The Hologram: reclaiming the means of health and care published in ROAR

The following interview first appeared in ROAR Magazine on July 30th 2020

The Hologram is a lightweight, peer-to-peer feminist health platform that any group of four people can practice to take revolutionary care of one another. In person or online, three people focus on the holistic wellbeing of a fourth, the hologram, helping her understand and challenge the way racial capitalism, hetero-patriarchy and other systems of power act on her body, mind and social self.

In learning to receive help and care, the hologram is a teacher to those who care for her. She helps them to become holograms, each with a team of three caregivers and the network spirals out of control, going viral (but in a good way).

Cassie Thornton is a US-born artist and activist now residing in Canada and the founder, current caretaker and coordinator of The Hologram project. It’s a practice with a set of ideas that is free for anyone to use and adapt. It is incubating inside an art project, inside the artworld, and will become an autonomous “social technology” in 2023.

Her short book, The Hologram: Feminist, Peer-to-Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future, offers background on and a guide to the project and is now available from VAGABONDS, a new series from Pluto Press.

VAGABONDS: You’re an artist best known for work about debt. You’ve orchestrated disruptive dance performances in banks, hypnotized debtors to get them to reveal the financial unconscious and placed cursed paintings in bad banks. Why did you turn to collective care?

Cassie Thornton: The fuel for much of my work around debt is the loss of one of my parents, who basically died because they refused to accept care in the US for-profit medical system. They were wary of accepting help when they knew that any medical interventions they accepted would only lead to more debt, more poverty and more dependence on a toxic system and pharmaceutical corporations.

At the same time as my parent refused care from one system, they also did not pursue different forms of care from loved-ones or the community. This wasn’t just due to their poverty, it was due to the fact that they did not want to be a burden to anyone else. They wanted to protect me and other family members from their pain, because they knew how precarious our lives were and they didn’t want to take away from our chances to thrive. They did not tell anyone about their pain. They felt, as many people do, that showing vulnerability or needing support from other people made them weak.

So, a lot of my work on debt came from trying to understand and grapple with how it could so deeply impact someone’s social experience and imagination.

This is one reason I organized with Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. But in my artistic work about debt and financialization in the US, which included a lot of work with poor and working people as well as hedge fund managers and corporate lawyers, I became very aware of the limits to success and survival in capitalism and white culture (which are ever so intertwined), and its consequences.

When we compete in our current systems, we embody certain habits that are not ours. I believe we are a cooperative species. But when we compete to live, we internalize and perfect all the habits and practices that comprise capitalist-flavored individualism. It’s not only that this form of individualism makes us believe that all we have power over is our own financial survival (at best), or that we must compete with others for scarce resources. It also demands we separate the mind from the body, and the one from the many, in order to do so. We may even begin to see other people as obstacles to our success as we talk on cell phones while facing away from the murderous impacts of the materials and manufacturing process on the workers who make them.

While some of my work on debt has been seeking to understand the fears and nightmares of the privileged, a lot of it has also been about how the so-called “financial losers” can build mutual aid and forms of collective refusal.

So, my work has put me and all my friends through a decade of disobedience training, where we actively push up against the forces that reinforce these toxic pedagogies of debt and financialization. I’ve invited precariously employed dancers to touch every surface of 20 NYC banks, searching for dirt, a sign of something real. Or I’ve taught feminist economics yoga, where I use my identity as a white California yoga teacher to sneak into corporate yoga studios. I would slip in abolitionist feminist ideas as we wondered why our necks were so sore: could it be the strain of constantly looking away from the prison industrial complex? I’ve also developed baroque rituals with public school children in Chicago to identify and unlock the racist debt cycle that all their adults were powerless to see or change. I’ve cursed bankers who were profiting off of this debt.

I’ve spent my adult life throwing tantrums and demanding an end of the evil and monotony that is capitalist culture. I don’t do it because it’s easy for me! I do it because I feel stuck and worthless as a recipient of white privilege and membership in the American Empire. I’ve been doing all this work to dig my way out of my own inherited poverty (financial and imaginative) and depression which has always been matched with a profound sense of alienation, frustration and boredom with what life is promised to become for a good capitalist subject.

