LETS think about it

Rekto:Verso Sep 2012English

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Contextual note
This text was first published in a Dutch translation in Rekto:Verso.

In a couple of days the renovation of our apartment will start. Walls will be painted, the electric system repaired, wooden floors constructed, a terrace installed. I will not need to pay an enterprise to do the work and I will not ask my friends, as their backs are in a bad condition at the moment. I will instead welcome two technicians from arts center STUK in Leuven, who will hopefully bring their tools with them. And if I will still be busy after four o'clock, I might ask one of the curators of the Artefact festival to pick up my daughter from kindergarten. Maybe while she is sleeping, he could also write a dossier for me...

How did this come about? Let's start from the beginning. At the end of 2011 the curators of Artefact invited me to develop a project that would deal with alternative currencies and community networks. I proposed to create a performance that would be produced using a time-based currency instead of money to pay for the work. We decided to test the possibility of creating an art event that applies the principles of LETS and involves the LETS community.

Wikipedia tells us that "LETS are Local Exchange Trading Systems. They are locally initiated, not-for-profit community enterprises" that support their members in exchanging services by using a time-based currency. In order to keep precise track of each participant's personal investment, a bank is often created by the community. Sociologists and philosophers Offe and Heinze see LETS as a counter-offensive against the global victory of money against time. LETS are “useful human activities allocated otherwise than through the medium of money without the need to solve the problem of production and distribution via the state and bureaucratic hierarchies.”

A variety of people are taking part in LETS, of different social origins, levels of education and economic power. A common denominator is their attempt to discover alternatives for the way our society relates to work. In a context where money occupies a crucial place in the distribution of welfare values and of life opportunities, LETS communities seem to be a tool to improve a sort of productivity of time welfare. In 1995, the first LETS in Belgium was born in Leuven. Its motto is "geen denkers maar doeners" ("no thinking but acting"), meaning that in order to prevent trouble, the services exchanged should have a practical nature.

I was immediately seduced by this statement, which embodies the contradictory status of immaterial, creative and artistic work in a time-based system. How to measure artistic work? How to estimate its value? How to exchange it in a fair and transparent way? Why does one artist earn more than another? Why does an artist earn less than a dentist? Why does an artist earn more than a babysitter?


Therefore I proposed to Artefact to organize the experiment in two evenings, called Casting out the nines / spending it and Casting out the nines / paying it back. In the first evening, nine members of different LETS in Flanders were cast to take part in the show as the "experts": Marianne, Lode, Martine, Danielle, An, Bernadette, Anita, Igor and Marleen explained on stage their direct experience of a system which substitutes money for time. The time they have spent on stage and invested in the preparation of the piece would be payed back with a corresponding amount of hours by STUK or by myself. The work I have spent myself for the concept and creation, has been meticulously counted in the same Excell file and would be payed back by the team of STUK via a series of services. We started a micro-LETS among ourselves to create the performance, a local exchange system which adopted the principle of "an hour is an hour". It was far from evident to write a legal contract defining our agreement. Here is an excerpt:


"Contract creation-commission Artefact 2012 (creatieopdracht 2012)

Between the undersigned STUK Kunstencentrum vzw Naamsestraat 963000 Leuven hereinafter referred to as "STUK"and Anna Rispoli hereinafter referred to as the "Artist".

The Artist provides a production named Casting out the ninesto be performed on 14 and 15 February 2012 in the Soetezaal in STUK, according to the terms stated in this contract.

The special nature of the fee on which both parties agree is an essential part of this contract. The Artist will count the amount of time needed to produce the named performance, including her material and immaterial work, her travels Brussels/Leuven and her contacts with performers and participants.

The total amount of this work will correspond with several services accomplished by STUK in an equivalent amount of time. Services that STUK will provide will include: translations in/from Dutch/English, consultancy concerning artistic strategy, writing of critical texts, writing of applications for public funding and grants, babysitting, helping hands in renovation of the artist's house, transport of sets. All debts have to be payed back in services before the 14th of February 2013.

STUK produces the performance named Casting out the nines and covers all necessary expenses for the production, including the fee of eventual assistants of the Artist. In particular light & sound equipment, props and costumes will be furnished according to the technical rider. Telephone and travel expenses advanced by the Artist to produce the named performance, will be payed back by STUK using regular currency (euros). "

During the performance, the audience was not excluded of the game and had the chance to choose between paying their ticket by offering some work to STUK or by paying with money. Yet how to calculate the exact amount for an entrance ticket? Ten people on stage for one hour, divided by fifty audience members: we decided the price of a tickets to be twelve minutes of work.

Basically the show offered the direct experience of the value of money and the value of time. The participants were invited to experiment with the feasibility of an anti-monetary economy. While our experts were spending their hour on stage by explaining the LETS system, the audience were peeling potatoes for the catering of STUK or stamping letters which STUK had to send.

