MMT & the Art of Social Practice with Vienne Chan (Live)

In this special live episode of Money on the Left, artist and researcher Vienne Chan joins us to talk art, politics, and money—and how Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) reconfigures the boundaries between all three. Recorded at the Third Annual International Conference on Modern Monetary Theory held at Stony Brook University, our conversation focuses specifically on Vienne’s recent efforts to combine MMT principles with diagrammatic visual design to fundamentally reimagine how to build and sustain democratic housing communities. Vienne holds an MFA in Public Art and New Artistic Strategies from Bauhaus Universitat Weimar. Her work has been shown at NGBK in Berlin, Plataforma Revolver in Lisbon, CCA Tel Aviv, Kunsthaus Dresden, and the Armory Center in Los Angeles.


The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.

William Saas: Vienne Chan, could you tell us about your background and your evolving career as an artist, and how money became important in your work?

Vienne Chan: I’ll start by saying I’m the kind of artist who always responds to a situation. There are artists who can make work after reading books, but I’m not that kind of artist. I like to react to social situations. For example, in some of my older work I invited an asylum seeker–and I use that word very consciously because an asylum seeker has very different rights from a refugee–I invited an asylum seeker who was running a photo stand on the streets to move his booth into a gallery during an exhibition as an art work. I try to think of art as a way to create new spaces. But I got a little bit frustrated with the lack of long-term impact and the very limited scale art could have. So I decided to go back to school.

When I went back to school, I made the very conscious decision to try to attempt things on a larger scale–not just physically, but also intellectually. In one of my works while doing my masters in Germany, I walked from Weimar to Berlin. Weimar is about 270 kilometers away from Berlin. We were doing a project at a theater there. By the way, I actually studied something called public art. You know, the gallery space is quite limited. Once you actually realize the space of art making is quite limited, once you’re outside of the gallery walls, you’re basically on your own. No one is going to come in and bail you out when the police comes or anything like that. So I thought, okay, if that’s the case, why not extend the space of art making to its maximum. That is, from the university in Weimar all the way to the gallery in Berlin.

So I just decided to walk it with four other artists. Because, when you’re in a group, you don’t give up so easily. You have pride and ego and all that, as well as safety. We walked I think six days, about 40 kilometers each day. Other than extending the idea of places for art making, I was also really interested in how a lot of our movements are predetermined. You’re not supposed to walk from Weimar to Berlin. You take the train or you take the bus. All of that predetermines your interactions with the kind of people you meet. You could drive, but even then people would laugh at you if you took a really long route or kept going in circles before you arrived at your destination.

For another example, I wrote an UNESCO World Heritage application for Germany’s open borders. Europeans are quite fond of multiculturalism and how open-minded they are. But during the height of what is called the “refugee crisis,” there were some borders that were closed for just a brief period. When you hear the politicians talk about the need to open borders, it is always based on trade, about how expensive closed borders were because the trucks took too long to cross the border. It is never about any kind of humanitarian reason. So I decided, well if this is what open borders are really about, then let’s make this about Germany’s open borders as a heritage of free trade in the world today.

To get to the money question, I started off rather naive thinking about civil disobedience in the very traditional Thoreau sense of tax avoidance. Actually, Thoreau didn’t think about it as tax avoidance. He just refused to pay taxes to support the government. Of course, having learned MMT, I realize this doesn’t actually make sense. But anyway, I thought about engaging in some kind of civil disobedience. The problem is it really only works when you have a lot of people doing it. And technically, if you don’t pay your taxes, that’s illegal. So I was trying to figure out legal ways for civil disobedience. I then started looking at multinational corporations and how they route their money around and use tax avoidance schemes, which are perfectly legal but ethically problematic. So I got very interested in money that way.

But it also very much comes from the specific position of artists. We are always in a situation of debt. We have masters degrees, yet I have lots of friends working 10 Euro jobs who were supposedly educated and this is our future. It’s not an internship. If I as an artist am interested in social issues and potentially making an impact, and if debt is all I have, then how can I learn to use this debt? This is how I became really curious about money. And then, once you start thinking about why debt is a problem for me, but for other people it’s actually an asset, you start ending up in MMT quite quickly.

