoked her into the conversation. I was singing your phrases here.

Kelly Hiser: I know I missed you. It’s been way too long. 

Rocky Mann: Preston just said that you just miss the good five minutes…

William Saas: It was as though his job was to introduce you before giving an amazing talk. So you’re up.

Scott Ferguson: No pressure.

Preston Austin: No pressure, Kelly. I’m pretty sure that I just said that you can do anything at all.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve taken quite the tour, all around MUSICat. But we’d like you to talk a little bit about the initial challenges with the technology and what the design process was about, especially initially, and then Preston has suggested that because of your musicology background, you have some things to say about music theory or music fidelity or non-fidelity.

William Saas: What is sound? 

Scott Ferguson: What is sound? You take this, however, wherever you want to take it.

Kelly Hiser: In terms of thinking about sound from a more philosophical standpoint, I have always had this stance that being an audiophile is more about status than any real quality in music. So I was always… just make it work, I don’t care. As long as it… once you get to a certain point, people will say they can tell the difference between different levels of fidelity. But in most cases, that’s just not how people are actually using music in their lives. 

And it just ultimately, that’s not what these collections were about at all to me. They are more about building community demonstrating the value of music in a community. And I don’t think the value of that music is in any way tied up with some technological fidelity to sound quality.

Preston Austin: Agreed. That said, the sound quality is perfect. I can speak a little bit to some of this, too. So one of the things that was a question basically, is what formats are accepted. And so what we targeted was making it basically anything. And we encourage these days artists to upload WAV for 4.1 kilohertz 16-bit so that they have a baseline standard that is equivalent to what was used to offer CDs. When you run into all the problems and talk about dynamic range, and loudness, and compressing everything into the upper end of that, artists are going to do what artists are going to do. But if they have mastered tracks in WAV, we’ll use them. But there are other people who are doing their entire workflow in mp3 tools, and they want to upload an mp3 and we’re not going to be like, “oh, it’s 120 kilobit mp3 that you made five years before the first collection was done, and we’re not going to take it because that’s not master quality or whatever.” F that. 

Kelly Hiser: That’s a good point, too, because those differences are very much tied up in genre and race. Fidelity to some audio quality can be a white male status symbol. And a lot of the time when folks are creating stuff in mp3, it’s Black musicians who are working in their local hip hop scene. So another reason to really question audio quality as a marker of value or goodness.

Rocky Mann: I’ll agree and I’ll just say even when on that vinyl record, even on wax, which is “oh gosh, you must have spent $10,000 to get a master to sound good enough for a pressing,” we had such a range of file types, compression, quality. They all sound great somewhere like basement recordings and submitted on mp3. And they sound equally good on wax as they do on the platform. So that to just follow up on what Kelly said.

Kelly Hiser: Rocky, I’m sorry, I have to take a tangent. I have that print of the vinyl hanging in the entryway of my house downstairs. It’s framed. The exact same thing is right underneath me before.

William Saas: Are copies still available? Now I feel like I want in. Can people outside of Edmonton get a hold of it?

Rocky Mann: You can just email me after. We can mail one.

William Saas: Well, I was gonna say, we could also put it in the show notes and invite listeners, if that’s something that you have copies to sell. Awesome. I’m definitely intrigued.

Preston Austin: I need to get in on that as well. So we were going to make our poster that you sent us as a gift for Mark Bracken, who was one of the interface developers who was instrumental in your first submission round. Mark Bracken killed himself to make it possible for Edmonton to get through the jury process. We were literally writing every interface a couple of days. And Kelly was presiding over that process. 

And I was making sure that the servers worked. And Mark, we were going to frame your poster, put a little plaque on it, a little brass plaque. And so it was a framing shop when the pandemic hit. And between one thing and another, it has been lost to the world of framing. So if I can get another poster, that would be great. I want to but I still want to give Mark that gift if I can.

Rocky Mann: No we can get that. I’d have to say that’s another example. We wanted to do this thing, we needed a different type of submission process, we needed the technology to work differently than the regular round. And again, something was created that could support what we need to do. 

Kelly Hiser: And that goes to that question about what was the design process like? Preston says I can do anything. I had zero tech, or UX, or product management experience when I came into the role. And really what I did instinctively, and what was Preston’s philosophy as well from the beginning, was we just worked incredibly closely with our library partners, so that the design process was really working with them and not for them. 

We talk a lot about designing with, not for and that was really what we did. We had librarians in our GitHub repo actually in the code with us checking things out and testing stuff as we went. And it was… there were no mocks, there were no requirements, it was very messy and chaotic. It was a chaotic collaboration among a couple of really talented developers who put in a lot of backbreaking hours for us, which I have sworn I will never ask another developer to do again, if at all possible, because it was not fun for him. 

But he cared about the work and believed in it. And we all did. So I can’t speak to there being some actual process, it was very much more just let’s have some meetings and put some basic requirements together and have Mark go off and build a thing and just keep that circle going.

Rocky Mann: And then I’ll show it to you. So that’s the thing, it opens and then it was even on color, which was a whole thing.

Scott Ferguson: That’s awesome.

William Saas: Blue vinyl.

Rocky Mann: It’s so pretty.

Kelly Hiser: It’s really pretty. It’s really good, too. It’s such a good album.

William Saas: So Rocky, I imagine in the context of Edmonton, the pitch to artists is pretty easy now, after you’ve done this work for over six years and built this community out. I’m wondering, for newer or aspiring libraries who would like to join the network and become part of and have MUSICat. What does the early pitch look like? How do you get artists involved? Is it the honorarium? Is that what you lead with? Or do you lead with the mission of MUSICat and the mission of the platform and the sense of community? You have all of that in Edmonton. And I think that it would be implied in your approach, or at least you could point to it. But in places where that’s not established yet what does the pitch look like to artists to join the network? 

Rocky Mann: To artists… Because there’s a pitch to artists, there’s a pitch to libraries. And there’s a pitch internally to continue. So I’d say to artists, the honorarium is part of what I call this is a safe space of integrity. This is so aside from just sharing music, there’s so much more to part of it. It’s supporting their career, their civic participation, as we say. So all these aspects to be in this archive collection to have… Preston and I were talking last night about the Marc Record, what it means. 

What it means to have a historical authority that applies to your work, so it’ll be discoverable. And as a snapshot of a place in time, and a culture in time, historically is so important. It’s very different than the… I will say it here, but in a sense, it’s part of a community question. It’s something that we talk a lot with the university and there are researchers there and how can we make this something of value into the future to long beyond, which gets into other interesting conversations about forms of technology, how people might want to be not identified the same way, all through history all through time, moving forward, but the value for artists, one, what I call a safe space, that means a lot, it means a supportive space, that means something that strives for an ethical standard. 

Strives from a different agenda, it comes from a different agenda, that they know that we might not always be fluid will be changing. A $200 honorarium is a lot for some people. And maybe for other people, it isn’t so much. If we could pay more we’d love to, but that being paid something to share your work, instead of having to pay or having to have something cut out of your work. Just the idea of that is really meaningful. Then there’s the opportunities on the ground, and not opportunities in the way, if you join us, a corporate mentality, something that’s trying to sell a product might communicate, there’s so much opportunity if you join our organization, or our business or our thing, it’s not like that, it’s let’s connect you. 

There’s other people who have similar interests as you and there’s other knowledge out there in our local community that is exciting. So, that’s the piece. I have a whole paper right or document right here, we come back all the time with quotes from artists and for example, say the Denim Daddies, who are a local country group, I’ve written letters of support for grants they’re applying for. I help with some of those quality files, I’ll help share knowledge. And then if I know another artist, then I’ll connect them to that artist who might have that knowledge to share. 

So that’s part of it. I think it’s the community and being attached to the library, for all the value the library has in society is what’s meaningful. So they say, “the Denim Daddies are excited to be part of this unique project that connects Edmonton talented artists with the library community. It gives the public access to local musicians whom they may not have heard, and gives them an accessible way of discovering artists from Edmonton. DCR is writing an ongoing history of Edmonton’s ever growing and always talented community.” So I think in that quote, it’s the greater importance in place of a public library including accessibility, not just for artists, but for music lovers and for those who need to connect to local culture.

Scott Ferguson: So to close us out, I wanted to explore with you all, a federal policy proposal that we at Money on the Left are very much advocate for, is the Federal Job Guarantee. This would essentially guarantee everyone who is willing and able a public service job to participate in their community, whether it’s in the arts or working in any number of communal senses, and one of the reasons we’re so inspired by your project, is that it seems you’re already doing the work that we imagine would be done across scales, and would be guaranteed by federal spending through a Job Guarantee.

So we were wondering if you feel like your experience in doing what you do… Well, we’re sure that you have things to teach us who are advocates for the Job Guarantee. But what might a Job Guarantee program of public service employment mean to you all and what you do?

Preston Austin: I can speak a little bit to this, or maybe a lot, but I don’t have time. So I assume when you’re talking about looking at this as a federal policy proposal that you’re basically talking about Sandy Darity and Derek Hamilton’s version of this concept.

Scott Ferguson: There are multiple versions of it. And we are in solidarity with…

Preston Austin: Okay, sure, fair enough. So that’s the recent discourse that I’m familiar with. So one of the things I want to say is that, if we’re going to use an Employment Guarantee as a way of creating economic security and economic justice, one of the questions I have is where does being an artist stand in public employment? Is it a public value that can be funded from a public budget? And I think that building a skeleton towards that, with material payments and relationships between public entities that act as a qualifying enterprise for eligibility, and that build the relationships along which funds can flow, I think is important. 

And I think that while it is not… it prefigures something very thinly. But I also don’t want to overstate what’s happening here, like getting a single $200 check from your Public Library is where a $300 check is great, respectful and material. And that’s what we want it to be respectful and material, straightforward, artist friendly terms upfront, no bullshit. But we don’t want to pretend that this is lots and lots of money. Not right now. However, we do want it to actually become lots and lots of money. 

So we’re trying to validate direct public funding of artists’ work. And I think that connecting the throughline from there to direct public funding of lots of people’s endeavors in a Job Guarantee program is not that hard to draw. So I’d like to see that become $200 a month for the duration of work on the collection. And I’d like to see it become more than that. I’d like there to see fellowships within this where artists are really a city’s artists and residents are one of a collection of and then that group gets expanded over time.

This is really, really important. And again our philosophy is not, “hey, let’s find a valuable work.” Our philosophy is “let’s invest in the valuable activity of people producing art and working with very local public institutions to collect and celebrate and share that.” So that’s what I’d like to see funded, I don’t want to construct an increased purchase of your work, I’m not particularly interested in metering or something like that. Instead, it’s increased support for the activity of those who produce these valued local works. I’ll stop there.

Kelly Hiser: I can hop in, too, and just say that I think when you’re imagining other possibilities than the ones we live in, it’s great to have big theoretical frameworks. But it’s also crucial to have real work happening within the cracks of the system. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do really successfully. I think we heard a lot of doubt about how you can do this with the way copyright is and the way libraries are constructed. And we just pushed and we’re able to create a model that’s been replicable in a lot of different kinds of communities. 

I agree with Preston, we don’t want to pretend that we’re revolutionizing the world, but at the same same time, this is a radically different prospect than the commercial music industry. And it’s one crack in the fortress.

Rocky Mann: What really hits home for when you said validate direct public funding of artists’ work, I can see that happening. I just have never really thought about it that way. For example writers and authors and books are really the traditional content in a public library. So we have a writers-in-residence program, they get paid for a year to be a writer-in-residence. And now, as I mentioned earlier, especially now that we have recording studios and other things, other aspects, and it’s become recognized that this content is also important in cultural content, that the library is a really valid and important piece of our collections. 

And how do we represent that? So a music expert, or musician, or songwriter-in-residence is on the table. Same with the fact that a lot of the artists who… that validation piece, I know artists in the collection who’ve been able to get CVC spotlight, national spotlight, funding or have gotten big awards through being through… I think it’s supported, I’m not gonna say directly influenced, but I will say that being part of this collection or that validation by a public, not just institution, because CCR is funded here in Canada by residential taxes. 

So basically, that image in public libraries, saying that the community who is paying taxes has determined that this is a value to them. So that money from the pockets of the community is supporting those artists’ work. And being in the collection is indirectly saying to these other ways that an artist can survive and make money and continue to subsist that our civic community has identified that this is of value, and therefore programs are being created that can allow them to maybe make some of a living by what you said… I don’t know… I think the education piece and the whole licensing royalties here is so different than the states. 

But to me, that’s a huge part. When artists come in, some are aware, some don’t know how to properly also receive royalties. And we have several complicated CMOs and PROs. But that’s a piece that we can help with. So that can also play into that income to subsist and continue to provide the public service of culture production and connection.

Preston Austin: Real quick, I want to expand on a point that Rocky made if there’s time. So one of the things Rocky mentioned earlier in the conversation was Marc Records. So Marc Records, M-A-R-C Records are basically catalog card digital records. So if you imagine your old school card catalog with a little… So one of the things we do that feels like a dry library world concern is we export Marc Records of the collection was actually a big hassle. It’s hard to do. And libraries have different standards for it. And we thought it was really important. And the reason why is because for a lot of these works locally, it’s the first cyclical existence of the work and possibly the act, the artist as a band that they can point out that goes into durable institutional memory. 

And I don’t know quite how to tie this together. But I think that this is one of these things that connects to the value that leads to flows of money as is like existing to institutions, as a record, in a good way… Is really, really important and not trivially accessible and being citable isn’t just an academic concern. It’s a validation for all sorts of things. And collectively, it’s the validation that allows things to be counted. 

So for example, Austin Public Library, when they take artists off the collection after the period that they’ve licensed their work for, they’ve ended up using the features that we helped write with Rocky that Legends of Edmonton Music is based on the showcase feature, to keep the artists represented as one of the people who built this collection by making a showcase record for them so they’re no longer an artist page because that’s connected to the published album and that’s not fair after three years. 

They keep 300 albums at a time on the collection. But that showcase page again, it’s part of keeping excitability alive and acknowledging contribution and respecting in a way that has more permanence and I think that that’s going to, as this goes forward, play more and more a role both individually and collectively and why it matters to artists.

William Saas: Well, Rocky Mann, Kelly Heiser, Preston Austin, thank you so much for your excellent, amazing, tremendous work on this. I think revolutionary technology MUSICat and thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left, it’s been really amazing talking to you. 

Rocky Mann: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: We did it! Amazing.

William Saas: That was so fun.

Scott Ferguson: Thank you so much. Wow. So I know Billy has a hard out.

William Saas: Gonna get a hard knock on the door here in a second.

Scott Ferguson: But we want to talk about securing permission for using the art in our art… we also and we were talking to Preston before about this. Rocky if you could potentially secure permission to use some clips from local music.

William Saas: Gotta be The Denim Daddies… gotta be.

Scott Ferguson: And we can splice them in as interludes throughout our conversation if that’s possible and we’ll just be in an email contact with you about that.

William Saas: This is awesome. I hope we can talk more in the future. Bye, guys.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)

The Descent of Money w/ Rob Hawkes

The Descent of Money: Literature, Inheritance, and Trust in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) and John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property (1906)

Rob Hawkes’ paper argues that Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) and John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property (1906) foreground, interrogate and enact questions of trust, both in their engagements with and departures from literary realism/naturalism and in their preoccupations with the value and power of money. Wharton’s novel is saturated with the language of costs, payments, investments, and debts, while the first of Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels presents ‘Forsyteism’ as an inescapable set of hereditary traits. Both texts, furthermore, implicitly associate money with nature and imagine a ‘sense of property’ as inherited in more ways than one, whilst simultaneously offering glimpses of a different understanding of money altogether: one that reveals surprising connections between literature, money, and trust.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art


Money on the Left
 is joined in conversation with curator Emily Ebba Reynolds & artist Nando Alvarez-Perez, co-founders of the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, or BICA, in Buffalo, New York.

BICA is a new and distinctly heterodox arts organization, offering physical space for artist shows and educational seminars, as well as fiscal space for provisioning micro-grants to local artists. In 2018 Emily & Nando founded BICA, in their words, in order to “reframe contemporary art around issues of regional community, create a plurality of art worlds, and reconceive art as a practical tool which can be used to reshape the world around it.” Along this journey of re-conception, reframing, and reshaping, they’ve confronted and engaged creatively with the “money” question in its numerous and challenging forms. We talk about these as well as get Nando’s and Emily’s take on why a “jobs guarantee” is something artists should fight for.

Learn more about BICA (and discover ways to support the project) at THEBICA.org. 

Special Thanks to Nando for lending his artwork titled, Primary Document 08262022a, for our monthly episode art. Scroll below the transcript for a full view of Nando’s piece. See if you can spot the reference to the Money on the Left crew! 

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Jakob Feinig and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Emily Ebba Reynolds and Nando Alvarez-Perez, welcome to Money on the Left.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Thanks, really excited to be here! 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Thank you.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks for joining us. We’ve invited you on the show today to speak with us about the Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art, which is known by the acronym BICA. It’s an experimental arts organization you two have co-founded in Buffalo, New York. It’s dedicated to communal practices, pedagogies, and publishing.

We’d like to highlight BICA’s accomplishments and aspirations to think together with you about how Modern Monetary Theory might help us reimagine relations between political economy on the one hand, and aesthetic practice on the other. But to start us off, maybe you can tell our listeners something about your personal and professional backgrounds to lay the land for this discussion. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Let’s go way back, I grew up on a farm in Colorado. Then I went on to study art history in undergrad, and then exhibition and museum studies in grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute. After school, I started working at museums, I worked in marketing primarily at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), a multidisciplinary Art Center that, especially at the time, was more interested in shifting culture than traditional exhibitions and the more typical institutional art exhibition projects.

At the same time, I was also starting my own projects: I ran a gallery with three friends, a communally owned and run gallery. We did all kinds of exhibitions, and I also did a parking lot art fair where people could just pull up their car and show work out of them, guerrilla parking lot style. A few years ago, Nando and I moved to Buffalo, where I’ve also been working in museums and marketing, and then we also started BICA. Currently, I’m part-time at the University of Buffalo art galleries. I still got my toes in a more institutional setting, but I’m running BICA.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: My name is Nando Alvarez-Perez, and, bear with me, I stutter. I was born in Buffalo and did an undergraduate degree in Film Studies at Hunter College because I thought I wanted to work in the movie industry, and then wound up at SFAI to do my MFA in photography, which is where Emily and I met. At the time, right after grad school, I was exhibiting my work in the Bay Area, adjuncting, working in tech, wearing all the hats that artists need to wear. I am currently a visiting faculty at Alfred University.

William Saas: How did you get together and first conceive of BICA? What kinds of problems were you responding to at that point with respect to the art world and art education?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I think we can specifically point to late summer 2017. I was doing a fellowship at YBCA, where Emily worked with the artist Tania Bruguera who was teaching an eight-week workshop about her Arte Útil program which is all about reframing arts away from traditional visual aesthetic values and norms and more about how we can re-value aesthetics through the lens of usability and practicality. And obviously, a very vague word in art, but to us, it means meeting people’s needs as they actually exist in the world. 

This was the first year of Trump being in office. I think we were both really burnt out on the hustle culture of the Bay Area, of the art world there. And it felt like art promises so much for institutional and community change, that was just not feeling lived up to there. I remember I had a great run of exhibitions, and I had done work I was really proud of, but by that summer, I was feeling like this whole art game is just an exercise in narcissism. We want to think through ways that we can make it valuable to people. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: You nailed that, nothing to add!

Scott Ferguson: I used to live in the Bay Area, but you were there more recently than that I’ve lived there. And clearly, Silicon Valley Tech has increasingly overtaken San Francisco, Oakland, and the surrounding areas and made rents go through the roof. The culture is changing. What was it like to be artists, curators, students as those changes were happening?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Everybody moves there thinking that every artist who lives there, and every gallerist that goes in there has this moment where they’re say: “Oh, obviously, we just have to figure out how to take advantage of all of this tech money.” Like there’s just some magic code that we can crack that will suddenly convince tech people to buy physical art! That was the thing. I feel like when we first started grad school, that’s what we were like, “oh, this is somebody’s just gonna do this. It’s easy.” 

And then as we moved on, we realized that, no, it’s really hard to crack that nut. We would laugh at the next group of people who said, “oh, we’re just gonna sell art to the tech people.” But, they really–as a large generalization–were more interested in things like real estate and cars and watches and these sorts of more stereotypical, more material, wealthy things, instead of something that supports artists. And even when the big-time galleries moved into San Francisco, the Gagosian Gallery moved in and tried to have an outpost there, it’s closing now, they didn’t ever figure out that special way to get the tech people to pay attention. Of course, now we have NFT’s, which are questionable… well, that’s another conversation we don’t have to go into. Nando, do you want to add anything else?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I felt we caught what felt like the last gasp of an art world there. Since we left in early 2018, a lot of curators have left, private spaces have closed down, galleries have closed down. I am laughing because our school closed as well. It first closed in March 2020 and then reopened. We were involved in rethinking what this program could look like in the future. And they were like: “no, thank you,” and went back to normal, and then they shut down. It’s one of the things that comes up in Buffalo: A lot that the Bay did have something Buffalo does not: that when you’re an artist there, you can find work in tech and actually get part-time creative work that will help you pay for artwork. In smaller places like Buffalo, there’s not as many opportunities for those intersections.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The job quality is a little lower. I also do want to push back a little, Nando. I was just reading an article on ArtNet about this narrative that the Bay Area art scene is dead, but it’s coming back, it’s just not not mirroring the traditional art market. I think that’s something to investigate further there. But it’s certainly not easy. It’s not as easy to see what the art world is looking like in San Francisco, and it doesn’t look as traditionally successful as it has.

William Saas: When you said the “physical art” bit, I knew we were going to touch on NFT’s. Was that something that was live when you were still there? Or is that something that happened after you had skipped town?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Definitely after.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Nando, I remember you reading an article about a photographer who maybe did a picture of a sunflower you saw.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Even that was around 2018. I definitely had a lot of friends who were investing in various crypto things back then–some have done very well, some have forgotten the passwords to their bitcoin wallet, ups and downs!

Emily Ebba Reynolds: That wasn’t really the art scene that we were plugged into.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Even that thing wasn’t getting check money at the time.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Like I said, the Gosian Gallery opened there in 2016 and then closed in 2014 and 15. They did the–I’m stuttering a lot you guys, bear with me. They did two trial runs of the Silicon Valley Art Fair, they were trying to attract artists that would make objects that tech people would like. And it was all either derived from emojis or very shiny, mirror-based things you could do a lot of looking into. They were a complete bust. I remember walking in there and on the front, they had a paintball gun attached to a drone that was making an abstract painting. That was that desperation of time.

Scott Ferguson: Wow. So where is the high-stakes art flipping market in all this? That’s in New York, that’s elsewhere? 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There are certainly people who buy new art, this happens in Buffalo too. The really rich people who buy art don’t buy art in the city they live in, it’s part of a bigger experience of going to another place, feeling like the red carpet is rolled out to you in a big fancy gallery or at an art fair. It’s not unheard of, it happens that people buy art in the city that they live in, but a lot of collecting really, especially people who have been used to living in a secondary or tertiary city, they’re used to going to a place and they like doing it that way. I think that’s a big part of it. Nando, anything else?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Even though local people who are well-endowed and love being in Buffalo and love the Buffalo cultural scene tend to still be drawn to LA and New York. Even in the Bay Area, it was just not a big part of the culture and a lot of galleries had a hard time making it work.

Scott Ferguson: Nando, you’re obviously from Buffalo. Our next question, I think, has a partial baked-in answer, but we’d like to hear you talk about what drew you back to Buffalo. Why did you want to establish BICA in Buffalo? Maybe you can tell us a little bit about the history of Buffalo. What’s the region been like? What are the major industries? How have things changed? What’s it like now? And maybe reflect a little bit about how place shapes your thinking about arts and arts provisioning.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I’m gonna butt in because I’m the one who convinced Nando that we should move back to Buffalo. He was resistant to it at first. When we were in the Bay Area, we were thinking about all of these problems that we’ve already covered. But another thing that we didn’t talk about is we also felt really stifled by conversations about gentrification–arts and gentrification get put together a lot, there’s definitely some chicken and egg stuff happening there. And we were concerned about anywhere we went to try to start something, if we didn’t have some kind of roots or stakes there, it being or looking like some kind of colonial enterprise. 

We started to think about how either Buffalo or Colorado (where I’m from) might be the right places to have at least a historic position in the community. And Colorado has all kinds of other growth issues and we said “maybe not the place we want to dive into right now.” And when we came to Buffalo, often, it was so clear that people were actually needed here in Buffalo, we needed more people of every kind to come here. 

Buffalo is a huge resettlement city for refugees and immigrants because we just literally need the population more. The other thing that really struck me in our previous trips to Buffalo was that people here seem to really care about the arts, maybe I was just recovering from the Bay Area syndrome of being like: “why doesn’t anyone care about this?” But we’d go to Nando’s friends’ parents’ houses, and they’d have original artworks they had paid for on their walls. And I said, “this is amazing, we should just, we should just be here, it seems like people care about that.” That felt like a good base to have. 

Historically, obviously, Buffalo is a Rust Belt city, and it has a lot of the characteristics of most Rust Belt cities. The population has been declining, from the 60s to the last census, our current population in the city is 277,000 or so. It’s not a big city, and it does have a bigger metro area. That 277,000 also puts us as the second-biggest city in New York, which is wild, because obviously there’s a huge disparity between New York City and Buffalo. 

Because of that, we’re also in this interesting position where as far as state funds are concerned, Buffalo tends to get a little more support per capita because it’s important for lawmakers to look like they’re spreading money around the state. And as the second-biggest city, you tend to have more attention than is warranted for a city of the size. The other thing that really drew us here, and that anybody who comes into Buffalo, I think, will be able to relate to, is this idea in the public imagination here that Buffalo is constantly on the edge of a resurgence. We’re just about to have our big Renaissance, party is about to start here!

William Saas: The Bills will be good this year.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The Bills are a big part of it, and have always been, I think, but in the city that has been dealing with economic depression and struggles you could really see mental depression and emotional depression being a reality for a lot of people. There’s this strange, unending sense of, no, it’s going to get better, things are going to turn around. Which feels like a really fertile place to try something new. Nando you want to add anything? 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Not a whole lot to add there. We were thinking about where a project like this could work. Emily’s from outside Boulder and Denver where they weren’t going to solve the quality-of-life stuff and the cost-of-living issues. In Buffalo, it feels like there’s a lot of opportunities to make things happen because there’s a lot of unfulfilled and unaddressed needs. We could have gone anywhere, but we really wanted to be someplace where we felt we had real stakes and a personal connection.

William Saas: When you get back to Buffalo, you have the idea for BICA. We’d like to hear more about what y’all do. But, to set the stage: What’s the first step? We want to start an Institute for Contemporary Art in Buffalo for all these great reasons. What’s the next step? I imagine it involves money.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The first step was that we had an idea for what we thought we wanted to do, what we thought would be a good fit. And Rock Model was a residency program that would invite artists to Buffalo. They would have an exhibition first, and then they would teach their non-art skills to non-artists. Graphic design, accounting, transcription, all of these things, but it felt with all of these new demographics moving to Buffalo, it felt like there was a need for this intersection of art and vocational work. 

