By: Emma Kraak
This article is a report on the Art of Financial Hacking workshop that took place in Brussels in April 2018. In this extensive four-day workshop, Paolo Cirio, Brett Scott and Luce Goutelle took participants on a journey into the dark heart of finance, showcased previous investigations and interventions into the financial sector, and explored the cracks in the district of Brussels, the European financial regulatory. They then guided participants in building their own financial art-hacks. The results of the workshop were presented at Flying Money 2018.
We are gathered in Brussels’ Kaaistudios for the second edition of The Art of Financial Hacking workshop. We are a curious bunch of designers, educators, investigative journalists, artists, researchers, anthropologists, law aficionados and finance whizzes. Over the next four days, we will explore ways to demystify finance, counting on our group’s multidisciplinary concerns and the guidance of Brett Scott, Paolo Cirio and Luce Goutelle. What binds art, finance and hacking together? What can we learn – more importantly, what can we do – when we cross each field’s peculiar strategies?
Getting behind the interface
In order to understand hacking, we first look at the notion of the interface. Interfaces abound, especially in our technocratic societies, and refer to interconnections – common boundaries – between people, systems or concepts. Though user-friendly, interfaces are rule-sets for interaction; while they simplify usage, they obscure the mechanisms at play behind their streamlined appearances. Hacking, therefore, is all about getting behind the interface: exploring, mapping, bending, sometimes breaking what lies beyond these common frontiers. At the heart of the hacker’s ethos lies a deep urge for agency, to uncover and appropriate invisible structures and tools. While commonly imagined to be the realm of computer-savvy mercenaries, confined to hardcore coding and shady operations, hacking is first about fostering critical and creative interventions: a mindset for subversive exploration with a hands-on imperative. Urban exploration for example, far from being captured in digital spheres, seeks access to forbidden parts of the city, hacking the use intended by legal and public infrastructures. The Brazilian dance Capoeira was created by slaves to practice martial art under the guise of dance – a hack for taking back power. Creativity, in that sense, becomes a way to find solutions to real-life problems, to navigate constraints through practices as diverse as design, social engineering, technology or art. Or, as Paolo Cirio proposes in the presentation of his work, a way to “create research-based art with agency beyond representation, able to grasp contemporary issues of public interest”.
Finance, undoubtedly, is one of these key issues. Long considered a magic black box, finance has become the object of increasing public scrutiny in the last decade. Starting with the financial crisis in 2007 and accumulating through the Panama and Paradise Papers, the financial sector has gained a reputation for harboring sinister and impenetrable schemes. Despite this critical consensus, the industry remains out of reach due to its real or perceived complexity. Brett Scott gives the example of the Commerz Bank in Frankfurt, its institutional architecture inducing a sense of overwhelming smallness, abstracting its activity behind towering glass walls. The next image shows the bank’s urinals facing the same windows, gleefully inviting its users to relieve themselves above the city. Yet, as one participant with a background in finance points out, even employees of the sector don’t fully understand its workings. Attempting to break down the technical aspects of finance, we are led on a presentation of some of its basic structures: from its inseparability from the economic system to the way money works; how banks operate from ledger systems to fractional reserve banking; and how investment banking adds layers of complexity to it all, culminating in abstract metafinance – finance for finance’s sake.
Slightly dazed by an afternoon of cognitive effort, we gather for an unusual stretching session. Luce Goutelle introduces us to the concept of Open Outcry, a system of financial trading in which dealers signal and shout their bids aloud. This form of communication uses a wild array of hand signals, used on the trading floor to signify which contracts are traded through which banks. Notable examples include a two-fingered mustache for Deutsche Bank and an act of air-saxophone for Goldman Sachs – a double pun used by the French as a reference to Jean-Jacques Goldman, cultural icon and noted saxophone enthusiast. Stretching bodies and meaning alike, we play on the power of imagining new strains of discourse.
Bursting the European bubble
The second day of the workshop takes us to the heart of the EU District for a lobby tour. Our guides are Lora Verheecke from Corporate Europe Observatory and Aline Fares, former banker and member of Finance Watch. Both organizations share a common mission: to expose the power of corporate lobbying and foster a more democratic access to finance. Lobbying in the European Union is a 1.5 billion euro industry. Beyond this monumental figure, two important concerns come to light: accountability and transparency, and representation. While in Washington, DC lobbyists have to register, no such legal constraints are in effect in Belgium. Anyone can covertly represent the interests of remote groups in a modern institutional game of double agents. Corporations subcontract their causes, first to a plethora of industry federations and consultancy firms, then for individual insiders to defend. While lobbying itself can be a worthwhile endeavor, pleading to secure rights and defend common goods, the numbers speak volumes: 70% of lobbying is done by corporations, 20% by the public sector and only 10% by citizens. As such, the financial industry is estimated to have a 120 million euro lobbying budget; a sum that weighs heavily on the choice of issues that are addressed. These financial strongholds serve to amplify echo chambers, leaving fewer and fewer spaces for people to share different ideas. The legislative process, while painstakingly designed for democratic purposes, has largely become hijacked by the highest bidders. As Brett Scott declares on day one: bankers, in a sense, are some of the best hackers.