Maxximilian Seijo: As you were just alluding to, there’s this sense in the way we talk about art and money together in modernity that they’re often pitched against one another. Debt versus art, or the economy versus aesthetics. We were wondering how your artistic project perhaps complicates or intervenes in this history of thought around money and art?

Vienne Chan: Well, traditionally a lot of art deals with social issues. And we often see money as a form of oppression and injustice, which of course is all correct, but it seems that a lot of artists have therefore avoided money as a direct tool because we don’t want to participate in the oppression. At the same time, the artistic response might often be one of emphasizing care and affect. For me the problem is: how do you scale this up to a larger society? Not just for 10 to 20 people at the gallery or on the streets at the site of a performance event. And once you start scaling up, you need some method of organization. For me, that is what money is. You can take away the dollars, you take away the euros, but in the end, you need a method for organizing your cultural priorities and how you want to allocate limited resources. If you don’t use dollars, if you don’t use cryptocurrencies, you still need some form of tracking. It can even be a piece of paper and pencil. That’s what money is. And once you arrive at that point of this idea of money as a method for organizing priorities, then it becomes very relevant in art production.

Scott Ferguson: Great. One of the things that we try to do on this show is to not only explain and promote Modern Monetary Theory, but also to develop it and to complicate it, and to really take seriously the question of money’s nature or ontology. I think this modern division between aesthetics and money is a real barrier for understanding what money’s ontology is and can be. I wonder if we can pivot now and start talking about some of your more recent MMT informed projects and how MMT is informing those projects. My provocation is to ask you to say something about the way that you’re extending MMT and the way we think about tax driven money and these sorts of questions.

Vienne Chan: Right. I will talk a bit about a project I did while I was in Croatia. I’ll start with a little bit of background about Croatia because specific conditions affect how you build specific ideas. Croatia is the newest country to join the EU. Yet, the country hasn’t really benefited from EU membership. It has a massive brain drain. And a lot of the younger people who decided to stay behind are having trouble finding jobs because SMEs have trouble securing business loans. At the same time, the country has become very much a tourist based economy, which also means that young people who are trying to find a place to live have to compete with the Airbnb market, which is very tough. Plus, you have a generation of older landlords who are from and remain in the working class who are not wealthy. This is because, when it was a part of Yugoslavia, Croatia had a lot of worker-owned housing, which got sold off at far below market prices to raise funds during the war for independence. That’s the background.

So what I tried to do was to combine the landlords and the young people together through a community currency. I couldn’t figure out a way to do it with the fiat currency because of all the restrictions from the European Central Bank. When you’re in an EU country, you have restrictions on your deficit to GDP ratio. Community currencies are really interesting because they’re really socially driven projects and on many levels. Everything about a community currency you just want to love. Yet somehow in practice, they have always fallen short of their ideals. So I started looking at why do they fail? And it’s actually quite obvious once you look at it. Okay, what can I do with this community currency or complementary currency? Well, I can buy a coffee with it, I can buy an organic muffin with it. But that’s not my biggest expense. For most people, their biggest expense is rent or housing. And this is an absolutely inflexible need. You’re alive and you need a place to live. And you can’t really just go camping in the park because you could get arrested.

So I was thinking, what if we asked the landlords to be the issuer of the community currency so you can pay your rent with coin, giving it immediate usage. Then, you issue loans with that to commercial loans to SMEs. So you also fund your small and medium enterprises, thus creating job opportunities with the coin currency at the same time. To talk about where I’m trying, perhaps a bit unconsciously, to expand the MMT discourse is why landlords would want to participate in such a scheme. And the fact is, at least in the Croatian case, landlords are older people; they’re parents. When you speak with older people, once their basic needs are covered, the most important thing to them is their children. What is happening now is, as the Croatian economy is basically being strangled, people are leaving–that’s their children leaving. Almost every single parent I speak to wants their children to stay close by at least in the same country. So in theory, this would sort of root the currency into a more social, emotional, and familial need that goes beyond what money can buy.