Then we got back there, and we spent the first year talking to people, trying to find out where we could actually be helpful. In a place that small, the vocational art stuff was fairly well covered. But we found that the regular art scene had been diminishing a bit because it had aged so much, and there were no easy on-ramps for younger audiences. Just going to a lot of exhibitions and openings and talking to younger artists there, it was clear that there were no role models, mentors, or spaces that they felt like were theirs.

That turned into the first thing we felt we could tackle. We did a pop-up in fall 2018, just to get the name out there and give people a sense for the vibe of what a BICA exhibition and opening is like. That was as part of an event called Playground, which we’re actually partnered on now, but that first edition of it was: Artists were invited to do installations in this old school, one artist per classroom.

For our pop-up, I did an artists design classroom where I made these reading books with books, beanbags and readings for all ages. Then I invited a local drag queen, Fidelia May, to do a performance about art, culture and blow jobs. I also invited my high school history teacher, who’s a local actor, to do a lecture on whatever he wanted to (this was around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings). He did this this great talk about [Anne] Hutchinson, an early Jamestown proto-feminist figure who had been expelled from the community. I wrapped that up with readings for audience members. 

Once we had this pop-up done, it was time to find a space. I had worked as an intern in arts organizations while I was in college here, and so I knew people who were on boards. I don’t want to go too much into the specifics of this, but there was a lot of drama with some local art organizations that people were eager to direct resources into something else. Our first base was an old mechanic’s shop on Elmwood Avenue, which is a main thoroughfare in Buffalo. It is a very tiny space and rent was quite affordable and it left room to be nimble, with what we wanted to do.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I also want to point out that the first thing we did was start looking into how to become a 501(c)(3), and if that was the right path for us. We did try to explore non-501(c)(3) paths, which I think is important for anyone who thinks that they have to be a 501(c)(3). But in the end, for us to take the donations that we wanted to take, it made the most sense to go that direction.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And to get the grants. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And for grants. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Which we knew we would need to do.

Scott Ferguson: Can you talk a little bit more about the money side of setting up this experimental community arts institution?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Like Nando said, we had a couple of people who we had been talking to for a while and had also known Nando for most of his life at the very beginning. We were able to sell them on the idea of helping us at the start, and explained how with some upfront money, we would be able to start getting grants and doing more fundraising and keeping it sustainable on a broader level where we didn’t need just their support for as long. Obviously, we hope that everyone who has ever supported BICA will continue to, but we did get a couple of people to take a big leap with us at the beginning.

Scott Ferguson: What were the upsides and downsides of the 501(c)(3) path?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: One of the things that we’ve been actually exploring as of late –there’s ideas you can’t do, things like having a co-op that’s a 501(c)(3) but that’s actually untrue, you can. There’s something about the structure of having the board that traditionally has been a board of wealthy people who guide the decision-making of the nonprofit but often are not well versed in the work the nonprofit does, but have the ability to make huge financial and governance decisions about the organization. There’s all kinds of problems with that model, for sure. It’s based on an idea of philanthropy that comes from wealthy people who continue to have all the power and direct their funds into communities in the way that they want them to be directed. 

That was, I think, our biggest concern going into it. But as we’ve done more research, and seeing that there are people really pushing on what the structure of a 501(c)(3) has to look like. Actually, none of our major donors are on our board. Our board is mostly artists and friends. It’s all people who are close to our age. It’s not the traditional–a bunch of old white men sitting in a room that you serve coffee to while they make crazy assumptions about what you’re doing.

Scott Ferguson: Stroke their beards and deciding your fates. What you’re saying is that there’s a set of normative rules and prescriptions and procedures that attend this legal category of the 501(c)3 which, for ideological reasons, have been cemented together, but are not actually part of the legal definition of the form in the first place.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Exactly.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It’s a pretty essential designation when it comes to donations and asking corporate sponsors for money.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And federal and government sponsors.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Over the last few years, we’ve also been able to act as a pass-through for other projects. I was talking about Playground, which we’re involved with now. The funding and grants we get to do that–they would not appeal to these givers if it was not tax deductible. They really want to give for the perks.

William Saas: This is something that’s front of mind for us, and probably a lot of people who are interested in starting something like BICA. I’d be interested in your experience with the first confrontation you had with the wall of bureaucracy and paperwork, and the option of a lawyer.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There’s this guy in Buffalo, he’s a friend who is an artist and a lawyer and does this. He helps people form their 501(c)3s. It’s all he does. And so I want to say it was like, we just paid him $500. Is that right Nando?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It was a bit more, like $750. Happy to direct all listeners to him because it was very easy. As an artist, one of the things that I’ve learned is–as an artist who also has to work and teach, I’ve learned that you just don’t always have the time to do the things you want to do. And if you have the resources to make your life a little easier on most fronts, it made things so much more smooth.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I want to say, we opened the forms two times, and both times we’re fighting and at each other’s throats about not understanding what anything meant. And we said, let’s call that guy.

William Saas: Remarkably similar to buying drugs. You either know a guy or you’re waiting for the system to change to where it’s like… Glad you knew a guy.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Outsourcing work, too. We do all of our own bookkeeping. But when it comes to tax time, it’s not the most affordable way to have an accountant do all that work. It’s just something I have been hesitant to tackle because there are so many ins and outs and details. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s just a poor use of our time. It’s something that we’re not interested in and don’t want to do.

William Saas: You start to feel like you’re one of those conservative lawmakers, “there’s too much paperwork at the IRS”!

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I will say, the IRS these days, post-COVID, is impossible to get in touch with. It does seem like everything is delayed. If you have a problem, it’s scary because there’s no one there listening.

William Saas: This might seem like a left turn or a divergence from the conversation. But this is exactly where we want to go. The path of the IRS to the question of public funding and public provisioning and money as such. One of the things we’re interested in talking to you about and what we’re up to in every episode of Money on the Left is rethinking money and its relationship to art, aesthetics, and also social provisioning, media making. 

We know that MMT wasn’t front of mind when you set up stakes in Buffalo with BICA, but it’s our understanding that you’ve encountered it and spent some time with it since. How would you say–as curators, artists, and community members invested in Buffalo and the art scene there–how has MMT aligned with and maybe informed or shaped your thoughts and decisions? Short version: What does money mean to BICA?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: MMT was not on our mind or even on our radar when we started BICA. But I do want to shout out that thinking about finance differently, or thinking about money differently, was part of our early conceptions. At the same time, as I left San Francisco, I had been working at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and as I was leaving, I convinced them to keep me on as a project manager on a project they were working on called Culture Bank, an idea that was germinating between the director at the time, Deborah Cullinan, and this woman, Penelope Douglas, who was a pioneer in the social finance world. 

I was working with them on writing case studies about artists who were contributing in non-financial ways to their communities, but in thinking about artists and community assets in a really different way than it had been traditionally thought of. That was ingrained in a lot of the language we were using, especially at the beginning of when we were talking about BICA. And when we were selling the initial donors on the project, we were already taking a financial [view] … framing things in a way that made more sense to them because they were people who thought more about money than about art.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The default brain mode for all artists and arts organizations is scarcity, being afraid that there’s never enough. In the Bay Area, our school closed down, and obviously, somebody there had the resources to make that not happen. It sucks that that’s how it went. We came into Buffalo just preaching that more is more and more is better. And there is enough. There’s enough money, attention, and resources to be equitably shared with everybody.

Of course, once you are paying a lawyer to do your 501(c)(3) paperwork, and you’re working on a budget, and you say, “I’m going to invite these artists here for a period of X amount of time.” We install all of the work hours. So there’s still a production budget, a shipping budget, and an artist fee. We always want our artists to be paid for their work. When you’re doing bookkeeping, money becomes a very grubby material thing: in and out, in and out, in and out. 

It becomes really hard to stay in that mind that there’s enough out there. We are always trying to think about ways to make the very limited financial resources that we have, make an impact beyond just an exhibition or just an artist talk. The ways that we’ve done that have been buried. You wake up one day, and it’s just like, “we can make this work,” which is amazing. And then you don’t get a grant and it’s like, “okay, well, now we need to be very practical and scrappy about how we pull this out.”

Scott Ferguson: I want to get into some of the specific projects and programs. You’ve teased us with a bunch of the different things you do. I want to get into it. But before we do, I want to ask you about the pandemic. I’ll just say in learning about BICA, and about you two and what you’ve been up to, and what you’ve been building, I came across a podcast that was recorded, I think, in 2019. It was a Bay Area arts podcast. I was listening to it from the vantage of 2022, knowing that a pandemic is coming, and you two are talking about your plans and what you’re up to, and it was all very exciting. And I just kept thinking to myself, “oh my god, the pandemic is coming. And they have no idea that they’re gonna have to try to do all this in this global emergency.” So I wanted to ask you, how did that go? How did you build all this out in the midst of a pandemic?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I think it’s so funny that you were listening to a podcast from before, I was just listening to a podcast with my fitness guru. It’s before the pandemic and I thought, “oh, God, she doesn’t know what’s gonna hit her.” Anyways, go ahead Nando.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: That is a good way to get into the work that we do, too, because I feel like the pandemic–obviously, I don’t want to be dismissive of anyone else’s experience. But it was not a not positive thing for us. By the time BICA closed in March 2020, we had done four exhibitions in our space there, and every year of programming was designed around tackling or addressing some specific issue. 

That first year of curating was about reimagining how arts institutions can be more engaged with the world around them and actually serve a purpose to their users. Each exhibition, like the first one, was when we wanted to address this issue about the younger audiences. We reached out to our friends, Bonanza, a queer, collaborative group in the Bay Area that does work that’s very campy, kitschy, fun. They’ve gotten known for their fashion shows where they make clothes out of all kinds of different things, often just garbage. We knew that these fashion shows would be a great way to draw in this new audience. They did an all-ages, all-body-types, all-experience-levels fashion show that went great. 

The following exhibition was the work of Lindsay Preston Zappas, who runs an art review in Los Angeles called Carla, Contemporary Art Review LA. We asked her to come and do a show and then do an arts writing workshop. And that led to [the magazine] Cornelia, as we realized that we could produce this print publication, selling ads to local arts organizations who had nowhere else to advertise. Each exhibition came with this social-practice, community-engagement thing and they were, honestly, really hard to pull off. Each one, we felt, was tapping into a new audience and we weren’t gaining long-term traction with those people. 

In early 2020, we exhibited Puerto Rican artists. We were talking about creating a float for the Puerto Rican Day Parade in August 2020. Thank God, that didn’t happen. It felt like we were just speeding up and speeding up and speeding up, and we didn’t know to what end or outcome. When the lockdowns hit, it was like, “okay, this is a good time to take stock, breathe.” 

We got the magazine online, which we at first insisted would only be in print, but then it seemed like a good time to go online. And all of those social practicey engagements, we were able to re-evaluate and rethink how we want those to work at max. That’s where the impetus for the BICA School Program started, because it was a way to start building an audience for these artists, engagement and projects. Do you want to add?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Through another organization’s misfortune–an organization that didn’t weather the pandemic as well, although I think their finances were questionable beforehand, and then the pandemic laid everything there. They moved out of this space we have moved into. Which, for us, was huge. It’s a much bigger space. We spent the first three months of 2021 building out this space to meet our needs instead of this previous organization’s needs. We’re now part of this historic art center, we get to build on this cool legacy. So we got really lucky in that moment, as well. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: The rent went down too. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: And our rent decreased, which I think we’re not the only business that figured out that the real estate market was crazy in the middle of COVID. Since we don’t depend on income from ticket sales or anything like that–it’s free to visit BICA, it’s free to pick up our magazine–we weren’t losing money. And then suddenly, there were all these new grants to help support arts organizations and increase their visibility during these times when everybody was stuck inside. Artists can often think of crazy ideas to entertain people, we were able to take advantage of some of those. Which was just lucky in positioning. Now as we emerge from a pandemic, we keep trying to remember that the feeling of speeding up and speeding up and speeding up is not sustainable. And so we have to keep remembering to not let ourselves get back there if we can.

Scott Ferguson: Tell us about the BICA School, which is different from traditional art schools you attended.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: BICA School is the most recent project we have launched at BICA. As Nando mentioned, our school started closing in March 2020 and then continued to zombify, and really closed last June, I think. As they were trying to figure out if there was a way to stay open, Nando and I served on the Committee to Reimagine SFAI where we met a lot with people who were interested in trying to keep the school open for various reasons. As we had all these meetings, I started to instill in both of our minds that the things that were most important about our education were the people we met there and the community we formed while we were in this intensive two-year program.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: To expand on that a bit, I think at BICA, a great many of the exhibitions we’ve done have been through SFAI role models, connections, and friends. Besides just being the community that was formed, it’s also the professional milieu we were able to build.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: There’s this importance of this network. The other thing that we really felt or especially that I really felt that we got out of SFAI–which was a small and scrappy school when we were there–was something about learning to do things ourselves, because the institution was not going to provide us the resources and things we needed. We needed to learn how to build the thing ourselves: If we wanted to stage an exhibition, we needed to figure out how to do that on our own because the administration was not prepared to help us with that. Thinking of those is the most important things that we got out of school. Obviously, the readings and writing papers was helpful, but I don’t go back and read my thesis very often. So I said, “oh, well, those things should be free, right? Those things are not very expensive to put together!” Yet, somehow, I graduated from art school with over $50,000 worth of debt, we don’t need to go to exact numbers. 

Obviously, it doesn’t make sense, especially in a field where you know people are not going to make a lot of money. The person who goes into the art fields and makes a lot of money is a very rare breed. It doesn’t make sense for professionalized art school to cost that much. And maybe it doesn’t make sense for it to cost anything at all. With those kinds of ideas we said, “well, we should try to start this school.” And then we fought ourselves for like a year thinking, “oh, we need to set up all these structures for it.” And then, finally, we realized we are getting to that point where we’ve been talking about this to all of our friends and families for too long, and we needed to just actually do something about it. 

We pulled the trigger last June and had an info session where we invited anybody who was interested in the BICA school to come and learn more about what we were thinking. We sent it to all of our audiences, but we also tried to send it especially to the universities who could make sure that people who had recently graduated from BFA programs or art programs would get it, trying to focus on Gen Z, the millennial generation. And also, obviously, there have been a bunch of people we’ve met through the years that we had been envisioning when we thought of the program. We invited all these people to come, we thought that maybe we’d get 15 people at this info session. Then we talked about it for an hour. At the end of it, we presented people with a piece of paper that asked them to commit to this journey with us for the next year.

We thought that maybe eight people might sign on to a year-long thing no one really knows what it is yet–seems risky. We thought maybe people wouldn’t want to do that. But all 30 of the people who were there signed the piece of paper. In July, we started having biweekly reading groups and critiques. At the beginning, they were mostly led by Nando and me but the group has started leading them themselves. They’re very insistent on not having a hierarchy which is great with us because the idea isn’t that we do way more work to make this happen. We provide the space and a basic framework.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: For the Money on the Left audience, maybe it’d be helpful to expand on what the traditional model of an art career is supposed to look like, which is that you are essentially regarded as untouchable if you don’t have an MFA. First you have to pay a school to get this degree that qualifies you to look good to potential buyers and galleries and also, of course, to teach. And when you exhibit your work, you’re doing it all on […], the gallery doesn’t pay you up front, you’re only paid in sales. So you go further into debt to make each exhibition happen. And teaching jobs, as you guys know well, are few and far between. We’re all in this debt scheme together.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Especially as arts programs are cut (I’m not saying that I think that everybody should get this professional degree) but if you’re also cutting all the jobs they can go into, it’s especially confusing.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: You realize that what you get out of school is a community of like-minded peers and colleagues who will help you build a thing, and a way of being an artist in the world. You shouldn’t have to pay for that. The BICA school model is nothing new–there’s lots of examples of self-organizing alternatives to MFAs, some that have gone on longer than others. We figured we could take this core idea that what you get out of school is a community of peers and start with these basics of readings and critiques and let the users of the school develop it.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Fear is pretty important. It’s pretty important to have fear. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Fear helps.

Scott Ferguson: And do the participants work across media?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Yes, we’ve got some poets who are trying to see if this is helpful for them, too. The group is all over the place, but in a way that’s fun to experiment with right now and see how it goes for everyone.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Poets, musicians, painters, 3D printer people …

Emily Ebba Reynolds: A sex education specialist. She’s a fun one.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It really runs the gamut. Some people are there more for critiques, some are there more for reading groups, some are there just for the energy and being involved in this thing. The last thing I’ll add is that, within about two months, it started to become clear that the participants were eager for a space of their own. We helped them lease space, it’s also in the BICA Complex, a shared workspace, exhibition space, and event venue.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: They’re running that fully collectively. They each pay in for rent as they can each month, and then are fundraising to cover the rest of their rent for the year. Again, we’ll see how it goes. But so far, they’re not very far behind, which is good.

William Saas: Much talk about finance and art in those contexts?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: We’ve talked a lot about the problems with the art market. One of the things we’d like to do as we go forward is focus on areas for multiple weeks. As we’ve gone so far, it’s been like, “oh, one person wants to read this, or another person wants to read this or last night, they wanted to listen to a Frank Ocean album,” and that went okay. I think more directed reading is probably the right thing. I think that some MMT stuff might be helpful and some thinking about how it can materialize and how artists could illustrate it might be a fun exercise to bring in.

William Saas: Maybe we can just sketch that out–what would that look like? Coming from you and your background? How would the MMT approach fit in the ad hoc curriculum?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, because I’ve been very into reading about … But it’s been a tough conceptual sell.

Scott Ferguson: To you or to others?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: To others. I think people hear about the Federal Reserve and most artists’ brains just go off. It has come up a bunch of [times] Taxes are not for what you think they are. We’re working on a grant, I’ll just be very honest about this. And we’ll see how much is […] people don’t listen. We and the BICA Schoolers said, “we need to pay rent.” This grant cannot be used to pay rent. So we need to create roles for each person to pay because they really just want to pay as many artists as they can. A lot of the pandemic responses have been a spray-and-pray approach to just blasting out as much money in small chunks to as many artists as possible. I feel like the effects have not been too different than the $1,200 that we got from Trump. It just all goes into rents and stuff. But the specifics of each grant rarely allow you to put the money where you want to. For us, it’s usually overhead stuff. We are still not paid for our work at BICA. That is one thing that makes it all go round, I think. And as we’re talking about how to write this grant, we need to create facilitator roles for the artists that will then get paid. I was not there last night, but it sounds like they had a conversation clarifying that it’s okay, that they will get paid, and this pay goes back into rent. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I said, “we can’t use this to pay for rent, but we could use this to pay each of you as facilitators.” Before I even finished the sentence, one of them said, “yeah, and we’ll pay it back in rent.” And I said, “if that’s what you want to do, that sounds good.”. I’m not gonna tell you that you can’t do it that way. 

Scott Ferguson: What is that stipulation designed to do? 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: All of these things are put in place because at some point, there was a problem. The past problem is that nonprofits have paid outrageous salaries to their employees, have had insane overhead costs for rent and other things, and justify why the state doesn’t want to spend money on things that are not being used appropriately.

But then, of course, it’s the thing of bad faith versus good faith. No one feels like they can trust anyone to do the right thing with the money and they’re not willing to take that leap to assume that anybody would not misuse their funds. In history, it’s not always proven that people do use their funds properly. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: We’re in the space that we are because of a mis-used grant. It definitely surprised us. We’ve had such an exciting year with the grants that we’ve gotten. And we thought that would start solving all of our problems. But the step from getting those grants to consistent staffing funding is a big relief.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s really weird because it essentially asks for organizations to use private money to pay for all those things–whatever you can get from private donors. When I worked at YBCA, our biggest fundraiser each year was a dream house raffle, which is essentially gambling, right? People who never came to the organization paid money to buy tickets to possibly win a home that they would immediately have to sell because the taxes would be so high. That was the only way that the organization could make enough fundraising money that they could pay their overhead, their basic overhead of staffing, which is such a backwards way to think of it. 

Instead, perhaps, we should take care of the people who are working every day and not make those positions dependent on that private money. Because then we start to run into the same thing where boards say, “oh, well, I’d like my son to do this job.” Or, “let’s make sure another white man gets to this position” and continues to sustain all the same problems.

Scott Ferguson: If we were to imagine a world of arts and arts provisioning that wasn’t austere and that was publicly supported and funded in robust ways, and included a federal Job Guarantee, which in our previous conversations you have suggested you support. What is your position in the world, your experience as artists and curators? What can you teach us folks who are really interested in fighting for a federal Job Guarantee? What should we be thinking about? What should we be arguing for from the arts world perspective?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: A couple of things. First, thinking about how many of the are-related pandemic responses to COVID have been to take usually federal money distributed to a lot of artists in fairly small amounts to do aesthetic embellishments to pre-existing programs and projects. That can be fine, it can absolutely be very helpful to put a nice artists-made veneer on top of community development program, but when I’m thinking about what a Job Guarantee could mean in the arts, I would hope that local organizations on the ground would have a way to direct the financial resources to where they see a need. 

I think on the one hand, arts organizations that are always dealing with issues of staffing would all of a sudden have access to people who could handle marketing, social media and all of these things, they can really help the organization bring in more people. And then on the artist’s side, the crazy optimist in me says, “I would hope it would mean that the art world would actually decenter.” We talk so much in the arts about “art worlds” and not an “art world.” But when we talk about the Art World–big A, big W, most people have an idea of what that means. It’s the art fairs. It’s the major museums in New York and LA and Berlin. I think that if artists didn’t feel like the only way to sustain a life was to move to New York or LA, we would see artists staying where they are or going to places where they felt a real connection. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Somewhere they just wanted to be. 

Nando Alvarez-Perez: If you spend any time talking to artists from New York City… some will love it, but most are just white-knuckling it for years and then decades, hoping that things will work out. And it’s true, that is the one place where you can make a career in the arts because people actually window shop for art there. It just doesn’t happen in Buffalo. I could see artists’ evaluations of where a life could be made completely reshaped.

Most artists don’t get into the arts because they want to be a famous artist, they do it because it’s a way of using their brains that suits them, because we’ve all been sold on this idea that art is good, culture is good, the aesthetic realm can offer all these new ways to see the world. I think artists are often simply not making the work they want to make because they have to direct it towards a certain market. And I could see that the JG starts to dissolve that.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I also think it would take some of the risk out of being an artist, when you have a sense that there’s something to fall back on. I think a lot of people are artists because they feel they always even want to be, often it’s one of those things… “oh, this is the only thing I can do.”

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Just to go back to the Bay Area, on the one hand, it’s great to have all of these jobs available to artists. On the other hand, most artists leave the arts because they say, “I can get a job at Apple? What am I doing?” There’s this constant brain drain out of the arts to other sectors. It would be so interesting to see that being reversed.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: Healthcare and having the support to not feel like you’re making a stupid decision that’s just too risky to make any sense.

William Saas: I’m thinking of David Graeber, his advocacy for something like Universal Basic Income, specifically for artists. As artists, maybe you could help us consider, as we start to wrap up, why the Job Guarantee makes sense over other possible avenues?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I don’t want to toot our own horn, but we spend a lot of time talking to artists and organizers and community members where they are and we can get an actual sense for what their needs and resources are. Reading more about the Job Guarantee helps me reframe UBI as this libertarian dreamscape of “it would be nice to have more cash in our pockets, but what are we going to spend it on and why?” I think having those voices on the ground that can direct the work where it’s needed would make the money useful and not just inflationary.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I want to throw out a maybe more holistic and less financial [perspective]. There are a lot of UBI programs being tested on artists right now. It’s a really common thing.

William Saas: You say tested on artists that sounds like…

Scott Ferguson: Art rats.

William Saas: Yes, art rats.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I think they probably mostly like it. But I also think that it continues to propagate this idea of the lone artists working alone in their studio, having not a great sense of their world or their community, which I think is a really “over” idea of what art is … It’s a very capitalistic idea, a very patriarchal idea of how art works. 

Funding it in a way essentially continues to be in the form of: “We’ll just pay you your salary to do whatever you want” doesn’t help the rest of the world see the value. This doesn’t really help. It’s meant for a very specific kind of artist. I think a lot of artists are perfectly happy to work in a job that helps them have a better sense of their community. They bring a lot to jobs that they work in. Obviously, I don’t want artists to have to do backbreaking labor for 40 hours a week, but I think most artists are pretty happy to see people and solve problems with them.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: I will add that this came up in a BICA School conversation a couple of weeks ago, it was at the extreme ends of a Job Guarantee, at least as we have seen it in America, is artists no longer wanting to paint WPA murals really badly. And so we get, in large part, abstract expressionism coming out of a rejection of this. You do still need to leave space, artists are going to do what artists are going to do. But I do think that they are, generally, by their nature, more other-directed than a lot of other kinds of laborers. You would still need to find some fine line there. It sounds really cheesy. I said this when we had the first info session for BICA School: “I know that when you get artists in a room, awesome things happen, and they’re capable of making things happen out of almost nothing.” Providing more opportunities and more intersections for artists to work in the real world would be awesome.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve spent a long time criticizing capitalist atomized society and artmaking. But, still, individuals do exist and Nando, you’re an artist, and you make a lot of really provocative and interesting work. Could we ask you to talk about your own work and what are your practices? What materials do you work with? What are you up to? What have you been exploring?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Feel free to cut me short on this. Obviously working with tiny […] has made me think about BICA and Cornelia and all this stuff as an artwork of its own. Emily and I always have conversations about: “Are you an artist, Emily?” And it’s just like… who cares. Good work is being done. My own work hasn’t moved into social practice, but thinking about BICA and working through BICA has helped me reframe my own work around audience and context. 

For years, I’ve been working with photography as a kernel of everything else, the work might come out in installations. I do larger installations that use extruded aluminum, there are a lot of conceptual underpinnings in the material. It’s a material you see used for trade show booths, and they’ll use it a lot in sci-fi movies and TV as a material that looks really futuristic. I think it already looks dated. It’s also often used to make things like 3D printers and cotton carve machines. Most recently, it’s been used as COVID barriers. I keep thinking I’m moving away from this one material, but it just keeps waking up. The installations use a lot of photographs I make in my studio that collapse historical movements into one flat scene. Lots of blending of both avant-garde and kitsch stuff. And then there’ll be books and beanbags and things to get people to engage with the intellectual backdrop to the work. 

Two exhibitions I’ve been pretty proud of recently: I showed some work in a middle school here, where my usual work just felt overbearing and condescending to a bunch of eighth graders. I was trying to think, “what were the things that I was aesthetically into then?” It was jean patches, chain wallets,boondoggle and Tamagotchis. I was doing, you can’t see me, in quotes, “research” on YouTube and discovered the world of a VSCO girl, who’s an ecologically minded, middle schooler/high schooler who really loves to wear crocs, drinks only out of metal straws, and is really into save the whales.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: The turtles I thought.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And there’s this whole culture of Tamagotchis. And then I got into the e-boy and e-girl scene, this post-goth internet persona. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: These things are probably so dated, I feel like they didn’t survive the pandemic.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: It was weird for me to discover that kids these days have a lot of nostalgia for the same objects that I have nostalgia for at that age. And so that show was called Eternal Flame. The Eternal Flame is a local geological feature here, open natural gas events behind the waterfall that as a kid growing up here you go to a lot. That name just seemed to work, it is calling upon the weird eternal recurrence of these consumer trends.

