Year 5, Piece Forty-One: 32. Blue Green

The Debt of Privilege

Not every color combination has an immediate association for me, but Blue Green is Planet Earth. As a symbol, the world can be evoked by something as simple as a blue circle with green or brown blobby shapes on it.

I once used blue green circles as the basis of a project I think of as The World. I made a large blue green world-shaped blanket that I took to public spaces for people to sit on and interview each other about what they thought were the world’s biggest problems. I made and gave away dozens of small blue green patches, “conversation pieces” to engage whoever asked about them in spontaneous dialogue about the world. The idea that anyone could make little blue green circles out of any material seemed like it could be some sort of viral craft project, a catalyst for the actual art which would be the conversations they prompted.

It wasn't a particularly strong body of work. Since this was in graduate school, I didn’t get away with it either. I was skewered for its tweeness, for its superficiality, for its ineffectiveness. 

But getting skewered can be a gift, or at least a commodity. In the context of an MFA program, I was paying for the privilege of professors and peers to actually pay attention to what I was doing. I was paying for the privilege of time and space to make. And I was paying to be able to say I had an MFA when I left.

Except that I wasn’t paying, not really. Yes, a lot of money was spent on my behalf. But the funds I used to pay for two years of almost full tuition to California College of the Arts were not funds I earned myself. They were funds I was given access to for the fact of being born.

I went to graduate school debt free. I also went to university debt free. And private high school, middle school, and elementary school. For some people, that level of education and lack of debt allows them to work and save and consolidate more wealth to pass on to their children and on and on. For other people, that intellectual support and financial ease empowers them to choose not to make money the focus of their lives, and to instead “do what they love.” If you don’t need to equate work with survival, you can approach work as something that brings you joy and self-actualization. How nice, and how inaccessible for most people on the planet. 

Doing what you love does not require being debt-free, but it certainly helps.

In an MFA program, I was probably surrounded by more people than I even knew who were coming from similar positions of privilege, people who could comfortably afford the ambiguous investment in an already non-remunerative career. But more people than I even knew were also taking on extreme debt to be there. 

After getting a BFA in Sculpture from Washington University in St. Louis, I swore I would never get a second art degree. What value was I getting from the first, especially graduating in 2008? But I had enough of a safety net to move to San Francisco, and eventually found myself happily making participatory art with a collective and working selling memberships to a museum while living in a rent-controlled apartment. And then I was laid off. I found another museum job, but not before I heard about the Social Practice program at California College of the Arts.

This program was the first of its kind in the country, started by the late (great) Ted Purves, and is even credited with institutionalizing the term “social practice.” When I heard there was a word for the kind of art I was making, and that a program for it existed in the city I lived in, I knew I had to be there. And I knew I could be there, because, well, I honestly didn’t think too much about the cost. There was money set aside for my education. Money set aside to study with a community of what I could now call social practice artists.

Cassie Thornton was one of those social practice artists, a second year student when I was a first year student, among about seventeen in total. I don’t actually know her own personal relationship to debt, but I know that debt is and has been a focus of her work. Back then she was in the throes of a debt visualization project and shaping what would become the Feminist Economics Department. From the website:

The debt visualization project involves leading participants to imagine their debt as a substance, a thing, or a space. It is a way to witness the impact of economics on the unconscious, specifically the experience of holding, witnessing, or fearing predatory corporate debts. The process itself is essentially a discussion of the participant’s experiences with money or with owing; personal stories or objective thoughts about debt followed by a guided visualization. The material generated through this process is a transcription of a conversation that weaves the conscious and unconscious, intellectual and physical experience of debt. 

Cassie was trying to talk to as many CCA students as she could about their debt. She put out repeated calls for participants, especially within our social practice cohort.

But I didn’t have any student debt. I didn’t have any debt at all. And on a newly visceral level, I felt how much of a privilege that was. It felt like deep shame. What did I do to deserve this education, to be here trying to get people to talk about “the world’s” problems when I was insulated from so many of them? I was grateful to the members of my family who worked and saved and invested strategically so that I could have these opportunities. As far as I know, the source of their wealth wasn’t particularly nefarious, but it was the same baseline of stolen land and labor as any other wealth generated in a racial capitalist system. This wealth was something I had previously dealt with by pretending to myself that it didn’t exist, which was no longer possible.

I became increasingly uncomfortable whenever Cassie asked me to do a debt visualization. I did my best to act casual, make excuses, tell her I’d schedule one and never do it. Maybe she could tell, or maybe she thought I just wasn’t interested. But I was acutely interested. Unraveled, even. Kept up at night by it. Then kept up by the idea that other people are kept up by their actual debt, and me being kept up by my guilt of not having debt was perhaps its own act of self-centeredness.