William Saas: In a way, very much unlike neoclassical macroeconomics, MMT shifts political economy from micro to genuinely macro foundations. Along the way, it raises new questions about scale, which have been a consistent preoccupation in your work. Can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve treated problems of scale in the past and how MMT might’ve changed or challenged your approach to issues of scale in new ways?

Vienne Chan: Back in my former life as a more traditional artist, I would work with video projections because all you need to do is take a step back and then you get a bigger image. The problem is, I wasn’t sure about the actual social impact that would have. Also, the larger something is, the harder it is to actually portray as noticeable. So one thing I’ve found is, because the macro scale is so hard and not intuitive for a lot of people, to take a step towards the physically smaller. I draw diagrams and I do live presentations, or so-called “performance lectures” with people. Versus beaming an image on a street, it supposedly has a much more limited impact.

The idea is, if you want an actual impact, then you need people to understand and not just be entertained. And that takes time. Right now I’m sort of experimenting with very micro scale. I’ve been trying to run these small hackathons for socioeconomic problems. I work with a small group and we try to find an issue that’s important and work together to find a solution. Almost invariably, the lack of money comes up. And I don’t need to say, “Well, this is MMT theory.” It’s more like, “Okay, let’s work together and how would we solve this?” People often eventually arrive at some kind of MMT solution. It might take a little guidance to push certain thoughts and beliefs further. Like, let’s do a community currency, but why didn’t this work? And so, I don’t necessarily say “Today we’re gonna learn MMT.” Instead, I say “If you had the power to do this, how would you design it?” People seem to get it better.

Maxximilian Seijo: I have a question related to your housing art project. I sort of feel like there’s something that needs to be fleshed out more in what it means for MMT. In the sense that, I think normally on the left the traditional narratives around housing and landlords really take on this determined view of pure exploitation. I think what your project has shown and how you really take a look at this case study on a smaller scale and in a particular environment, is that there are perhaps more nuances to the questions of housing and money, and the way that payment and culture interacts with that. And so, I was wondering if you could perhaps meditate on the ways in which introducing this non-scarcity framing into currency issuance for you changes the way we think about housing as a policy agenda or as a construct of a leftist praxis?

Vienne Chan: For a while, I’ve been seeing a lot of these tiny house projects and it’s all very cute. Yeah, we can build things, we can make a house out of construction pipe or whatever. And we can all be nice if we throw away our stuff and it will all fit. But the issue of housing is actually not one of lack of space. It’s really a matter of speculation. People can’t afford a home not because there isn’t enough land. It’s because there are a lot of empty apartments. And so, once you clear the fact that it’s not actually a problem of physical land being available or even the materials for building a house being so expensive, then you realize, why can’t the government or another public organization come in to provide this basic human need?

Scott Ferguson: Given a lot of this discussion, one might mistake it for us just talking about social activism and political activism. And you’ve said that some of your artist friends no longer even recognize you as an artist. What I’d like you to do, maybe in a pedagogical way, is to situate where you come from in contemporary and historical art practice. What is public art? What is social activist art? Do you have heroes in these worlds now or from the past? Just to give our audience a sense of where you come from in a broader sense.

Vienne Chan: Okay, so all my heroes are artists who have quit art. There is Claire Bishop. She’s an art theorist and historian. I don’t remember the exact quote, but in response to socially engaged art practices, she said something to the effect that artists have become the nice Christian ladies who clean up after the government and I don’t want to become one of those ladies. I mean, I am not alone in my practice. There are other artists who decided to take this idea of actual impact and change the function of artists to an extreme. For example, Ricardo Dominguez created a transport and migrant tool to help migrants cross the border more safely with water sources and so on. Tania Bruguera started the Immigrant Movement International, which tries to give migrants resources. One of my favorites is Renzo Martens. He created the Institute for Human Activities. This is one of my favorite artists. A lot of indigenous people are at risk of being forced to move out of rainforests. So he goes into these places and teaches these indigenous people how to make contemporary art. Then, he takes these objects and sells them on art markets. But the idea is, he tries to gentrify the forests so that these people won’t be forced out. I’m not exactly sure what the actual impact is. But I think this is quite ingenious and it’s one of my favorite projects.

