installation Malmö, Sweden, May 2022

The economy is a feeling-state

For most humans, to live is equal to taking part in an economic system, a system heavily shaped by the idea of accumulating capital. Since early childhood most are trained to believe that a good amount of money corresponds to a safe life, a happy life. In some sense that is true, but it has symmetrically created a snowball effect where there is no clear idea on how much capital one single person actually needs to be, and feel, safe and happy. This perception of having lost the concept of a reasonable and legitimate personal capital seems to be growing among us, while we find ourselves simultaneously fighting against our very own existence. The last few decades have crystallised the drastic changes we, us humans, have put on Earth over the last five hundred years of colonialism and capitalism. We have extracted, produced and used more than our planet could tolerate, and we now stand with a wound so large that we don’t know where to start. But there is a missing discussion that we seem remarkably afraid to acknowledge . A discussion around why we felt we needed so much to begin with. The unclear and enormous need for accumulation that seeds our money economy.

Consequently, the illogicality of our current capital system is massively linked to us and our future but more importantly, to how we feel and what we wish for in relationship to our planet and each other. A topic we haven’t explored enough, since emotions and economy aren’t normally gathered together in the same sentence. Economic systems are looked upon as a serious product, created in a patriarchal, logical, and hierarchical structure, where status and intelligence shape its strict framework. Intangible and soft ideas, emotions, and a feminist approach to what economy could be has not been welcome into serious rooms and decision making tables.

At the moment we seem rather lost in how to look at the economic system from a deeper and philosophical perspective that recognises the reality of value as not only monetary, abstract, numerical, and malleable to control, but also something messy, gentle, in the process of growing, thriving, and dying; utterly entangled and complex. In other words, emotional and relational.

Some raise the capitalistic structure as something evil, some talk about degrowth, others about green investments at the stock market or circular economy. Yet, in any or all of these different clusters and wide range of ideas, we rarely talk about what they feel like, and we assume that feelings should not be considered in our ‘hard’ deliberations. We routinely disregard what emotions are awakened when we think of our children having to deal with a society that feels like it is spiralling downwards, how money and the unchecked pursuit of profit is often the core of destruction, and why some humans seem to have an insatiable need for an unreasonable personal income. In doing this, we neglect a vital source of intelligence that gives precise and lived insight into the purpose and direction of our economies.

When looking at economic systems,
we rarely talk about what they feel like.

From the moment we wake up, we actively participate in and contribute to the economic system. Hundreds of single habits and small everyday moments in our lives are connected to money. The toothbrush that we use has been bought and has a long story of its own, from material extraction to production, shipping, and distribution. On its journey to our bathrooms, it has been in the hands of many others and therefore tangibly provided for their salaries and life costs.

The Dinner, an art installation by Dark Matter Labs in Malmö during Southern Sweden Design Days May 2022. We wanted to delve into the theorem of art and economy and created the installation as a very first exploration in our more extensive research for ‘Economic Spaces’. During four days citizens could visit the installation that took place in an old train garage and consisted of a longer text as a backdrop, a table with boxes reflecting a happy meal and with stickers that downloaded visitors' feelings and thoughts.

When you start to look at your home, when you look at objects around you, and when you look at everyday life in a broader sense, it is easy to see that the numbers and economic inputs into the system all feed into a concrete structure that we truly live inside, and live by. We could think of the economic reality as the myriad parts which scaffold our everyday habits, costs, salaries and values. The economy is a feeling-state, not some abstract idea of capitalism as a generic product somewhere out in the world. It is heavily intertwined with the notion of surviving as a human being in the world.

However, economy isn’t that straightforward. Economy isn’t only about money, as we tend to think about it. Economy is a much larger and holistic system of how we interact and share, how we care and how we don’t. It’s about how we could be generous in the present, or how we could create foundations of new mindsets for a sustainable future. When we consider that emotions filter the realities of need and survival, but also of creativity and care, it becomes clear that economy is emotional. Economy can be soft and full of innovation. ‘Economic Spaces’ is an exploration in having new dialogues about all of these types of economies. It is an invitation to be remarkably creative in finding—and feeling—new ways to explore an economy, with a comprehensive understanding that we are connected and free.

It is hard to see trust, fairness and common measurements within the global economy today. Could it be blamed on the complexity of being a human, our inability to be disciplined with our basic ingrained emotions? Could it be blamed on our impulses to extract, our deep need for recognition, our tendency to focus on individual rather than collective thinking or on our way of interpreting the future while ignoring the present? To disrupt the economic system for a fair future, we need to dare to understand and raise those philosophical questions.

Yet, as soon as we consolidate philosophy, science and art with economics, the complexity of the system clearly manifests. There is a chaos in the structure, similar to quantum physics.

Quantum theory, deemed the hardest part of physics, is the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behaviour of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level. Systems with quantum behaviour don't follow the rules that we are used to, they are hard to see and hard to “feel”. They can have controversial features, exist in several different states at the same time and even change depending on whether they are observed or not. In that sense one could say the world is built on beautiful chaos where matter and energy, at the most fundamental level, manoeuvre freely with uncertainty. In the same way, economy seems to be constructed on a basis of uncertainty within a chaotic framework much less elegant than the one of all atoms, yet controlled by structures that require linear certainty.

Mapping of a dinner and 3 hours among friends by Dark Matter Labs.

That linear certainty can paint a picture of how the economy grows. The basic idea of a monetary economy is its ability to turn a small amount of capital into something much larger. For many that sounds like a perfectly designed system and a way to change one's personal life for the better. Yet, over the last decades we have acknowledged new insights of what constant growth means in relation to finite planetary materials. For some this is where the economy becomes emotional. It is no longer only looked upon as a practical structure, but instead as an organism transformed into a potential threat. So how can we talk about emotional economy without the risk of being labelled irrelevant?

