Early Sharing and Trust
For most of our history, humans were hunter-gatherers. They lived in mobile societies without a sense of private ownership; everything was shared, from food to tools to land. To be human was to receive and give, without asking much in return. The advent of farming marked a shift when people stopped moving around to settle in areas where they could reliably fish or grow their own food. The need to stockpile resources collectively, diminished. Farming communities grew quickly because it’s easier to raise children when not on the move. Farmers eventually took over hunter-gatherers’ land, and agriculture dominated. Because farmers generally prefer to enjoy their own harvests (and not give crops away), it is believed that agriculture and private property evolved together.
But, total self-sufficiency isn’t easy.
As people settled into larger towns, they realized they could trade for things they hadn’t themselves produced: meat for grain, silk for vessels. Longer-distance trade was dangerous but reaped exciting rewards and proved lucrative for middlemen willing to make the journey. Animal skins and salt were the first form of currency, later being replaced by early coins, an effective medium of exchange, then paper money – the game-changer—which rapidly accelerated business transactions. Currency is the physical form of the intangible concept of money. And, money must move. It fulfills its purpose only when it exchanges hands and geographies, benefiting people involved.
This brings us to hawala, the notoriously informal, trust-based system of moving money across far distances, without physically relocating currency. Understood to have roots in the geography of West and South Asia in the 8th century and founded on shari’a principles, hawala evolved as a diffuse and decentralized system to safeguard merchants and traders reluctant to carry large amounts of money on dangerous routes peppered with pirates and thieves. Most hawala transactions build on a basic form, in which a sender and recipient of cash utilize a network of operators called hawaldars. These hawala dealers are usually trusted community members who, in addition to facilitating money movement, offer free or low-cost financial education, legal guidance and make regular donations within the community. Though often maligned by authorities, hawaldars often perform essential community organizing.
A deal happens when a hawaldar collects money from a sender and pays it out to a recipient, located in distinct places. A code number or phrase can be shared to ensure everyone is who they claim to be. Ledger books document transactions. Trust encircles and buttresses the system, and each successful transaction reinforces the network. As it developed in a period that predates the nation-state, hawala transcends national and political boundaries. Its archetype is the family or ummah, a transnational community. Each hawala deal isn’t simply an isolated financial transaction; it’s an engine for familial and kinship bonds. Its contours are pre-modern, embodied, adaptive, brown-skinned, sweaty, communal, survivalist.
Meanwhile, in the West the Romans made buildings, instead of temples, as early banks to deal in loans. The Medicis established banks to exchange money and facilitate international trade. Then came the currency market, when banks and elites started buying and selling currencies from other nations. Regulation entered the picture to increase centralized control and maintain overall economic stability, particularly as international money transfers popularized during the 19th century’s expansion of global exchange and industrialization. Western Union launched the first wire transfers, utilizing the telegraph network, which SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) refined in the late 20th century as a more sophisticated system of sending messages among banks to transfer funds. As global wire transfers grew, so did the hefty fees banks charged to facilitate transactions. The system demanded disruption, which the Internet enabled, in its expanded horizon of possibility. In the late 1990s, Paypal hit the scene offering a cheaper and more efficient method of moving money.
All of this happened, and hawala has barely changed. Outside of minor adaptations to incorporate technology like email and phone to speed transactions, it’s the same system. In fact, companies like Transferwise in the UK and Dahabshiil across Africa are known to have cribbed hawala’s business model to reduce fees and expand user-friendliness. These internet-based companies differ from hawala, however, in that their focus is disrupting dominant operating modes and increasing efficacy—not building trust, enabling interdependence or generating social cohesion.
Pseudo-sharing and Mistrust
So, how did we get to now? To understand today’s money movements and collective attitudes toward financial institutions, it’s useful to look back. In broad strokes, the Western world experienced the profit and greed of the 1980s, which made way for relative peace and prosperity in the 90s. Then, the first decade of the 21st century laid much of the groundwork for our current reality. Big spending (and big loans) in the early aughts created the right conditions for a financial collapse and resulting recession. Meanwhile, the explosion of reality television helped shape how fame and success operate inside today’s digital culture.
The financial meltdown stirred society’s existential angst. People were concerned about depleting resources and the climate. Focus shifted from ownership to expanded access to things. Financial institutions had failed spectacularly, creating a crisis in which no one was ultimately held accountable. Money was no longer the most important thing– people were, right?
By this time, eBay had already replaced the garage sale. Amazon sold and shipped books all over. After 2008, peer-to-peer lending platforms proliferated as people hungered for some of the collectivity of our ancestors. We wanted to share, lend and borrow in marketplaces, crowd-funding sites, while traveling on holiday, listening to music or commuting to work. Early social media, itself positioned toward good-doing and innocuous connection, simply sped up communications around how things and services could circulate in the so-called Sharing Economy. A genuine desire for some type of interdependence –perhaps being part of global ummah—fueled this economy, and trust was a currency. The platforms contributed to a broader phenomenon: the economy slowly moved away from traditional models where centralized organizations holding power doled out services to passive consumers. The new model instead aggregated services across platforms and targeted an active consumer base.
