Debt and Other Fabulations

During quarantine and amid worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, Silvia Federici—a Marxist feminist activist and academic—video chatted with Danish artist Hannah Toticki Anbert. The two discussed their respective work concerning debt as it relates to various fairy tales. Federici, who was born in Italy and is based in New York, is a key figure in the wages for housework movement. She is known for her landmark book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (1998), which traces the transition from feudalism to capitalism and how that change affected women, examining the concurrent rise of witch hunts. Federici argues that the “witch” represents the “female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.” Anbert, who is based outside of Copenhagen, works in sculpture and performance to probe Western beliefs about money and debt, as they are assimilated from disparate sources like Disney movies and the Protestant faith. Below, the two discuss how artists can help change public imagination about work and debt.

HANNAH TOTICKI ANBERT My performance The Land of Milk and Honey [2019] started out as an experiment: I wanted to see how much I could actually understand about money and debt. It’s such a complex system and it impacts all our lives.

The performance, which involved a video, a lecture, and some karaoke, took the lighthearted, moralizing voice of children’s books  to tell the history of the use of money as it coincides with colonialization. I borrowed clips from various Disney movies, but added a new voiceover: John Smith and Pocahontas appear to act out the introduction of the “educational” or “moralizing” tax described in David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011). Graeber details how Europeans introduced money to some of the territories they colonized, then demanded taxes from natives. The only way for natives to get money was to sell their goods to colonizers; then, they had to give back a percentage. This was obviously a scam, but it was also intended as a way to “teach” a work ethic to Indigenous peoples. 

SILVIA FEDERICI Today’s debt crisis was likewise totally artificially produced: it’s monetary manipulation. It was created by the stroke of the pen in 1979, when the US Federal Reserve enacted a policy meant to control inflation that made interest rates skyrocket. Suddenly, so much debt became unpayable.

When you show Snow White’s little dwarfs—in your video, they say “I owe, I owe, it’s off to work we go”— it reminds us how ideas about work ethic are deeply engrained into our culture.

ANBERT That’s why I wanted to create a new narrative about work and debt from within the Disney universe: you can only imagine a happy ending! But I want to dismantle the notion that hard-working, brave, and honest people always find success. In Danish, there’s a saying that everyone is the smith of their own happiness, but of course, it isn’t that simple.

FEDERICI In the United States, we have the myth of the self-made man. But in actuality, for so long, America depended on slavery. The history of slavery is so powerful, so hideous, and so violent that in many ways, it’s still present even now.

Hannah Toticki Anbert, Sacred Work Karaoke, 2016.

Hannah Toticki Anbert: Sacred Work Karaoke, 2016, performance at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen.

ANBERT Denmark has a different history of slavery than the US: it mostly happened outside of Danish borders. Even today, most of our goods are produced abroad, often under conditions that look like slavery.

FEDERICI I’ve always said the debt crisis was a process of recolonization. The World Bank began subsidizing African universities long after those on other continents. They didn’t think that Africans needed higher education: they were using the debt crisis to enforce an international distribution of labor in which Africans are manual workers.

The debt crisis kicked off at the same time that many countries in Africa and Latin America were in the process of decolonizing. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund gave loans to these countries at low interest rates, but with strict requirements stipulating how the money could be used. Then later, the rate changed. This debt was never meant to be extinguished. Debt is useful. As long as people are in debt to these entities, the institutions can control their policies.

ANBERT And restrictive loans that were taken out in the ’70s are being paid back by a younger generation under different leadership. The whole system relies on stories that we tell ourselves. We often believe that to be a good person, one has to pay one’s debts. In my work, I’m dealing with the tales we’re told that make these practices acceptable or help disguise bad intentions.

FEDERICI Right, there’s this idea that it’s dishonest to not pay back your debt. But banks have been writing and playing the rules to their own advantage. This is different than, if, say, you were part of a community and wanted to borrow something from your neighbor. Later, you’d do them a favor in return. If you didn’t, you harmed communal relations. Banks are exploiting this moral sense that people have.

ANBERT I once attended a lecture you gave where you described how different women’s lives are now than when you were born. For example, You mentioned that, when you were a child, women were not expected to receive an education at all. It nearly made me cry, because you reminded me that things actually can change. As someone who has been part of many activist movements over the years, I wonder what strategies you have for changing the story when it comes to debt.

FEDERICI I’m a professor, and many of my students are in so much debt. Most feel guilty. They think, “It’s my fault, I took too much; I didn’t manage my money well.” Guilt is not good for the struggle, and debt does not unite people. Many students take out a loan when they are eighteen that they have to pay back over several decades. But so many people are in the same situation: there’s no way we’re all incompetent. We have to unite with others. It’s just like the feminist movement: for so long, women were unhappy with their role in society, but most of them thought, “it’s my fault” . . . until we got together.