William Saas: Great. So you mentioned organizing locally around local issues through hackathons. I was just wondering if you could contextualize what locality you were talking about and maybe walk us through an example of how you end up arriving at MMT through a hackathon?

Vienne Chan: Yeah, this is still very much a work in progress. I mean I’ve only done it once with six people. Without presenting any of my previous models I’ve done, I worked with a group in Zagreb and I asked them what they would like to do and we basically went through the whole spectrum of all the social issues and how we would do this and complementary currencies and so on. I basically try to be the invisible hand in all of this. And it’s actually an incredibly hard job to guide people, challenge their assumptions, and push them further. At the same time, to let people also arrive at their own conclusions. We were talking about housing again in Zagreb, Croatia, and their final solution actually had nothing to do with MMT.

They decided they would work with existing landlords and become a building management company to create affordable housing and regain control of public spaces to hold communal events. So that has nothing to do with MMT. On the way, we talked about smart contracts and why they might not be so smart. We talked about building a new settlement community in the suburbs. Well, that sounds all good. We spent half a day talking about it. But then we realized that means putting all of the poor people together in one place, which sounds like maybe not such a smart idea. So it’s not necessarily through an MMT context, but once you decide you want to build something social, you always encounter money on the way and ask how are we going to fund this. We can build a new building, we can buy existing buildings, we can create bonds, and so on. All of these principles come up and they may or may not stay. But the fact is, these people have thought about it in a much more in depth way.

Maxximilian Seijo: I want to talk a little bit about your diagrams and the way they seem to collapse the difference between political and aesthetic praxis. Why choose the diagram in this case and not something more like representational art or what some would traditionally call art and more common for the public? I feel like this is also bumping up against this definitional question. Like, at what point are we doing art and at what point does that end? I think this is an ongoing struggle that we’re trying to define here. If you could reflect on that, that’d be great.

Vienne Chan: Yeah, this is a really great question. Where does art end? I believe it’s Susan Sontag who talks about how we’ve become desensitized because there are too many images. I feel this is very much true. There are lots of photos and so on of people’s suffering. To be honest, if you’re not already moved by that, who am I to move you with another photo of someone being poor or of someone living on the street. If you’re not moved by that, if you’ve already seen 2000 of those images, and if you’re already moved by that, then what will another image of suffering add to your life.

So what I’m actually interested in is how we can imagine a path forward. That’s the great thing about art. You can put away a lot of restrictions and you can just start imagining and then work backwards to see how it might actually be implementable. So that’s from the artistic perspective. As for diagrams, I think Modern Monetary Theory or any kind of monetary theory is extremely complicated. You have a lot of really complex relationships. And I think complex relationships are best shown by diagrams because they’re very clear. There’s no missing interpretation, like “This line actually is about my love,” or whatever. It’s a very quick way to communicate an idea. This probably still needs some kind of explanation or walkthrough, but compared to a painting, I feel it’s slightly more effective.

Scott Ferguson: Do you wanna walk us through it a little bit?

Vienne Chan: Okay, so this is from the Croatian project. We start off on the right hand side. LG is a landlord’s group. SPV is a special purpose vehicle. We formed the landlords into a group and they pull SMEs together who need a loan. We create a securitized loan and that gets sold to the public to raise cash. Then, the SMEs receive the loans and a mixture of cash and coins. You want cash so you can interact with organizations outside of your community. But the coin will help you retain and secure your local capital. Then, let’s say I bought one of these securitized loans. I can now also use that coin to pay rent. So I pay rent in coin or whatever I choose. It then goes back to another landlords organization, which is sort of like a Real Estate Investment Trust. I put REIT-like, because I haven’t really figured out what all the legal implications of being a true REIT are. But let’s say it’s a REIT-like structure.

Now, because we have landlords and relatively informal relationships, that also means we have houses, right? So let’s say a landlord owns apartments one, two, and three. And we have a few young people as buyers one, two and three. Buyers one, two and three sign a mortgage to become shareholders in the REIT. They buy the house and sign mortgages and then the mortgages get grouped back into mortgage backed securities, which are being traded on financial markets. We sell those off to an external investor. That raises some cash and goes back to the landlord’s REIT. Then, that cash goes off and buys out an existing mortgage. For example, a lot of people were holding mortgages with Austrian banks or Italian banks. In Croatia, the banking system is really dominated by Austrian and Italian banks. Mortgages were written in the Swiss Franc and that fueled a lot of carry trade activities. Also, in the financial crisis of 2008, this led to lots of people losing their homes and mortgage prices spiking more than 30% and so on.

