Swop Network: Counting Favours
Merel Willemsen on Swop Network, featured in Untitled Magazine, no 38 Summer 2006
For those out there who don’t already know: altruism exists in the animal kingdom. With some birds, the Jaybird for example, it is common that not all the offspring leave the nest. One of them stays behind to help out mum and dad with the next nests. Therefore it spends most of its life raising his or her little brothers and sisters, thereby seriously decreasing its opportunity for reproduction and spreading its own DNA material, which is commonly agreed to be the main goal in a bird’s life. Even within capitalist societies we, humans, have found an equivalent for this act of altruism in food banks and give away shops. Volunteers collect food that would otherwise have ended up in the rubbish, to offer to people living in - or on the edge of – poverty and people hand in possessions that they no longer want or need, for others to take away for free. Selfless acts that have nothing to do with accumulating wealth, the central objective or ‘heroic deed’ in capitalist, western economies.
Swop Network was initiated in 2003 by Andrea Creutz (Copenhagen) and Lise Skou (Aarhus), as a platform for the production and dissemination of materials and ideas surrounding contemporary political, economic and social debates. The projects that Swop initiated visualise and communicate models for economic systems, that function as counterparts to the dominant monetary economy and also investigate the potential for local economic systems to impact the global economy. The two artists started their collaboration when they both participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program, New York 2002-2003.
Prior to that, from 2000 till 2002, Lise Skou worked on the project ‘CUDI/Centre for Urban Culture, Dialogue and Information’, in collaboration with fellow Danish artist Lasse Lau. Stemming from Skou’s preoccupation with the impact of political currents in Europe, the centre focused on cities and conurbations, space and identity. In the words of Skou, “CUDI was established in an apartment in the Odense suburb called Vollsmose. Vollsmose was erected in the seventies under the influence of mass-modernism, and over the past couple of years has been stigmatised by the Danish media as an area with massive social problems. Problems attributed to the low percentage of inhabitants with so-called Danish background. The apartment was intended to function as a social platform, a locus for dialogue with the residents of Vollsmose and as a starting point for critical thinking. At this vibrant intersection between art, architecture and socio-political engagement, we set out to reinvigorate the neighbourhood, and change and displace existing norms and structures.”
Andrea Creutz moved from Sweden to Denmark about ten years ago. She says, “I chose to study in Copenhagen instead of Stockholm, as I found the Copenhagen art scene much more interesting in terms of self organisation by students and artists. It was to me a very dynamic environment because art students arranged their own projects, exhibitions, seminars and events.” In her work Creutz examines social, economic and political structures and is strongly focused on communication and collaboration. “I have for example worked with the feminist collective ‘Kvinder på Værtshus’ (Women in the Pub). We are a group of visual artists collaborating on issues of gender politics, representation and language. Our objective was to create a network for women artists and theorists to exchange information from a gendered perspective, discuss our respective practices, as well as exchange ideas with one another. Our actions and projects have mainly taken place outside art institutions. Besides participating in shows, we have organised events, workshops, collaborations with various women’s organisations, and produced publications on feminist projects.”
The two artists met in New York in 2002 and when they were both individually invited to participate in the Nordic Biennial for Contemporary Art in Stockholm 2003, they decided to collaborate. Both being in the position of a stranger - culturally and linguistically displaced in New York - issues around ‘otherness’ formed the framework. In Skou’s own words again: “The project we did together was called ‘Selected’ and the situation in New York post 9/11 functioned as a point of departure. The work deals with the escalating control and surveillance from authorities. It focuses on questions regarding the construction of a climate of fear, otherness/enemy, and myths about cultural inferiority/superiority. The project reflects on systems in which the ‘Other’ is pushed to the margins and made to disappear in the interest of control and coherence.” Creutz continues: “This was also when the Special Registration programme started in New York City. The programme was introduced by the Bush administration’s implementation of the Homeland Security Department and the Patriotic Act. It demanded every non-American male citizen, from selected countries, to register at a local INS office by a certain date. It was a violation of federal law not to register. Those who did not register might be subject to arrest, detainment or removal from the US. It became obvious to us that there was a strong connection between the manner in which politicians and the media were casting suspicion on certain groups, and commercial, economic interests. All this was an influence on the collaborative praxis we came to develop. It became clear to us that economic power structures must be the focus of our research, and was a point of departure for several of the sound/video/text installations we came to produce.”
