A Hidden Exchange


”Does the rational man think only of himself? Or of the community?
Is it in his self-interest to build a stronger community?”

Adam Smith’s best-known work was The Wealth of Nations. Its concepts of rational self-interest and the invisible hand of the market have persisted for many years forming the basis for the contemporary study of economics.
Smith “marveled at the efficiency and specialization in the factory but never in the household. In his writing, he seldom mentions women’s work in the market or in the home. Smith developed categories of productive and unproductive labour – these categories ignored both paid and unpaid domestic work. Material production alone could produce a surplus and thus spur on the economy. Service, or care work, devoted to others was essentially irrelevant.

Although many professional economists might disagree, Smith took a wrong turn with the indefinite notion of progress. Smith recognized that only economic growth could sustain high wages and widely diffused prosperity without society-wide planning and cooperation. Unsurprisingly, he failed to recognize that there were inescapable limits to growth. 1

By framing society as a unity in which inequalities of property and class were both a requisite and a guarantor of greater social well-being, Adam Smith was not only achieving his political objectives but set the stage for the emergence of “the economy” as a bounded and unified social instance.

How to disassemble precarious existence:

In our work we are committed to ongoing experimentation to find forms of collective activity needed to build a world beyond this concept of economy, beyond capitalism, beyond precarious existence. Around 2012 we began a collaboration based upon a common interest in moving away from the singular narrative of Capitalism and turning our heads towards the plurality of economies to negotiate a rupture in capitalist hegemony.

In our lecture performance Adam Smith’s Mother (Thealit – Frauen, Kultur, Labour, Bremen (GER), 2012) we attempted to return to the household of Adam Smith as he was writing the foundational text on the study of contemporary economics, The Wealth of Nations. Smith’s writing took place in the safe space of his mother’s house – his domestic needs, cooking, cleaning, etc. were taken care of by her labour.

We were interested in returning to this theoretical oversight – the point where Smith neglected to account for the hidden economy of the household while developing his ideas on free market economies that continue to shape today’s economic theories. We wanted to look at the hidden economies of the home as non-capitalist sites and discuss how focusing on these hidden economies might shape an understanding of a future beyond capitalism, or at least produce a more nuanced understanding of contemporary economics.

This led to the organisation of Hidden Economies – a seminar on economic possibility, which we co-organised in collaboration with Brett Bloom in Copenhagen, October 2014. The seminar brought together artists, activists, and scholars to discuss hidden economies – existing within, next to, beside, and around capitalism. The seminar was inspired by the work of feminist, economic geographers JK Gibson-Graham (Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson). Gibson-Graham worked on several publications and projects that sought to destabilize and introduce ruptures in the “monster” of capitalist economy. Our guiding questions in putting together the seminar were: Capitalist processes shape our daily experiences but do they define them? How and where are people creating economies that ignore the dominant economic system? How do these economies – shared, exchange-based, micro-local, etc. – function and what do they look like? Are they temporary or are they sustainable? The foundation laid by Gibson-Graham frames how we understand and perceive the economic realities that shape our everyday lives and our larger social structures. We were interested in how cultural work may contribute to shedding light on economic difference and articulating new economic realties. Central to this project is the idea that economies are always diverse and in the making.

Building on the seminar, we are organizing Trade Test Site, a series of cultural events in Aarhus, Denmark combined with a booklet series (Trade Test Site #1-4: Your Money or your life – on feminist economics) to look deeper into the concept of “hidden economies” as articulated by Gibson-Graham. Because these economies always already exist, they are proof that Capitalism is not an impenetrable and inevitable economic system. Each hidden economic reality, below the iceberg, 2 means that there are other possibilities for generative economic realities. The booklet series will include texts by and about scholars and artists: Katherine Gibson, Kathrin Böhm, Renee Ridgeway, and Silvia Federici. The Trade Test Site project is focused on both researching and creating practical experiments in identifying and strengthening hidden economies.