I hope we’re at a turning point. Many jobs will not come back after the coronavirus shutdown. Debt is going to become an even bigger issue.

Hannah Toticki Anbert, Puritan's Fashion Wear, 2016.

Hannah Toticki Anbert: Puritan’s Fashion Wear, 2016, neoprene, PVC, fleece, nylon, and acrylic, 70 3/4 by 47 1/4 by 23 1/2 inches.

ANBERT Even though I know that if you don’t pay your debt, you’re not a bad person, I’ve definitely internalized many of the attitudes about work ethic that I am critical of: I can sleep better at the end of a productive day.

My “Sacred Work Fashion Collection” [2016—] confronts how many of the ideas that underpin our economic system have religious—mostly Protestant—roots. I made a collection of luxury fashion inspired by religious garments, but out of materials meant for workers, like rubber evening gloves. Puritan’s Fashion Wear [2016] includes a cloak like those that Puritan missionaries wore when they came to America, but it’s made of a quilted, synthetic, army green fabric typically used for work wear—though more recently, the material has become fashionable. I also hosted a karaoke performance: singers wore the garments, and sang songs that I wrote about work, spins on various pop songs.

FEDERICI Did you sew them yourself?

ANBERT I had help from a seamstress, though I have a background in costume making. While sewing, I was thinking about women’s labor throughout history.

I also think a lot about my position as an artist who sometimes hires other people: I’m not a big company, but I am an employer. Recently, I decided that everyone I work with should be paid at the same rate. I did this after I noticed that the kind of craftwork considered masculine, like carpentry, is typically paid at a higher rate than sewing.

Selling work and making a living as an artist is another part of the equation. I sell works on a sliding scale, based on the buyer’s income. No unemployed person ever asked me for a free work, though according to my own rules, they could have. One wealthy collector sent me his tax statement, which was in French and super complex. Other collectors really didn’t like this system. More recently, I’ve set prices at three levels, for people with high, average, and low salaries. It’s completely trust based, I don’t ask them to prove it. I also make a living from occasional teaching and funding from the Danish government, which puts me in a privileged position to do this pricing experiment.

As with so much in our economic system, the way that art is priced is very confusing and pretty arbitrary. But I like to help create a world without prohibitive prices. Imagine a world where loans are seen as predatory and reprehensible!

FEDERICI These days, a lot of people are saying: abolish student debt! Abolish medical debt! A collective debt strike is the best way to make this abolition a reality.

When you show your work, Hannah, do you get the sense that your ideas about debt resonate with people?

ANBERT The Land of Milk and Honey was first performed at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin for: most of the audience was in their twenties or thirties. There was a reception at a after—serving milk and honey cocktails—and I got to talk with the viewers. Some told me that the work did resonate with them, because a lot of them were precarious workers.

It’s harder to gauge an audience’s response in a formal setting like a museum. That’s one reason why, after doing a lot of work in sculpture, I’ve been turning to mediums like fashion and pop songs: I hope to reach people beyond the art world.

I want to ask you the same question, about reactions to your work.

View of Hannah Toticki Anbert's performance Land of Milk and Honey, 2019, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

View of Hannah Toticki Anbert’s performance Land of Milk and Honey, 2019, at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.

FEDERICI Lately, it’s been very powerful. The pandemic has brought issues of reproductive labor to the forefront, now that everyone is confined to the home. It’s been really difficult for parents who are working and taking care of their children at the same time, even in the best situations. There’s also been an uptick in domestic violence. The domestic sphere is about to explode!

Kim Brooks recently wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, saying that originally, she didn’t like the ideas behind the wages for housework movement. But after a month at home with her children, unable to hire other women to do domestic work, she changed her mind!

ANBERT This moment is really putting a spotlight on many unsustainable systems.

FEDERICI And most of the aid has gone to big companies like airlines. I was talking with women in Puebla and Buenos Aires, and they told me they have a new feminist slogan in response to COVID: put lives at the center of politics. A lot of young people see that they have no future if things go on like this, and I think that’s part of why so many are coming together in the streets for Black Lives Matter.

I’ve been writing a piece called “Women, Money, and the Devil.” It’s about the mythology behind the witch hunt: supposedly, the first woman became a witch when the devil appeared and gave her some money. Then, she copulated with him, and others labeled her demonic. There’s definitely a feminist angle to the history of money and debt, which you allude to by including Snow White in The Land of Milk and Honey: in your version, she stays home to do the domestic labor for free, enabling the seven dwarfs to work hard in the mines so they can pay back their loans.

ANBERT If you write a play about that story, I’d love to put it onstage.

—Moderated by Emily Watlington

What do money and fairy tales have in common? A feminist scholar and an artist discuss.Read MoreArt in America, Interviews, Debt, Hannah Toticki Anbert, silvia-federiciARTnews.comRead More

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