The result is that I have spoken to so many people about their personal experiences and feelings as they relate to debt and money. I understand the capitalist subject as a very lonely one, who doesn’t feel like they are a meaningful part of their society. They feel powerless to help themselves and unable to believe that they can or should help other people.

My sense is that the capitalist subject has been trained to value authority and expertise, and to fear vulnerability and interdependence. I think we are a cooperative species, but that capitalism has forced us to forget those skills.

The Hologram is an attempt to help us remember and practice being a cooperative species. It’s a lightweight system where three people — non-experts — make a commitment to listen to and learn from a fourth regarding that fourth person’s health and well-being in a holistic sense. In Strike Debt (now The Debt Collective) we spoke a lot about the need to replace the poverty of corporate and financial debt with the richness of social bonds, the real stuff that holds us together. The Hologram in a way is an experiment in creating a method for those kinds of non-commodified bonds.

I think one part of a revolutionary program is an instruction manual for how to ask for help and how to give it. It is not easy, and it takes practice. I want people to carefully organize care in ways that are thoughtful, that don’t rely on any one person as a heroic figure, and that are sustainable and long lasting. But that’s not the end.

In The Hologram, networking, distributing and teaching care is an attempt to produce well-distributed (read, confronting inequities of gender and race, wherein certain people have never been in a position of doing care work and they need to get to work) collective health that is necessary for people who feel weak to become strong and skillful so they can feel like a part of a collective who can dismantle the current systems and dream up better ways for organizing society.

This project was inspired by the example of the solidarity clinic movement in austerity-ravaged Greece, which saw health professionals band together with communities not only to offer free care, but to reimagine what care could look like. Can you tell us about that, and also why the kind of “social technologies” they developed are important even for those of us who have decent health coverage?

Group for a Different Medicine is a self organized group of health workers and volunteers who gathered around the Social Solidarity Clinic of Thessaloniki to investigate and practice what it would take to offer care that is not only free but that also upends some of the hierarchies common in medical systems. For example, the person coming for care at the clinic was called an “incomer.” They stopped using the word “patient” because in Greek it can connote a type of weakness or unwellness. In their project they wanted to say that the person who needs care is not weak: everyone needs care, even doctors. So a lot of what the group worked on were little ways to disrupt some of the power structures between doctor and patient, between genders, between Greek and migrant.

The project I am most interested in is what they call the Integrative Model where the incomer is seen by a doctor, therapist and social worker together. The social worker is played by a non-professional, a volunteer. The three ask the incomer questions about all parts of their health: where they work, what they eat, how they feel, etc. They offer an opportunity after the questioning period for the incomer to reflect on what has been said, and to lead a conversation about what types of support they need in the next time period in order to be healthy.

The three caretakers will support the needs of the incomer, but the goal is to allow the incomer to design their own care systems. Can you imagine telling a doctor what you need instead of telling them your symptoms and waiting for an answer? A recent American study found that only a third of doctors even bothered to ask patients about the reason for their visit and typically interrupted patients after about eleven seconds.

The Hologram takes what was learned in the Integrative Model and adapts it to become a viral peer to peer model. It cannot and does not aim to replace formal medical care, but it builds an infrastructure underneath for all of us to receive sustained, thoughtful and empowering attention and, by learning about one another, learn about ourselves. Over time the caretakers become a living medical record for the hologram.

In leading workshops and courses to help people understand and practice it within their own communities, my collaborators and I have come to recognize that there are several patterns in how people approach health and care that the work of the Social Solidarity Clinics in Greece and the Hologram both really try and interrupt.