Last fall, I did an exhibition in a confession booth in an old girls’ middle school. That was a really fun opportunity to address conversations around disinformation versus conspiracy theories, using the confessional as a way to explore trauma, especially national traumas that are under-researched. I’m just reading about Jeffrey Epstein, weird connections to intelligent figures was really the start of that work. And I thought it would be a much longer project but then had this opportunity, this very, very, very tiny space to bring it all together. That was a lot of fun. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It came with an essay, which I feel like was written as part of the show. The essay is part of the exhibition.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: And the text existed as a standalone piece that was about the backdrop of the work and didn’t exactly directly address it and that work was a lot of fun. Using Polaroids to take pictures out of old newspapers and off my screen and using the Polaroid, which is regarded as a very truthy medium, to start to tell these lies and shake your certainty about how an image got made and where I was in its making.

Scott Ferguson: I’m looking at this show, it’s so striking. There’s an image of JFK, a cut-out collage image where JFK’s face is like wood. And then I also see this really dark picture that looks like a clay Mickey Mouse. What are the implications or suggestions? What are the relations here?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: JFK with his head removed is an image familiar to a lot of Americans. He’s photographed with this wood veneer as the background and the wood veneer start to work their way into the work as a way to frame these works. It was just a perfect match for the confession booth architecture itself. 

Veneer art has become this really interesting thing to me, because it’s a very overt lie. It’s lying to you on its surface. But you’re still supposed to act as though it’s just wood. And then the Mickey Mouse piece, I was thinking about the stories and myths that constitute our political imagination, and how over-simplified and reduced a lot of the–no offense to my fellow Americans–Americans seem to have a pretty narrow scope of how we come to believe the things that we do, and how those things relate to broader historical narratives.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I was going to say I think there’s something–going back to that idea of what, how does this come in art? I feel like that’s something Nando might be working towards. But something about that art has often–art in the broad sense to television, and movies, and all kinds of music–have helped people sometimes see those moments when a deeply held truth is not true. And something like the way that money works, or that they’ve been told budgets work on the federal scale–these are the kind of things that maybe someday artists can help make a little space for people to think more imaginatively about.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: That was a great way to tie it all. 

William Saas: Excellent.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: I’ve written some essays in my day.

Scott Ferguson: Maybe you do go back to your thesis.

William Saas: Are you working as a curator again, as we close out? Is there anything that you’re working on you’d like to talk about?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s funny because now Nando and I almost always curate together, which I actually really appreciate. I have always been more of a person who likes to work on a team than alone. We’re in the middle of a series of exhibitions at BICA right now under this umbrella of recovering futures, but we’re really thinking about recovering from the pandemic in a more holistic way. That sounds really cheesy, but the artists we’re working with are in the witchy vein of recovery or…

Scott Ferguson: That doesn’t sound cheesy. 

Emily Ebba Reynolds: No, it’s not cheesy. That’s the thing, we wrote a lot of grants to make it sound very cheesy because the grantors love a cheesy thing. But in reality, it’s about community healing and long-standing practices of healing that people have done together instead of medicines. Next year, we’re working on a certain entity… want to talk about the Maps to the Territory series?

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Sure. For Fall ’23 through Summer ’24, we’ve got this rough idea of looking at artists who are–now I’m thinking too hard about what we wrote in this NDA Grant–who are reframing traditionally known narratives, and well-mapped territories, through new indices. We’re showing the work of Lee Hunter, who has been working on this world-building project. They’re working in stone photography, video work, to create this future landscape and artifacts that come out of this imagined archive of a post-human future. And we’re showing the work of Maximilian Goldfarb–I would have a hard time describing exactly what he does, but he’ll take a found image of some unusual industrial objects. One thing he did was an Indian Maoist group was making IEDs, and he made a fake IED.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: He takes a picture. And then he writes an odd audio or an Alt Text description of the image. He’s working on over 1000 of them.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Weirdly, the IED he made was used as a news photo about this actually existing Maoist group in India, which is just wild. And then finally, we’ll be selling the work of Joy Reid Minaya, a Dominican-born artist who’s been in New York for years. She tackles postcolonial narratives about the Caribbean, usually through the lens of tourism, and how tourists view the Caribbean world now.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming on the show. Before we go, you can tell our audience how to find you online?

Emily Ebba Reynolds: We’re not Twitter people because artists tend not to live in the twittersphere. But you can find BICA @BICA.Buffalo on Instagram or at TheBICA.org. If you want to find me on Instagram, I’m @EmilyEbbaReynolds. And Nando is @NandoDotEternity but “dot” is spelled out. And Nando’s website is NandoAlvarezParez.com.

Scott Ferguson: Great, thanks so much for coming! I hope we can continue this conversation in the future. Thanks.

Nando Alvarez-Perez: Thank you guys. Yes, please.

Emily Ebba Reynolds: It’s been fun.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Jakob Feinig (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Primary Document 08262022a by Nando Alvarez-Perez

MEDIUM: FEMME – 8 – ABORTION (PART 2)

Charlotte and Naty continue their discussion of abortion and reproductive justice internationally in the wake of the repeal of Roe v Wade in this much delayed second segment of three.

Topics include : vegetables souls, the AMA, the progressive era, 70s Australia, the Bruenigs, dirtbag left media, Joe Biden, the democrats, Dorothy Roberts, New Zealand, disobedience, community and care, doulas, travel, Judge Dredd, decriminilization, insect graveyards, eugenics, American exceptionalism, Japan, Margaret Sanger, data surveillance, Guttmacher union, Catholicism, the green tide in Latin America, doctors, Roe v wade, state laws, Margaret Sanger, Clarence Thomas, the supreme court, as well as orgs to donate to.

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music: “Yum” from “This Would Be Funny If It Were Happening To Anyone But Me” EP by flirting.
http://flirtingfullstop.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @actualflirting

Political Economy of ‘The Rehearsal’ (New Transcript!)

Cohosts Charlotte Tavan (@moltopopulare) and Will Beaman (@agoingaccount) discuss the reflexive and imaginative political economy of Nathan Fielder’s HBO series, The Rehearsal. The show points towards an apophatic ethics of social provisioning, presenting an ambiguous portrait of care, production, and human agency. This portrait remains irreducibly and collective, in excess of the powers and intentions that constitute social belonging.

Transcript: Mike Lewis

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Transcript

Will Beaman  00:00

Hey everyone, this is Will Beaman from Superstructure podcast and Money On The Left Editorial Collective. And I have with me my Money On The Left collaborator Charlotte Tavan.

Charlotte Tavan  00:24

Hi! Hi Will, good morning.

Will Beaman  00:27

Good morning. Yeah, it is. That’s very nice of you. Because it is morning for me, and I think it’s almost midnight for you.

Charlotte Tavan  00:37

Yeah, but I had a nice nap. So I’m letting you have priority because I feel worse for you.

Will Beaman  00:43

There’s like a sliver of the day that we’re both awake. And yet somehow we do find a lot of time to talk.

Charlotte Tavan  00:52

Yeah, we’ve attempted this recording a lot of times.

Will Beaman  00:58

So for listeners who are wondering why this is going so well, that’s actually no accident because we have rehearsed this exact Zoom call 13 times.

Charlotte Tavan  01:14

In different rooms of the house…

Will Beaman  01:17

With actors playing both of us. And the reason for this joke is that we’re talking about The Rehearsal.

Charlotte Tavan  01:30

Yeah. Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal.

Will Beaman  01:33

It’s a fascinating show, and several people have reached out to us since the show started, being like, “I hope that you’re going to do something about this, because this is like the most Money On The Left show ever.”

Charlotte Tavan  01:49

Oh, I didn’t know that. That’s so cool. That makes sense.

Will Beaman  01:51

Yeah. I exaggerated a little bit. I’ve had it twice. Two people have reached out. Okay.

Charlotte Tavan  01:58

That’s awesome.

Will Beaman  01:59

Yeah. And that’s half of the people that I know really. So.

Charlotte Tavan  02:03

Yeah.

Will Beaman  02:05

Yeah. And everyone else on Twitter is just a part of my rehearsal, like an unwilling member.

Charlotte Tavan  02:13

Yeah.

Will Beaman  02:15

But anyway…

Charlotte Tavan  02:16

You’re just things to me. You’re just little things in the computer.

Will Beaman  02:21

Yeah, exactly.

Charlotte Tavan  02:23

Part of my master plan.

Will Beaman  02:24

You’re all extras in my show. So let’s back up and talk about what this show is. I guess. Yeah. Like to contextualize it. Start with maybe like, who is Nathan Fielder? And what is Nathan For You? Which is the show that kind of comes before this? Because I think that in a lot of ways, The Rehearsal is commenting on Nathan For You. And I’ve seen a bunch of Nathan For You. But I think that you’re the resident Nathan Fielder scholar here.

Charlotte Tavan  03:06

Thank you.

Will Beaman  03:08

And I say that because I hope that he hears this and reaches out to you.

Charlotte Tavan  03:15

That would shake me to my core.

Will Beaman  03:22

I wasn’t sure if when Nathan reached out to me…

Charlotte Tavan  03:29

Yeah, exactly. I do love Nathan Fielder, though.

Will Beaman  03:35

Yeah, so who is Nathan Fielder?

Charlotte Tavan  03:37

So I actually had practice explaining this to somebody at a pub last night. So I think it’s gonna go well. So he’s a comedian from Toronto, Canada, who…I think he started off doing a lot of — he’s one of those people who, if you look on his YouTube channel, he’s kind of just kept everything up there for the past 15 years. And you can see that he’s been actually quite prolific and hard working for a long time. But he has this drive to make content constantly. Although he did have a bit of a break. But yeah, so his first show that he kind of hit it big with was called Nathan For You, which was a comedy program that was essentially a reality TV show format in which he gives advice to failing businesses, in and around LA, on how to succeed. As this character is him but like an exaggerated version of his own certain characteristics. He has an awkwardness and, you know, people are always wondering, like, “is he acting?” but yeah, it’s like a version of him. And he gives these businesses ridiculous advice, playing this straight man the whole time, and they think it’s a real reality TV show. They go along with it, and they end up doing and saying stupid things. And it’s really, really, really funny. But yeah, that show went for about four seasons and got bigger and bigger, and the budget just kept on getting bigger and bigger. And he just kept on attempting more and more ridiculous stunts, including commenting on the media itself and experimenting in ways that he could manipulate the media for business. Stuff like that.

Will Beaman  05:36

Yeah, so he’s very, I guess we could say, reflexive and perhaps neurotic about the medium itself, that he is kind of acting within.  And I think that there’s a parallel that we could draw here between something that happened earlier in the 20th century, with reference to, I mean, really, with a lot of experimental genres of film. But I think that what this borrows from, particularly, in the kind of category of experimentation is a documentary form that was responding to the kind of mainstream documentary forms of its day, which is Cinéma vérité. French for “cinema truth.” Basically, the idea of Cinéma vérité was the fact that a documentary was being created and wasn’t hidden from the characters or from the audience. Everything was above board and self aware. And, in a way, all of the paradoxical questions of that self awareness were like very heavy themes in it. So these questions that Nathan will bring up about “what is a reality show?”, basically are, I think, going to interact with the reality show form in a similar way. And a lot of the signatures of the reality show form, in particular the confessionals, actually do come from this longer history of vérité documentaries where people will stare directly into the camera, and the camera is supposed to be us. And that kind of implicates or raises the question of, how do we relate to the characters? Right, and how do we relate to this show as a production?

Charlotte Tavan  05:51

Yeah. Yeah. And Nathan is super aware of this, about how the medium forms the themes and experience of the viewer and how we see everything. It’s not just the content he’s creating, but how he’s just super, super aware of that and reflexive about that. And he’s always talking about it…Nathan For You is supposed to be like a sillier show than The Rehearsal, which we’ll go on to discuss, but yeah he’s super in tune with that, I feel.

Will Beaman  08:35

Yeah, absolutely. And so like you said, Nathan For You gets more self-reflective and more meta commentary on its own forms. The problems and paradoxes and questions of what it means to be making a show like that, because I think a lot of people responded by saying that the show is exploitative or…

Charlotte Tavan  09:05

Mean.

Will Beaman  09:05

Yeah, that it’s mean.

Charlotte Tavan  09:08

Which it kind of is. I love it but, yeah.

Will Beaman  09:09

Yeah, I mean, there is some of that for sure. And I think that one of his responses in Nathan For You that then also gets picked up in The Rehearsal and kind of different ways: in Nathan For You, he plays a very cringy version of himself where I think he’s at least implicating himself in whatever kind of embarrassment there is. But it’s an open question of does that cancel out the kind of dickish-ness of the form, right? And I think that, yeah, that kind of increasing self-reflexiveness, it sort of hits its peak at this episode, the last episode of Nathan For You: Finding Frances, which you’ve seen a bunch of times. So, maybe we can…how does that go and how does it end? Because I think that that actually provides some continuity, then, for where The Rehearsal picks up.

Charlotte Tavan  10:03

So, “Finding Frances” was like a feature length special that was the final episode of Nathan For You in which one of the actors from–and this is really interesting, because it’s not a new guy–he takes one of the actors that he took the piss out of, in an earlier episode, who played like a Bill Gates impersonator that was meant to drum up popularity for a business. And he was really, really funny. So basically, Nathan got him back on the show, and apparently the premise is that he and Bill were recording, like DVD commentary, and then Bill Heath, the subject of “Finding Frances” has started talking about his high school sweetheart, who he has always been in love with and has never, ever forgotten about and swore that she’d loved him till she like till her grave, I think was the line. So Nathan is like, you know, maybe I should like, give a little back. How about like, I take this, like, nice old man Bill and I use all of the money and resources that I have at my disposal, which he specifically says, to help him find his high school sweetheart. Like, what better use of my money and time. And so they kind of go on this journey together, “Finding Frances”, his high school sweetheart, and in typical Nathan Fielder fashion, he complicates everything. And there’s just layers upon layers of tricks and lies. And he has to pretend that they’re filming a sequel to the film “Mud” in a high school to get access to their archives. Yeah, he makes Bill Heath pretend he’s from the town of Dumas, and puts on a fake high school reunion and stuff like that. As the show goes on, Nathan starts to realize that he’s being lied to, do you know what I mean?

Will Beaman  12:48

Mhm.

Charlotte Tavan  12:49

It’s almost like he, being continually accused of manipulation and lying and exploitation, but then it starts to become apparent that Bill Heath is not being completely honest with him. And Nathan doesn’t have full control over where this project is going. And there are points where he’s just like, “I literally don’t know what I’m doing here. We’ve just been filming random things for a week. Like zoos and trees and stuff.”

Will Beaman  13:21

Yeah, and this is so interesting because I feel like one of these complications here is that Bill has his own life and his own agenda. And yet at the same time, he is and everybody is being enlisted into this TV show. Right? For Nathan. And there’s a kind of an interesting, I guess what you could call, there’s a kind of meta continuity here, across all of these kinds of different worlds, that people have that sort of deviate and then come back to each other, right? Where even thinking about who Bill is and what he discovers that his wife, he finds out, has been married. Or not his wife, sorry, his…

Charlotte Tavan  14:26

His fantasy wife. He did want to propose to her, they do rehearse that.

Will Beaman  14:31

Yeah. And so this fantasy is part of Bill’s interior world, but it can actually be blown up to huge significance in this medium. But, yeah, he finds that his fantasy wife, high school sweetheart, has been married, has had a bunch of kids, has kind of been out living her own life, and then the whole time she’s also been a character in his story. Right? And he’s a character in Nathan’s story. But I think, as we’re getting at with Nathan not having full control over this, it’s not just like a Russian nesting doll with Nathan’s story at the peak of it.

Charlotte Tavan  15:23

Yeah.

Will Beaman  15:24

Where, ultimately, there’s one master director. I think that part of how this is working in conjunction with that vérité style of implicating yourself in the world, is that the director of Nathan For You, and these kinds of problems and paradoxes of control and controlling people and exploiting people, aren’t inherently one directional. Right? They go across all of these different directions.

Charlotte Tavan  16:02

And like Bill Heath is an actor. I think that’s significant as well.

Will Beaman  16:06

Yeah, totally. So with this continuity across–and The Rehearsal will call these, basically, rehearsals. Right? But we could say in the case of Nathan For You, these continuities and discontinuities across episodes as to who is a character and who is not. You have these characters who come back. There’s a sense with Nathan situating himself, and all of these characters in our world, where he’s a documentary or a TV show maker, right. It’s sort of like, what is continuing if it’s not an episode, per se, but it is nevertheless something that is very social, right? And he continues to be caught up in these people’s lives, even when he’s not working.

Charlotte Tavan  17:12

Yeah, like Macy is a good example of that in that show, as well, in “Finding Frances.” Initially, he hires an escort to help Bill rehearse for meeting his fantasy high school sweetheart, but Nathan just ends up like, that becomes a relationship and dynamic in and of itself. It also has that like, she’s working, she’s an escort, he’s paying in cash, but at the same time, she’s part of the story on the show, but then she has her own other dynamics going on. And then like, why is this even part of the show? Like, yeah, it’s interesting.

Will Beaman  17:58

It’s really interesting. And I think that that is, one of the most, that part especially feels a lot like The Rehearsal. And so, maybe then jumping from Nathan For You to The Rehearsal. I think like Nathan For You, The Rehearsal, he sort of is starting from the same character, right? Where he is somebody who has a budget and a TV show to help people with real life problems. But instead of struggling businesses, the scope is just kind of life in general. Which is quite interesting. So I mean, how would you contrast Nathan For You with The Rehearsal? Or maybe how does The Rehearsal go further?

Charlotte Tavan  18:58

Well, I mean, the character Nathan is changed in The Rehearsal. I feel like that starts happening in “Finding Frances”: he kind of presents himself as like, Okay, now this is me being earnest. Like he’s still the same Nathan, but he’s being earnest and being more vulnerable, I guess.

Will Beaman  19:21

Yeah. There’s such an earnestness about it. And part of it, I think, is that there’s a kind of behind the scenes deconstruction of how the show is even being made in the first place where it almost at times feels like a documentary about its own making. A little bit where he’s like, you see him with all these computer monitors watching things that have been recorded or watching things that are being acted out at the same time. Part of the nature of this is that his character is a little bit more voyeuristic than, at least at first, there’s a separation between him and his clients, I guess where his clients are all preparing for difficult conversations or difficult life events. And the premise, basically, is that he, with his unlimited HBO budget, will create down to the detail, like absolute models and replicas of that situation and stage endless, what he calls rehearsals for that moment, with an actor playing whoever the characters need to talk to. And all along the way, he sort of is like the voice in the characters’ ears a little bit during the rehearsals. He’s not supposed to be part of The Rehearsal in the way that a director is not supposed to be part of a film, necessarily, but then of course, what we’re watching, he is a part of.

Charlotte Tavan  21:16

Yeah, he’s like a part of it. But again, he’s constantly reflexive about how he is part of it.

Will Beaman  21:24

Right

Charlotte Tavan  21:24

And constantly fucking up and then like saying, “Oh, I fucked up.” Which is something he kind of started doing in Nathan For You, as well. The example I always think about is the dumb Starbucks episode where he tries to help a failing coffee shop by saying, “let’s just imitate Starbucks.” And then he just ends up running a fake Starbucks for no reason. And then at the end, he’s kind of like, “Oh, I just realized that I got a bit caught up in myself here.” And like, “I’m sorry, bye.”

Will Beaman  22:05

Yeah, and that’s spoiler alert, I guess, for anybody who’s listening. Sorry, this came a little bit late into the episode, but, there will be spoilers. Because that sort of is the arc of The Rehearsal, in a way, where all of these rehearsals kind of continue and they compound on each other. And at one point, I think it’s episode three, they start to overlap with each other where he has multiple rehearsals going on at once. One of them is for this woman, Angela, whose original purpose was she wanted to see what it’s like to be a mother, and so they planned for over the course of several months to simulate a fake house and do child rearing. At first with an actor, but then the actor leaves. And then it ends. So Nathan steps in to play the father role, as well as the director role.

Charlotte Tavan  23:25

Although, was that guy an actor?

Will Beaman  23:30

Are any of them actors?

Charlotte Tavan  23:32

Yeah we don’t know. But he was enlisted via a dating app.

Will Beaman  23:37

No, you’re right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, totally. These are linguistic ambiguities, I say, covering my ass.

Charlotte Tavan  23:48

Yeah. They’re all actors.

Will Beaman  23:52

Because yeah, in the context of the show, they’re all actors. But then also, part of what’s going on here is that there’s some way where this kind of social anxiety and nervousness about your performance doesn’t have a starting and stopping point that’s clear, right? Like where Nathan will sometimes be director or sometimes an actor in the, like, relative to the show and the scene that he’s performing, he’ll insert himself in the scene sometimes as an actor, but regardless, his acting never stops. And it becomes very interesting when there’s multiple rehearsals, and he’s acting in one of them, because that sort of begins to resemble a work life balance, where he has his day job, which is this rehearsal that he’s not acting in, and then his home life. What’s the difference between being at home and being at work? While at home, it’s your own rehearsal versus when you’re at work it’s someone else’s rehearsal. Right? It’s this idea, and I think we’ll get into this: it sort of is playing with the boundaries between work and leisure in a way that I think is familiarizing these as being as hard and set as we think of them being. Anyway, we’ll get into that, because I think that acting is like a very interesting figure for this. But first, I guess, I want to take a step back and just talk about what’s been written about The Rehearsal so far. Because in preparing for this episode, obviously, one of the places to start besides watching the show is sampling all of the articles that have been written about it. And there have been a whole bunch, and I think we only really want to talk about a few, but I think that these are emblematic of the range that we saw. Yeah. So do you want to start with the first one?

Charlotte Tavan  26:21

Okay, so this is kind of on the super, super critical, shitty end of the…

Will Beaman  26:32

Yeah, this guy hates the show.

Charlotte Tavan  26:34

This guy really hates the show, and we’re not entirely sure that he watched the whole show, either.

Will Beaman  26:40

It definitely seems at points like, the first few episodes were viewed, and then there’s a kind of a hand wavy thing at the end that’s like, and for the rest of the show. And it’s after Episode Two, and it’s one sentence at the end.

Charlotte Tavan  26:57

Totally. So the title is, Richard Brody: “The Cruel and Arrogant Gaze of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal,” which I think you know, that gives you an idea of like…

Will Beaman  27:12

The entire thesis…

Charlotte Tavan  27:16

And that’s like, basically what it says. “As a filmmaker, Fielder displays interest, not in any physical process unfolding over time…

Will Beaman  27:25

Which is exactly what TV is supposed to be about: capturing a physical process unfolding in time. That’s actually like a funny…that sounds like a very experimental documentary form.

Charlotte Tavan  27:41

Yeah, I know. Just real time, like a CCTV camera.

Will Beaman  27:47

Like city symphonies or something. Yeah.

Charlotte Tavan  27:50

But yeah…

Will Beaman  27:51

You wrote in parentheses “what does this mean?”

Charlotte Tavan  27:56

That was my main comment. Yeah, “he revels in his own thoughts as he tailors the conditions of his subjects’ lives to fit his storytelling.” Which again, did you watch the show? Like, that’s just the opposite of what is happening in the show, I feel. Can I read another?

Will Beaman  28:17

Yeah, please, let’s jump around and get a real sampling.

Charlotte Tavan  28:25

This is my favorite bit. So this guy seems to have like, a.) an idea that this TV show is supposed to be a documentary. Like an actual very serious inquiry. Which it is, but like…

Will Beaman  28:45

It definitely can be read as a documentary, but I think he means it in like, he’s looking at like…

Charlotte Tavan  28:52

David Attenborough, right?

Will Beaman  28:52

Like, the most expository mode of documentary.

Charlotte Tavan  28:56

Yeah.

Will Beaman  28:56

And then being like, “this show is messing up at being a documentary.”

Charlotte Tavan  29:03

Yeah, exactly. My really specific and strange idea of what a documentary should be and how I want to be made to think about things. This is an example of that, “Angela presents herself as a devout Christian. She displays an obsession with the dangers of satanic cults and gives voice to some remarkable conspiracy theories regarding the power of the devil in daily life. Yet his gimlet-eyed dubiousness about these ideas remains retentive and incurious, without any probing of causes and sources, and without the scathing political satire of Borat and subsequent movie films.”

Will Beaman  29:49

I’ll admit this is no Borat.

Charlotte Tavan  29:55

It’s definitely no Borat 2.

Will Beaman  30:03

Jesus Christ. Yeah, I mean, I don’t know, he’s seething. Like he hates it so much.

Charlotte Tavan  30:10

Really angry.

Will Beaman  30:11

Gimlet-eyed dubiousness. Well, I just looked up what gimlet means, and it’s an eye with a piercing stare. So that sounded less like, I don’t know…

Charlotte Tavan  30:26

Gimlet sounds like a goblin. Like a little Goblin.

Will Beaman  30:31

His beady little eyes.

Charlotte Tavan  30:36

But it’s still, yeah, it’s not very nice anyway.

Will Beaman  30:41

Yeah. And, you know, we should say that, I think, at a very superficial level, he’s drawing on a theme in film studies which is the potential violence and sadism of the camera. And not just of the camera, but of the voice of the film. And this is a problem that cinéma vérité documentaries are very concerned with. You can contrast it at the extreme end with like a Ken Burns documentary where you have this kind of voice of God narration that it’s very clear what the preferred reading of the film is. And really, I think that there’s a way to talk about cinema history in general that is sort of wrestling with, you know, not to be precious or exaggerate about it, but like, the trauma of being hit over the head again, and again, with like a very codified way of making films where it’s supposed to be very, very clear and unambiguous what you’re supposed to think. So in the documentary form, that’s, you know, Ken Burns “In the Civil War…” But also, you can think back to classical Hollywood, right? Where what kind of forms is the kind of best practices in Hollywood that are then enforced by codes and regulations, and the kind of monopolistic structure of the industry that kind of gets broken in the 60s when people have handheld cameras, and they can kind of go off on their own and do, well, cinéma vérité documentaries, among other things. But all of these conventions were about, they would say, hand holding and making it legible and accessible to the audience, right? Audiences aren’t supposed to be confused by what they’re watching. It’s supposed to be very clear who’s a good guy, who’s a bad guy. The voice of the film is very unambiguous.

Charlotte Tavan  33:11

By leaving it ambiguous, you open it up to the devil or something.

Will Beaman  33:16

Well, right. And it’s so funny that you say that, because this really becomes kind of codified and kind of stuck this way during the Prohibition era. So there really is a moralistic and like Christian language around. Yeah, like, especially thinking of these city centers where, what are these lower and middle class people watching? There’s an anxiety that they’re going to be corrupted or something like that.