This was in the spring of 2003. Back in Denmark, both artists felt the need to continue working with these issues, albeit in a more positive sense. Creutz says: “It occurred to us that it would be much more constructive and less depressing to look into the constructive counter-images to this hegemonic system.” And that is how Swop Network started. Since then, Swop Network has realised projects in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and are currently working on a project in the Netherlands .
From 2004 - 2005 the Swop Network project was interactive both online (www.swopnetwork.dk) and offline in a storefront in Copenhagen where Creutz and Skou organised presentations, readings, discussions, screenings with invited artists, people engaged in complementary economies, writers, ecologists and activists. As part of their collaboration the artists initiated the ‘Swop Interview Archive’, an ongoing project built up throughout the world, which represents different voices of people working on counter strategies within the dominant monetary system. Through individual interviews the archive presents alternative ways of organising social and economic structures. Next to that Swop has realised, amongst others, the ‘Swop Give Away Shop’ where people can take goods without giving anything in return, the ‘Swop List’, a system based upon the exchange of activity, and the ‘Swop Hidden Flow Shop’ where visitors can hand in goods and receive the ‘hidden flow’ credit in return, a currency that represents the amount of raw material that has been extracted from an area/system in order to produce those goods.
What most of the Swop projects have in common is that they replace money with an alternative, be it time, goods or skills. In the words of Skou: “I see money as a construction. Earlier, the value of money had a direct and very concrete connection to a certain weight in gold. When these two were disconnected in order to create debts, capitalism started. So I see money as a fiction, as something we believe in without questioning the system. It has become such a large part of our daily life that we no longer question whether this is the best possible system for a society. I am however not so naive that I believe that exchange or point systems and gift economies can replace the capitalist system. The world has become too complex for that. But maybe by investigating some of the alternatives, we can find a way to counter, for example the huge overproduction, poverty, unequal distribution of resources and so on.” Creutz adds to this: “What is actually very interesting is the fact that the biggest point system worldwide, Air miles, shows us that there really is no contradiction between exchange systems and a free market economy. I think that this is, in fact, the battle to be fought. Multinational companies developing local, non-monetary economies. It seems to be where the free market is looking right now for inspiration.”
The alternative economic systems that Andrea Creutz and Lise Skou have explored over the past few years also all have bonus benefits. “In Berlin for example,” Creutz tells us, “we interviewed people that were part of different exchange-rings. The main reason they started these exchange projects was because the participants had a lack of cash. But since you have to meet to swap goods or chores, it naturally creates contacts. A man in Oslo told me that when he asked two women that participated in an exchange project how many points they had collected they answered: “That we don’t keep track of any more. We stopped counting since we are now friends, and friends don’t count favours.”” And this is in fact relatively similar to Swop Network’s aims. Creating a space for dialogue and the visualisation of alternatives, to (right wing) politics, that prioritise individualism in such a way that any political agenda that includes solidarity and community is threatened.
These positive side effects however also bring us back to the bird. Because even though he or she doesn’t spread their DNA directly, by raising their brothers and sisters who’s DNA is 50% comparable to theirs, he/ she is taking care of their genetic survival indirectly. The positive consequences of the altruistic actions of all the volunteers involved in the different projects mentioned above, have not gone unnoticed by politicians. In Great Britain, for instance, Tony Blair has made some very positive remarks on these types of projects, with respect to their potential for tackling social problems in rural areas and creating companionship and good neighbourhoods. With regard to this particular point Creutz says: “This can make me very suspicious. That those initiatives of complementary currencies, exchange rings and so on, could be incorporated in neo-liberal politics and as such part of the deconstruction of the welfare state. I guess it all depends on WHO is in charge of forming the ideas. And on the WHY these ideas are implemented.”