Macao independent centre for arts, culture and research: Working with Commonfare for the "Money of the Common"
Authors: Chiara Bassetti & Marco Sachy, University of Trento
Case study type: Local initiatives
Keywords: common, commoncoin, complementary currency, social wallet, commonfare, welfare
Macao is an informal organisation emerged in 2012 in response to precarious conditions of cultural workers in the arts and entertainment industries in Milan. The collective defines itself as an independent centre for arts, culture and research. "The acronym Macao is a mock-up name of the various Moma, Macba, Mambo, Maxi, Macro and other large institutions but offers a new perspective on the idea of museum: a museum made by militant artists" (http://www.macaomilano.org/spip.php?article166). Macao represents an experience of both symbolic and practical exodus from the subsumption of value into the dynamics of market economies. By developing the notion of radical active citizenship, the collective decided to occupy for a period the Torre Galfa and then Palazzo Citterio (a seventieth century building abandoned since the 1970s). Finally, Macao has settled in a more permanent — albeit occupied — premise in the city’s former slaughterhouse in a neighbourhood of Eastern Milan. This occupied space is run informally by the people involved. It hosts co-working spaces, cultural events, art exhibitions, music concerts, yoga classes, and a variety of workshops.
As years passed and the internal economy of Macao increased in complexity, organisers of the collective formulated the following question to manage such complexity while keeping a coherent approach to the realisation of their values: how can the processes that define different redistributive models be automated with digital technologies? Back in 2014, members of both Amsterdam-based Dyne.org Foundation — today a Commonfare project (cf. further) partner — and Macao met at Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid at the conference “The New Abduction of Europe – debt, war and democratic revolutions”. As a result of this foundational interaction, an embryonic concept of Money of the Common emerged. The concept then evolved in detail thanks to a two-day seminar organised on June 2014 at Macao headquarters by the Effimera intel- lectual and activist network (see Fumagalli and Braga, 2015). The outcome of this rich research has been the proposal for a digital complementary currency named Commoncoin. During four years of encounters, other conferences and a thorough research and co-design project, Commonfare / PIE News, Commoncoin was designed, developed and implemented.
The Commonfare / PIE News project, in which PIE stands for Poverty, lack of Income, and un/Employment, is an ongoing research and innovation project funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 programme. Its overarching objective is to promote the emergence of the Commonfare, or Welfare of the Commonwealth (General Intellect, 2018) as an alternative and sustainable socio-economic model, capable of meeting the needs and desires of people in financial difficulties and their communities through several forms of participatory welfare based on solidarity and practices of care. To achieve this goal, the project consortium developed a digital space —commonfare.net— and a complementary currency — Commoncoin— aimed at fostering the networking of people, communities and experiences thereby sup- porting promising ideas, experiments and initiatives of bottom-up welfare.
Commonfare.net has been co-designed together with people in troubling financial conditions in three European countries. The development process is articulated in different iterations involving research and co-design activities in Croatia (Zagreb especially), Italy (Milan and Rome), and the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague). Alongside quantitative analysis of the socio-economic situation in the three countries, from October 2016 to October 2017, multi-sited research activities (interviews, focus groups, design workshops) have been conducted, reaching out to different groups, including unemployed youth, precarious workers, vulnerable self-employed, welfare recipients, and non-European migrants.
In the context of Commonfare, Commoncoin has been prototyped as a complementary digital currency co-designed to serve the needs of Macao, and then of commonfare.net participants ("Commoners").
Since the Common sphere is systematically drained by conventional market forces, the Money of the Common is a currency designed to counteract this drainage of value by putting in charge Commoners themselves in the production and management of the money system they use: from working for a top-down centralised money system infrastructure, to participating in the governance of a bottom-up and de-centralised one.
How to actualise such an idea? The Macao collective, in concert with Commonfare researchers, co-designed a complementary digital currency for self-remuneration, also acting as a basic income provisioning system that rewards members’ political and operative engagement within Macao. The result has been the first instance of Commoncoin, based on what has been named the Social Wallet API, an application pro- gramming interface to run complementary digital currencies incentive schemes in a web app environment.