Charlotte Tavan  33:51

We were talking about criticisms of Euphoria before as being like that.

Will Beaman  34:00

Yeah.

Charlotte Tavan  34:03

“Gimlet-eyed dubiousness.”

Will Beaman  34:08

That gimlet-eyed bitch! But, yeah, right. There was a New Yorker review. It’s always The New Yorker. This is also The New Yorker that we’re reading from. I don’t think it was…this one is Richard Brody. But I think the last one was Naomi Fry who also has a Nathan For You review that we’re not going to read because this one is just kind of more cartoonish-ly mean. But, yeah. I mean, she takes issue with Euphoria being like, “I can’t tell what the motivations of these characters are, so they messed up. So I hate that.” There is kind of that impulse here a little bit like, “I don’t know, he’s just letting things unfold rather than telling you.”

Charlotte Tavan  35:11

Yeah, but then he also complains that he’s telling you what to think via the voiceover

Will Beaman  35:16

Yeah that in doing so, it is the ultimate in exploitation.

Charlotte Tavan  35:23

Yeah. Yeah. Just like taking issue with him not like trying to explore Angela’s Christian fundamentalist beliefs in a serious way. And that is just so funny.

Will Beaman  35:39

Yeah, I mean, it really does become such a theme. And actually, like, I think that she has one of the best lines in the series, which you see this at the beginning of one of the days in the house, where she’s praying, and she says something like, “God, you are guiding this rehearsal. It’s not Nathan. It’s not any of us, it’s you.”

Charlotte Tavan  36:13

“And let Nathan know that no matter what happens, it’s you in the end that’s guiding this,” and like, yeah.

Will Beaman  36:19

Yeah. And, obviously, I’m sure she means this in the kind of Christian fundamentalist way. But I do think that there’s kind of a, I think, from the point of view of Nathan, including it in the show, there is like a mystical borderline theological argument that is being made here about no rehearsal, or no action or no camera can fully dictate everything in the world.

Charlotte Tavan  36:59

Yeah.

Will Beaman  37:00

Or you could think of this with, I mean, this language of Nathan’s cruel and arrogant gaze. The spectatorial gaze is like superficially drawing on this idea of the cinematic male gaze.

Charlotte Tavan  37:18

As opposed to Borat.

Will Beaman  37:22

Yeah, Borat, which is the people’s gaze. Oh, my God, actually Borat as like shitty faux populism in contrast to this is really funny to think about. That he would say that Borat is, it’s being directly subversive in some way where this is like, “what is Nathan doing?”  “It’s not even clear who he hates.” That’s the main question. Yeah so this history of thinking about and criticizing the dominant preferred reading in a film, and how different elements of film form conspire to foist that on you, the viewer, is like a long running theme in film theory. In a past episode, even, we’ve talked about an article about the cinematic male gaze by Laura Mulvey, and this gets picked up by bell hooks. Sort of the argument, also, is that this is reinforcing a kind of spectatorial gaze that’s biased in the favor of the cinematic gaze, which is a patriarchal gaze, right? So the spectatorial position is male coded. And in a certain way, it’s meant to shore up an anxious masculinity, that in order to feel the full degrees of its freedom and independence and ability to do whatever it wants, needs to make a show of manipulating and punishing and objectifying whatever’s on screen. And certainly, I would say that that’s being taken up as an anxiety in the show. But I do think that this article is drawing on it very superficially. It seemed very much in danger of saying the essence of a camera and the essence of a gaze, is this, like, phallic penetration or something. And I don’t think that that’s, you know, I mean, both Mulvey and especially bell hooks, also write about counter gazes, and other viewing positions. And these can be articulated as being like a counter phallic gaze, or something, and there definitely is…I feel like that’s a very RadFem reading of it. But there also is just a kind of a re-situating the gaze in a world of gazes, right? And these don’t have to, you know, maybe there’s a different relationship to viewing than mastery in the first place.

Charlotte Tavan  37:47

Yeah, yeah. It’s one of those shows where once you finish the whole thing, and then you realize that you didn’t even have mastery over how you were even spectating it in the first place, I feel. I rewatched it, and there were moments in it that I feel like have to be intentional, or regardless, there were moments in it where I was, like, having seen the last episode, now rewatching this I have so many different feelings about it. I mean, you kind of get that with a lot of that kind of media, but like, yeah. Spoiler alert, the final episode about this kid who didn’t have a dad or a father figure in his life ends up like forming a real bond with him and doesn’t really seem to actually understand the concept of acting or realness, or fakeness. And gets upset and feels abandoned. And Nathan kind of has to reject this child, in a way, or in the way that the child wants, and they’re just like…

Will Beaman  41:33

Right, yeah, that’s really well put.

Charlotte Tavan  41:35

When you really watch it after having seen what it’s like, you watch scenes and you see that child before he becomes more of a serious subject in the final episode. Because this child is one of the child actors that is hired to play Angela’s son.

Will Beaman  41:55

Yeah, there’s like a rotating cast of 12 child actors throughout this whole arc.

Charlotte Tavan  42:00

There are like hundreds. Well, there’s like dozens. There’s babies to teenagers to adults.

Will Beaman  42:13

There’s a funny parallel there with the dumb Starbucks episode where the premise of the dumb Starbucks episode of Nathan For You that you know, “we couldn’t copy Starbucks, unless this was categorized as a parody. So technically, this is a museum.” And I feel like there’s a similar, playful, like, Huh, that’s a legal problem that’s getting in the way of life. And in this case, it’s literally child labor laws. Allowing a child actor to perform in four hour increments, which means that for every single day, he has to have like six kid actors.

Charlotte Tavan  43:01

Yeah, he’s got like, a fake baby, like a robot baby that goes from a certain time that babies can’t work past that he controls the robot baby. And then he hires a guy to sit up all night and press a button to make the baby cry that would mirror the crying of a real baby, I think, that they’re also observing. It’s crazy. It’s so good. But yeah.

Will Beaman  43:29

Yeah, and this is a different temporality and like a different rhythm, but it almost does kind of remind me of, I mean, Nathan, literally is an employer, or at least he’s questioning whether he’s an employer, right? He’s like, what does it mean to be an employer in the same way? Like, what does it mean to be a director? What does it mean to be an actor? But employers, if you zoom out, maybe not, maybe they don’t switch actors or, you know, switch employees, like three times a day. But, you know, obviously, people move around from job to job. And institutions nevertheless continue to continue to last, right? So, if you were to look at any other business, which I think is a central theme here, is the production of a TV show is kind of analogized to all forms of production, and kind of all societal forms. And so, in the context of something that’s not a TV show, we kind of expect that all institutions are run in an ongoing way by a whole host of people who come and go. This is another example of, like, it’s sped up and that makes it funny. But there are a lot of these kinds of uncanny semblances that I think are really interesting. Yeah. It’s like the fake bar that he builds in the first episode, he actually just opens and runs as a bar in the end.  Yeah.

Charlotte Tavan  44:24

In a building and then creates a little tunnel and puts signage out, and the public just walk in and start drinking in this bar that is just running now like.

Will Beaman  45:27

Yeah, so I think we wanted to take kind of a Goldilocks approach here where, you know, this article  was too mean. And we’ll get to the one that was just right. Not really just right. But like, to the edge of, then, where I think we want to step in.

Charlotte Tavan  45:45

Pretty good.

Will Beaman  45:46

Step in pretty good, yeah. To use another HBO phrase. I’m sorry to the listeners for us. Yeah. So this next article, this was in Vulture, and it’s titled, “Nathan Fielder’s Dazzling, Horrifying Trial Run of Reality” is by Kathryn VanArendonk. So this review, unlike the last one, at least sees that something self reflective is going on here that’s not just a kind of enlisting other people in his own kind of cruel gaze, or whatever. But still, this is like a pretty negative review where she writes “By episode four, when Fielder turns the whole thing into an unending spiral of self consciousness,  The Rehearsal starts to look like a stunning display of narcissism more than anything else. It is solipsism disguised as its opposite. How could that not be repellent?” And then later, she says, “but there is at least one level on which The Rehearsal is unquestionably commenting on something beyond the strange recesses of Fielder’s mind. Everything Fielder does is an unadorned version of how all reality TV works. We’re uncomfortable because we can see the mechanics of it, but nothing is actually different. People consent to play along with the production, often built as a social experiment for their possible game. Participants of Love is Blind, don’t know how they’ll be edited. Real Housewives give their consent, but how much power do they have to say no once their lives are warped by the franchise? People on The Circle sign up knowing they’ll be manipulated. Does that make the manipulation okay?” And I think that this is already miles ahead of the last article in a lot of ways. Because I do think that this resemblance is really important. And she’s definitely picking up on something in the show.

Charlotte Tavan  48:11

And yeah, and that was even the same in Nathan For You, he’s trying to expose the real mechanics behind television all the time. That’s part of what’s so fun about it to watch, as well.

Will Beaman  48:27

Yeah, and I think that your description of the “Finding Frances” episode, I think, gets this across really well that these problems of power and control over how this will go and consent and like all of these things, they don’t just start and stop in a very clean way with the director. Right? Because in that show, Nathan realizes that he’s being lied to.

Charlotte Tavan  49:06

Totally, Yeah.

Will Beaman  49:08

And he feels manipulated in some way. But I don’t think that the point is to just flatten and level it and say that, “Well, we’re all manipulating each other. So everyone’s a sinner,” you know, our infinite Liz Brunig rejoinder.

Charlotte Tavan  49:27

No, and Nathan never says that either. He doesn’t really pose himself as a victim either in these sins. Not that I really like that language. But yeah, he’s just saying this is happening. And he’s always making a point of showing people calling him a liar. And you know how he responds to that.

Will Beaman  49:53

Yeah, he’s fixated on how inescapable that danger feels.

Charlotte Tavan  49:58

Yeah.

Will Beaman  49:58

I think. And that is sort of the structure of the show, a little bit, is trying out every possible variation or way that something could go and then realizing that even then, you really don’t know.

Charlotte Tavan  50:17

I find that sentence like…”Real Housewives give their consent, but how much power do they have to say no once their lives are warped by the franchise?” It’s like, I see what they’re saying, and some reality TV shows are quite harmful to people. But what does that mean? Like no one has the power to say no when their lives are warped by anything in that way.

Will Beaman  50:44

Right. Exactly. Exactly. And that is sort of, I think, why this goes beyond just reality TV. And I think that he’s showing us not only how all reality TV works, but also I think how all institutions and life work.

Charlotte Tavan  51:09

Yeah. He’s literally going like, Oh my God, did I permanently emotionally damage a child?

Will Beaman  51:20

Yeah. Which then is him basically being a parent? Right?

Charlotte Tavan  51:26

Yeah, exactly.

Will Beaman  51:27

Concerned about whether or not, you know, did I just mess up?

Charlotte Tavan  51:33

I think that’s what the Real Housewives thing reminds me of. That’s like, as a parent, I’d find sentences like that chillin like shit happens, basically.

Will Beaman  51:48

Yeah, and I mean, God knows, it’s easy for parents to wring their hands about, you know, did I make the right choice? And life choices, if you’re a parent, become charged with people depending on you directly. But I think that there’s a way where that is being sort of extended, in all these kinds of heterogeneous ways to not just being a parent, but being a friend. Being an employee. Being like, both in and out of what we normally think of as this kind of hard distinction between work and leisure, where you are either on your own time, so it’s self care, right, and everything originates from you. Or, you’re alienated from that, and instead, you exist solely for your boss, instead. And I don’t think that in this show…I think that that’s being complicated, rather than refuted fully, right. Because, in a certain way, there’s nothing but anxiety about these power disparities, so it’s sort of the opposite of saying that they don’t matter. It’s like, actually, it’s the only thing that matters, it’s all we can think about. But it goes so much in that direction, that this awareness of power disparities and responsibility for how you will warp other people’s lives or impact other people, continues well beyond any one rehearsal, right? Even when you’re alone, and you’re reflecting, there’s a way where that reflection is a social reflection, right? You’re reflecting on how you are in your life with other people, right? I don’t think that we have a form of going through life that’s not minimally self aware, and self reflexive.

Charlotte Tavan  54:17

Which is acting, as well. I feel like.

Will Beaman  54:22

Yeah, totally.

Charlotte Tavan  54:25

Socially aware of what you’re doing, and in relation to the context and scenario, like that’s everything that we do, really.

Will Beaman  54:36

Yeah, totally. Yeah. And so like, is acting just anxiety? Or at least it’s an anxious action. Right? We can…like it’s interesting even though these words are so kind of similar, but one is more open ended and the other is more narrow.

Charlotte Tavan  54:57

Yeah, it’s just like having concern.

Will Beaman  54:59

Yeah, yeah, having concern, and there’s a sense of like, obviously, we resent having concerns that were not given to us in a fair way. You know, I used to have a job that I hated. I resented being concerned about all the stupid shit that I had to be concerned about throughout the day. But that’s different, I think, from resenting the fact of having to be concerned with things in the first place. But I do think that, certainly within like, a lot of leftist political traditions, you know, we’re Money On The Left, so we think about these kinds of things there. There certainly is a tradition of seeing that dependence and that concern as if it comes before individual consent in some way, then that means it’s reducible to violence. And that means that it’s bad, right? Or at least the benchmark, the ideal situation, is no one has to be concerned about anyone else unless they decide, oh, it would be fun to care about others. Whereas, I think that what you’re articulating about acting here, as this kind of ongoing reflection of yourself in the world, precedes caring about any particular thing, right? It precedes any one rehearsal.

Charlotte Tavan  56:44

I just like the quote in this article, which is like, “The Rehearsal starts to look like a stunning display of narcissism more than anything else. It is solipsism disguised as its opposite.” Like, I just think that that’s so the wrong way around.

Will Beaman  57:02

Yeah.

Charlotte Tavan  57:03

Like, it’s completely the flip of that. It’s like a reflection disguised as narcissistic solipsism. Do you know what I mean? For comedic effect, occasionally, because it is also, you know, designed to make you laugh and be self-deprecating.

Will Beaman  57:23

Yeah, it’s not just that this is the inside of Nathan’s mind. It also, by analogy, is the inside of a lot of people’s minds, or at least these are kind of the problems.

Charlotte Tavan  57:35

Alright, so, the next article, and this is the not-just-right, but like pretty good.

Will Beaman  57:43

Yeah. Right. Which is as good as we can get from rehearsing.

Charlotte Tavan  57:47

Yeah, yeah, exactly. And this is by Alissa Wilkinson, and it’s called “What Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal Says About Us.” And so this article, kind of drawing on the work of Jewish philosopher called Martin Buber who worked with these concepts called “I-it” and “I-Thou”. Basically getting to the heart of subjectivities, how we experience the world versus like our relationship with things in the world. What can the media do with that? She’s kind of making the argument. Do you want to explain the concepts of I-it and I-Thou?

Will Beaman  58:32

Yeah, well, we can read the paragraph. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Charlotte Tavan  58:41

Yeah, thank you.

Will Beaman  58:43

Okay, now we’re recording. Yeah, so Alissa Wilkinson writes, “Buber — a not-so-incidentally Jewish philosopher” just as Nathan is also a Jewish philosopher, on our reading, too. “is probably best known for his work I and Thou, which has exerted tremendous influence on 20th-century thinkers and which marries existentialism and theology. I have to oversimplify to a fault here, but in essence, Buber says human experience is embodied in two pairs of words: “I-it” and “I-Thou.” These distinguish between the way we experience the world and the way we enter into relationships in it. (In his framework, this all eventually points toward God.)” Which is, I think, also hinted at in this show.

Charlotte Tavan  59:36

Yeah, this is something I’m only thinking about now that we’re recording this, but yeah, the show is very theological.

Will Beaman  59:44

Yeah. And it’s theological in a way that’s very, like multiple religions. I think that he’s, and not in a way that is like flattening, that is like so materializing theology that the questions don’t even matter and it’s all just like a completely horizontal plane of like cultures or something. Because I think that he’s also teasing out how these different, you could say, religious voices are kind of, you know, that are in dialogue and like a fraught dialogue are kind of approaching similar questions. But yeah, so she writes, “A layer of human existence takes place in what he terms “I-it,” which is how I experience everything that I can observe and describe and put into a category in the world: the aforementioned tree, the aforementioned barista, and quite possibly people in my life as well. They are objects that I experience as a means to my own end. I look at it. I project onto it my feelings, my assumptions, the things I am sure I know about them. I am, literally, objectifying them.” In some ways, I think, this is just the same argument as that first article, right? The I-it thing, which is “The Cruel and Arrogant Gaze of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal.” Where just the act of putting a camera on something is this kind of looking, and…

Charlotte Tavan  1:01:31

Pure exploitation and…

Will Beaman  1:01:34

Yeah, objectification. But she seems to kind of distinguish between that and another way of relating which, according to this philosopher is I-thou, and she seems to associate that with in person relationships that have the complexity of intimacy, and all of these things that a camera can’t possibly capture. So she writes, “Then there is the “I-Thou” layer, which is when I have a relationship with not an object, but another subject — an entity that isn’t there to fulfill my objectives and goals, but into whom I am asked to invest myself. This requires intimacy, mutuality, openness, and, yes, empathy. To put it in Jamison’s terms, it is where the border between you and I may be crossed, where we can no longer project onto one another because our relationship is dynamic, allowing for each of us to defy categorization and be who we are. You are whatever category you identify with, but that is not all you are.” And, I mean, on on the one hand, this sounds a lot better, and I think what we want to say, but it strikes me as a bit odd that, as we’ll see, she kind of goes through and basically identifies the show as just showing a bunch of I-it relationships that fail to meet that kind of higher level of I-thou. And I guess it’s odd to me, because it’s not like when you’re hanging out with somebody in person, you have that kind of full mastery or identification with them as a subject, either, right?

Charlotte Tavan  1:03:29

No, or even the people that you know the best, people project onto you and yeah.

Will Beaman  1:03:36

So I think what we want to get at here, and I think our reading of the show, is that that kind of projection, on the one hand, is unavoidable. But on the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily lead to this kind of stupid objectification. And you would think that she was getting here because at the end, she says, “you are whatever category you identify with, but that is not all you are.” Right? That there can be multiple layers of projected meanings and categories and things like that. But I think that she’s thinking in terms of some kind of absolute immediate subjectivity. That is not abstract because it’s a little bit like it’s an agreement between two parties. You know, that’s like, doesn’t involve a camera or like a third party infrastructure or anything like that. Doesn’t involve a pre existing system of categories and languages and stuff. It’s just two people who see and understand each other kind of perfectly. And it’s just odd to me, because I don’t think that that really…

Charlotte Tavan  1:04:59

Oh, yeah. I’ve got so many relationships like that. I’m next level, we don’t even talk anymore. We just like to look into each other’s eyes.

Will Beaman  1:05:13

Yeah, well to avoid that, we close our eyes and just touch our brains. It’s a little bit like AirDrop, except it’s purely from the base biological.

Charlotte Tavan  1:05:32

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:05:33

Yeah. So to substantiate that characterization of the rest of the article, she writes about Nathan’s attempts to try to understand people’s emotions and what makes them tick, she writes, “But all he manages to do is look at them as fitting into categories that he can relate to through another category. Director and actor. Co-parent and co-parent. Teacher and student. Daddy and Adam. Mommy and Remy.” And it’s especially odd to me that mommy and Remy is the last one because I know a lot of parent-child relationships in person that are Mommy and Remy.

Charlotte Tavan  1:06:18

Yeah, the thing is everyone’s like, “Oh, he tries to do this, but he fails.” But I think the point is that to achieve I-thou and stuff, all it is, is trying. Do you know what I mean?

Will Beaman  1:06:33

Yes, exactly.

Charlotte Tavan  1:06:34

All it is, is like what we’ve discussed about what is the definition of acting: it’s just being conscious about and having concern for another person’s subjectivities. Do you know what I mean? It’s not something you achieve. It’s not something that you can achieve. It’s just something that you try to achieve because that is how we make human social connections?

Will Beaman  1:07:01

Yeah, it’s something you take responsibility for trying to do, right, which is what I version is not doing, right. That’s not taking responsibility for trying, that’s just kind of the illusion of complete mastery. Right, which then needs to be violently shored up through the male gaze and blah, blah, blah. And so getting to the end of the article, then she writes: “I hate to say the thesis of The Rehearsal is to escape screens and touch grass a little more, but I don’t think it’s not. Nathan looks at us in the poster, but he isn’t looking at us; he’s looking at a camera. And we’re looking at a picture on a screen. He can’t see us; we can’t see him. It’s when the I-it transmutes to I-Thou that real emotions start to flow. “Could it be,” he says aloud in the finale, “that the path to forgiveness lies in someone else’s eyes?” And it just is odd. Again, it’s odd, because I feel like she clearly is getting an I-Thou identification out of the show. This is absolutely like she’s speaking to what his kind of complicated intentions might be, but then also beyond what the intentions are, whether or not they’re failing or succeeding, right, which is exactly what I-It doesn’t do. Right. It’s that, like you said, trying, right, that kind of contemplation.

Charlotte Tavan  1:08:44

And that’s all he does in the show. That’s like, the entire point of the show. It’s like, he’s constantly changing his mind, changing categorizations, learning new things about himself that he impacts, you know, learning new things by himself that he realizes are changing. Like the way he does his projects.

Will Beaman  1:09:06

Yeah, and she’s right how she focuses on it being very negative, right? Like, he is showing, in a way, a process of failure in the sense of ruling out, you know, “well, that didn’t work. I’m gonna try this. Oh, but then I thought of this other thing that created a problem. So we had to hire another actor.” And this kind of increasingly complicated provisioning structure that has to keep being elaborated. But I think one of our central theses about the show is that maybe we can move now from the reviews to really get into, is that that negative approach isn’t just like a nihilistic like everything is meaningless kind of thing. Because, I mean, just, I feel like this can even, in some sense, just be empirical. Right? Like a lot of people derived a lot of meaning from this. Right? Like, it’s not really like a process of failure. Or if it is, it’s that failure fails. Right?

Charlotte Tavan  1:10:25

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:10:27

People talk about language failing. But the thing is it also fails to fail completely. Right? Like there always is still an effort there that’s part of the world, right? And is additive in some way.

Charlotte Tavan  1:10:45

Yeah. And even if he fails an original goal, he creates a new goal. So it’s like…

Will Beaman  1:10:49

Yeah, right. Which in a certain way, I think is this kind of complicated relationship to infrastructures and rehearsals and this ambiguous question of who are the rehearsals for, right? Because we have, on the one hand, a replica of a restaurant or something where he will replay the same night over and over and over again, towards the specific end. But what does the restaurant do? Right, a restaurant opens at the same time every day, has the same peak hours, and kind of rehearses the same night over and over again. But it’s not towards a specific end. Or you could say it mediates a lot of people bringing their own specific ends into it. Which is this kind of idea of infrastructure without a kind of a positive object necessarily, that it exists solely for. Sometimes care is just an open ended question of infrastructure.

Charlotte Tavan  1:12:01

Yeah. And then it fills itself in a way like people came into the bar.

Will Beaman  1:12:08

Right, exactly. And they all came from different places, right. And they’re coming and going to do different things. And, yeah, and all of that.

Charlotte Tavan  1:12:18

If you build them, they will come.

Will Beaman  1:12:20

I mean, it is sort of, like…

Charlotte Tavan  1:12:22

That’s not great business advice, but like, you know…

Will Beaman  1:12:25

Well, he doesn’t make a lot of Craigslist ads, doesn’t he? Isn’t that sort of what the show is doing? Yeah, and the show itself is an invitation for us, I think, to watch it a certain way. We can watch it in the I-it way and be like, “oh, this is just pure sadism watching people be objectified by a camera” and “this is just like watching Jackass” or something, but we also are invited to take the show seriously, at the same time, right? Like, if you build something ambiguous with a lot of different layers of meaning, people will kind of play around in that.

Charlotte Tavan  1:13:19

Oh, yeah, and I’ve definitely seen some responses on Twitter that I feel are enjoying it on a different level. I’m not saying it’s lower, I’m just saying it’s different.

Will Beaman  1:13:32

“Oh, look at that one. She’s so stupid. Oh, wow look at that. She’s doesn’t even know she’s on a TV show.” That’s my gawking onlooker voice. But yeah, so maybe to frame the kind of different themes that we want to get into. I think I really want to just spell out this negative approach of ruling out a bunch of things without positing a specific point. Right, which I think is where that article kind of falls short, in my opinion. Because there’s not a specific thing that the rehearsals are for, or there’s not a specific read on a character or there’s not like a specific object, that must mean that the rehearsals are showing that no matter how much you try, it’s meaningless.

Charlotte Tavan  1:14:45

Yeah, like he didn’t go in with some idea of what TV should be or what relationships should be. He just went with it and decided to find out. Which is not nihilistic. It’s like exploratory.

Will Beaman  1:15:08

Right, that’s such a good word. Yeah. And so tying this to an earlier Money On The Left content, especially from our collaborator, Scott Ferguson, has talked a lot about the negative or apophatic mode. Apophatic being kind of a theological corollary of negative as he’s using it. But so basically, this idea of a negative or apophatic mode of criticism is, you know, this gets contrasted with basically a positive or theological kind of corollary of this is cataphatic tradition, which is about basically stating positive truths. Right. So the show is about this. Whereas the negative method is more just about showing what it’s not over and over again, and sort of, in philosophy, I mean, the kind of very classic example of somebody who performs a negative methodology would be Socrates, right? Who likes to have these long conversations with people where he pretends that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he just asks them questions that show that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Charlotte Tavan  1:16:29

Like Nathan

Will Beaman  1:16:30

Literally like Nathan.

Charlotte Tavan  1:16:31

Like he literally does that in his early shows. Do you know what I mean?

Will Beaman  1:16:35

Totally.

Charlotte Tavan  1:16:35

He’s just like, “oh, so like, you drink your grandson’s piss? Okay.”

Will Beaman  1:16:41

Yeah, that’s so funny. Because probably there was like a half hour of build up to where that would make sense in the show to like, ask somebody.

Charlotte Tavan  1:16:52

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:16:56

But like, that’s what Socrates does, though. Like, 30 minutes into a dialogue, people are like, “I guess fish do live in the water.” And it’s like, “but do not ducks also live in water?” Whatever. But yeah, so like one reading of what Socrates is doing, which some of his contemporaries found really annoying, and they actually put him to death because he was so annoying. So there’s something to this probably. But he gets parodied by Aristophanes in this dialogue, The Clouds, as like, basically just this nihilistic troll who is just asking a bunch of dumb questions and coming up with increasingly stupid answers for no reason other than just basically because he’s a grifter. That actually is what the argument against him is that he’s corrupting the young men of Athens. Right?

Charlotte Tavan  1:18:04

He’s a huckster!

Will Beaman  1:18:04

Yeah, he has followers that he’s fooling with his non-positive dialogues.

Charlotte Tavan  1:18:05

He’s like a 4chan Moderator.