Now, with that cash we bought, we pay off existing mortgages at these foreign banks. We thus remove it from that circuit. At the same time, to remove that mortgage from the bank, that person also signs another mortgage with the REIT. You then go back into this loop again. Basically, the idea in this hyper speculative world is to remove as many mortgages as possible from the banking system and put them back into a more collectively owned situation. Then, if there are any extra revenues, they can maybe go support the national government. We can buy some government bonds or we can always fund more SMEs and other public infrastructure we would like.

Scott Ferguson: Thanks. Now, I want us to speculate a little bit. Imagine that we have passed the Green New Deal, maybe in this country, or maybe all over the world. We want massive public arts and we want to rethink art. If you are on a committee that was in charge of not determining everything, but putting in your two cents, and from your experience, both answering the intense problems that we see that you’re already answering, but also imagining a world where we’re starting to move beyond these neoliberal catastrophes, what comes to mind? What would you do?

Vienne Chan: Wow. This is a big question. I dunno, maybe we can just blow bubbles on the streets? No, I’m serious, they’re beautiful! I guess this is like, when we arrive at utopia, what are we going to do?

Scott Ferguson: Not quite utopia.

Vienne Chan: Not quite utopia. I guess I would like to engage more in traditional aesthetics. Maybe then I can think about Kant and Hagel and things like that, and the sublime. It’s really hard because almost my entire practice has always been a response to problems. And you’re saying, what if we have no problems?

Scott Ferguson: No, I didn’t mean utopia. I don’t believe in utopia. Tomorrow we pass the Green New Deal. We are going to have a major arts component. From your perspective, from your background, what kinds of things would you want to fund? That’s really the question.

Vienne Chan: I think arts education. I mean, production is always important. It sounds very cheesy, but I see art as a way of seeing the world. It’s a way of seeing the world that is more gentle. It’s fine if someone decides not to become an artist when they grow up. From my own experience, I would not recommend people being artists because you will be in an unemployable situation. But maybe we will have the Job Guarantee then as well. From my current experience, I would say art is really important because it’s a way of seeing the world in a different way that’s not about how I can profit from something else. I can’t say exact details because it’s so far from my own experience.

William Saas: I’m glad we returned to the question of education because when you were talking about the hackathons and the community currency projects, it seems like you definitely have a pedagogical philosophy. Maybe it’s particular to your approach to MMT. It seems like you’re not directing folks there, you’re guiding them. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that pedagogical philosophy and why you think it might apply in this case specifically? We’ve had a lot of people at this conference talking about teaching MMT, and I think about it all the time. So I’d like to hear more about your approach.

Vienne Chan: Well, I guess it comes from more experiences of failure than everything else because I do performance lectures and so on. Performance lectures are basically just lectures, but it’s done by an artist and in a gallery space and it’s all very entertaining. People are like, “Wow, this is so cool.” But then afterwards, nothing happens. So I started experimenting with this hackathon format, making it more open-ended. When people create something that they feel is their own, they are more inclined to actually take it a little further than the four walls they were working in. So that’s my experience. Also, I see a lot of things. As you know, the learning process is about learning how to learn. That’s what I find much more engaging about this format than just having someone say, “If you do this, then this will happen.”

William Saas: It seems likely that art education under a Green New Deal would also involve production and maybe along that mode.

Vienne Chan: Yeah.

Maxximilian Seijo: You sort of mentioned in passing that, if you weren’t reacting all the time to neoliberal catastrophes, there might be more of a space for taking on questions of traditional aesthetics. You mentioned Kant and Hegel. Do you think there’s a case for integrating questions of historically traditionalist aesthetics into a political aesthetic response to neoliberalism?