It is perhaps here that we need to discuss gender and justice, a central pillar of an overall understanding of our current economic system. In her book “Mother of Invention - How good ideas get ignored in an economy for men”, writer and financial journalist Katrin Marcal invites us to rethink innovation through history as not purely something technological. She argues that we have created a narrative where humans are seen as a form of technology themselves in order to distance ourselves from the fact that we are part of nature. This view roots back to the classical liberal conception of the public sphere, which viewed the human affairs of economy, technology, and politics as domains ruled by rationality—a capacity belonging exclusively to adult men. By contrast, women, children, and slaves were seen to belong to the private sphere of the home and the uncivilised world of nature. This binary between public and private spheres effectively rendered the feminine—and its practices of care and emotions—as inferior.

The boxes during The Dinner by Dark Matter Labs in Malmö at Southern Sweden Design Days May 2022.

By the same token we need to fully understand the structure of care and ethics in relation to economics. The economic realm of markets, industry and technology is ultimately inseparable from ethics with the deliberation and application of our ideals of what is right, good, desirable and beautiful. In short, the economic and the ethical meet in an intricate question of value.

However, if we truly aim at discussing the economy at a level where we can start to grasp it in its broadest sense we need to add the “invisible” economy, or what is more often called the non-monetary economy. This is a system of economies typically embedded in a monetary economy yet it undertakes tasks that benefit society by means that the monetary economy does not value. It is widely a moral or socially conscious philosophy that attempts to include everyone through services such as household labour, caregiving, civic activity or even friends doing something for each other.

It seems like the evolution of economy has left some essential ideas behind, the web of interactions and meaning of life. We have decoupled some of the core parts of the economy, perhaps the most vital and stimulating synergies. While leaving them behind and not recognising the hard work of unpaid labour, we see a decrease in mental health and an alarmingly high amount of citizens on antidepressant drugs. All terribly connected to economy in more than one way.

To hold an idea in your hand

Where we stand will distinctly determine what we are able to see. The placement of our body and eyesight will give us a specific angle of the view we have in front of us, never of what we have behind us. The placement of our thoughts and ideas will give us a specific angle of the view of information and knowledge we have in front of us. However, new viewpoints are dramatically important for innovation and change. Art is a beautiful tool for challenging mindsets and revealing possibilities. But even in science there is unresolved reasoning very much related to an artist's work method. In physics for example there are different ways of looking at the world and that is the main scope researchers need to explore to be able to come one step closer to understanding its existence.

But when the dialogues and the thought processes are so complex and intangible, could we make them easier to understand by touch and feel? Art can give you an instant feeling, it can be an emotional trigger, instead of just receiving and perceiving knowledge. Here lies a future of serious art. In Sweden, Malmö University and art students recently teamed up with the European Spallation Source (ESS), a multi-disciplinary research facility based on the world's most powerful pulsed neutron source. They saw the benefits of listening and learning from each other. Similarly, the SETI Institute in California, a not-for-profit research organisation whose mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe, is working with artists. They have employed artists to collaborate with researchers and thereby freely exchange ideas and explore possible pathways of knowledge. What these two projects have realised is that researchers and artists are very much the same, they probe and test potential unknowns.

Art can be an emotional trigger for larger and deeper dialogues. It can blur the boundaries between things, the boundaries between us and the boundaries between the world and self. Still we rarely see art and economy as subjects deeply unified in the same study or mechanism.

Stickers for visitors to leave an imprint at the installation The Dinner by Dark Matter Labs in Malmö, May 2022.


1641 René Descartes said in his book ‘Meditations on First Philosophy, in which the Existence of God and the Immortality of the Soul are Demonstrated’, that the standard of truth is self-evidence of clear and distinct ideas. Despite the logician Descartes' understanding of "self-evident truth", the philosopher Descartes considered that the self-evident truth of "two plus two equals four" might not exist beyond the human mind; that there might not exist correspondence between abstract ideas and a concrete reality. In the late 19th century, the Russian press used the phrase 2 + 2 = 5 to describe the moral confusion of social decline during that time and in ‘Notes from Underground’ (1864), by Feodor Dostoevsky, the anonymous protagonist accepts the falsehood of "two plus two equals five". Later on the phrase 2 + 2 = 5 got well known for its use in the 1949 dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell. But was it possibly Victor Hugo who most clearly made the statement powerful when he said: "Now, get seven million, five hundred thousand votes to declare that two-and-two-make-five, that the straight line is the longest road, that the whole is less than its part; get it declared by eight millions, by ten millions, by a hundred millions of votes, you will not have advanced a step.” 200 years later that sentence has an acute accuracy when we look at information and media and its impact on human movement. There is no candid truth when fake news and personal politics steer global development.

We need to talk about the economy and its coexisting blindfolded and ignorant structures that seem to have been the prevailing system for democratic societies over the last 100 years. We need to talk about how we look at systemic structures, why they matter and how they work. Few are truly paying attention to how the whole is functioning together, how we are dependent on each other and on all living things via economy. We need to be brave and talk about these systems from a vulnerable point of view where generosity sits at the heart of a pathway forward. We need to combine existential sustainability with hard wired economic systems.

We leave with these words and with a hope that they will provoke ideas and dialogues. That they were somewhat slightly overwhelming, irritational or even naive. That they moved your thinking forward. Because one thing is sure within our shared economic systems, they are never stagnated and they never should be.

Written by Jenny Grettve in collaboration with, and with great input from, Anjeline de Dios, Linnéa Rönnquist, Anastasia Mourogova & many others.

For more information please contact jenny@darkmatterlabs.org

Economic Spaces is a project belonging to Dark Matter Labs
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