Will Beaman  1:18:05

Jesus Christ. But yeah, whereas I think the idea for us, and certainly, without getting into Socrates, because that really was just like a throwaway example, but there’s a lot of different traditions that read different things into him. But for us, I think we want to say that, okay, yes, there’s not some kind of positive truth that the dialogues are leading to, but there is a sort of truth that he’s kind of playing out by showing that it can’t be named directly, right? Or maybe, if you can point to it, it can only be by analogy. And I think that one of the things that we want to say, which is going to come out in a lot of the different themes that we talk about in this show is that Nathan’s constant undermining his own premises, and adding things, and stuff like that, is building towards and especially as we get to Episode Six, it really does build towards some really deep truths. I’m thinking of this conversation that he has with this child’s mother because the child actor was in the show, and he worries that the child was taking the show too seriously, and he’s asking the mom “but how do you know that the kid will be okay?” And she kind of gives us sort of a negative or like, not positive answer. Right? Which is just a kind of a “I just know,” and it’s sort of like “I have to know,” right? Because that’s what being a parent is.

Charlotte Tavan  1:20:15

I just find anyone who feels that show is nihilistic, I just find it hard to believe that they watched the final episode to be honest. It really becomes so earnest and he does state some positives, like, because he does, he says, “forgiveness is in the eyes of somebody else.”

Will Beaman  1:20:33

Yeah.

Charlotte Tavan  1:20:33

Like, he is trying to find meaning. That’s like, really obvious to me. I don’t know.

Will Beaman  1:20:39

Yeah. And interestingly, “forgiveness is in the eyes of somebody else” is like him saying, “I don’t know what forgiveness is.”

Charlotte Tavan  1:20:47

Exactly, yeah. It’s in the eyes of everyone.

Will Beaman  1:20:51

Like, he’s positing something that’s not positive. Right? It’s a risk, right? It’s like a risk that you have to take, because, ultimately, it’s not fully in your hands, right? Whether you’ll be forgiven, whether the kid will turn out okay, whether the rehearsal will go well.

Charlotte Tavan  1:21:12

Whether the claw takes your pants off and exposes you to a bunch of children…

Will Beaman  1:21:17

While a police officer stands by ready to arrest you, making you officially a child molester. But yeah, let’s talk about that kind of arc, maybe? Yeah. So the first thing that I think I wanted to talk about is this distinction between work and leisure that is kind of blurred in the show. And in The Rehearsal, it’s kind of interesting, also, going back to this idea of acting as being a sort of, like, middle position between working and not working. Right? You see in the show that Nathan’s internal monologue and his, I guess, external acting continues across all these different settings, and across all these different roles. So it’ll be, “cut. the scene is over.” And then we follow Nathan into the editing room, where he walks into a room that’s full of a bunch of people, and he’s all anxious, and he’s trying to manage a social situation, right?

Charlotte Tavan  1:22:33

He’s got that laptop in the sling thing that everyone seems to be kind of just like…in a lot of the articles I’ve seen, they’ve used the image of him standing in a busy room full of people with the laptop strapped to his chest thing, you know what I mean? Like, so they’re trying to like, I think visually, they’re making the argument like he’s the puppet master kind of guy. That’s something they’ve really focused on rather than like the other people. Do you know what I mean?

Will Beaman  1:23:12

Yeah, totally.

Charlotte Tavan  1:23:15

They’re ignoring the agent…all of the articles just are ignoring them, he’s trying to draw attention to the infrastructure of the show and the production and stuff. And I feel like a lot of the reviews just kind of ignore that. And they’re thinking about TV the wrong way. I don’t know.

Will Beaman  1:23:30

Yeah, well, and walking around like a group of people with a laptop strapped to your chest, it is a little bit like a parody exaggeration of how we use our phones a little bit too. Right? Where it sort of is this halfway position between, it’s not quite a phone, because it’s bigger than that. And we’re associating it with him working. And it also is a little bit like what’s he working on? He’s working on these like neurotic flowcharts that he’s scrolling through during the conversation and stuff like that. But, yeah, so I don’t know, I think it’s on the one hand, it’s taking the phone more seriously, as an…

Charlotte Tavan  1:24:17

Yeah, thinking about that, like, if that was just him with a phone it would look completely different. Different vibe.

Will Beaman  1:24:21

Right. Yeah. Which I think in a certain way, this is getting us a little bit at like, you could look at this a different way and see, like a very common critique of neoliberalism, right, which is that you’re always on. You’re always having to, you know, monitor social media, monitor your LinkedIn, gather credentials, and use apps 24/7. And so you’re kind of being controlled that way. And in a way that’s true. Obviously, like there is something to that. But I also think that this is an extension of his kind of neurotic process of self reflection, which is a social process, right? There’s no just full interiority in this show. Interiority is always, how should I act? Right? Or how did that go? It’s not even grounded in anything particular, it just is kind of engaged in the world.

Charlotte Tavan  1:25:28

This bit of the article that’s like “Nathan (if not Fielder himself) spends almost all of The Rehearsal flopping around trying to feel and experience the world in a real way.” That’s like, what all of us are doing.

Will Beaman  1:25:40

Yeah, right.

Charlotte Tavan  1:25:41

Like that’s literally the best you can do.

Will Beaman  1:25:46

Yeah, in a certain way, right. Like he is showing a kind of feeling of falseness, or an authenticity that we can all relate to.

Charlotte Tavan  1:26:00

Yeah, it doesn’t feel like we’re not experiencing the world in the right way. Like, with enough joy or emotion.

Will Beaman  1:26:08

And whatever that phrase that you read, like, flopping around the world aimlessly or whatever, like, that’s me, like, I think I totally am, yeah. Like a fish on the deck of a boat constantly.

Charlotte Tavan  1:26:21

Like a goldfish Pokemon.

Will Beaman  1:26:26

Seaking. No, Magikarp!

Charlotte Tavan  1:26:28

Magikarp, yeah! bloop bloop Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:26:37

So yeah, Nathan has this internal monologue. And kind of external acting that the monologue is related to, and that is never off, right? And that’s a common criticism of neoliberalism. And in some way, I think that what neoliberalism gets critiqued for, I think that that also is kind of like he is being critical of it, right? Like, he’s showing that this kind of need to manage everything, even though it is sort of what we’re all always doing all the time. It doesn’t need to be anxious.  Like, it doesn’t need to be as anxious as it is. I don’t know, I feel like a part of this, that we haven’t talked about, is that there’s a coming of age theme here. The show, as it goes on, of course, is like passing all these milestones in his own kind of development. And, at one point, he has his parents come, and he’s practicing being a parent, and he’s learning and he’s learning acting from kids. And he’s learning parenting from other people, right. From other actors.

Charlotte Tavan  1:28:06

He’s reflecting on his previous serious relationship as well.

Will Beaman  1:28:11

Yeah. And I think it’s interesting that scene in the last episode, or that problem in the last episode, where it’s unclear whether the child fully understands that this is a performance and that Nathan is not really his dad, and Nathan worries that that’s going to be exploitative. Right? Like, that’s a coming of age moment for the child. But also what that coming of age moment is, is teaching the child what acting is. In a certain way, that’s what adulthood is, right? Is acting. And this kind of neurotic, like, I feel like there must have been times, also, where people told Nathan that like, you need to grow up or something. Right. When he gets ringed out by that actress who plays his rehearsal co parent or something. And she’s like, you know, “you’re never gonna feel anything that’s real…This is just what you do all day?”

Charlotte Tavan  1:29:15

The one who pretended to be Angela, yeah, yeah. That was harsh, yeah.

Will Beaman  1:29:25

So there’s this ambiguous question of work and leisure, and is he really acting? Is he not acting? But then there’s also these ambiguities as to, whether or not he’s acting, who is he acting for? Right, like, is he the director? Or is he in someone else’s rehearsal when he’s in his own rehearsal? There’s like a, I’m trying to think of some kind of examples of like, I do think it’s not fully clear exactly like, it’s not like there’s just a director at the top of everything where he is the puppet master or something. Because he is also like the client of the show.

Charlotte Tavan  1:30:21

Totally. I think the “Finding Frances” episode kind of brings that up because he’s kind of like going along with somebody else’s project.

Will Beaman  1:30:33

Yeah, that’s the perfect example. Yeah.

Charlotte Tavan  1:30:36

Yeah, he wasn’t like pulling the strings there. I mean, it was obviously to a degree, but a lot of it was just like being passive.

Will Beaman  1:30:46

To the degree that we all are, and maybe this can get us into this question of money, and just kind of how the show treats money, right? Because at first glance, it doesn’t seem like it’s really a show about money, except kind of implicitly, I would argue in a lot of ways. But one of them is that a lot of memes that you see online about the show are like me if I had Nathan Fielder’s budget…

Charlotte Tavan  1:31:15

Oh, yeah. And he knows. He comments, he makes jokes about his huge budget. Like it’s a thing.

Will Beaman  1:31:25

I’m reminded, also, of that plotline in the first episode where he has like a fake blog called thrifty boy that’s all about “here are free things that you can do in the city,” and there actually is a whole team behind that blog, right? But the blog also ends up organizing a free meeting that happens in a park between two characters. A meeting that happens at a bar. Basically not totally free activities. But like, as he says, thrifty, right? And activities that are paid for by somebody, in the sense of like, if you meet somebody at a park, there are people who are paid to maintain the park.

Charlotte Tavan  1:32:20

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:32:22

If you meet somebody at a bar, that bar was built. And it costs a lot more money to build it than your drinks cost. And so there’s this kind of interesting way in which, on the one hand, to be thrifty is to be using infrastructures that cost a lot of money to do right, but they’re infrastructures that didn’t cost you money, specifically.

Charlotte Tavan  1:32:53

Well, that’s like the whole joke about Nathan For You, as well. Do you know what I mean? He’s like, “Oh, we’re gonna make your business money.” But then all of his solutions actually cost like a shit ton of somebody else’s money. Like usually sometimes his or do you know what I mean? You know what’s a really funny example of that? So an episode in Nathan For You is probably like one of my favorite ones, which is the tax rebate collection scheme episode, which is where he has this idea to make this this independent petrol station money by saying “oh, we’re the lowest gas prices in America, but like put after rebate in the fine print.”

Will Beaman  1:33:41

Right.

Charlotte Tavan  1:33:42

And then, to collect the rebate, you have to go through this insane process where you have to mail it, and the only mailbox is at the top of this nearby mountain, and you have to hike up it, and it’s like an overnight trip, and he tells all these riddles and stuff. And then it’s like, he expects nobody to take the rebate, but then like, I think like four people end up staying overnight. And he keeps on having interviews with them, like reality shows style, where it has a confessional, but then underneath will have their name and then “rebate collection amount,” and they’re all like spending 24 hours of their lives trying to get back like $11 or something. But what happens is like, it kind of turns into like a divorce counseling session. Do you know what I mean? Like, he’s created this infrastructure. And it just got filled…it’s these people just talking about their relationships and bonding, and then the next day he’s like, “there never was a rebate. This was just like bonding.” And they were all like, “yeah, that’s what we thought.” We were just in it for lifelong friendships, but there’s something to that. All of this money created this infrastructure that looks useless. The joke is like, obviously this is not saving money in that sense, because they’re all like, spending 24 hours of their lives trying to get back like 14 or 11 dollars or whatever. It’s not like going to work for the business, obviously, because nobody’s going to facilitate that on a constant basis. But it still ended up serving a purpose for people that isn’t usually, formally accounted for in that way.

Will Beaman  1:35:49

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, even just taking that back to just the MMT kind of main point that gets made, right, is that money, in its most bare form, just as credit that’s created out of nothing: it’s not profitable. Right? Like, it’s not actually about making a profit. Credit is a gift, right? You just mark something on the paper, and you say, “here you go.” And so in a way, even though we do have all of these neoliberal governments that want to push austerity, and so they insist that every piece of infrastructure has to somehow make money in order to justify existing or something like that. I mean, when you take a wider view, it’s so kind of, I mean, that’s just like the misanthropic person that you know, who’s like trying to nickel and dime arbitrarily about, “well, I, you know, I’m not gonna help clean this, because, you know, an hour ago, I did this other thing.” That, like, maybe is true, but it’s also there’s a way in which it’s subjective, right, and it’s missing a lot of ongoing social dependence anyway that it’s already nested within. So you can have infrastructure that’s made not particularly to make money, right, it just costs money. And it just costs money in order to be funny. But then, also, you don’t know what it’s being used for, necessarily, right. So like, there’s an intention, but then you can’t actually police what people talk about in your cafe, or like, what role it plays in people’s lives.

Charlotte Tavan  1:37:58

Totally. Like, for example, this is like a public square around where I live, well in like a more gentrified neighborhood. And it’s like, supposed to be like a piazza style square, but like, all these young people use it for skateboarding. And then some people are angry about that, they’re like, “this is public money. I don’t want it to be used for skateboarding.” But it’s like, that is what it’s being used for, right? And “that doesn’t help our property prices, that doesn’t help our, like, you know…”

Will Beaman  1:38:32

Yeah. And it becomes a little bit similar to copyright sorts of arguments that people make. That’s like, “well, that’s so similar to something that I did where my intention wasn’t for it to be used or for it to inspire you to do something derivative of it, or something like that,” But, actually, to use something or consume something or whatever, right. Like, that’s no straightforward thing, right? There’s an element of kind of creative imitation of what you’re supposed to do with it, that is also a little bit freestyling and what you want to do with it, as well. Which, if we’re talking about political economy, right, like, it’s the whole issue with “use values” for things is that these are, just in terms of the semiotics and stuff, these things have multiple purposes and meanings and the sign can be interpreted in a lot of different ways and go into a lot of different things. And then on the other hand, you can have, like in the first episode of The Rehearsal, Nathan wants to get…what’s the name of the character in that first episode, the trivia guy?

Charlotte Tavan  1:40:05

Kor. Like K-O-R.

Will Beaman  1:40:09

Right, right. I remember that. Yeah. Or yeah, like in the first episode, Nathan is trying to teach Kor, his client, the answers in this trivia game without Kor knowing that that’s what he’s doing. And so there’s this whole thing where Nathan is arranging these hangouts and walks in the park and using all this mix between infrastructure, and then also paid actors who are like plants around who will feed him information, you know, randomly tell him where the world’s tallest building is. And like that kind of thing. It’s this ambiguous thing where Nathan has multiple intentions for the outing. Right? And Kor doesn’t necessarily know any of them. And he certainly doesn’t know that he’s being fed answers, right. And Nathan is taking a little bit of a risk there. But that’s also a risk that is kind of an unavoidable risk, right? Like, in the sense that you never know what someone else’s wants or intentions are when you go to hang out with them. Or like there’s all kinds of ways in which that ambiguity of like, if we’re hanging out and there’s two people and one of them is like, “Oh, is this a date?” And the other person isn’t sure that that’s a date, right? Like, that’s a similar kind of anxiety?

Charlotte Tavan  1:41:44

Yeah, totally.

Will Beaman  1:41:48

And it’s not like dishonesty isn’t implicated as a potential problem there, right? Like, it could be that this was supposed to be a date, and one person is gaslighting the other person. Or it could be that this was very clearly not a date. And one person is trying to project that onto the situation. Should probably have named that one first so I don’t sound like an incel. And then yes, sometimes it’s not a date.

Charlotte Tavan  1:42:23

Mostly, you get friend-zoned.

Will Beaman  1:42:33

But yeah, there’s this kind of constant question of is Kor able to fully consent to being in Nathan’s show? Is he in Nathan’s show when they’re just going on these walks? Is he in Nathan’s show when they’re off the clock or whatever? And ultimately, who’s paying for it? Right? Who’s footing the bill? And all of these are questions that have a lot of different answers, depending on how you look at them. Right? Like, the money is coming from a lot of different places. There’s something that people are trying to get out of being on the show that will kind of give them what money can give them. Right, which is kind of access to the world in a certain way. Yeah. So like, there’s all these moments where it’s not clear exactly like whose production is this necessarily?

Charlotte Tavan  1:43:35

Yeah, the word production, it’s interesting in this and it’s like a big theme. I think it’s a big theme in all of his shows, like, just in the obvious way, which is that he’s always talking about behind the scenes or not so behind the scenes, like production, right? It’s being played, who is doing what we’re, what infrastructure is there, but then also like, yeah, like, who is producing the show?

Will Beaman  1:44:03

Right there political economy questions of production, too.

Charlotte Tavan  1:44:07

Like production, as kind of creative or monetary provisioning, which is like not being done by Nathan, necessarily.

Will Beaman  1:44:20

Right? It’s including Nathan, but it’s also including all these other infrastructures that like, if acting as a middle position between working and just kind of free time or interior reflection or something like that. I feel like this broader sense of production that includes both paid actors and people who are walking by and parks that just happens to be created and like all of these things, we’re getting at something that’s a little, again, less positive and more apophatic society as production. Right? And like as a kind of a microcosm of just heterogeneity, right? Like, you know, different jobs and non jobs and actors and directors and you know, everybody walking around being a director and an actor and some people not knowing each other. And it’s in that context, with all of these different registers of production, that that experience of acting continues. Right, like Nathan is acting as a director, and he’s acting as an actor, and he’s acting as the editor.

Charlotte Tavan  1:45:48

He’s taking actions and making decisions.

Will Beaman  1:45:53

Yeah, and that acting versus actions is so kind of interesting, too, because I feel like when we talk about actions, we’re thinking about, like, doing a thing, right? In like, such a specific, it’s like a physics metaphor.

Charlotte Tavan  1:46:08

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:46:09

Like a force pushing something. Like that metaphor for a will being exercised. But when we talk about acting, instead of taking action, acting is much more passive and ambiguous than that.

Charlotte Tavan  1:46:26

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:46:27

Like, it’s not just reducible to somebody exerting their will. Right?

Charlotte Tavan  1:46:33

“Action this memo!”

Will Beaman  1:46:38

Yeah, because there’s a bigger question that acting involves, which is, how am I going to exert my will? If we even do want to stick with that language of exerting a will. That still has to be decided and given form and…

Charlotte Tavan  1:46:57

And usually by other people, as well.

Will Beaman  1:46:59

Yeah, by a whole production, right. Like, that’s a collective effort.]

Charlotte Tavan  1:47:03

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:47:05

In all these ways, yeah. And so similarly, I think that there’s a narrow political economy definition of production that’s like what happens in the workplace. And then we kind of expand that more with like, okay, and then we also talk about social reproduction, although often social reproduction is framed as kind of what happens at home to reproduce the workplace.

Charlotte Tavan  1:47:35

Exactly.

Will Beaman  1:47:36

Where everything is still kind of centering primary production, and then kind of the secondary appendages or something like that.

Charlotte Tavan  1:47:43

Yeah. Or concepts like unproductive labor, which is, again, it’s so reductive.

Will Beaman  1:47:48

Yeah, right. It’s that question of: productive towards what? And in this show, it’s unclear what things are being productive towards because everybody has different goals, and they don’t know where it’s gonna go. And so I think that maybe the richer definitions of production, you already brought up audio and video production, which I think is really important here because the timing isn’t clear. Like when you’re watching a TV show, you don’t know when it was edited. The acting you do see, but you don’t see the process of what was cut out, when it was cut, what’s on the B-roll. There’s all this stuff that happens off screen, and not just off screen, but you don’t even know when it happens. I feel like the temporal ambiguity and murkiness of “when did things happen?” Just as it unfolds, it implicates more and more things from longer and longer times ago, and like for more and more distant places, and it’s dizzying, and it’s overwhelming, right? But again, following this negative kind of apophatic method, the point is not to come to a positive answer of when was this produced?

Charlotte Tavan  1:49:22

Yeah, like in the last episode of Nathan For You “Finding Frances”, it opens with him doing the DVD commentary for the previous episodes of the show, in this like, behind the scenes way. Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:49:38

Right. Totally. Yeah. And he’s always keeping that layer alive and ambiguous in the show where that layer of editing and of him being a showrunner talking about the show that he’s making right now. Where it’s not really clear. Like in film studies, we’ll say what is the diegesis of the film, like the world of the film that the characters live in, as opposed to the world that we live in. So a diegetic soundtrack would be a soundtrack that actually is playing from a radio in the frame, whereas an actual soundtrack that we hear would not be that. And so he’s implicating the show in our world by talking to us in the world that is not of the show, right? Like he’s talking to us during the production process. And I mean, maybe one definition of what the diegesis of a show is it’s like, the diegesis is not the production process in its fullest sense, I guess. But even then it’s kind of an unstable term, right? Because acting is also part of a production process, even if it’s like, the real thing, or whatever. Anyway, TV shows aren’t our real life, that’s not an interesting thing for me to come to, I guess.

Charlotte Tavan  1:51:20

Lots of people are very interested in that with Nathan For You, though, like, if you go on message boards, everyone is very concerned about how real elements of it were, who is acting, who is not acting, and stuff. l think that does speak to how open he leaves those questions.

Will Beaman  1:51:43

Totally, yeah. And then I guess another meaning of production is like a theater, right? Like, there’s a theater meaning of production that is, I would say, a little bit like that audio video thing, in the sense that a theatrical production includes what’s on stage and what’s off stage. Right? Like, if you say, I saw the production of something, you’re not just talking about, like, I saw a bunch of scenes. You’re talking about “I saw an orchestration of this play,” right? And there’s also a way where in theater, and certainly there are theater genres and traditions…you think of like, The Rocky Horror Picture Show where the audience is part of the production in a way that they really kind of call attention to, right? Where there’s kind of calling and response and that kind of thing. But here also, I feel like there’s all kinds of ways where we, as an audience, are part of the show, too, a little bit. Because certainly in this reality show form, the characters are anxious about how they will look to us?

Charlotte Tavan  1:53:16

Yeah. And he’s anxious about, yeah, how he looks to us. He’s constantly, it’s like he’s defending himself to the audience, or like, trying to explain his motivations to the audience constantly.

Will Beaman  1:53:31

Yeah, it’s like a long confessional. It’s like production in this very broad sense of the word that’s irreducible to the will of the director or the will of a boss, right? Because it kind of refers to everything a little bit. Even if it’s not referring to everything in a flat way, like we’re all on the clock, and we can never leave or something like that. In a certain way, it’s like nothing but everybody not being quite on the clock. Right? Where he’s anxious is, you know, “I wasn’t sure if she was really here for the show, or just to be on vacation.” Right? There’s an anxiety that people can never actually fully be at work. And maybe that’s a good thing, right? Yeah, these are all really kind of open questions.

Charlotte Tavan  1:54:32

Yeah. Like, he’s like attempting to survey her at certain points, but, you know, realizes that it’s kind of pointless.

Will Beaman  1:54:41

Right. Which is then of course ironic because all that we’re doing as audience members is surveilling her.

Charlotte Tavan  1:54:48

Yeah.

Will Beaman  1:54:49

And surveilling him and surveilling everything. And he’s in the world surveilling people too, right? I think it’s interesting that he’s a spectator in the frame a lot of times, watching a conversation play out and then interjecting. Yeah, I feel like we’ve said a lot and this might be a good place to start wrapping up. I’m not sure how we want to like…

Charlotte Tavan  1:55:17

Well, I think we can just leave it open a la Nathan Fielder.

Will Beaman  1:55:21

Ooo, I like that. Yeah. Let’s leave this open. That concludes today’s rehearsal.

Charlotte Tavan  1:55:28

Yeah. Thank you so much.

Will Beaman  1:55:31

Thank you.

Charlotte Tavan  1:55:32

This has been such a fun project. And also we love you Nathan, if you ever hear this.

Internet for the People with Ben Tarnoff

Money on the Left is joined by Ben Tarnoff—tech worker, writer, and cofounder of Logic Magazine—about his book Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso Books, 2022). In his book, Tarnoff provides a comprehensive history and a critical topology of this thing we have come to know, love, hate, swear off, get on, and grow bored of: the Internet. Throughout our conversation, Tarnoff displaces the haphazard history of the Internet that circulates often-unquestioned in our foggy collective memories, helping us to see more clearly how the Internet came to be “so broken.” Tarnoff refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, he evaluates the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning. He does so, moreover, in order to advocate for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. Ultimately, Tarnoff fashions a vision for the future of the Internet as a de-privatized, public space for collective flourishing, which is to say, an “Internet for the People.”

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Ben Tarnoff, welcome to Money on the Left.

Ben Tarnoff: Scott, thanks so much for having me.

Scott Ferguson: We’ve asked you to join us today to discuss your recently published book, Internet for the People: The Fight for Our Digital Future (Verso, 2022). The bulk of the book tells a synoptic, critical history of the internet: How it came to be, and how it came to be–as you note–so broken. 

You tell this story in an unexpected way. You not only eschew the fallen redemption narratives of Web3 and blockchain libertarianism, you also proceed with a set of assumptions and values that very much complement the approach to public money politics at Money on the Left. Specifically, your project refuses to accept privatization or the profit motive as given or inevitable. Instead, you evaluate the history of privatization and profiteering from the perspective of public provisioning while advocating for heterogeneous public alternatives and cooperative futures. To start us off, how would you characterize most hegemonic histories of the internet today? What do they tend to overlook or get wrong? How does your approach substantially differ? And why does this matter for building what you call an internet for the people?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s an interesting question, Scott, because I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about where the internet comes from, if I had to think about it. I think there are pieces of the story that the person on the street would know. I think folks are vaguely familiar with the idea that the internet came out of US military research. I think the more recent history of the internet, the rise of Google, Facebook, Uber and so on, may be familiar to them depending on how old they are. 

But I’m not sure there is a hegemonic story about how all those things fit together, that there is a continuous single narrative of the internet’s creation, its development, its commercialization. There is some good scholarly work on these subjects, which I draw on in the book. But I really have thought of my intervention as not so much telling people what they get wrong about the story of the internet but giving them that story for the first time (in many cases) or at least the story as a single story, knitting together some of the bits and pieces they may have floating around, half-remembered in their head, trying to bring it all together into a story with a beginning, middle and end.

Scott Ferguson: Perhaps to clarify what I was up to with that initial question: I think that floating, underarticulated narrative or bits of narrative that are around I tend to associate with some sense that the government and the military were involved at the beginning, but then this almost tabula rasa, where the web became a libertine, freely associating, extra-legal, extra-political utopia. And then Web 2.0 comes along, and these major corporations take over and ruin that utopia. And then that licenses a certain hegemonic project today, which is trying to imagine a Web3 that is returning to that wild west utopia, but now with private property laws and more order. That’s what I had in mind, which maybe isn’t the totally hegemonic, or the full story, or not everybody believes that. But I guess that’s what I was gesturing towards.

Ben Tarnoff: I think there’s a generational aspect here: Folks who remember the web of the 1990s in some form are likely to hold the types of views that you describe, Scott. I would characterize it as a form of internet nostalgia. I talk a bit about internet nostalgia in the book, and I think it’s important to note that nostalgia has been a component of how people have experienced the internet from the very beginning. People have felt nostalgic for the internet of the mid-1980s, the early 1990s. All of us feel nostalgic for some era of the internet and I happen to be of the age where I do feel nostalgic for the so-called “Open Web” of the 1990s, the world of GeoCities and so on.