Under an unusually hot Belgian sky, we drift through tall buildings and glass ceilings, most of them owned by BNP Paribas. The neighborhood itself has become transfigured into a private concrete bubble hosting swarms of nebulous activity. On Square Meeùs, suits lie in green grass while Fleishmann Hillard’s security guard gives our group a bemused glance. This public relations firm, under the guise of such nomenclature as ‘Reputation Management’ or ‘Strategic Integration’ has been known to stage fake protests, paying dummies to demonstrate for issues in accordance with their clients’ interests. Their motto, unironically displayed on their web page: ‘The Power of True’. To reverse this theft of tactics, it is our turn to infiltrate the district. Luce Goutelle introduces us to Pierre Bernard and Vincent Alexis, co-organizers of the Wild Life Festival. They invite us on a dérive through the district (which litterally translates to ‘drift’), inspired by the Situationist idea of psychogeography, in which participants let themselves be drawn by the attractions of a terrain, studying its emotional hold with the intention of creating Situations. Having been prompted to dress in corporate outfits, we are given a few additional guidelines and props. Today, we will be part of Slowdown Solutions, an obscure company with mysterious activities. Each of us is given a business card with another participant’s name and the title of Independent Researcher, inviting us to shape new identities and motives. In small groups we embark on a journey to burst the European Bubble, slowly wandering at first, gradually awakening to a sense of free, collective purpose. Following a swarm of corporate employees, we mingle with well-shaved faces and fluorescent security, ready to transform the Event that seems to be brooding into a full blown Situation. Some of us manage to be escorted into a building, almost making it to what appears to be an internal corporate gathering. Others gain free coffee at a conference on fishery regulations. As the afternoon turns into evening, we take to Place du Luxembourg, infamous for its happy hours in which deals and information are bargained, counting on loosened tongues and the complicity of cigarette breaks to gather inside information. While serious deals appear to be confined to back rooms flowing with champagne, we do hear the confessions of burned-out employees, perhaps implicitly drawn to our shell company’s promise of slowing down.
The financial hacker’s toolbox
On day three we meet on the 25th floor of the former World Trade Center in the northern part of the city. The location used to be owned by the Belgian Dexia bank, before the financial crisis forced it to dismantle. Today it is occupied by artists and design collectives working on open source culture. We take a closer look at hacking tools and methodologies in order to kick-start our own financial projects. The first set of these methods uses mapping, exposing and exploring. Scale plays an important role in this set. Zooming in, collecting physical objects and artifacts to make abstract systems tangible. Or zooming out, seeking interconnections between agents. Some examples include Map the Banks, which uses scrapers to map the financial flows between countries and financial actors, shedding light on their dependency; conceptual artist Mark Lombardi’s Narrative Structures, in which each node or connection documents purported financial and political frauds by power brokers; The Activist Bloomberg, an open-source and open-access alternative to (the highly expensive) Bloomberg, collecting and distributing critical data on high finance. Our next set of methods gets our hands a little dirtier through jamming, bending and breaking, often by playing with legal structures and financial instruments. Some interesting examples include activist hedge funds. Robin Hood Coop was an investment cooperative which placed its members’ funds on the Wall Street stock exchange, managing their assets with the help an algorithm called The Parasite and keeping track of them through the Ethereum blockchain. All profits can be reinvested or used to fund projects that expand commons and the public domain. Alternatively, The Rolling Jubilee is a network of debtors who pay out other debtors through mutual aid, essentially buying debt to abolish it. So far, they have abolished over 14 million dollars in people’s medical debts and 13 million dollars of student debt. Other methods use algorithms or automated agents. Paolo Cirio’s Daily Paywall, for example, used an algorithm to hack thousands of articles from financial newspapers, re-editing them online and in freely distributed physical copies. Readers could earn one dollar for responding correctly to quizzes about featured articles, and journalists were invited to claim compensation for their writing, creating a circular economy promoting critical reading of socio-economic issues. Another method to engage users on financial topics in an interactive way is gamification. Taxodus by Femke Herregraven, for example, is a web-based game that allows players to create their own tax evasion schemes using real financial data, making the impact of the offshore economy visible. Last but not least, rituals are a powerful way to connect finance to emotional, cathartic experiences, mobilizing affect in a way mere information can’t. Examples include Burning the Books by Alinah Azedeh, a performance on debt and absolution, inviting participants to burn a collective volume of their (financial) sins. Finally, debatable as it should be, the project Burn Your Money by artist Jonathan Harris has ceremonially burned over a million British Pounds.