That night only two spectators happened to have decided to pay with money. They were a bank manager and his friend who very casually chose STUK for their evening out in Leuven. During the break they provoked an interesting discussion about the meaning of our experiment. They asked me how I could put on the same level of remuneration a non-specialized occupation such as peeling potatoes and a job such as a dentist's which demands long years of study and a big investment in equipment. An hour is always an hour -- they agreed -- but this concerns only the present time. What about the accumulation of time? What about the capitalization of the investment over the years? What about the profit? The discussion among the spectators was rather lively.



According to me, the political potential of LETS resides in its unilateral declaration of independence towards the market. The denial of hierarchical qualifications and the indifference to the logic of accumulation comes from the observation that the "possibilites of a good future" are not equally distributed among the society. I mean the possibility of studying and investing in material and immaterial tools, is strongly conditioned by an unfair educational system and the exclusive market of work. Developing a competitive CV is not only a matter of good will.

In LETS, you start from zero. Zero plus value, zero interests, zero leftovers in the accountancy of life. This blank page is of course an utopian statement. Inspired by a desire of an economy that sees the citizen at its center, the model aims for the development of individual values which can "prepare a new society, more fair, more fraternal, in which everybody can find their place." The absence of hierarchy of qualifications and the absence of money are not only a precondition for the exchange, they provide the foundations of a new organization of living together. Probably LETS is more a critique of the capitalist way of life than a critique of capitalist money itself. How many hours are there in my life? During how many of them do I decide to work? How can I count my working hours? What is work after all?

The defined limit between work and non-work is still an intriguing question, especially when applied to the arts field. For Casting out the nines, in my attempt to define what is the exact nature of artistic work, I decided to count every single hour I have used to prepare the project. I started with a rigid planning -- "I will work from 10am to 1pm" -- but it quickly turned out that this didn't fit my scattered agenda. I opted for a notebook in which I kept and account of the amount of time worked for the project. Sometimes it was easy: making a series of calls from 10am to 11am, writing some emails from 8pm to 9pm, writing a text at 2am when my daughter is asleep. Activities which have a clear beginning and ending, whenever they happen during the day.

But how should I consider a very relevant discussion about the project with a friend whom I invited for dinner? And especially when the conclusions of this conversation end up in the text an actor will say on stage: were my friend and I just spending free time together or having a work meeting? In order to resolve this issue I asked my friend to become the dramaturge of the project, so she would be payed back in time as well. She accepted, but instead of solving the contradiction, another theoretical battle field opened up.

As LETSers do not work for money but do not work for free either, the LETS system sits somewhere in between the anonymity of the regular market of work and the intimacy of a gift between friends. Usually the person who decides to get some services via the system should respect the preferences of the invited LETSer -- who only offer services they like to do -- but can still expect a concrete result from the time she buys. This exchange might lead to a friendly encounter, but it does not suppose friendship at all. What happens then if two old friends starts to trade using LETS? What kind of accountancy will calculate the many favors exchanged during their relationship? All this seemed very complicated to us. In order to protect the simplicity of our relationship, my friend and I decided that she had helped me for free, her contribution being considered as a pure favor.

The accountancy of work was thus confined between STUK, the invited experts, and me. We started counting time. My hours were going away like peanuts. Every week dozens of hours were piling up on my account. I had the feeling that the more I was counting them, the faster they were running away, as if the simple fact of measuring time was an antidote to efficiency. Because of my obsession of counting time I started to feel hyperconscious of my slow rhythm: how many minutes was I thinking about the project while taking my bath? Why was this email taking so long to be written? Suddenly the complex constellation of the capitalist myth of efficiency was emerging from my subconscious and directing my choices.

The rehearsals for the performance were quite funny, forcing me to optimize the time we were using, knowing that everything had to be payed back: three hours for nine people equal twenty seven hours of me giving Italian lessons or cooking lasagne for our experts! The big discovery was that the equivalence time=money is not valid. Time is more precious than money, especially the time you can lose. Golden moments are those which elude any accountancy, when you "lose the sense of time."

At the end of the show, a shower of 22.500 golden coins of 20 cents came down from the ceiling, materializing the hypothetical amount of money STUK had "saved" on our salaries. It concerned 130 kilos of money that we borrowed from the bank and gave back after sweeping them from the stage (though I must add that we lost 20 euros under the chairs of the Soetezaal).


I have learned that for the majority of LETSers, time-based currency can only be complementary to official currency (despite what happened in Argentina). It is probably true that in LETS it is easier to earn credit than to spend it. At the present moment I am still "working" to be payed back by STUK, combining our agendas proving to not be an easy task, but the effort generated a lot of thought about the flexibility of the art economy. For instance, there is a point in which the autonomy of the experiment stops and where public funding enters the scene. It is still not easy to convince a public administration to pay a cultural center in babysitting hours. Despite all the inconveniences I am still wondering if this method could be used to challenge the relationships between cultural institutions and artists.

In order to be consequent, I should maybe propose to the editorial board of Rekto:Verso to remunerate my writing of this article in time, 13.287 characters each taking one second and a half to be thought, typed and checked. I still don’t know what they might be able to offer me in exchange, but maybe this time over, I will manage to store the hours they offer me as an antidote to aging.