Visualizing Debt – Stanford University Press Blog

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A conceptual artist critiques capitalism by foregrounding children’s perspectives on debt.

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This post is Part I of a two-part blog series exploring the culture of debt. View Part II here.

The link between unpaid debt and the uncertain future of “our children” is everywhere. We especially see it in discussions of the national debt, which Democrats and Republicans both insist that we pay off in the name of the nation’s children and grandchildren. And in discussions of consumer debt, we also find a link between debt, children, and shame, as when financial planning guru Suze Orman describes debt as a failure of personal will akin to addiction or obesity and insists that it is “irresponsible” for those in debt to have children. Both of these very contemporary ways of talking about debt recall debt’s much older association of debt with sin, guilt, and shame (as in the Aramaic, from which we get a line like the Christian Lord’s Prayer’s “Forgive us our debts,” or as in the German schuld, the word for both debt and guilt).

Typically, the attempt to connect the innocent child to shameful debt is creditor-ideology of the purest kind.

Typically, the attempt to connect the innocent child to shameful debt is creditor-ideology of the purest kind: a way to encourage state austerity in the case of the national debt; a way to ensure that people commit to unending attempts to pay off their personal debt on the consumer side. But artist Cassie Thornton’s brilliant installations on kids and debt offer something radically different from this creditor-ideology. Her ongoing project, Mystery Hands, includes both a children’s book and an immersive installation that, according to Thornton, “invites kids to learn about the ‘financialization’ of their world so they can imagine alternatives.” Thornton describes her book and the installation as a way to ask how a child experiences debt and to explore the consequences of “being raised and instructed by the scared silence of overleveraged adults with no time for play, with diminished access to basic material needs.”

Thornton began the project by collecting dreamy “debt visualizations”: she led various subjects (teachers, activists, bankers, and parents connected to the Chicago Public Schools) through guided meditations, asking them to imagine their debt taking a physical form. She then used these visualizations to produce the children’s book Debt: Bad Spelling, An Adult Problem, which she distributed for free online and physically displayed as part of her exhibit. The title plays off the silent “b” in the word, and the art similarly underscores the theme of debt as something that might be there and not there, hiding and in plain sight; the book imagines debt as ghostly malevolence. “Many adults are afraid of debt,” it reads, “it makes them feel like they are living in a box, surrounded by huge walls… That’s why they act weird, or stressed out. It can be very boring to hang out with people like this.”

The debt visualizations also became an uncanny soundscape for the exhibit: read hypnotically, with minimal shifts in tone or feeling, the recordings of the transcripts make for a droning, constant presence in the gallery space, recalling the “boring”-ness and claustrophobia invoked by the book. Children are usually associated with the purest kind of present-ness, but here, the child’s desire for adult attachment and attention—for unproductive, timeless “hanging out”—reveals the kinds of attention and care that are destroyed by the pressures of economic precarity on family life.

Debt also rethinks and reimagines a central figure of the capitalist imagination, namely homo economicus, the rational actor whose commitment to reasoned self-interest supposedly allows our economic system to function. Thornton critiques this figure’s limited imagination and self-destructive “reason” by drawing our attention to the anti-rational activity and manic motion of children. A series of photographs in Debt show children enacting scenes described in the book, and these are in turn overlaid with intentionally messy, DIY illustrations, beautifully capturing both the feeling and the appearance of play and of childlike reason. The work also suggests that children have imaginative access to economic abundance: “Who has ever picked up a gold coin from the ground, a gold coin that a leprechaun dropped there? […] Most people walk around feeling like they don’t have enough of what they need, so even if they do see all this gold, they don’t grab it, because they can’t believe it is real.” Alan Greenspan famously argued that financial crises are caused by investors’ “irrational exuberance”; Thornton imagines an anti-rational exuberance in the play of children, who together discover the possibilities of a different world.


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Debt thus participates neither in the moralizing language of financial planners, nor the pro-austerity discourse of national-debt demagogues. Rather, it concludes by directly speaking to the child-reader: “Find a friend and go underneath something. Maybe there is a portal to a different place, just for you. When you get there, make a plan to destroy the walls that are making the adults go crazy.” The Mystery Hands installation literalized this idea of a communal, revolutionary space secreted within an institution of the art world: a wall separating the exhibit from the rest of the gallery included a small door and a hidden second room where “children set the rules…and adults were made to abide them, including the rule that money was to be placed in a red purse hanging from the outside door handle.”

Dead Pledges

Dead Pledges » looks at how US artists, filmmakers, and writers represent and respond to debt.

An insurrectionist occupation of a sort, the children’s room recalls the strategy of building occupation common to the anti-student-debt movement: taking over shared spaces like university libraries, holding debt teach-ins in classrooms, and camping out in quads and plazas, protestors against both debt and austerity have similarly attempted to reclaim and revitalize public institutional spaces. As it happens, the connection between student debt protestors in higher education and the kids of Mystery Hands is more than a mere metaphor. Thornton’s project was a response to the ongoing financial crisis in the Chicago Public Schools—and indeed many public school systems nationwide—whereby the structural insolvency of the district made it impossible not only to pay off existing debt, but even to incur more debt so that schools could stay open.

But the children in Thornton’s work are not just urged to occupy a space; they are also encouraged to destroy: the children’s room includes a crowbar, which the children use to slowly knock down the dividing wall, taking out chunks and letting in light, a little at a time. For Thornton, the child models not the future of creditor-ideology but the future of debtor-revolution. The child represents revolutionary resistance to a world in which capitalism cannot or will not guarantee access to the basic goods we need to survive: education, housing, health care, child care, food.

When these goods are privatized and commodified, they become accessible only through exploitative and unpayable debt. When the institutions that provide them are defunded and dismantled as a result of austerity, they are effectively destroyed. Under these conditions, do we really have a moral obligation to repay our debt lest our children inherit it? Or do we have a political obligation to ensure that children don’t have to pay for these basic necessities in the first place?


Annie McClanahan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of California, Irvine. Her new book, Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture, looks at how US artists, filmmakers, and writers represent and respond to debt.

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