In the book, I try to treat nostalgia fairly because there is something real there. There is an accurate perception of the fact that the internet has changed quite dramatically. And I think we could say, in some ways for the worse. But it also can give us a somewhat distorted view of how the different periods of the internet fit together. For instance, to take the era of the so-called “open web”: we still have the open web. In fact, the openness of the web is what has facilitated the rise of the so-called platforms. Google, to take an example, is able to sprinkle its advertising software throughout the web precisely because the web is open. So, the open parts of the open web are what make the closed parts closed, if that makes sense. The open and the closed exist, if you like, in a dialectical relationship with one another. This is a left podcast so I can say words like dialectical. I want to encourage us to take that view of internet nostalgia where again, I don’t want to be dismissive or condescending to people who have these views because I have my own private set of longings for a different internet, but they don’t always give us a complete picture of how these different things fit together.

I should also say that any project to build a better internet, which is partly what motivated the decision to write this book, my commitment to that project, can’t go in reverse. There is no way to reverse the privatization of the internet, for instance. What we need to do is to come up with a creative reimagining of the internet that takes it forward, we can’t simply put the gears in reverse as much as we might like to.

William Saas: I want to sit with that for just a second. I think the argument that there is no reversal of the privatization of the internet–that’s a very profound observation that may be troubling for some listeners. I want to ask you to expand on that. One might imagine a world where the internet goes down, and there’s some kind of catastrophe. Is there not a clean slate? There’s no reversing the privatization? Maybe you can unpack that for us a little bit more? 

Ben Tarnoff: What I mean by that is that privatization created the modern internet and that process was a creative process. It wasn’t simply a matter of enclosure. Enclosure is a metaphor that is very popular among Marxists, among those on the left, and has been increasingly applied to digital spaces, and there may be contexts in which it’s appropriate. But it would not be accurate to say, precisely, that the private sector enclosed the internet, which had formerly been a commons, which would suggest that all we need to do is to break down the fences erected by those bad landowners, as in rural England, and reclaim the commons for ourselves. 

 That’s not what happens. Of course, the internet, as I’m sure we’ll discuss, was created by the public sector, specifically by the US military, and its development would not have been possible without billions of dollars of public money. And indeed, the private sector did take over the internet without paying the public sector any compensation. However, it didn’t simply inherit it and keep it as it is, because what it was taking over was essentially an academic research network. It was relatively small by today’s standards. It was relatively unusable by today’s standards.

It had to be quite significantly developed and crucially, it had to be renovated for the purpose of profit maximization. Privatization is not simply this passive process whereby public assets pass into private hands and that’s that. In the case of the internet, privatization is a creative process. It involves remaking the internet into what we have today. So that’s what I mean when I say we can’t simply reverse that process because the internet as it exists today is a product of that process. Something, I think, more imaginative, is required.

Scott Ferguson: Before we dive into the details of the history of the internet you tell, would you mind first sketching out the structure or topology of the contemporary internet, as you do in your book, I think it’d be really helpful, especially for our less tech-savvy listeners to sketch this out and define some of the key terms you unpack in the book such as “stack,” pipes” and “platforms.”

Ben Tarnoff: The “stack” is a metaphor that would be familiar to folks who are in the world of computer science or software engineering, it’s a very common metaphor in the worlds of computing and networking. And in particular, it’s applied frequently to the internet. Now, my take on the “stack” is a bit reductive, it’s a simplified schema of the “stack.” I split the “stack” into two layers. A “stack” is really just a set of layers piled on top of one another, like a house, you can think of the floors in a house. 

In my simplified schema, I’m talking about two layers: what I call the “pipes,” which is basically the physical infrastructure of the internet, the fiber optic cables, the routers that are required to get a packet of data from one place to another. And here the companies involved are firms like Verizon and AT&T–internet service providers–as well as companies that operate the deeper networks of the internet. And then when we move up the “stack,” we get to a different layer, which is inhabited by what people often call the “platforms.” I take issue with that term, which is a bit of pedantry we can get into later if you like, but this is essentially the application layer of the internet. This is where the apps and the sites are. This is where we experience the internet. 

Splitting the internet into two helps organize my book, it’s literally the two sections of my book. But there’s also a chronological story implied here, because my book is mostly about not just how the internet was created but how it was privatized. And privatization begins at the bottom of the “stack” with the “pipes” and then it moves up the “stack” to the application layer. There’s a spatial metaphor, which helps us understand how the internet fits together. But there’s also a historical aspect because privatization ascends from the bottom to the top of the “stack.”

William Saas: So where did it all begin? How did this thing we call the internet get started? Where was the first pipe laid? And what does it look like at the outset? And if we could think also about the original vision, values and ideals behind the internet at its origins.

Ben Tarnoff: To talk about where the internet comes from, we probably have to say very briefly what the internet is. We discussed the “stack,” which gives us an architectural overview of the internet, but it doesn’t give us the ontology, so to speak, it doesn’t really give us what is the internet. The internet is fundamentally a language. It’s a language that lets different computer networks talk to one another, and thus interconnect to form a network of networks. What this means specifically is that the internet is a protocol, a set of protocols. And a protocol is basically a bunch of rules for how computers should communicate. 

The very first internet protocol was created by US military researchers in the mid-1970s. And through a series of experiments, they figure out that this internet protocol is capable of stitching together different networks from around the world into a single network of networks. And why this matters, why they’re doing it–the military pretext for these experiments–is to project computing power from the United States into the battlefield. 

Now, what does that mean more specifically? What it means is that there are large mainframes, million-dollar machines, very heavy, very expensive computers, located in places like northern Virginia, that are capable of running computationally intensive programs of the kind that might be useful to soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam. The vision is that those soldiers who are deployed in places like Vietnam could have a small, less powerful computer in their Jeep, for instance, and communicate wirelessly with that mainframe in northern Virginia through the internet protocol and maybe get some output from an application that helps them gain an upper hand on the battlefield. 

That’s the vision for the internet. That’s why it gets funded by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. Now that’s not actually what the internet is used for. Once they have this protocol, the Pentagon realizes that it could be useful for interconnecting various computer networks they have within the Department of Defense. They have various computer networks, and it would be useful for various reasons for these networks to be able to communicate with one another, and they use this new internet protocol to do so. Over the course of the 1980s, the internet goes from being a protocol to a place. It actually begins to describe a distinct set of networks that have been interconnected with the internet protocol, which in turn becomes the internet protocols. 

By the early 1990s, the federal government continues to control the internet. But it’s passed from military to civilian hands. By the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation, which is a federal agency tasked with supporting basic research, controls the internet. In particular, it controls the main backbone, which is really the main artery of the internet at that time, something called NSFNET. In the early to mid-1990s, the National Science Foundation takes steps to rapidly and comprehensively privatize these “pipes” of the internet. 

It’s important to note that privatization was the plan all along, the federal government never had any intention of running the internet indefinitely. But the timetable gets moved up because there’s so much demand–unexpected demand–by people who want to get online. At the time, the internet is mostly for academic researchers. But things like the rise of the World Wide Web, the rise of graphical web browsing, is making the internet more popular. So, demand is soaring, capacity is limited, and the National Science Foundation feels that privatization has to happen sooner rather than later in order to stimulate the type of private investment that would be needed to create capacity to meet that expanded demand.

The crucial date is April 1995, at which point the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone, the NSFNET, and the private sector takes over. Crucially, this takeover happens with no compensation, with no conditions, with no enduring public or non-commercial foothold in the new internet. In other words, privatization of the “pipes” in the 1990s takes a particularly extreme and comprehensive form. And this is really due to extensive industry influence over the process. Telecoms have a lot of money to make from the new internet, from selling access to it, and they don’t want any interference in their profit-making prerogative. 

There were alternative proposals floating around at the time, I talk about them in the book. There were always ideas of how the internet could be organized differently that would not have ceded the “pipes” so completely to the private sector. But crucially, no social movement existed to make those ideas active and to overcome industry opposition. This story is really what I tell in the first part of my book, because privatization was not an event, it was a process. And this is actually just the first part of the process. This is the privatization that begins at the bottom of the “stack” in the basement of the internet, if you like, with the “pipes.” The next piece of that story will be privatization moving up the “stack.”

Scott Ferguson: How would you situate this within the political and ideological climate of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s? I think of familiar stories about the rise of Reaganism and then Clintonism being a neoliberal re-articulation of the Democratic Party and its platform. What are those broader changes doing to shape privatization as a process of the internet?

Ben Tarnoff: The ideological backdrop here does matter. You have Clinton on the one hand, whose politics I think will be pretty well known to your listeners. And then Newt Gingrich’s Republicans in Congress. Gingrich, as some of your listeners may not know, actually had a turn as a poster boy of techno libertarianism. He was interviewed quite favorably in Wired magazine, presents himself as a forward-thinking cyber netizen… so many silly words from that era.

Scott Ferguson: We have no silly words. 

Ben Tarnoff: Nothing that will embarrass us in 20 years.

Scott Ferguson: We’re good. 

Ben Tarnoff: Ideologically, there’s a lot of alignment around the idea that the market is the best mechanism for organizing outcomes, that the private sector should lead not just in the realm of the internet, but in all realms of social life. And that certainly helps create the conditions for industry lobbying to be particularly effective, and to close down political space for alternatives to emerge. I think there is a confluence of factors that conspire to ensure that privatization takes a particularly extreme form.

William Saas: On your telling, it seems like this was almost inevitable, given the historical factors operative at the time. You’ve got Gingrich hanging out with Alvin Toffler and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. We’re not going to claim this for the public–that’s communist and communism is over. It’s just in the air.

Ben Tarnoff: Absolutely. And I would add that one of the things that makes the fall of the Soviet Union so significant, is that it ends the justification, or an important justification for industrial policy through the Pentagon of the kind that had really laid the foundation for the internet. I mean, the internet is created by DARPA. DARPA, as the Pentagon’s R&D arm, is created in the aftermath of Sputnik, when the US policy-making class has a collective freakout and figures, they’re losing not just the space race but science and technology is falling behind the Soviets. So that demands significant federal investments in science. That rationale disappears after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, for a number of reasons, privatization emerges in a particularly comprehensive form.

William Saas: I recently read with some students an essay by David Graeber called “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” His argument is basically we’ve stalled out technologically, we don’t have flying cars now because all the ambition, innovation, and he calls them “poetic technologies” are channeled into this bureaucratic state, you know, R&D for military reasons, and that seems to track here. But I wonder if in those early days, and as part of that early history of the internet that you are so familiar with, were there any internal debates, discussions, alternate imaginations about the kinds of applications for the internet in a non-martial direction? Maybe some more techno-utopian ideas? Or was it all like, “let’s outfit our boys on the frontlines with the information they need?”

Ben Tarnoff: Well I’d say utopian sentiments were part of the internet from the very start. The thing about the military justification for the internet is: that’s how they got the money. But a lot of the people who are actually developing the protocols and working on different aspects of the network were not motivated by the military pretext, they may in fact have had anti-war sentiments of their own.

Many of them, when you talk to them, they’re just scientists. They thought it would be a really cool thing to do, it’d be really impressive to get these different computer networks from all over the world to start talking to one another. There’s a gee-whiz aspect that’s very motivating, which is very familiar if you know scientists. Often, it’s just the kind of sense of wonder that is motivating.

Certainly, once the internet exists as a place, as a network of networks, it’s primarily used for email. It’s primarily used for mailing lists for people to argue with one another. It’s a kind of proto social media. People are getting flamed, I don’t know if “flaming” is still a current term, or if that just become everyday internet, it’s become too normalized to even merit its own term. Certainly, when we think of the creation of online worlds, of virtual communities where people socialize with one another, that happens initially through email. Email predates the internet. Email is actually invented on ARPANET, which is an important computer network created by the Pentagon as a predecessor to the internet and one of the networks that gets linked into this network of networks. 

It’s important to note that, while the initial justification was military because they were getting money from the Pentagon, what it’s used for is basically social. The internet emerges as a social medium from the start. And in fact, the social aspect of the internet is what has endured most today. I mean, the internet of 2022 looks nothing like the internet of 1985, in terms of how you would use it, in terms of the applications, in terms of who is using it. But that social quality, that it’s being used by people to connect with one another, has endured.

Scott Ferguson: So maybe we can circle back to the story of the 90s: privatization and the turn toward the profit motive. I don’t know if you want to talk a little bit more about the privatization of the “pipes” and then the rise of the “platforms” in more detail, maybe getting into some of these flagship companies like eBay, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and more.

Ben Tarnoff: April 1995 was the date that I had mentioned earlier. And this is, again, the date at which the National Science Foundation terminates its backbone and the private sector essentially takes over the “pipes” of the internet. 1995 is important for other reasons as well, because it’s the year that the dot-com boom launches. So ’95 is the year that Netscape has its explosive IPO. Netscape, for folks who might be a bit younger–imagine not knowing what Netscape is! But in fact, there are people who don’t know Netscape. So, Netscape was the creator of the first popular graphical web browser, Netscape Navigator, and it has this very exciting IPO, in the summer of 1995. 1995 is also the year that amazon.com opens for business. And in subsequent years, tens of thousands of startups are founded, billions of dollars flow into internet companies. 

All these folks are trying to figure out, how do you make money not just from selling people access to the internet because that’s what the companies down the stack are doing. That’s what the internet service providers are doing. But how do you make money from what people do once they get online? In other words, how do you monetize not access but activity? And this turns out to be pretty challenging. 

The dot-com boom is mostly a story of companies struggling to find profitability. One company that does manage to be very profitable from the beginning is eBay, initially called auction web. I spend some time looking at eBay in the book, because to my mind, it is a really interesting example of all of the elements that would go into what we later think of as the “platform” being expressed in a primitive form in eBay in the mid-1990s. 

What are those elements? Well, eBay is a middleman. It facilitates interactions, in particular between buyers and sellers. It is a sovereign in the sense that it writes the rules for those interactions, it doesn’t just sit back and say, “you guys connect and figure it out,” it has to be intimately involved in how people connect. So, there’s a governance element that’s really important. The third piece is that it’s a maker and beneficiary of network effects. The more people interact on eBay, the more valuable eBay becomes to everyone. These are the three elements that, to my mind, distinguish eBay and help eBay leverage this social quality of the internet that we’ve been discussing, which has been a very important part of the internet from the beginning. It helps leverage the socialness of the internet and turn it towards commercial ends. 

I talk about eBay as the first community market. People are brought together in a type of community, and, particularly at the beginning, eBay uses that rhetoric very explicitly, but under the sign of capital, for the purpose of commerce. And this innovation–the creation of the community market through those three elements I described earlier–is very profitable. At a time when dot-coms are taking on a lot of venture funding, but in fact, losing a lot of money, eBay is printing money. 

As we all know, the dot-com boom collapses in 2000, 2001. Out of the ruins of that era, the so-called platforms–the big firms that still dominate the internet–begin to build these complex computational systems. Post-2001, that’s when we really see the rise of Google, the founding of Facebook, the founding of Uber, the rise of Amazon, and so on. This is when these various empires of the modern internet consolidate, and they do so, in my view, by applying the same patterns that eBay had developed as early as the mid-1990s. In most cases, that influence is not direct or conscious. But nonetheless, the building blocks of the modern platform were really discovered by eBay in the mid-1990s. 

The one piece that platforms add to the recipe, if you like, is that they are also manufacturers and monetizers of data. Data is actually the most crucial piece of the puzzle for them. If we think about those elements of the community market that I discussed before, what’s most important is that this is a space for interactions. What the so-called platforms do, what I call the online malls, ensure that all of these interactions that are happening, that are transpiring within the walls of their enclosure, if you like, are occasions for manufacturing data, and then this data can in turn be monetized in a variety of ways. 

I think the broad outlines of that story are quite familiar to people in the context of online advertising. Everything you do on Facebook creates data, which in turn can be used for the purpose of selling ads. But it’s important to note the data can be monetized in a variety of different ways. So that’s ultimately, in my view, how privatization gets pushed up the stack, they try and they fail with the dot-com period, but then they finally succeed in the aftermath of the dot-com bust with the platforms.

William Saas: If the metaphor of enclosure doesn’t work to capture the process we’re describing, are there any other metaphors that you could supply us with to help us understand? I think it does sound like a bit of enclosure but I get what you’re saying also–it’s not like there was a commons that was enclosed, it’s more complicated than that. Do we have any abstraction to encapsulate that metaphorically?

Ben Tarnoff: First a note on clarifying the term enclosure. I had just used the word enclosure in my last response, which you may have noticed, and by that I simply mean a structure with four walls. I think then there’s also the Marxist use of enclosure, which is from the Enclosure Acts in Marx’s study of primitive accumulation of a commons that is enclosed. And I think that suggests that there is something within the fence that we can reclaim, if we could only tear the fence down. That’s what I would object to, in the case of the internet. 

Marx also has this distinction between the formal and the real subsumption of labor by capital, which is the distinction between the process whereby capital inherits a labor process without reorganizing it. For instance, let’s say a subsistence farmer becomes a wage laborer, but still works on a farm. Now, he’s been absorbed into the wage relation, he no longer produces for his own consumption, he earns a wage and uses that wage to buy the necessities of life. But the way in which he works has not changed. This is what Marx would call “formal subsumption.” Now, let’s imagine a little further along: The farm is expanded, it’s mechanized, it’s industrialized, and the way in which our wage laborer works is completely transformed. He’s no longer using the same practices that he did as a subsistence farmer, he’s now a cog in a much bigger, industrialized agriculture machine. This is what Marx would call the real subsumption of labor by capital. 

I use that distinction to talk about the internet in the sense that in 1995, when the private sector takes over the “pipes,” the private sector inherits a network, a network of networks, that has not been organized around the principle of profit maximization. Something that was created by the US government, that was developed mostly by research scientists for their own use. At that point, you have formal subsumption. But what has to occur in the subsequent years and decades is the very difficult process of real subsumption: this network of networks, this research network built by scientists has to be remodeled, reorganized for the purpose of profit maximization. And this is ultimately what I think the platforms achieve. This is their legacy: managing to unlock the profit potential of the internet by reorganizing it.

Scott Ferguson: I also think your metaphor of the mall, which I think you borrow from somebody else in the book, but this trope of imagining, the “platforms” as online malls. It’s absurd to imagine a mall as an enclosure in the historical sense of English law. There wasn’t, there’s no “pre-mall”, that then a private corporation takes over. I think that’s one thing to hold on to here.

William Saas: I wonder if there was any internal struggle at the NSF that you were able to uncover or discover about just saying, “okay, here, take this thing that we’ve built and go crazy.” I know that we talked about the spirit of the times being distinctly and acutely neoliberal. But were there any opposing viewpoints from the NSF that you could discover to what actually happened?

Ben Tarnoff: Within the NSF, there was an alternative proposal that I discussed in the book that was embodied in a Senate Bill put forward by Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, which would have created what advocacy groups at the time called a “public lane” on the information superhighway (“information superhighway” being the preferred metaphor at the time for the internet). And this bill would have done a number of things such as forcing telecoms to reserve up to 20% of their network capacity for non-commercial uses, which would have been granted specifically to nonprofit organizations like libraries. 

Broadly, Inouye’s bill, and the organization around it that was pushing for it, looked to the legacy of public media for inspiration. If radio and television could have spectrum set aside for public non-commercial uses, why can’t we do the same with the internet. Of course, public media has always been very weak in the United States, compared to other advanced capitalist countries. But nonetheless, that was an important piece of inspiration.

This bill–I don’t have to tell you–doesn’t get passed, and this idea doesn’t go anywhere. But nonetheless, there were alternative proposals at the time and that’s something I try to emphasize in the book: It wasn’t inevitable the way it went. But it was a question of the balance of forces. And there simply was not a social movement, at the time, that would have politicized this issue and made it legible to masses of people. The internet is still fairly obscure at the time and it would have been hard to have built a movement around the internet. But nonetheless, this is how privatization takes such an extreme form: Not the absence of alternative ideas, but the absence of enough social power to make those ideas active in the face of the opposition of the capitalist class.

Scott Ferguson: Now that we have a stronger sense of how the internet was publicly provisioned, and then multiply privatized in a processual way, it seems like we’re pretty well posed to discuss some of the more exciting democratic and public alternatives you promote in your book.

But before we get into some of those details, I want to make our listeners aware of the fact that you importantly couch what you are calling “an internet for the people” within broader political struggles, as part of the political struggle for the provisioning of food and housing and health care and public financing. Can you talk a little bit about that larger framing? You don’t just offer a narrow politics of the internet, you have a much more nested sense of where we are and how this fits into the broader political order today.

Ben Tarnoff: I tried not to do too much of that in the book because I wanted to try to keep the lens as narrowly focused on the internet as possible. But inevitably, the problem with writing about the internet is that the internet is entangled with everything. So other things start to creep in. 

I think I also want to give a sense of what’s at stake. Discussions about the internet are often quite dry and quite technical. I wanted to try to make the point that what’s at stake is the possibility of democracy without putting it too grandly. We live in a profoundly undemocratic society. And what I mean by a democracy, and this is a definition that I go into in the book, is the ability for people to rule themselves. For people to rule themselves, they need to have certain things available to them. In other words, as I say in the book, freedom isn’t free. If we want to lead self-determined lives, we need access to resources that enable us to do so. You can’t rule yourself, you can’t lead a self-determined life if you’re hungry. If you don’t have a roof over your head. If you’re bankrupt from medical bills.

Similarly, the internet has become an indispensable precondition of participation in social, economic, cultural and civic life. We saw this in the early days of the COVID pandemic, people needed to get online to apply for unemployment insurance, and we had to work from home, their kids needed to attend school from home. And that helps bring into view the stakes of the social crisis around connectivity in the United States. The United States has absolutely abysmal broadband. We pay on average higher monthly costs in the United States for broadband than our equivalents in Asia or Europe. We rank fourteenth in connection speeds–below Hungary and Thailand. And most astonishingly, in 2018, Microsoft researchers determined that 162 million Americans do not access the internet broadband speeds, which is about half the country. We could talk about these statistics in the dry language of the digital divide, and so on. 

But I think we need to elevate our rhetoric and talk about democracy. If people don’t have access to the resources, they need to lead a self-determined life, they can’t exercise self-rule. The ability to exercise self-rule at a personal level is intimately bound up with the ability to exercise self-rule collectively. In other words, the reason that people don’t have access to the resources they need to lead self-determined lives is because certain political choices have been made about how those resources are distributed. And those are choices that those people don’t have an opportunity to participate in.

To my mind, this is the other essential ingredient of a democratic society: Giving people not just the resources they need to lead self-determined lives, but the opportunity to participate in the decisions that most affect them. And those are the guiding principles for my project of how to create a more democratic internet. And it has implications, different implications, we should say, at different parts of the “stack.” It means something different at the “pipes” than at the “platforms.” But nonetheless, these are the principles that I think can guide us, not just in building a more democratic internet, but in building a more democratic society.

William Saas: Let’s talk about some of the proposals that you engage with in the book for doing just that: For creating and recovering the internet as a channel technology with a series of “pipes” and “platforms” we can use to advance democracy. 

These proposals include, but aren’t limited to, creating public and cooperatively owned networks on the model of ongoing experiments in Chattanooga (Tennessee), and rural South Dakota, supporting decentralized open source models of social networking, such as the Mastodon Project, and using public libraries and post offices–I like this one–as local administrative hubs for social networking and journalism across the United States. Can you take us on a brief tour through these alternate horizons for the internet, and perhaps tell our listeners how we might or how they might get involved with such efforts?

Ben Tarnoff: My term for the political project to build a better internet is deprivatization. And deprivatization aims at creating an internet where people and not profit rule, that’s the North Star. What does that mean in practice? It means developing models of public and cooperative ownership that can shrink the space of the market, diminish the power of the profit motive and encode practices and principles of democratic control. In the book, I look at a number of experiments that are, in my view, putting those ideas into practice that represent–even if it’s on a small scale–deprivatization in action. 

One example, which you indicated, is the Community Network. Community Network is a publicly or cooperatively owned broadband network that could be owned, for instance, by a municipality or by the members themselves. More than 900 communities in the United States are currently served by community networks. These networks tend to provide better service at lower cost than their corporate counterparts because they don’t exist to enrich shareholders with stock buybacks and dividends like the big firms such as Verizon, they’re able to prioritize social goals like universal connectivity. 

Crucially–this is the piece that I find most promising–they are able to give users an opportunity to participate in decisions around how infrastructure is developed and deployed. I see community networks as the main protagonist in deprivatizing the pipes of the internet–not the only one because we can’t simply have a series of local networks. That’s not what the internet is, the internet is composed of networks at various scales. But nonetheless, community networks, I think, are the most promising form deprivatization can take at that layer of the internet. 

When we move up the stack to the realm of the so-called platforms, the situation becomes more complex, the path to deprivatization here is less linear because we’re immediately encountering creatures of a greater complexity and greater diversity. Facebook, Uber and Amazon: These are creatures of much greater technical sophistication than ISPs down the “stack.” And they’re more different from one another than ISPs are from one another. So inevitably, how we deprivatize these different sectors will depend a lot on what we’re actually talking about. As a result, the experiments are somewhat less mature.

As you mentioned, I allude to experiments that are ongoing among a number of different communities, such as the decentralized web community, and projects like Mastodon, which aim to create decentralized social media networks, which in turn could enable something like a cooperatively owned and cooperatively moderated social media site, which interconnects freely with other sites. There’s also the platform cooperativism community. This is a group of people who are interested in trying to create worker-owned and -operated app-based services. What would a cooperative alternative to Uber look like, for instance? These experiments are quite limited, we have to say, I think we have to acknowledge their limitations and also acknowledge that they are, in most cases, modeled on corporate counterparts. If you use something like Mastodon, it looks a lot like Twitter. Inevitably, these are the first draft of what a deprivatized application layer might look like. 

To go further, I think we’re going to need a lot more experiments. And in particular, we’re going to need public investment to create spaces of imagination where ordinary people can come in, get connected to the resources and the expertise they need to build the online services that are capable of meeting their needs. This latter part about imagination is where I place most of my faith in the book. I know it can sound a bit wishy-washy and a bit open ended. But I think if we think of imagination not as something a solitary genius does alone in their room, but rather a collective embodied process of experimentation that necessarily requires resources and investment, I think we can get a bit closer to creating the type of process that will eventually result in a deprivatized internet.

Scott Ferguson: To circle back to something you said before, this definition of “platforms.” We’ve been using it in this conversation, just heuristically, normatively, but you also noted that you had a critique of “platform” as a concept, as a term, and the way that it frames our understanding of the world. I want to give you an opportunity to flesh that out.

Ben Tarnoff: You’ll notice I’ve been doing annoying things like saying “so-called platforms,” trying to always put quote marks around “platforms.” I should say in general, the terms and metaphors we use to talk about technology we’ve mostly inherited from the tech firms themselves. And that’s a problem, because we’re operating on enemy territory, if you like. “Platform,” I think, is a good example of a metaphor that does a lot of strategic work for the firms themselves. It suggests neutrality, it suggests openness, and a certain kind of levelness. They have an interest in presenting themselves this way in presenting themselves as not, in fact, intimately involved in organizing and governing our online life, but rather being a neutral receptacle for it. 