Vienne Chan: That’s a really deep question. I may need a bit more time to think about that. I don’t want to generalize too much because I haven’t thought about this in particular depth, but this might go back to the decolonizing versus colonizing discussion. I’m not sure to what extent traditional aesthetics may have been part of that. I don’t know to what extent traditional aesthetics may need to be so-called decolonized or perhaps even unlearned. Perhaps, I prefer the word unlearned.

Scott Ferguson: Can you reflect on your background and upbringing? You live in multiple places around the globe. How does that inform your work historically? But also in thinking about MMT, we’re often accused of being so narrowly statist. Of course, many panels at this conference have shown that we are not and we’re always trying to complicate that. But yeah, I wonder what your own background and experience brings to these questions.

Vienne Chan: I was born in Hong Kong, which is like a hyper capitalist city. I come from a pretty working class family. My mom worked odd jobs and even in a factory sewing clothes, and my dad worked as a primary school teacher. So in many senses, this is as normal as it gets. But, I guess in the same vein, I grew up with this very neoliberal, conservative economics thinking, that if you work hard enough, there is a good life ahead and you can become an investment banker or whatnot. That’s actually what most people in Hong Kong would probably want their kids to become until quite recently. Then, I went to university in Canada and started getting interested in Marxism and labor.

And there are still a lot of things that I think are quite important in what [Marxism] says. But what I felt was missing about it was flexibility. Also, I felt that it wasn’t really proposing anything that could be implemented tomorrow. I guess that’s how I started thinking about money. Also, coming from this Hong Kong background of being very aware of how important money is, I can’t just remove it from being. It’s that mixture that brings me into these kinds of speculations.

William Saas: We’re getting to the close here, but as we do, I want to kind of circle back to the beginning and ask you to reflect a little bit more on your experience of coming to MMT and how that particularly reshaped your experience?

Vienne Chan: I came to it actually largely through this Croatian project, because I just started thinking, this might require me to design a community currency and why do those not work? And then you start reading a bit more and it’s like, “Oh, there are all these people doing this thing called MMT and it is exactly like what I’m trying to do.” And then you realize, this is actually how it works. It’s just the people I would like to have in power aren’t in the position to make these decisions. Academia has a lot of descriptive theories, but I often find I have an account of how the world is not functioning and why the world is not functioning, but how do I move forward? There are very few people making any kind of suggestions or any kind of vision. And I think that’s one of the really beautiful things about MMT. It’s really helped me at least to have a clearer view of how things work and why they don’t work and then you can start thinking about organization in more utopic ways. 

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I would say that coincides with my own experience. I would say that MMT at its base is not just a description of how things work. It’s a kind of unlocking of the key to our social imagination. And what we’ve kept under lock and key under the category of art or the aesthetic, which is one of the reasons why I admire what you’re doing with MMT. MMT opens up the imagination and allows us to make speculative and even positive claims about the kind of world we want and imagine. It allows us to test it out, build it, propose it, but also ask new questions as new problems pop up all the time.

In my own work–I’m film and media scholar–I’m always struck by the ways that imagination is locked up in so many of our cultural and aesthetic forms, but also in our language. And even our critical language. Our critical language, I argue, is thickly liberal in a big L liberal sense. So I see a lot of opportunities to find new problems and to work through new questions. As we draw to a close here, I’m wondering if you can speculate about what you are thinking about now? What are some of the questions and problems you are trying to pursue and workout? Maybe you don’t have answers yet?

Vienne Chan: I mean don’t have answers to everything, but I think what you just said, it quite nicely reminds us that we will never really actually arrive at utopia. There will always be some sort of conflict, some sort of injustice. There’s no one theory for all that will solve everything. I’m sure there will be some sort of inspiration later on, but I guess one of the key questions is the power dynamics. A lot of this, and I think a lot of how things are unlocked actually depends on who is in power to actually make certain things move certain ways. I think that in the end will probably always be a question.

Maxximilian Seijo: Vienne Chan, thank you so much for coming on Money on the Left, live here at the Third International Conference on Modern Monetary Theory.

Vienne Chan: Thank you for having me.


* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamAlex Williams (audio engineering), Richard Farrell (transcription) & Meghan Saas (graphic art).