Accordingly, Commoncoin is collectively issued to reward contributions in a decentralised fashion on the basis of both labour and political participation to the management of the common good of the collective, i.e. Macao’s physical spaces and its techno-political agenda. At the beginning of each calendar month, there is a distribution of commoncoins to the various groups that form the Macao collective, a sort of quantitative easing for the people from the bottom-up. When a member works at Macao to support daily operations —such as maintenance of spaces, bar tendering and the like— s/he is paid for it with common- coins, either by Macao itself or from the groups that need labour to run their activities (for instance mounting a theatre stage). Those members who also participate to the he collective’s weekly assemblies can ac- cess a basic income in Euros with a convertibility ratio of 1:1, as they can cash out commoncoins gained by offering labour and taking part to the political life of the collective. The latter requirement is intended to discourage opportunistic and utilitarian behaviour. The revenue in Euros is generated through public events organised at Macao on a monthly basis, whose audience pays for entrance, beverages, etc.
In a nutshell, Macao conceived of Commoncoin as an internal digital complementary currency and basic income provisioning system in Euros for financing and remunerating biopolitical production, while discouraging hoarding and speculative practices. The co-design of a system such as Commoncoin by and for the users who self-remunerate themselves on the basis of commonly agreed upon rules is game-changing. And the impact on Macao members’ life and work conditions has indeed been significant, providing them an income for the enactment of their capacities to their autonomously selected aims.
Inspired by the Commoncoin co-design process, Macao members and the Commonfare project agreed to continue the experimentation in the context of the 2018 edition of the Santarcangelo Festival, the biggest performative arts festival in Italy, by implementing an ad hoc version of the digital complementary currency, named Santacoin. Santacoin is a complementary digital currency that has been designed to operationalise parts of the festival, to create a parallel economy within its blurring boundaries. In particular, Santacoin has been deployed as an agreement within the community working and assisting at the festival to use a digital complementary currency as a means of payment within the span of the festival. Santacoin could be spent to pay for goods and services, such as festival merchandising, tickets for shows, food and beverages at the festival restaurant and clubbing location, as well as wellbeing practices by "Body&Soul Caregivers", a group of local artisans who decided to provide their services as part of the Crypto Rituals.
Curated by Macao, Crypto Rituals was a collective performance enacted during the two weekends of the festival by bringing caring practices in the public space together with economics. The role of money in fostering either empowerment or destructive social relations was intentionally made visible and the per- formance explicitly framed as centring on cure and love for oneself, the other and our communities, as a radical action leading people to imagine new forms of social production and reproduction. Crypto Rituals crossed circular economy with community building to provide a performative space for the production of the Common.
To analyse Santacoin adoption and use by festival operators, artists and visitors, a team ethnography was conducted by members of the Commonfare project. Lead by a senior ethnographer and working with common research tools (observation and interview guides), the group consisted of a total of 8 researchers who alternated themselves in the different festival locations (at different time slots and weekdays), thereby developing a common understanding based on shared immersion across sites. Overall, findings show that the explicit thematization of the monetary dimension of living together allowed for a temporary space where people felt comfortable in experimenting with forms of cooperation and expressing socio-political visions alternative to current mainstream neoliberal perspectives.
Santacoin is the result of a long-lasting collaboration, a process bridging artistic performative interactions and research on monetary innovation that started years before and saw an important step in the 2017 festival edition, when several complementary currency projects including Commoncoin and Faircoin were presented to the local municipality, thereby increasing the awareness on novel ways to approach finance and the money system. Then in 2018, alongside developing Santacoin, Macao and the Commonfare consortium actively worked with local authorities for establishing in the shorter term the benefits of complementary currencies to the rest of Santarcangelo di Romagna, the small but renown medieval city hosting the festival. Besides the decision to broaden the adoption of Santacoin to the whole city (rather only festival-related locations) in the 2019 edition, local authorities considered the opportunity to increase the purchasing power of the poorest strata of the population, homeless people in particular, through a city issued complementary currency accepted by local businesses and repeatedly recirculated in the local economy.
Future opportunities and potential impact
Although both Commoncoin and Santacoin have been deployed on a centralised database and not in the form of a cryptocurrency flowing on a distributed ledger, the enabling technology —the Social Wallet API — is ready to implement this and other similar systems also in such a decentralised currency framework. Moreover, it worth mentioning that currently, on commonfare.net, Commoners not only receive a basic income in Commoncoin (https://commonfare.net/en/pages/about#commoncoin-and-social-wallet), but they can also create groups and group currencies to support the activities of their communities.
For more details, see:
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EU Framework Programme Horizon 2020