Disruptive yes, but genuine sharing this was not. Researchers Giana M. Eckhardt and Fleura Bardhi writing in Harvard Business Review explain, “When ‘sharing’ is market-mediated—when a company is an intermediary between consumers who don’t know each other—it is no longer sharing…[i]t is an economic exchange, and consumers are after utilitarian, rather than social, value.” You might literally be sharing your couch, but what’s not evenly shared is revenue. Ownership remains private, and the focus of “sharing” platforms is ultimately profit, not true generosity.
One development that emerged from this period was different. Bitcoin was different. Created by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 as a decentralized digital coin or cryptocurrency, bitcoin was designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions and provide a real solution to ongoing financial woes. Bitcoin responded to the instability and mistrust of fiat or government-backed currency. Nakamoto wrote, “The root problem with conventional currencies is all the trust that's required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust.” Unlike the new platforms comprising the Sharing Economy, bitcoin disavowed trust as a currency. Or, rather, with Bitcoin trust was no longer needed. It audaciously offered a philosophical and tangible path away from capitalism, as it was known.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are powered by an underlying technology and infrastructure, blockchain, which runs software securely without the need for a centralized server. It is a digital ledger of transactions that is copied and distributed across a peer-to-peer network not controlled (or profited from) by any single entity. Primavera di Filippi, a researcher and legal scholar, writes:
Blockchain technology thus facilitates the emergence of new forms of organizations, which are not only dematerialized but also decentralized. These organizations — which have no director or CEO, or any sort of hierarchical structure — are administered, collectively, by all individuals interacting on a blockchain.
Thus, blockchain technologies can support a more cooperative type of crowd-sourcing. Users operate as generators of content as well as shareholders, and without a centralized mediating party, value produced can be more fairly distributed among those who have participated in creating that value. Blockchain is decentralized, transnational, ledger-based, networked, secure, speedy. It is hawala without the trust. Or the sweat. Where hawala is maligned as viciousfor its associations with tricksters and shady financial deal-makers, blockchain is celebrated for virtuously ushering in a more equitable, truer sharing future.
According to The Declaration of Bitcoin’s Independence, the cryptocurrency is “anti-establishment, anti-system, anti-state…[it] undermines governments and disrupts institutions because bitcoin is fundamentally humanitarian.” Despite such a position, bitcoin eschews traditional political polarities. It’s celebrated by anarchists, progressives who cite the increasing number of people of color utilizing it, and populists, alike—Steve Bannon is rumored to have a stash of his own.
Political affiliation aside, bitcoin responds to one certainty: our institutions are in dire need of overhaul. People demand transparency. They yearn for flatter hierarchies and systems. We’ve seen attempts at bottom-up, crowd-sourced efforts across the tech sector, but these have not brought about the sustainable changes required to improve quality of life and reduce inequality. Until, it seems, the arrival of blockchain. Like hawala, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, disrupt centralized banking channels and remittance systems by providing an alternative model. Or at the very least, these alternatives offer to wobble the ground underfoot.
The institutional shake-up taking place at our highest-level institutions like the state and church, find reflection at the smaller-scale. Art institutions have been feeling the shock for some time now. Institutional critique emerged in the 1960s and has evolved dramatically, as efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion have become mainstream practices across the museum and non-commercial art sectors. Art schools today grapple with changing curricula and canons, student make-up, new pedagogies, and shrinking financial resources. Commercial galleries also feel the squeeze. As in the greater economy, art galleries have fallen victim to the consolidation of wealth at the very top, with the largest galleries favored at the expense of a sustainable mid-level gallery class. This results in a narrowing field utilizing an even more narrow set of financial models and operational modes. This environment encourages competition among galleries, sometimes at the cost of partnership. Vision and new ideas can evaporate, along with experimentation.
Enter the NFT, which has recently shaken up the art market’s business-as-usual. Unlike bitcoins, which are fungible or mutually interchangeable, non-fungible tokens are certificates of authenticity linked to a range of digital artworks, which may be unique or editioned. NFTs can be purchased using cryptocurrency at various online marketplaces. At the same time, traditional auction houses like Christie’s and Phillips have giddily embraced NFTs, which have generated inordinately large sales for digital art. Connection to a new, younger collector base is a bonus. Artists benefit from another channel to sell their work, and NFTs’ unique smart contracting capability enables them to receive a percentage each time one is sold or transferred. This explodes the way the secondary art market has traditionally functioned, to sever the artist from any transaction following the first sale. What’s at stake with NFTs is nearly everything we understand about the art market’s notions of hierarchy, scarcity, ownership and mystery. In theory, this should be a good thing.
The non-fungible token, perhaps the least aesthetic term ever uttered, undeniably disrupts. But disruption in and of itself may not enough. NFTs are touch-less, disembodied, anonymous, pseudo-utopian, flattened. They resemble baseball trading cards perhaps more than art objects, but it’s both dated and boring to parse the artistic value of the NFT. More useful is to understand the particular way it disrupts dominant modes of the art economy.