First, many people don’t feel comfortable asking for support. It doesn’t matter if those people live in Vienna with access to high quality medical care or if they live in the US with none. We’ve done so many surveys and had so many conversations about how to organize one’s care within a set of unstable conditions. The obstacle that appears over and over again is that most people we talk to feel like a burden if they ask for help. It’s as if receiving care is like withdrawing energy from a bank machine, and that it creates a deficit for whoever gives attention or care. It is easier to get care from someone whom we can have a clean exchange with.

This led to another observation. Most people say they would prefer to receive care from a stranger than from someone they know. It feels like too much to navigate to ask for help from someone familiar. When I have asked people about this preference, it is often because their friends are already overtaxed and they don’t want to add to that. They don’t know if they could pay it back.

Why do we prefer to benefit from the care of strangers than that of our friends and community, who know us best? Are people too afraid of being overexposed to their friends, of having to negotiate boundaries, or is it just that we are used to getting care from anonymous professionals and now we prefer it?

Finally, many people state that they don’t know why they need support or what they would ask for. I think that one part of that is because those of us with experience receiving care in biomedical institutions are used to hearing from experts what we need. But also, because of the financialization of medicine (which happens in socialized healthcare as well as market based healthcare) we have been led to believe that we should only receive care when we encounter a problem. It is our job to maintain our own health, and “health care” is for when our bodies break.

For this reason, as well as many others related to ableism, competitive capitalism, racism, patriarchy and agism, we as a society have made a decision that the only appropriate time to get care or support is if there is an emergency. In our society the person who needs help is broken and needs to be fixed. I really believe we have taught ourselves that asking for help means you are weak. It just isn’t the case! Racial capitalism makes everyone sick.

If we decided to center the production of health (instead of capital or data or power-over) we would see that to be healthy requires support from every angle all the time. No one is self-sustainable, everyone needs help. We are a cooperative species and health insurance doesn’t take that away.

You are part of a general movement of radical artists moving away from simply seeking to represent the world and radical ideas in images  but, instead, using art as a way to experiment with revolutionary ways of practicing social life, new “social technologies,” like the Hologram. What inspired you towards this path? What roles does this kind of art play in or along-side radical movements and social struggles?

I don’t feel like my main influences are in art, nor do I think that a lot of people in the art world are developing social technologies. But I do think that the title of “artist” allows some people to have an alibi for having a life that doesn’t line up with the capitalist version of normativity. I thought I could talk about the people who most inspire me from within “art”, those who are gently taking it apart from the inside.

I first think of Park McArthur’s project at the Museum of Modern Art called Projects 195 and Johanna Hedva’s solo exhibition at Klosterruine Berlin called GOD IS AN ASPHYXIATING BLACK SAUCE. These two artists have established practices that acknowledge that we can never know how many people are not able to be present in an art space, or why. Coming from a queer disability context, both artists, who have experiences of debility where they cannot attend art exhibitions, have pressured institutions to create webspaces and audio experiences that make their art exhibits as rewarding an experience to those who witness it from a couch or from a curb outside the institution.

Doing so deflates the importance of being in a capital city or in a very controlled/controlling white hetero capitalist art space in order to participate in culture. As we know, gentrifying cities are increasingly inaccessible to people who are not wealthy and “art” is a guilty party in gentrifications. But cities, as we’ve built them, were never easy for many people with mobility or mental health issues, and the cityscape has historically been segregated by race and class, producing spaces of ill health for people who cannot afford the nice part of town. In this work, “art” becomes a platform and “art institutions” become (soft) targets for experimenting with radical anti-capitalist demands.

Capitalism only has use for what it deems “able” bodies, capable of producing value for someone or competing on markets and the art world mirrors this. So their interventions are, in a way, less about making art for an elite artworld and more about activating and sensing ways to use institutional resources to feel with and communicate to those who have chosen or been forced to stay outside of institutions and systems that consolidate and reproduce toxic power.

I also find the work of Hamburg-based Sibylle Peters to be very instructive. She is politically active on the European stage, for instance organizing against the G20 meetings in Hamburg in 2017, or planning a huge assembly of activists to discuss participation in democratic movements. A lot of her work involves challenging various forms of authority, including one performance with the ensemble geheimagentur where an overturned police car was used in a performative game.