Rather than “platform” I use the term “online mall” because to my mind, the best way to understand the systems that these firms create is: They operate like the online equivalents of shopping malls. They are spaces of commerce that incorporate an aspect of a public square. They’re spaces where all sorts of different interactions can transpire. Interactions between buyers and sellers, social interactions. If you’re an American teenager in the suburbs, you probably spend a lot of your social life in a shopping mall. Similarly, online malls can be quite a social space. 

Whatever these interactions are, they are all organized around the manufacture and monetization of data, which we discussed earlier. But data is the essential ingredient and motivating purpose of the online mall. Moving away from the spatial metaphor of a train platform, let’s say, the horizontal line, into a cube, into something that you’re trapped inside of and you can’t get out of. I think that’s much closer to the experience we have of these computational systems.

William Saas: There’s not even a Cinnabon, what a crummy deal. Going along these lines, I think there were some other phrases and words and concepts we use that I would like to maybe plumb just a bit more. We at Money on the Left have been committed to everything you’re talking about doing and specifically around, well, imagination. Advocacy for expanding our horizons–not just on the individual level, in a long office, talking about these things in an academic way. But collective imagination and building in common with each other. 

We don’t have what it seems like the platforms, the corporations, the eBays, the Googles, the Netflixes have, which is the profit motive. I think that this is something that we come up against, in terms of left politics, left organization, there’s a dearth of money, in terms of just piles of money just laying around to fund the movement. Whereas on the right, there are lots of more piles of money for reasons of the profit motive, and the people who have that money are engaged in the business and market activity that leads to profit.

I was thinking, the cooperative motive, the social motive, the poetic motive, I don’t know, if we can devise or think about or just riff and imagine, collectively, we three right now, what that motive could be and how could it be sufficient to, to motivate us, our listeners, people? To say, okay, I have all these bills I have to pay. But what’s more important is building a collective new, imaginative, cooperative internet. I’m going to eschew this profit motive, I’m going to go for the new internet motive. Let’s dream.

Ben Tarnoff: I think you have to politicize people’s relationship to technology. I think you have to help clarify that there are political stakes to these different technical artifacts that surround their lives. And I actually think that conversation has gotten a lot easier in the last few years, because broadly, that awareness is actually there. It gets politicized in different directions, more successfully often by the right than the left. But the idea that Facebook is not some neutral arbiter, some kind of neutral communications platform that you just throw ideas on to but is actively involved in shaping and organizing our online lives with consequences that can be socially disruptive–that’s an idea with very broad currency, it’s nearly common sense. 

That creates an opening. I think from there, you have to make people feel as if their well-being, and even their sense of themselves, is wrapped up with this project. I think that’s how you get people to participate in any project of social transformation, whether it’s joining the union, whether it’s joining a political organization, whatever kind of political work you’re asking them to do. I think they need to feel as if their sense of self and their material interests are bound up in that project. 

I don’t mean to suggest that we should define interests in a simplified way, because I think people often will also have an interest in living in a fairer, more solidaristic world. Interest does not simply have to mean the kind of rational actor definition of interest. In fact, people have a lot of complex and contradictory interests. And it’s the work of organizers to try to give certain interests greater prominence. Interests are, let’s say, another terrain of class struggle. But I think we can make a distinction between a moral as opposed to a material view of how change happens. Which is not to say that morality isn’t useful or justified. There’s certainly some polemic in my book that draws on morality–morality can be useful in organizing projects. Of course, a sense of outrage can be very useful. 

But morality doesn’t change the world. I think this is an observation that I would draw from the work of Marx. Marx uses a lot of moral language, he can be a great moralist, but he recognizes that moral exhortation is not a force for social transformation. It can be a useful agitating tactic. But at the end of the day, in order to bring masses of people into some kind of transformative project, you need to make them feel–you need to make them see–as if their material interests are served by that project, however you are defining those interests.

William Saas: Maybe by sharing our experiences of how we came to see those things as important to our material interests as well.

Ben Tarnoff: Right. And the process of social transformation, I think, involves and entails self-transformation. Part of making the case to somebody about why they should join the union is appealing to one set of interests over another: They have an interest in not getting fired, there’s a risk involved. They may have an interest in maintaining certain hierarchies in the workplace that benefit them. But then they have other interests as well in the context of a union campaign and interests–maybe in job security, in more clarity around job progression. And also, certain solidaristic interests–in being a good co-worker, in taking care of one another. So inevitably, this conversation about which interests should be given prominence and which interests should be downplayed, or de-emphasized, involves a process of personal transformation as well.

Scott Ferguson: To close us out, I was wondering if you could put this book in the context of a lot of the other work that you do. You’re an accomplished author, you’ve published essays, you’ve published many, many books. And you’re also co-founder and writer at Logic magazine. Can you give us a breezy tour through your broader horizon of work and where this fits in?

Ben Tarnoff: I’m trying to think of how to make it breezy.

Scott Ferguson: Or belabored!

Ben Tarnoff: I could certainly make it belabored, that won’t be hard at all! I’m someone who works in the tech industry, I’m someone who thinks about the relationship between technology and society. And I think most of my writing and editing and intellectual projects flow from that concern. But I’m also someone who’s getting bored of the internet. Technology is such a useful way for thinking about power but then it’s easy to get stuck in different threads of it. I find that I have to keep re-centering myself and try to figure out: What am I really interested in? 

Because I don’t want to become just an expert on the internet. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I think my interest in the internet is an expression of my interest in how power is organized in society. I remember doing an event with the great Astra Taylor once. She said something to the effect of “I’m not interested in technology, I’m interested in power. But the reality is that if you care about power today, you have to care about technology.” And I don’t think that’s entirely accurate for me, because I do really love technical details and technical complexity. But at the end of the day, as a writer and editor, what is most important to me is the stakes, the consequences: Who’s going to be affected, whose lives will be changed through the use of these technologies? And I think that’s what guides me rather than a more specific interest in this or that technology.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks so much for coming, Ben Tarnoff, everybody should go out and get your book. Highly recommended!

Ben Tarnoff: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me.

William Saas: When you said you were bored of the internet, you reminded me of the Le Tigre song “Get Off the Internet.” As a kind of left politics, at the turn of the century, the idea of getting off the internet …

Ben Tarnoff: We lost. 

William Saas: We have, I mean, we’re bored, where do you go? You were bored of it. I thought that could go a couple of ways. I think a lot of us are bored with it, angry at it, or frustrated or befuddled by it but feel like we have no choice but to participate and stay on the internet. A little bonus question here if you have anything to say about “get off the internet” politics?

Ben Tarnoff: It’s something I struggle with, I wrote a book about the internet because I love the internet. I vividly remember the first time I used the internet in 1994. I was in the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which is in Portland, Oregon, right on the river. It’s a lovely museum. And I would have been maybe nine years old. I was wandering around this museum with my mom and I was looking for astronaut stuff–rockets, space shuttles, astronaut ice cream. And we stumbled across a room full of computers: the computer lab. And these are enormous (by our standards) computers–big towers, huge CRT monitors.

And I sit down at one of them. We’re informed that these are connected to something called the internet, which I had not heard of. I must have brought up Yahoo! or whatever was available at the time for finding websites on the internet–this being, of course, before the rise of the modern search engine. I start looking up information about Star Trek and start learning about precisely how many millimeters the width of the starship Enterprise’s wings are. Information about halls and phasers and how many torpedoes are loaded–all sorts of nerdy stuff that I felt I needed to know. I was just exhilarated. There was so much information about Star Trek on the web in 1994, as you can imagine. 

William Saas: I think that’s all there was actually! 

Ben Tarnoff: That could have been! It was probably mostly Star Trek information. I fell in love with the internet and spent much of my childhood online, in online communities. If I didn’t love the internet, I couldn’t write a book about it. But it’s something I struggle with because increasingly the rest of the world has caught up to where I was, as a kid and I don’t think it’s been a constructive development. It was seen as somewhat antisocial, even pathological, although my parents permitted it for me to just spend all my time on the internet all day. 

Now this is what we all do anyway because we have it with us in our pocket and because it mediates so much of our lives. Lives that formerly had many offline components have been absorbed into the internet. It is something I wonder about and struggle with. I try to avoid taking a moralizing tone because I remember how life-giving the internet was to me as an isolated kid–that was actually the world where I felt most comfortable, and I think there’s still a lot of kids who feel that way. I wouldn’t want to take that away from them. But there’s something lost when the offline world has become so emaciated, so emptied out that, we can’t even get offline I don’t know. But now I also listen to myself and I sound like I’m pushing 40. Maybe I don’t have the right perspective on this anymore.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Democratizing University Finance

Benjamin Wilson and Scott Ferguson join guest-host Jakob Feinig to discuss their recent article about Money on the Left’s “uni” project to democratize university finance. Titled “Stop Trying to Find the Money–Create It!,” the article argues that the Public Banking Act can empower universities to issue new forms of public money that serve democratic communities and repudiate austerity. The text will appear mid-October 2022 in the American Association of University Professors’ publication Academe Magazine as part of a special issue edited by Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. In this conversation, Ben and Scott recount the evolution of the uni project from its original politicization of emergency Federal Reserve facilities early in the Covid-19 pandemic to its most recent iteration joining bottom up learning-by-doing with top-down federal legislation. Along the way, the conversation turns toward the project’s commitments to democratic pedagogy through participation, the need to recognize universities as powerful economic provisioners and anchors, and the uni’s role in challenging the current dollar system from within.  

*Special thanks to Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education for inviting Money on the Left to collaborate and for inviting us to contribute to their issue for Academe Magazine. 

Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure

Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com

Transcript

The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Scott Ferguson: Welcome to a very special Money on the Left episode. This is an unconventional episode in that I am being joined not by my regular co-hosts, William Saas and Maxximilian Seijo but by our beloved colleagues, Assistant Professor of Human Development at SUNY Binghamton, Jakob Feinig, and Associate Professor of Economics at SUNY Cortland, Benjamin Wilson. Thanks for joining us.

We’re convening this irregular episode to update our listeners about and discuss the project that we and others in our Money on the Left Collective have been variously working on: University financing using a Modern Monetary Theory and endogenous money approach. We call this project, if you’re not aware of it yet, the Uni-Currency project. We’ve been developing it over the course of several years–it started during the early pandemic moment when austerity was being threatened and sometimes enacted in all kinds of unjust ways. And we developed it to provide an alternative, and hopefully not just a financial alternative, but a just and new direction for university expenditure and governance.

We’ve published many papers on different platforms over the past couple of years. Last year, we were invited as a group to join and begin collaborating with an exciting group that’s been doing important advocacy and politicizing around University financing, the Scholars for a New Deal for Higher Education. We were aware of what they were up to and we were excited about it. We also felt that they were missing the MMT approach that we brought to the table, and they invited us to the table. They’re all really great and nice–we had some meetings and we taught each other about what we were up to. 

Next thing we knew, a subcommittee on university finance in that group was invited by the American Association of University Professors’ Academe magazine to put together a special issue which would eventually be titled “Revolutionizing Higher Education Finance for the Public Good.” A couple members of our team, Ben Wilson and myself, took up the task of writing what is essentially an updated version of the Uni project that we had been developing. The purpose of this particular episode is to work through the latest iteration of the Uni Project that is being published in the October issue of Academe magazine, but also to reflect upon where we’ve been and how this project has unfolded over time. 

We have published a lot about the Uni, we’ve talked about the Uni in different episodes, like our episode with Ben Wilson, but we haven’t dedicated a whole audio conversation to the Uni. That’s what we’re up to today. Jakob has been in the wings the whole time–he hasn’t been part of the core team but he’s been a trusted advisor and editor in the background. And we thought what better person, given his own interests in moral economies of money, to reflect on this project with us. We’ve given him the job of moderator. He’s written up a list of questions for us that we’re going to use to catalyze the conversation as we move forward, but it can also be an open, free-flowing kind of thing. 

Jakob Feinig: My first question would be: What does the crisis of higher ed today look like from other critical lenses, and how is that different from your approach to improving the lives of people on campuses, but also the people who live adjacent to campuses? 

Benjamin Wilson: That’s a great question. And I think it moves through various iterations, depending on the timing of when you talk to people, having started in higher-ed just after the financial crisis, and then seeing the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding and seeing many of the same struggles and questions arising again. The thing that comes up in our union meetings, for example, is people complaining about being overworked and not being compensated. Being asked to do more than what their job actually entails. This is real utilization of us as care workers by the administration, to get us to do more with less, because as a faculty member, my priority is always my students. Even if I’m getting less, I’m still putting out the same efforts and care toward my students. 

And this way of discussing the problems that we’re facing, often just devolves into this complaint, soapbox section, where we’re all sharing the various ways in which we’re being exploited without really being able to articulate how to solve that problem. And the only way the current paradigm presents for us to solve those problems is either the state has to provide more money for universities, or the federal government has to do that. There’s this helplessness in that idea, because it’s just so distant and far off from where we are at the table and where we are in our day-to-day working to try to get through a pandemic higher education year. So, for example, the SUNY system hasn’t increased the state budget since the financial crisis. 

In fact, recent estimates by our Faculty Senate say that we’ve actually had a real reduction in the funding of higher education in the State of New York by approximately $440 million since the financial crisis. We have been asked to do more with less for a very long time. And that presents great challenges for trying to ask for more, especially when we fell short (at my university, apparently, in budget terms by $10 million last year). So there’s this dread and hopelessness, that there’s no way that we can do better. And in fact, we are again being asked to do more with less. 

I would say the objective of this project is to allow us to move beyond these narrow confines, and to relieve the students as the biggest bearers of the financing of the university through tuition and fees, rent, and so on. Imagine what higher-ed would look like if it was able to sell finance and create its own credits, and model the behavior that MMT has made so clear that is available to the United States government through the creation of the dollar and its relationships with the banking sector to mobilize resources that our community sees as valuable and necessary.

Jakob Feinig: Terrific. Maybe you could just spell out for listeners how that would work in practice–maybe outline the basic architecture of the Uni?

Benjamin Wilson: This is a complicated question because I think there’s really two distinct paths that we’ve been talking about as the development of the Uni has advanced. In the case of Modern Monetary Theory, the US government issues the dollar. It’s the sole issuer of the dollar, the monopoly issuer, and all these stories that I think most of our listeners are familiar with. But why stop at the US government? What would it look like if sub-national or nested institutions within the system were given that sort of freedom, and we [already] have a model of that with the banking sector. I think the crises–in particular, the Great Financial Crisis, and then again with COVID–really exposed the connections between the banking sector and the federal government through the way the Federal Reserve backstops the creation of their instruments. What would it look like if universities were able to issue credit to mobilize resources the same way that the banking sector did, what would that backstop look like from a macro perspective? That’s one approach to the Uni.

The other approach to the Uni that we’ve been advocating for is one that’s familiar to those who have studied at places like UMKC, Denison University and Bard College where, in order to demonstrate how the issuer of the currency works and acts, how tax-driven reciprocal obligations operate, we’ve run this program in our classrooms to demonstrate the possibilities of full employment and a Job Guarantee, and the reality that spending creates the space for taxation, and the taxation-based demand for the currency. 

In those humble beginnings, the Uni Project could begin to build a grassroots understanding of how currency operates, and then leverage up to larger institutional legal levels. A learning-by-doing process that would gradually step the reciprocal obligations from say, a certain percentage of the grade in the classroom, to tuition, or the payments on campus for fees. And when we’re doing public goods production through our classrooms and learning-by-doing projects, connecting those to the municipality in various ways through, potentially, acceptance through property taxes and things of this nature. 

These are some ways that we could create the political momentum and pressure to start utilizing this in bigger and bigger spaces rather than simply thinking of it from this top-down perspective that is admittedly a very hard thing to teach, and for people to grapple with. I think this ground-up, grassroots approach is one of the things that’s really exciting about the Uni but it can also cause a little bit of confusion for folks.

Jakob Feinig: That’s fascinating. It sounds like you think of the Uni as a multi-level pedagogical project. That is, you’ve started to implement a classroom currency that actually works. Together with many others you have begun teaching about how public finance actually works, and what the implications are for how we think about our lives together, and how we want to organize our lives together. And now you’re adding intermediate layers between the classroom currency and the federal dollar. There is something that goes beyond the classroom but doesn’t aspire to have the reach of the federal dollar. And each of those levels teaches people about monetary life in different ways. Would that be fair to say? 

Benjamin Wilson: I think that that’s absolutely the objective here, or one of the many objectives. Money is curriculum, so to speak. It really is a new way of understanding and thinking about how the world works, and how we can use money not as the end but a means to an end as you so eloquently put in your chapter for the edited volume that just was released. I think that’s one of the most rewarding things about teaching these things in the classroom: it really does take the process of them receiving the money in class for doing work, and then realizing: Well, I couldn’t have paid the taxes until after payday. 

The lesson there is fundamental and important. And the practice of a new monetary politics is not as simple as just waving a wand and spending more money into the economy. It’s really about connecting that money to the real resources that are needed to address the systemic crises that we face, in higher education, climate, public health, etc. And so the micro-level issuance process really helps people see just how much work we really have to do and how many resources are sitting around and are not applied to those sorts of problems, because we’re so busy trying to find the money, instead of simply creating it and creating the relationships that we need to mobilize the resources to make the world safer, stabler–the resilient, happy, amenable, inclusive place that I think we would all prefer to live in.

Scott Ferguson: I want to say a little bit more about how our approach contrasts with, but also complements, some of the important critical work around university politics and University Studies. An important contemporary figure in this field is Davarian Baldwin and his really important book In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower. He’s tracing a whole interconnected system of political economy in higher ed structured around perverse incentives and pressures that are the result of states not keeping up their commitment to finance public higher ed and basically turning these supposed nonprofits, with these tremendous public authoritative powers, into quasi-private entities who have to scramble for revenues, go into debt, and speculate on the stock market. This has tremendous consequences, as Baldwin tells us, across issues of land, housing, labor, policing, and healthcare. 

While Baldwin teaches us a lot, and I so appreciate his work, it seems like that analysis only goes so far because it doesn’t question the “having-to-find-the-money” incentive. Having to find the money through the taxpayers doesn’t break out of the paradigm enough. And I think there’s a little bit of an implication that money is this necessary evil in this process. Then the analysis, I guess I would say, ends up feeling like a list of indictments. And then those indictments become the ground from which you mount an opposition. 

I think, what turning off the “where we’re going to find the money” question and turning on the endogenous credit creation frame, does is this: It allows us to see universities as complex public authorities who are doing collective care work–but often very badly, often very selectively. I wouldn’t say that we would want to soften the kinds of critiques that Baldwin is making–making visible systematic exploitations, and politicizing them, is very important. But I think we’re recognizing that, nevertheless, universities are community leaders in provisioning. Not just fallen angels or terrible institutions. And as these complex collective caretakers, they can reorganize themselves.

Jakob Feinig: And can you maybe say, two or three words about what that would look like concretely? Maybe give listeners an example of how the lives of people on the campuses, but also beyond would change were we to introduce Unis?

Benjamin Wilson: So when I read Baldwin’s book, I was really excited. Because when I read it, I see it through a chartist/MMT lens. One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with or thinking about in terms of the long legacy of the Land Grant Institution and the University, in particular, is its 501(c)(3) status. They were given all this property in all these communities and very decentralized ways across the United States.

Scott Ferguson: Stolen from Native Americans. 

Benjamin Wilson: Yes, thank you. 

Universities don’t pay any residential property tax. One of the ways that I’ve been thinking about how to diversify the circuit of the Uni: The initial idea was that the Unis would be spent into existence and people could use the Unis to satisfy their tuition liability. And that would be the reciprocal circuit. And, like my classroom currency, that runs into some limitations as students are graduating–they have no use for it any longer. How much labor and resources are you really going to be able to utilize with this limited space for reciprocation? It also may or may not do much to change the tuition model. In order to diversify the circuit, one of the things that I’ve imagined is that the University, instead of paying zero property taxes in their local communities, would pay some portion of those property taxes directly to their host communities–in Unis. And if the city is willing to accept the Uni in property taxes from the University, then they would be willing to accept it from anyone. 

In Ithaca, where I live, Cornell University is by far the largest landowner. They pay zero property taxes, and they give an annual gift of $1.2 or $1.3 million to the city. A couple of years ago, a group did a study of just how much property taxes Cornell would pay if they paid the full amount. In the interview, the then-mayor Svante Myrick said if Cornell paid their entire property tax bill, the property taxes for the other Ithaca residents could be cut in half. That’s an enormous amount of value that would be made available. So if you think about cutting your property taxes in half and thinking about the cost of homes and housing, this is an opportunity to really transform what that looks like. 

Davarian Baldwin’s book points out are all these spaces where universities use not only their property and their tax exempt status, but they use it in such a way that they’re supporting the balance sheets of corporate partners, either new research in pharmaceuticals, or, in Arizona, to create new mixed-use residential properties that also contribute to the university objective of connecting with community, and maybe there’s some classrooms there. But at the end of the day, the [universities’] corporate partner gets financing because the bank is confident that they’re going to be able to generate enough revenues because they won’t be paying the full tax liabilities on those commercial properties. So we’re already booking that tax-exempt status as future wealth, just in a very narrow way, where we could be issuing the currency to book future creation of, say, carbon sequestration or diversified farming systems that better connect people to local foods, or training large groups of people to help students with reading disabilities in middle schools. 

There’s a significant amount of work that’s not being done to address the problems we have. And the reason why we’re not doing that is because we can’t find the money to do it, when the money is really sitting right in front of us: as a design problem. And we can’t see the ways to design an experiment in those spaces, because we’re spending so much time trying to book future earnings and revenues that are just turning the money into more money instead of turning it into meaningful goods and expanded capacity for communities.

Scott Ferguson: I think there’s not one answer to that question, as I think Ben’s answers are beginning to suggest. A Uni, a Uni project, a Uni system–from the classroom to the federal government–can transform relations all the way up and down and back and forth. So you know, we can talk about Unis administering Green New Deals in cities and counties. We can talk about community, staff and faculty governance, we can talk about participatory budgeting. And all of these possibilities, of course, are available to be thought, to be fought for, to be theorized, to be developed. But I would argue that when they are all brought together in a project that is not zero-sum, and that is not oriented around finding the money, they all take on a new kind of capacity. 

This doesn’t prevent neoliberal governance practices, nasty administrators and university leaders with nasty politics, it doesn’t prevent any of any of that from continuing to do what it does. But that nastiness is usually justified by not only the naturalized austerity, but the naturalized necessity to find revenue such that even the critics of that nastiness can’t see beyond that horizon. It would open up these opportunities for contestation. And the old excuses will not no longer resonate in the same way they do now, and have for years and years.

Jakob Feinig: Those are great answers, thank you–I’m really starting to get a sense of the breadth and potential of the Uni project.

Scott Ferguson: When we first began the project, as I think Ben might have referenced previously, this was the beginning of the pandemic, and the Fed, unlike Congress, was willing, at least at first, to really act boldly and to experiment. They opened up their balance sheets and created all kinds of new facilities and new ways of responding to the financial crisis. Now, there’s much to be critiqued in how they did that, and how some of those programs ultimately played out. But in 2020 and into 2021, the Fed became a site of such bold paradigm-breaking that it became a site of politicization. So at first, we’re thinking, well, we can recommend for university communities, activist organizers, and intrepid faculty and leaders to lead a movement to issue their own currencies and then demand, or ask, or dare, the Fed to backstop the liquidity of those currencies, using a new facility they had opened up, the Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) that was mostly for municipal bonds. Ultimately, the way that was designed was terrible. And the way it was administered was terrible, because it was ultimately just about so-called propping up the confidence of the bond market. They didn’t actually really want to purchase any of those. They just wanted to show that they were ready to purchase them so that the bond investors would feel comfortable enough to invest more. Anyway, that situation called for an intervention, we thought. 

In the meantime, we’ve turned our attention to another intrepid thing that has happened at the federal level: the drafting of the Public Banking Act, which some of our friends helped to draft. The Public Banking Act is what it sounds like: It has not gone to vote, but it is an act that is designed to explore, support, and create a system of public banks in the United States. And it provides all kinds of support for doing so. 

Our reading of the Public Banking Act is: It’s worded in such a way that universities could count as nonprofit organizations that would fall under the Public Banking Act, they could be given what we call the finance franchise, the capacity, the legal ability to issue credit on behalf of the US government. We also argue in our forthcoming piece that we might want to work for an amendment to the Public Banking Act, just to make it clear, just to stipulate that universities are included, rather than arguing about the given language, maybe before it’s put to vote. In any case, we now see it as part of a potential public banking fight that would frame the Uni in this broader conversation about who has the finance franchise in the United States. 

That’s how some of our thoughts about the projects have shifted over time: We have moved from politicizing this emergency facility at the Fed as a kind of lender or purchaser of last resort to a more active provisioning as part of public banking at the federal level. Not to say that that’s the only path: We talk about “bottom-up” and “top-down” always having to work in tandem and speaking to one another. But that’s the federal path that we’re seeing right now.

Benjamin Wilson: I think that that’s a really good point. What does a public bank look like? How does a public bank operate? How does it make decisions? What is it investing in? The language around the bill is pretty vague. AOC says that it’s an opportunity to ameliorate systemic crises. What specifically does that look like? And these are the questions that also come up when we talk about the Green New Deal and a Job Guarantee, what are people going to do? What are these interventions? How does this impact my daily life? And I really see universities as being a great place for experimenting and imagining what that looks like. 

I think lots of people have a really nice idea of what public banking looks like at the retail level, through the post office, for example. But what does the investment arm of a public banking sector look like? How does it operate? How does it assess the quality of the financial instruments and what it is that it’s executing? What are the returns that we’re getting? David Freund’s work in particular really has been inspirational for me here. The United States really reformatted the housing sector after World War II to greatly enhance the availability of mortgages and extend the timeframe for repayment. In that process, they had to really reinvent and create an entirely new sector of appraisal and thinking about who’s going to make these decisions where organizations are licensed and accredited to establish that a house is worth X amount of dollars. 

This is what we need to be doing and thinking about. This is an intervention into climate change that is going to relieve us of so much carbon output and sequester so much carbon, and these are the impacts that we’re predicting and forecasting will occur. Very much a grant model of understanding impact and outcomes and whether or not we’re really reaching success in our projects, I think it is a space where universities are really well suited to start building that sort of infrastructure and a learning-by-doing, ground-up approach to these problems.

The language in the bill, both in the Public Banking Act and in the E-Cash Act, outline that we need participation and experimentation to ensure that we’re creating secure, privacy-respecting and inclusive monetary systems that are, in fact, functional and operating. I would much rather us experiment with these technologies at small scales in different communities and being able to share successes and failures in an open and honest way, than, say the monetarist experiment from the 1980s (that we seem to be pretty intent on reliving) to quell price overheating with a recession. That doesn’t seem to be the way that we should be experimenting with monetary theory, it should be done in much more controlled and smaller spaces so that we can reduce the ill effects and the devastation in real lives that that type of macro-monetary experimentation entails.