Both Skou and Fortune have been part of art communities involved in implanting cultural experiments in creating alternatives to capital. Lise Skou with Swop Projects and rum46 and Bonnie Fortune with Mess Hall in Chicago, IL. Though we are part of these international communities of artists working on projects that look at ways to develop different forms of economic exchange, we still find these practices marginalized with alternatives to capitalism being regarded as just that “alternatives.”

If we truly want to discuss art’s opportunities for establishing a plurality of economies that are not subject to capitalism, we should really be taking about economies that exist on an equal footing with capitalism. Only then can we bring about a final break away from the hegemony of capitalism. It is not enough to document existing “alternatives” to capitalism, nor to launch new ones. The key issue is to open up a discursive space where such “alternatives” are regarded as viable, successful and transformative. And real transformative power requires us to think in new and different ways about economics and politics in the production of conditions for change.

In spite of the many excellent initiatives and projects launched around the world in local communities on varying scales, it is still clear to see what impedes these transformative ambitions: An over-familiarity with capitalism that leads us to perceive it as a natural and dominant kind of economy, or even as a complete economic system that coincides with the social space.

In the light of such preconceptions, non-capitalist projects are still regarded as mere interludes; as tiny temporary ventures that offer a source of amusement to the general populace.

It is with this mindset and the desire to engage in these things from a feminist perspective, that we begin Trade Test Site. The first booklet will be printed in Autumn 2015.

The following is a detailed example of one element of Trade Test Site from Lise Skou. In this section she explains, how she is taking the concept of a hidden economy, in this case exchange between friends and acquaintances and the model of a cooperative, user owner workspace.

Explaining the Trade Test Site as an artistic research project:

Demystifying Capitalism – or, How do we get out of this capitalist place?

Most people get up in the morning wanting a job – and if not wanting one, feeling they need one,
rather than creating an entirely new way of organizing social relationships

Silvia Federici

Over the course of the last decade, artists have claimed trade as a socio-cultural space by producing their own shops, stalls, barter centres, chains of exchange, and distribution systems. Art suggests and adopts forms of trade that remind us of the opportunities and complexity of the society in which we live; a society where we have become used to the idea that everything must be “worth something.”

Exchange Library – an example:

As part of Trade Test Site, I, Lise Skou, am organizing Exchange Library a membership-based lending, exchange and distribution business launched in Aarhus, Denmark, in 2015. It is a platform for discussing artistic efforts in collaborative economies, for rethinking trading cultures, economic practices and distribution in collaboration with artists, shop owners, businessmen, activists, students, retailers, local communities and so on.

At our premises, members have access to a ‘library’ of high-quality children’s clothes, books, and locally produced organic foods – such as bread, jam, juice, home-made chocolate spread etc. – that they can either borrow, barter or enjoy in our Exchange Cafe.

This is to say that in our Exchange Library you can borrow or exchange e.g. the children’s clothes you need, return them, and exchange them for something else. You can swap and borrow as much and as frequently as you like – but you can only borrow a given item for a maximum of four weeks.

The Exchange Library (EL) is grounded in a cooperative model, which means that all its activities are based on worker-owner membership. It is run by members, who own and run EL and its activities in a democratic manner. The enterprise is intended to be of maximum benefit to the members rather than to create an economic profit. This also means that the membership fees are used exclusively to cover remuneration for Co-Workers and Co-Distributers and day-to-day operation.

What is important for the EL is to create a business where members receive payment for the work they do, and that everybody receives equal pay for equal work – regardless of education, seniority, background etc. It is also important to build a framework for establishing jobs, and any member can at all times book their own working hours to the extent they wish.

A Co-Worker is someone who tends the “library” and the Exchange Café. A Co-Distributer is someone who, when traveling from e.g. Aarhus to Copenhagen or Berlin, takes along goods that someone in that city wishes to borrow so that all shipping or transport of goods within the EL setting is carried out through personal and social networks. All such journeys must be journeys that would have taken place anyway.