High on these newfound potentials, our brains storm for novel ideas. Aided by a plunging view of the cityscape, the day ends in a suspension of possible interventions: a knowledge Tinder for activists, matching up skills on issues that lack collaboration; a Tax Salvation scheme, in which a set-up church redistributes tax-free money through charity; a board game to lower your taxes and raise your income; micro-targeting bankers through Facebook ads; and finally, in a restless urge for some direct action, to gatecrash the contemporary art fair taking place around the corner, marking our contempt with the financialization of art as a commodity.
Ideas are slept on as our final day arrives. Groups rearrange and work gets done. By the end of the afternoon, four prototypes are ready for presentation. Our first hack is called Drunk With Success and tackles AB-InBev, Belgium’s largest brewing company. The conglomerate owns more than 500 brands globally, including Budweiser, Corona and Stella Artois. It has 14 billion dollars in disputed taxes in Brazil and a company registered in Luxembourg. The project aims to shed light on the conglomerate’s controversial tax activities by creating an alternative list of ingredients for its iconic Jupiler can. Among the list are the number of brands it owns, its CEO’s salary, its share price and profits, its tax payments and use of water. The label invites people to take a picture and tweet it to Ab-InBev and the EU trade commissioner, in a bid to raise awareness and hold a mirror up to apathy. In another version, a bar bill displays tax information about the company, mainly its estimated 1% in paid taxes instead of the national 34% – 178 million instead of 6 billion dollars – prompting users to tell Ab-InBev to pour some money into their country. Both labels and bills could surreptitiously be distributed throughout bars and beer festivals, a campaign easily engaged with and spread while possibly inspiring spin-off actions from participants.
The next project’s aim is to humanize finance – or maybe the other way round? The Emotional Finance Group offers derivative insurance to individuals and corporations alike, for any kind of relationship: love, work, relationships to pets or to God. They have developed a Holistic Guidance Process, working with their client’s chakras to determine personalized parameters for insurance. How many text messages a week do you expect from your lover? The Emotional Finance Group considers these baseline expectations and takes care of the rest: by measuring deviations and involving speculators, they are able to offer compensation for any emotional shortage. In order to move beyond a mere critique of financialization, participants propose to set up an actual company and pitch the idea to corporations (to their Chief Happiness Officer, perhaps), either as an elaborate performance or as a way to obtain funding.
The third project is a tax management scheme, or rather a Social Betterment plan through tax management. Companies pay their workers with taxes deduced at the source without any room for negotiation. The project creates a hack for people who pay a lot of taxes but get very little out of it, using Spain as a country of reference. The Social Betterment scheme works around this by involving third parties and acting as an HR company. It works as follows: Freelancer 1 works for Company A for 1000 euros. The HR Company bills Company A for 1000 euros, gives 300 to Freelancer 1 and moves 700 into an investment fund with a much lower taxation rate (about 1% instead of 19%). In order to guarantee as much liquidity as possible to the Freelancer, the investment fund takes care of their biggest expense by paying 300 euros for housing. The 400 remaining euros are used to employ Freelancer 2, redistributing wealth while maintaining a circular economy. The scheme tinkers with cost in order to exempt individuals from tax, while providing basic services and opportunities for others. We speculate more generally on creating an open source suite of legal hacks for freelancers. This growing category of workers, while often vulnerable, also offers interesting cracks for interventions. With the concern of the scheme being shut down by authorities, a silver lining appears: the power to close loopholes and push for fairer taxation laws.
Our final project takes the form of a Bitcoin Sculpture, inspired by the recent money exhibition at the British Museum. Museums only show physical artifacts, a huge embedded bias when it comes to money. The Bitcoin Sculpture would help visitors visualize how blockchain technology works through a physical, spectacular installation. The exponential structure’s blocks would light up as the network grows and the databases are updated, strings illuminating recorded transactions, genesis points birthing coins, showing how the network generates virtual currency.
Prototypical yet promising, these projects show how powerful perspectives can arise from the encounter between disciplines. The hacker’s mindset invites us to investigate concrete issues, gradually recomposing the common world by digging through the complex processes that teem within it. Challenging these intricate issues requires active divergence and reciprocal emulation, playing on ambivalences between groups and practices. Just as hacking pulls activists above collective action fatigue by offering positive tools for political intervention, we believe it may inform new ways to conceive of artistic practice. By considering artists’ knowledge to be social knowledge, shaping tools beyond ideals of representation, we bid on art to create collective experiences of agency.
Cirio, Paolo. The Art of Financial Hacking Workshop, Brussels 18-21 April 2018, http://baltanlaboratories.org/events/the-art-of-financial-hacking-part-ii.
Verheecke, Lora. ‘Lobby Tour’, The Art of Financial Hacking workshop, Brussels, 19 April 2018.
 Lora Verheecke, ‘Lobby Tour’, The Art of Financial Hacking workshop, Brussels, 19 April 2018.