Scott Ferguson: What I’m hearing you say and I want to develop is: This really rethinks what banking is and what it can be. We are saying: Extend credit creation functions that have been relegated to a private banking system to universities. But we don’t stop there and what we’re up to really unsettles what a bank even is, or could be. 

One of the threads I want to pick up here is: We have this sense that investment and production gets separated through this private banking system–that the banks have the money, and they decide who gets it, which firms are going to get it and are going to do the production. There’s a division of labor there now, is it in fact, actually much more complicated and, and entangled? Of course, it is. But I think we have this idea that there is this separation, whereas universities are productive centers, in addition to investment centers. And I think universities–as problematic as they can be–being the hubs of cities, of counties. of communities, and imbricated in them, much better situates them for doing the investing, rather than the investing being something that we’re farming out to Chase or other Wall Street banks.

Benjamin Wilson: Community banking is effective, and a good way of running small businesses. You know, the disconnect in the mortgage industry, where you can get a mortgage on your phone–that doesn’t do much for “know-your-customer.” And when they immediately sell off your mortgage and 100 others in one fell swoop. They have no incentive to see that those are paid back in a timely or meaningful manner. The creation of the investment products or systems, the public provisioning that I envision is an interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary connection of the people that are living and doing the work. 

One of the projects that my classroom Uni is helping to finance or mobilize the resources for is an edible park. That is going to be a public space where people will reconnect with nature that is celebrating indigenous culture and past of the area with the revival of plants that have been exterminated by weed killers and things of this nature, that have strong medicinal [properties] and flavors that we’ve forgotten about that previous cultures really understood as a meaningful connection to nature. This re-embedding of the connections between people and ideas, the environment, all start to melt away all the ways in which higher education has been morphed into our different silos where we’re all our specialists, and we’re all competing over scarce resources. And that would really give us an opportunity to branch out and to collaborate across the university with other nonprofit actors in our communities. 

The SUNY system is a 64-campus institution across the state of New York. There’s really not a community that isn’t within easy driving distance of one of these spaces. So we’re talking about projects that would cover the state. And if you start to think about questions of transportation and the movements of students, and people being able to work at multiple SUNYs, then it starts to become a system. (In healthcare, I was always so very frustrated during the time mom was sick that all these doctors–none of them talked to each other, none of their accounting, or their charts, or any of that stuff was connected in any meaningful way. It was just, they all happened to be marketed with the same hospital system). 

[Similarly, in the case of] SUNY, I feel like in our competition across our campuses, for students, and scarce resources and things like that, we’re not leveraging the full power of what it would be to be coordinated and collaborating, and tackling the problems that the state of New York so desperately needs to be addressed.

Scott Ferguson: And we can run small programs and justify them as small programs, rather than in the credit creation model, rather than putting these programs on the chopping block, because oh, well, you know, demand is down. And so they’re not bringing in revenue. And so why even have them? If you’re not chasing scarce dollars, you can proliferate little experiments here and there.

Benjamin Wilson: It changes all of our research questions, fundamentally.

Jakob Feinig: It also changes how people think about money. Just to go back to that, because when you say, the doctors are separated from the accountants and we come to experience ourselves as passive victims of a monetary system that’s out of reach, it’s outside of our lives. And that contaminates the university or makes it work in ways that we don’t like. And I think what I hear you say is that, if money creation and the other things that we do are no longer seen as separate, we experience them as intertwined and inseparable, necessarily going hand in hand, then that becomes a very large-scale classroom for reimagining society in the sense that it’s always something that is in the process of being coordinated. We are the ones who can do that.

Benjamin Wilson: I’ve always seen it as a little bit arbitrary that we go to college from 18 to 22. I think there’s a lot of Americans in the later stages of life that would really benefit from having access to coursework and education and re-engaging in new literatures. Part of the reason I think we’re in so much trouble economically is that you can see when a politician is talking about the economy, the scissors moving in their head from their Econ 101 class 40 years ago, and the textbook hasn’t changed. And that robotic understanding of how things operate is detrimental. The university [could become] this lifelong learning social fabric, where any and all age groups, or people that have been to college before, would just enrich the experience in ways that are fun to imagine.

Scott Ferguson: We can reintroduce open enrollment, we can have multiple kinds of programs that differentiate the traditional four-year degree.

Benjamin Wilson: Which in some ways, they’re already trying to do with all these certification programs and your news types of master’s programs, but they’re all structured in a way to generate revenue. You go to a master’s program, you’re not going to get funding to be a TA. Lots of colleges love big masters programs so they can break in that revenue, and maybe get a TA in the process. 

So we don’t have to do that anymore. Students won’t have to, for example, spend their whole summers working as free laborers for a corporation because they have to get an internship in order to get a job at that particular institution when they graduate. We will be affording them learning by doing, real world experience throughout the year that will help supplement both the costs of their day-to-day life and their education, so that they don’t have to leave the university straddled with massive amounts of debt.

Scott Ferguson: I think another major, maybe theoretical, point is: turning around the causal relationship that is often understood between a university and financing the private sector. I guess the expression to use is: “the tail is wagging the dog.” “The university is just so dependent on the bond investors and their hedge fund and that whole world and all the private contractors, the university, it could do these good things. But you know, really, where’s the power? All the private contractors run everything now.”

Whereas, I think what we want to say is no, it’s very similar to what MMT argues about the federal government, where we imagine that the tail is wagging the dog. The federal government is “always too broke” or “spending too much,” it’s always riding the waves of this force that’s outside of them. So we’re saying, like the federal government, the universities and university systems are at the center of authority and provisioning–they set wage floors, they implement wage ceilings, as (often) the largest employers in cities and in counties. If they raise the wage floor, which actually my university just did a little bit, not enough, but they’re bumping everybody up to $15/hour. That tremendously affects other wage ratios in the rest of the city and surrounding areas. 

The university has to fess up to its power and fess up to its capacities, and fess up to its causal centrality for us. That’s another thing the Uni Project does, and that’s part of the pedagogy.

Jakob Feinig: That is very different from other types of community currencies. Maybe, since you live in Ithaca, Ben, could you maybe say two words about the difference between the Uni and previous experiments?

Benjamin Wilson: I think the community/complementary currency literature and experiments are modeled not on the MMT framework, but on the fictional narrative of the barter economy–if we add more currency into the system, we’ll facilitate the exchange of goods and services. Very much like Bitcoin, it can be this decentralized thing that circulates and solves these problems. And what’s fundamentally different here for us, is: we’re trying to downsize the idea of MMT to local communities. How do we leverage the knowledge of a tax-driven circuit, at smaller scales, such that the tax-driven circuit is even maybe too obligatory, too coercive. Maybe the threat of incarceration for not paying your taxes is not necessary. How do we structure reciprocal obligations so that it allows a currency to continue to circulate while also highlighting the fact that money is a collective endeavor? That is a public instrument that should be designed and created through public discourse in a way that it’s just not in our society. 

And I think that that’s one of the really beautiful things in your book Jakob, and I’m curious in your studies of moral economies and money in these colonial systems, were there similar experiences in these communities that brought people together to question money? What was the catalyst to say, “Hey, we can do this in a better way, let’s start organizing our tobacco as a form of reciprocal payment” –maybe you can speak a little bit to that. 

Jakob Feinig: I think in many periods of US history, it was clear to quite a few money users that there are different levels of money and different levels of money creation and that municipalities or states or individual provinces can create acceptability. This [the uni] is, in a sense, reconnecting with earlier (in many respects, deeply problematic, but still real) monetary systems, where colonists had this experience of paying taxes either in kind or in labor or–which was their preferred way–in bills of credit. When the provincial government of Massachusetts was longer allowed to issue bills of credit, [they said] we’ll just do it at a local level. And maybe five or ten towns decided to accept that in payment of taxes. So they started knowing that that could work. 

It also worked in eighteenth-century New York City, when they created water works, just before the War of Independence. They put together what was then a high-tech water system by issuing municipal bills of credit–by issuing municipal money that worked only because the university, I mean, the municipality, accepted it in payment of taxes. All those different levels of acceptability and of organizing collective life were, I think, a lot more visible. 

And I think what the two of you talk about is structurally similar, in the sense that different levels of society become more legible. As you understand what’s going on in the classroom, you understand the federal government better. If you already have the MMT understanding of the federal government, then Unis will be more plausible. There is no reason for not multiplying those layers and exploring possibilities for democratization and inclusion, at all those different levels. And if one of the levels fails, maybe the other one is ready to jump in, maybe if one level cannot provision people, then we have something else to fall back on. There is no longer this monoculture of just one possible source of money.

Scott Ferguson: That’s really great. And I think it gets at another way in which what we’re up to is different from certain traditions of complementary currency. I don’t want to say all of them, but certain traditions. The instrument is called complementary because it’s not the main currency, but it’s one that is situated seemingly on the outside. So there’s an inside/outside on a spatial, cognitive map. And the outside, it’s precarious, it’s only as good as people are willing to barter with it on an individual level. I think it has an evil twin, which is the company script model. The company town that gets workers into debt, and makes it so that they get paid in their own currency and can only use that currency at the company’s stores and buying company newspapers, we’re all familiar with that. 

But all the good and evil versions of that inside/outside model are being challenged here with our Uni project. Because yes, like the histories that Jakob has studied, that doesn’t exhaust what is actually going on. And that there isn’t just one currency. Even the US dollar is a heterogeneous hierarchy of multiple instruments. We have dollars that are created by fiscal appropriation, we have dollars that are created in the Federal Reserve System. And then we have all kinds of dollars that are created in our wild, digital financial system and shadow banks and things like that. 

And yet we call most of those things the dollar even though they’re a heterogeneous collection of institutions that have different design models–the fiscal appropriation model is not the same design model as the Federal Reserve system model. So I think when we were first working on this project, we got some negative feedback that suggested: Oh, well, this is weak, it’s like a complementary currency or worse, it’s evil, like company script, but either way, it’s outside the dollar. 

And we want to be helping people, and we want to really be giving them the dollar. I think one way of answering this is to say: Not only is the dollar this heterogeneous hierarchy of contested designs and claims, but I wouldn’t necessarily even say that the Uni isn’t the dollar. We could say it’s a mode of the dollar. It’s one iteration of the dollar in the dollar system. Now, if it’s just Unis in one of our classrooms, it has a limited function in the dollar system, in a similar sense that Starbucks gift cards are denominated in dollars. A “$5 gift card,” right? But they have limited receivability, they have a limited circulation power. So this to me, is how we’re conceiving the Uni and trying to get out of this inside outside weak strong way of thinking about currency creation and currency circulation.

Jakob Feinig: That’s really excellent. To see it not as complimentary, as outside, but as part of a hierarchy. I do have another question: The people who told you you’re trying to reintroduce company script, they might have thought about something that I was also thinking about, which is, who has to accept Unis? When probably in any local setting, most people would still prefer the dollar or some people might still prefer the dollars because I have a hard time seeing faculty and staff overnight switching to “tomorrow I’ll accept 80% of my salary in Unis.” How would that work?

Scott Ferguson: I think there’s multiple ways of answering this. One is at the level of language and packaging. So like I said, you can buy a $20 Starbucks gift card, and you have 20 American dollars in Starbucks gift cards, and I think rhetorically I would want to pursue a similar strategy that you have. Here’s an amount of $200 of Unis–rather than rhetorically making sense of the Uni as it’s just its own weird thing.

Jakob Feinig: Perfect. Okay, that’s exactly what I needed to understand it because it’s like, I have $500 in my bank account, right? That’s not the same thing as Federal Reserve notes, it’s lower in the hierarchy. And yet I’m convinced I have $200 and no one will dispute that I do have $200. 

I love the way you put it, and it really makes me understand that I was still thinking of the Unis as complementary, when in fact they’re not complementary. It’s one way of implementing credit money creation within the dollar system. For me, it was very tempting to think of it as complementary, but actually, no, it’s not. You know, it’s $20, period. So I really thank you for that– I really needed that!

Benjamin Wilson: And I think when you start to think about the gift card and all the other ways that we change our US dollars into less receivable instruments, it starts to make it seem a lot less weird. Especially when it comes to paying for higher education. I’ve got special savings accounts for my children. I can’t use any of that money, but it’s still US dollars. It’s US dollars that can really only be used to pay for higher education by me without being taxed, but that money has been sent to Wall Street and hedge funds to grow. 

That is buffering and creating another stream of revenue that is outside of the university system. It seems a little strange to me that we invest in sending our kids to college, in places that aren’t directly improving the places we want to send our kids to get educated. Why aren’t our savings accounts expanding the resources and educational opportunities in these places? The Uni could be that instrument. You don’t have to save for college in Wall Street funds, you can save for college in Uni funds, and you can design those in all sorts of different ways. 

So from the classroom to the Public Banking Act, these are all just part of peeling away the layers of an onion that has been decades in the making: This revenue-driven higher education model. And there’s just so many places where things could be done differently, that I think do a better job of organizing public provisioning to do the things that we really want it to do, from the university mission statement to questions about what education is as a public good, to the provisioning and creation of all of our public goods from healthcare to public spaces, our parks and where we recreate, I am also thinking from the perspective of an urban planner and designer. The amount of possible reductions in heart disease from having adequate shade in your community and things of this nature, allow us to plant trees and do things that are nice for people that right now just seem unaffordable, or undoable.

Scott Ferguson: And we don’t have to outsource to for-profit corporations, we can build up provisioning capacities within the university, as we are learning from, collaborating with, listening to, and partnering with communities that have been policed and not served, and are being displaced by for-profit university administration.

Jakob Feinig: We could start in-sourcing stuff like food production, or provisioning or kitchens, or all kinds of things.

Scott Ferguson: Simple examples from my own life: On the campus at UC Berkeley that I was at, which has its problems, there were several food establishments that had been there for a long time and were local businesses, and were a part of the community. The campus that I’ve worked at for the last decade plus, it’s all Subways and Chick-fil-As. Of course, all of it is actually Aramark, the firm that is licensing all the logos and the food supply chains and all the stuff for these subcontracted workers to come in and do the work. We could rethink that if we’re owning up to our authority and responsibility as community provisioners.

Another part of this project that I want to flag is, yes, it’s a proposal, and it’s an evolving proposal. But it’s also what I’ve come to call a “problem space” that invites participation. So what we’re offering is not “the Uni–one thing” and that’s going to be the solution, but rather an ongoing participation in a paradigm that opens up new questions, new fights, new possibilities, new responsibilities.

Benjamin Wilson: That’s what we’re in now. Neoliberal austerity didn’t just explode on the scene, right? It’s been a slowly evolving thing, closing off more and more possibilities for decades.

Scott Ferguson: While opening up all kinds of private and precarious ones.

Benjamin Wilson: Absolutely–I love the idea that it’s a problem space, it’s an open invitation. I think the conversation that Erica and Will had was dead on and thinking about debt as this unifying rallying call. This calls into question university debt, it calls into question student debt, it calls into question public debt at large, and we can experiment with really new ways that are nowhere near as limiting as what we’re currently facing.

Scott Ferguson: We should mention that we have the goal of making higher-ed free again. In the problem space of the Uni that is contingent upon what level of receivability any given Unique project is working at. If we have a Uni based on the Public Banking Act, then that is probably the most capacious, authoritative and powerful Uni that we can have as long as it is participatory all the way down. And in that case, we can absolutely not only abolish all student debt, but also all tuition and fees. If we’re talking about local experimentation in a classroom or a program, or even just one university, then we have to move more slowly toward reducing tuition. We have big dreams and a big goal. But achieving that goal is going to have to be connected to which part of the fight or which part of the build-out are we investing in at any given time.

Benjamin Wilson: And the more people that participate in various ways, either through advocacy, at federal and state-level policy-making, to sharing successes that they’re having in these classrooms, the more evidence, the more power, the more buy-in, the more people get involved in, the better the process will be, the more informed, the better trained people will be to be the administrators of a Public Banking Act. It’s not going to be an easy job, just like being the head underwriter for Bank of America isn’t an easy job. But it’s a better job, I would argue.

Scott Ferguson: Less so in the humanities, but primarily in the sciences and social sciences, we have big grants, and then big initiatives and research programs and labs that are granting and provisioning and keeping track and doing that already. I want to get to the point where we’re not simply defending this proposal for the Uni. I want to get to the point where other people are teaching us about what the Uni is and what it can be. That’s where I want to get.

Benjamin Wilson: That would be magic. That would be phenomenal.

Scott Ferguson: And it’s a big hurdle, because it’s a very different way of imagining. It’s a different emotional relationship to the world. It requires a different emotional stance.

Benjamin Wilson: It’s hard to be optimistic sometimes. But this would make that a lot easier and end the “you’re alone” narrative and all that stuff.

Jakob Feinig: How do you make the switch of thinking of yourself as a money issuer?

Benjamin Wilson: Well, doing it helped! Creating “Benjamins” [Wilson’s classroom currency] and I talked to touch base with Michael at EnergyWeb and said that I’m presenting it again, hoping to recruit more faculty to join me at Cortland. And he was like, yeah, the more the merrier, scale is not a problem for us. Like, if you’ve got people at other universities that want to use the system, we can get to work on trying to think through all the different technological dynamics of allowing your currencies to be measured and understood and how many are circulating and how much of the tax liabilities are being extinguished. And all that stuff on like a very large scale, which is super exciting. 

Jakob Feinig: I have mine right now on paper. Students named them “Googly Shallaghs.”

Scott Ferguson: I think too, there’s a double move, which is inviting people and teaching them about how this could work: How you can be a currency issuer and provisioner in your classroom or in a larger program or working with community outreach organizations on your campus and things like that. But there’s also the flip of the switch, which is just a mental one. Which is coming to realize that, if we’re talking about instructors, you’re already doing it, you already are in a system of credits. And you have students who work for credits. And you assess those, you assess their performance, through, usually, grades. Not everybody does that. But my campus does that. And those grades are receivable as part of the university system, right? That leads to a diploma but also when you graduate, and when and when you leverage your degree toward a job or toward another degree. Those grades might matter and be receivable and valuable for different reasons. So we’re already doing it. We just think that we’ve just so naturalized it that we don’t know that we’re doing it.

Jakob Feinig: And when you do it for the first time, it’s like the similar shift from just being a receiver of grades to all of a sudden–the creator of grades.

Scott Ferguson: That’s true, that’s true.

Jakob Feinig: And I hated it. And I still hate it.

Scott Ferguson: You feel this responsibility. Yeah, absolutely.

Jakob Feinig: But this is not something I would hate. It’s different. It’s a different kind of credit. I hate issuing those credits, but I don’t have to hate it. I mean, I don’t think I would hate issuing Unis, that’s different.

Scott Ferguson: I mean, whether they’re like traditional grades, like A, B, C, D. I mean, we could imagine all kinds of different evaluative modes. I mean, they can be just qualitative or whatever. But I think you would feel less bad about that if it wasn’t in the context of an austere punitive cutthroat system where there’s not enough to go around. Different people have different views on grading, but we might not feel as bad even using traditional grades when lower grades don’t mean abjection.

Benjamin Wilson: If you’re known as a hard grader, students will still take your class, because they know they’re getting a really good education rather than avoiding it just because they can’t take that risk in their GPA. It’s amazing. People definitely avoid my classes, because I have a reputation of being hard.

Benjamin Wilson: But I’m not.

Scott Ferguson: So you say. 

Benjamin Wilson: I’m really just a snuggly teddy bear. My mission post-sabbatical, this next phase of my career, is to soften that a little bit. I think part of that is just being new and not wanting to be taken advantage of, knowing that you’re doing it right, and not letting people slack off. I think it’s just part of the mindset, maybe. But I’m not nearly as scared of that anymore. 

I really see education as an opt-in. Some students are going to opt out, and that’s okay. And I’ll do my best to keep you there. But if you’re not opting in, then I’m going to continue to focus on those that are really buying in and ready to take it on. I think the Uni gives us the freedom to do that too. You don’t have to issue Uni to a student that’s not doing the work, just like in the Jobs Guarantee.

Scott Ferguson: The Uni can be a part of the Job Guarantee. I co-authored a piece with William Saas a year or two ago that was published in the journal Liminalities. I will give credit where credit is due: This was Billy Saas’ idea that I supported and co-wrote with him, but this was very much his idea. He came to me with this idea for a Green New Deal-driven and university-focused academic job guarantee which would leverage federal funds to extend security and benefits equivalent to tenure to all workers on public college and university campuses. 

We call this the SBET or SBET: Security and benefits equivalent to tenure, where essentially termination has to be for cause rather than at will. Coupled with a robust unionization effort and legislation, this would make worker power much, much greater. And it would create a collective safety net for expanding not just worker power but the provisioning powers of the Uni currency project.

Jakob F: Wow, I have to read that!

Scott Ferguson: The title of the paper is “Performative Public Finance for Higher Education, Academic Labor and the Green New Deal.” 

Jakob Feinig: I want to read it right away. I wanted to ask maybe as a last question, how do you see the project unfolding in the next years and months? What do you think the next steps should be?

Benjamin Wilson: First, I hope that this discussion, and the piece in Academe magazine, sparks larger discussions. And really the Uni project is something that is evolving and changing and it’s not really this, you have to do X or Y in order to be involved, but really be open to any sort of suggestions or ideas and participation. For me, the next iteration of the Uni is going to take place in my urban class–I am hoping to build an edible park. I’m hoping to expand it up into the Adirondacks where I’m working with some great community folks to ameliorate food security, clean water, and access to health care. 

I’m hoping that as more people get involved, either on my campus or across SUNY campuses, or from other places, we start putting together a database of all the beautiful things that we’re getting done by mobilizing student work, and the production of public goods in all different fields, from public art spaces to food systems to in-stream habitat interventions. Whatever you think is a way of ameliorating the climate crisis or social inequities, I would be super excited to collaborate and hear more. And at the other end, hopefully folks will start advocating for the Public Banking Act and writing letters for state level policies for public banks, the Job Guarantee, the Green New Deal, the E-Cash Act, all these amazing federal legislative projects that would all contribute to moving beyond the austerity model that we’re living in today.

Scott Ferguson: And just to close, we’re also imagining this as an alternative to a lot of the frantic and excited activity around blockchain and other forms that bill themselves as private currencies, from crypto to NFT’s and this kind of thing that have proven to be insecure and volatile, and certainly not serving public purposes. And even after all of these market crashes, companies like Facebook or Meta are still investing millions if not billions of dollars in propping up a vision of the future in which these private monies are supposed to play a central role. 

The notion that people can start participating in money creation is actually everywhere. It’s in headlines. It’s on social media. It’s just that that’s such a terrible model. It’s such a horrible model. But if we can harness some of that energy toward public purpose, then we’re talking. 

I think with that, we can end. Thanks so much for joining me for this great conversation, Ben and Jakob.

Benjamin Wilson: That was so much fun! Thanks for organizing. 

Jakob Feinig: Thank you!

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Mercedes Ohlen (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)

Rising Tides Sink All Boats

By David M. Fields

So, what is the Fed’s deal? Has Jerome Powell fallen prey to inflationary paranoia and hysteria for all the wrong reasons? Or is a “strong’ dollar a manifestation of a particular response to a policy choice that is more calculated and direct? By facilitating aggressive monetary austerity, the Federal Reserve is ensuring the US dollar is a safety asset to insulate the global rentier from cost-push-markup inflationary unpredictability.

The US dollar is surging to new heights. For instance, the US Dollar Index, which values the greenback against a basket of currencies, has advanced considerably. One of the burning questions is whether this will last? For now, I think, yes, it will, simply because there is no alternative for global trade invoicing and financial accounting. Aggressive monetary austerity policy from the Federal Reserve, a project aimed at using unemployment to tame cost-push-markup inflation, is pushing rival currencies lower, particularly in emerging market economies that suffer from balance of payments constraints, as investors from around the globe rush to purchase US Treasuries for security in the face of world-systemic economic uncertainty.

This scenario is vastly different than the monetary policy from only a year ago or so. Then, to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, central banks around the world cut interest rates sharply — to near 0 — and governments deployed aggressive fiscal support of their economies. As a result, Federal Reserve actions were important in stabilizing world financial markets, specifically with respect to Fed swap lines and the establishment of the Foreign and International Monetary Authorities (FIMA) Repo Facility, which ensured a “buyer of last resort” for foreign central banks desiring to sell U.S. dollar reserves. Capital flowed throughout the world and the dollar fell sharply. In a sense, this was to be expected, and was seen as temporary. Eventually, the dollar was bound to bounce back up. And now it is. And the post-pandemic world paved the way.

Indeed, as the world economy reopened from pandemic lockdowns, supply chain bottlenecks arosecoupled with pandemic profiteering, generating worldwide upsurges in inflation. The response from the Fed, as mentioned, has been to raise the federal funds rate, which has translated into a sharp dollar appreciation as a result of global capital inflows, as the US dollar is a reserve asset to cope with worldwide economic uncertainty.

Yet, is this influential role of the dollar in the world economy an indication of the United States’ core commitment to internal price stability and external cooperation for the deliverance of efficient world capital markets and global trade links? Or acute deposition of the monetary power of the United States? In my view, the answer is the latter.

Here’s why.

The Fed is the world economy’s central bank, which acts as the safety valve for mass amounts of international liquidity. The role of the US dollar in international markets, and the advantages that come with it, are the spoils of its monetary hegemony. The provision of this asset allows the United States to become the source of global demand, and to insulate itself from fluctuations and contradictions of perilous cumulative disequilibria that may arise in the world economy, like the adverse price effects of supply chain bottlenecks and financial contagion that stem from foreign currency devaluations. The US dollar is the numeraire currency in international markets, which is not emblematic of credible macroeconomic performance that fosters confidence, but an arbiter of authority that regulates and dictates the flows of international financial commitments for global economic activity.

Given the current state of world economic dynamics, along with the foreseeable future, there does not seem to be a direct challenge to the dollar’s preeminence, in the same vein as the Euro was not a likely contender given its fallout from the Great Recession. There is not any indication of the greenback’s fall from grace as the dominant international currency. This does not preclude, nevertheless, eventual dollar dethroning, just confirms that the process is (very) long-term.

Despite hysterical contestations of inflationary fragility, the US dollar insulates the United States from global fluctuations and contradictions that may arise. This provides the country the effective means by which the world economy can be stabilized with global demand expansion, without spurring assumed demand-pull inflationary spirals. So, what is the Fed’s deal? Has Jerome Powell fallen prey to inflationary paranoia and hysteria for all the wrong reasons? Or is a “strong’ dollar a manifestation of a particular response to a policy choice that is more calculated and direct? By facilitating aggressive monetary austerity, the Federal Reserve is ensuring the US dollar is a safety asset to insulate the global rentier from cost-push-markup inflationary unpredictability. As such, expectations of future dollar depreciation arising from a return to loose monetary policy is, unfortunately, unlikely.

I hope I am wrong.

***Republished from the Monetary Policy Institute Blog***