But I couldn’t just casually tell Cassie that I didn’t have any debt. I had been conditioned my whole life that money wasn’t something you talked about with other people, that it would make them feel awkward and encourage them to take advantage of you. Besides, I fancied myself an activist. I had even demonstrated with my classmates as part of Occupy SF earlier that school year. Though every time I chanted “We are the 99%!” I wondered if that would still be true for 90%, 95%, or even 98%... What did it mean that I was benefiting personally from such a fucked up system while wanting to correct it collectively?

After a few weeks (months?) of inner turmoil, I realized that telling Cassie was exactly what I needed to do. I may not have had financial debt, but I did perhaps have an energetic debt, a spiritual debt, maybe even a moral debt. The Debt of Privilege.

When we finally did a Debt Visualization, it was by all accounts–hers and mine–a wild experience. I’m not sure how to sum it up; I guess it’s how I would imagine hypnotization. I remember that we sat somewhere and talked, and then she facilitated my journey inward. I know I narrated it because she transcribed it, giving me a type-written document of everything I said in the form of one long, beautiful jpeg. That transcript of the Debt of Privilege is the text scrolling in the background of this Rainbow Squared animation, Year 5, Piece Forty-One: 32. Blue Green.

If you read it, it would tell you about going into the depths of someone else’s stomach and finding my debt manifested as rocks made of flesh that I split apart and then swallow and then follow into my own stomach in an endless loop. I don’t think there is a way to interpret that metaphor too literally, but the feeling of inevitability, of feeling like a perpetrator both connected to and othered from those around me is sort of what the Debt of Privilege felt like. Feels like, for me, anyway. I am trapped in my own loop, which in this case makes me perhaps the key to my own liberation, which is itself a huge privilege. 

I’d like to say that doing that debt visualization with Cassie transformed my relationship to class privilege. And it did. But that was in 2012 and it is now 2021, and so the journey to do anything about it has taken longer than I would like. And I still have a very long way to go, perhaps a lifetime. Though just before I age out, I finally synced up with Resource Generation, a group that organizes young people with wealth and/or class privilege around the equitable distribution of wealth, land, and power. A group that preaches and teaches wealth redistribution.

This is identity shaking work. It’s more than a little troubling to think that my artistic nature itself might be a result of my class background. I saw myself in this essay from Betsy Leondar-Wright, Are There Class Cultures?: “unconventional, eccentric, visionary, undeterred by impossibility.” But I’ve known I was an artist since preschool (which was incidentally also private school, but that’s because public funding for preschool was not a thing and really needs to be a thing). It’s not that financial stability gave me some magical spark of creativity. It’s that I’ve never had that spark extinguished by circumstance. 

I was told my whole life that I could do whatever I wanted, and given the freedom and resources to do so. I’ve never not had a safety net. I could take risks, take time off, take unpaid opportunities. In 2020, when I needed to leave my decently paid, stable job in nonprofit communications in order to take care of my kids in the midst of a pandemic, I had the flexibility and cushion to do so pretty comfortably. I can even continue to choose to be primary caregiver after schools have reopened, to find the way back to my career path slowly. Caretaking is work, and I’m still waking up at 5am to have time to make art in my in-between hours. But I can afford part time morning day care for my youngest, and spend at least some of that time making animated gifs.

Still, the debt of privilege looms large for me. If society hasn’t held me back, I have held myself back. Though I feel I am an artist in my bones, in some ways my art has felt dirty to me because the comfort I’ve had to pursue it feels undeserved. I’ve held back from even trying to be a professional artist because I know the only reason I could even think about it is because of my class background. No one has accused me of this, and honestly it isn’t even totally logical. There are plenty of artists from every class background. And also: boo hoo? It feels wild to say this outloud because it feels fundamentally unrelatable. I am certainly not looking for sympathy here. Maybe I am just giving you honesty. Cringey, vulnerable honesty about my own experience: the only position I can hope to speak from if we are to relate to each other about what it means to be in “the world.” 

For better or worse, Blue Green was my visual entry point into a project attempting to cultivate genuine conversation between other people about what it means to coexist. Exactly ten years later, Blue Green is my conceptual entry point for a personal piece perhaps attempting to do the same thing, only with more specificity. 

See, Blue is Communication and Green is Money, at least in the United States. You are not your debt, nor are you your wealth, and silence about either only reinforces a predatory financial system and your own isolation. Talking openly about money and class is one small but tangible step towards shattering the myth of meritocracy.