Exchange Library App:

An important aspect of building an efficient borrowing and exchange system is the development of an Exchange Library App. The ELApp offers a borrow and exchange function that allows everyone, regardless of where they live, to use the EL borrowing and exchange service. All goods borrowed via the App will be distributed via social networks, specifically by the so-called Co-Distributers.

The ELApp also contains information and guidelines on how individuals can launch an EL in their own local community. If you set up your own local Exchange Library, you can add your branch so that the app no longer contains goods from just a single Exchange Library, but from several different local libraries. We have a great wish to see the creation of a network of Exchange Libraries throughout the world – and we will expend great effort in seeing that wish realised.

Space and surroundings

The city of Aarhus is currently undergoing extensive change and renewal. A Light Rail project is cutting right through the city – prompting a large number of old buildings to be torn down; the city has a new Mediaspace (which might more accurately be called the municipal citizens’ service); the harbour area is completely changed; and an entirely new, centrally located neighbourhood called Frederiks Plads is being established, full of shops, cafés and posh dwellings in tall buildings that overlook the harbour. To this you may add a wealth of smaller projects prompted by the overall Aarhus 2017 – European Capital of Culture project, which has caused a widespread desire to “clean up” the city. As a result it has become rather difficult to find just a single tiny refuge in Aarhus where no new buildings are being constructed. It has become more than difficult to find old houses and shop premises that can be rented at affordable rates. Such intensive monopolisation and mono-use of the public space in urban settings does not invite rethinking. It does not allow for collective visions about potential changes to the ways in which public spaces are used, nor for dreams about how new spaces might be created as a result of collective actions.

However, Aarhus still contains a centrally located piece of fallow land, right behind Godsbanen, a culture hub of event spaces and artist studios and workshops, built in an old railway in the former railyard. The local authorities still own this land, and there are currently lively discussions on whether this area should be the home of high-rise buildings and high-end flats or a new Art Academy / School of Architecture. On this plot of land a handful of initiatives focusing on recycling, urban space design and communal restoration have settled in. Here you will not – certainly not at first glance – come across the usual sense of negativity where co-optation and failure seems to be expected.

We have acquired two old shipping containers that have been placed in this – as yet still empty – piece of land. We are currently in the process of remodelling the containers in order to enable them to house the Exchange Library, the Exchange Café and a sequence of public lectures and workshops on the economies that exist within, parallel to, alongside and around the capitalist economy. And how different forms of trade might offer future potential scenarios for the world economy.

The containers were initially a stop-gap solution because we were short of funds and unable to find suitable premises in town. However, the containers have proven the ideal solution. They are free, and we can go straight in and take over the space we need without the need for expensive permits from authorities and site owners. We don’t have to pay rent. It would be possible to move the containers to a different site. Rather than being bound to a static site, one of the official objectives of the Exchange Library is to disseminate its activities throughout the city. We want to use a range of potential spaces – whether public, private or in-between – as spaces for coalition building and collective building.

Thus, the containers will be moved after their first year in their current location. Our objective is to relocate them to Frederiks Plads, the aforementioned new central neighbourhood with offices, flats and shops currently being built in the heart of Aarhus. There are many interactions, interventions, and obstructions that can arise when placing this project in a range of different public, semi-public or private spaces.

Lise Skou and Bonnie Fortune

Further reading:
The Newspaper: Hidden Economies
The Book: Swop Projects


Illustration: Lecture performance Adam Smith’s Mother, Thealit – Frauen, Kultur, Labour, Bremen (GER), 2012


  1. http://www.the-utopian.org/post/3438970744/adam-smith-the-mensch
  2. The Gibson-Graham “iceberg poster” was originally drawn by Ken Byrne. The image shows an iceberg top and the submerged iceberg below. The iceberg above states only economy methods associated with the dominant capitalist economy while the submerged iceberg is printed with various other hidden economic methods.