But some of her most radical work is with children, via the Fundus Theatre of Research located in a working-class and heavily migrant-background area of Hamburg. Much of the work with children starts by listening to their very peculiar and specific wishes. In a workbook she produced with the Live Art Development Agency called Performing Research: A Toolkit of Methodologies, she describes the methodology for working together to find a way to achieve wishes, as research. I find this to be so incredibly inspiring– because as adults our wishes seem stupid, or too big, or we don’t have them at all.

Sibylle describes how a really good and clear wish, like the wish to see a miracle, or to have a birthday for everyone, or to go to space, leads us on adventures where we get to do research and solve problems as we go towards what we want. It is very different from building actions from a place of critique. In the research theater, a series of children’s workshops begins when Sibylle asks every single child to explain their wish. She tells them how much money they have to spend to achieve the wish, and then the workshop goes from there. By the end, a few wishes have been selected by the children and then they have been met using the resources allotted.

These are very few examples, but I think Park, Johanna and Sibylle all make a lot possible for the rest of us, just by doing what they do. We don’t really know what a social movement should look like in a pandemic, but looking to the work of artists who have found ways to communicate with complexity and criticality outside of physical social gatherings does expand what is possible. Being with this work is being with all the others who can’t be in the room for one reason or another. It is time to rethink participation in a world that makes most people sick and poor.

In the case of Sibylle, I think it is very instructive to think about desire instead of focusing only on critique and dismantling. Working with children to identify what we want to go towards, instead of how to be afraid and critical, seems like really important abolitionist training — if we dismantle all the toxic systems that make life on the planet shitty, we are going to need to know what to go towards instead!

Your book ends with a “wikipedia entry from the future,” your dream of what would happen if The Hologram succeeded beyond your wildest dreams and went viral to become something that millions of people practice and adapt to their needs. What inspired this vision?

I remember what it was like before the internet. I think about social practices like Theatre of the Oppressed, a practice that has been used all over the world by many different types of groups from NGOs to radical housing activists to therapists. I’m interested in simple, minimalist protocols that can replicate, like Alcoholics Anonymous, the community acupuncture movement, or internationally coordinated hunger strikes.

All the projects that traveled through communities, that connected disparate people by syncopating practices, that grew and merged with regular life in different ways all over the world. I think all of these projects become so much a part of the life of the practitioners who use them, that at a certain point, their origin story falls away. They just become tools that get used and adapted by the communities that use them.

I plan to incubate The Hologram as an artwork until the end of 2022, and then I would like to let it disperse through the people that use it, and to live on as a mutating, decentralized practice. I hope that it just becomes an everyday idea that lots of people use, and that it fits into people’s lives in a way that feels ancient and easy. If that happened, it would mean that a lot of people would be spending a significant amount of their time getting to know each other and giving or receiving support, and that these types of activities are valuable and valued. It would mean that people feel like they have time for things beside bare financial survival and struggle.

When we close all the prisons, maybe each freed person could be supported by three people of their choice for the transition, and each of those caretakers also had three caretakers, and so on. Maybe academic conferences stop and, instead, papers are given using the hologram formation of three listeners who ask questions of one person who delivers the paper, as a way to create deeper conversations that connect the personal and the theoretical.

Maybe a union of care workers organize their own care practice using the Hologram formation, since they know that all caretakers need care, and that there are no individual saviors.  And what if The Hologram got taken up by a municipality or two? Not to replace formal, institutional medicine, but to organize and distribute the labor of care that must happen before, during and after all the biomedical activities in a healthcare system.

Until then, I think we can just talk about The Hologram as if all these things are true and possible. It’s hard to want what you’ve never seen. But if we talk about building a society that centers the production of health and life enough, and if we have an image in mind of how it could start, maybe that gets us closer than waiting for a big corporate government collaboration shows us how they imagine it?