Unlike hawala, which evolved long before and irrespective of formalized banking, NFTs are reactionary. They’re environmentally unsustainable. As they don’t actually require humans, they’re arguably anti-human. Critic Dean Kissick says that when we live in an algorithmically generated reality, humans start to resemble algorithms and behave like them. Like the internet did before it, blockchain all but guarantees a utopian, collective vision of the future. But, as we know, the form of our solutions can often take the shape of the problems. Legal scholar Primavera di Filippi cautions:
Just as the internet has evolved from a highly decentralized infrastructure into an increasingly centralized system controlled by only a few large online operators, there is always the risk that big giants will eventually form in the blockchain space.
If we, as a society, really value the concept of a true sharing economy, where the individuals doing the work are fairly rewarded for their efforts, it behooves us all to engage and experiment with this emergent technology, to explore the new opportunities it provides and deploy large, successful, community-driven applications that enable us to resist the formation of blockchain giants.
Behavioral studies demonstrate our trust in each other has declined since the 1970s. Only in a context where human-to-human trust has deteriorated, do we need blockchain, a trust-less, purportedly failsafe mechanism where human failure and subjectivity—essentially, our humanity—is no longer required. But what does a system like blockchain do to promote trust in each other and in the collective? What does it do to nurture deeper connection between ourselves and our environment? We must disrupt differently and with intention. We can make new worlds whilst imagining them. Writer Jelani Cobb describes our current reality, from Brexit to Covid to insurrection, as a crisis, cubed. In an endlessly unfolding series of crises, how can we repair our disconnection with ourselves and each other, our lands, our ancestors and the earth?
At last, we arrive at the present. Paradise Row, working out of East (and then Central) London from 2006-2014, was an exciting gallery that presented work by London-based and international artists. Like many other small to mid-sized galleries, it closed due to financial pressures, only to reemerge in a new, experimental format in 2021. Taking the lead from shared and cooperative working spaces, dealers have recently leaned into new opportunities to evolve and survive. Condo and Cromwell Place cropped up in the UK offering gallerists alternative modes for collaboration, cost sharing and increased artist support. This year Paradise Row Projects reopens in Central London with curator Nick Hackworth and collector Pippa Hornby, recalibrating an entirely new model in which artists function as curators and co-creators to present groundbreaking exhibitions. Sale proceeds benefit specific charities identified by the collective.
Shezad Dawood, a former gallery artist, has curated Hawala, a complex two-part group exhibition that opens Paradise Row Projects’ new incarnation. Dawood has long been fascinated by the informal system and fondly recalls the little black ledgers kept by his own grandfather. An IRL exhibition presented at Paradise Row Projects on Bourdon Street features nine artists of South Asian descent, Dawood included, working across painting, photography, sculpture, installation, film and sound. Over a decade after the heyday of internationally roving South Asian contemporary shows—the apotheosis of which was Saatchi’s unfortunately-named 2010 exhibition The Empire Strikes Back—Dawood’s Hawala offers an empowered and loving return to shared cultural and artistic sensibilities from the subcontinent. The exhibition features an intergenerational and non-hierarchical group of artists—inspired by hawala’s own modus operandi—including Sunil Gupta, who Dawood calls the godfather of the show, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Anousha Payne and Haroon Mirza, among others, and evolves with works rotating over the course of its run.
The complementary virtual exhibition is where things get interesting. Dawood has created a 3D journey inviting viewers through a lush mangrove environment to discover outdoor installations by Jasleen Kaur and Harminder Judge in-situ, which lead them out of the forest and into a new fictional museum, The Mangrove Institute of Contemporary Art (MICA). Dawood has long supported efforts across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to protect mangroves, important forms of tropical vegetation, located across the region. Inside the building, loosely inspired by Louis Kahn’s iconic Indian Institute of Management, viewers encounter gallery spaces for work by Haroun Hayward and Rithika Pandey, and a video screening room for Burman’s films, among other work. With MICA, Dawood plays with the idea of commissioning and curating a new art institution (the building sits on somnium space purchased by Paradise Row Projects as its own kind of investment). Is it real or virtual? Perhaps both? The whole MICA experience rolls out as an NFT, that is itself an edition of 1, a unique digital work, in which sale proceeds will be split evenly among artists (and developers) and their charity of choice, Conservation Action Trust in India and WWF Pakistan.
Dawood and Paradise Row Projects seek to observe the NFT unfold in real time, capitalizing on its structural capacity for generative fairness. The enterprise is a provocation; it plays and proposes: can this collaborative artistic endeavor inform future understandings of a new technology? Can a group of makers collectively present work within a socially and environmentally-focused context? Dawood explains, “If this isn’t an economic success, it’s important as an artist to have a quixotic percentile.” Hawala, in its IRL and virtual realities, seeks to envision a more sustainable model of collaboration among arts institution, curator, artists and an engaged public. It presents a world unto itself, enacting what Davina Cooper describes as an everyday utopia. Cooper rejects grand statements and exhaustive solutions in favor of small-scale shifts in daily practice. She argues that “utopias are fundamentally different from campaigns, arguments or slogans that declare the change they wish to see because they actually forge experimental ways of living in the present.” With Hawala, we see a model for living in the present characterized by intention, humor, resistance and wisdom. What’s more human than that?
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