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Past experiments with speculative ownership, interface and spectacle

October 29, 2020

Equity, currency and identity are different faces of the same ownership gem that's been at the heart of a few projects I've worked on in the past few years. In order to think a little more clearly through my own feelings around ownership, spectacle, and what makes these projects tick, I'm going to run through few of them here.

Eatquity — equity

In early 2017 I was invited to do a project by some friends who run d0t.biz, Helen Ip and Alex Meiser. It felt like a good opportunity to experiment with ownership, seeing as anything I built would be temporary anyway, so I built a pop-up restaurant that distributed ownership with the food.

Posters explaining the restaurant

Functionally it was a lot simpler than it sounds and the mechanism centered around the patrons holding a binary yes or no vote every 10 minutes or so on the fate of the restaurant. If a majority yes was reached, the restaurant would stay in operation, if no, we would immediately shut down and hold a liquidation sale of the remaining supplies and furniture. We stayed open for an hour and a half and distributed ownership to over 50 diners, before being voted into closure.

The equity vehicle / purple grilled cheese
The ordering interface

The mechanism was extremely simple and the incentives pretty straight forward, but it gave me a taste for standing up temporary environments where a novel interface is wrapped in a spectacle, allowing people a low stakes environment to try on new roles.

The Cave — Currency

In the fall of 2017 I started a masters program at Cranbrook Academy of Art, which is really more of a 2 year residency. The campus there is relatively remote, and is more than a 10 minute drive to any close convenience store, and I felt that starting a small store in my studio would fill a need in the community. It was called the Cave, and sold smoothies, snacks, booze and cigarettes, all in a local currency I designed called Lithium (Li for short). I sold products at a significant discount in Lithium compared to USD as an incentive to spread the use of the currency.

The Cave
The currency, made of tyvek

I think having a dramatic and on brand physical presence really helped as well, as people could come in and take a seat at the bar and feel a sense of place that matched the currency. Over the course of a few months, I had regulars every night at the bar using Lithium and even had newcomers spending Li on their first visit, meaning the currency was exchanging hands outside the confines of the Cave. There was another on campus bar/lounge that opened on the weekends and by the end of 2017 they were accepting Lithium as well.

Becky and Hagen discussing
Ad I placed around the local area

I think Lithium worked for a few reasons; the financial incentive was there, there was a little bit of in group signaling, and people seem to love a novel take-away, not to mention smoothies.

Gutmesh — Identity

Near the end of my time at Cranbrook, I started planning out a project that would take some of the ideas I'd been working with around food and ownership and focused them onto identity and citizenship. Gutmesh was a pop-up restaurant that served gut based citizenship in probiotic food. We made a selection of lacto-fermented pickles and sourdough biscuits with cultured butter (thanks to chef and designer Zoe Minikes).

The Gutmesh pavilion in full service
Mnemonic seed plate with food

The thinking was that the food carried a specific bacterial profile that once consumed, colonized the gut biome of the consumer, creating on some level a shared internal state among all consumers of the food. Each potential citizen received their food on a plate which had a qr encoded mnemonic seed uncovered by consuming the probiotic treats. Then they could use the seed to create a physical passport at our kiosk. Due to the spectacle and novelty of experience, we served and minted over 100 passports for new Gutmesh citizens.

A new citizen creating a passport at the kiosk
Some Gutmesh passports


There's a tension between authority and the commons in all these projects that also pops up in some new technology, where a small group or sole author creates an initial interface and then opens it up to the commons. Sometimes the original creator stays involved (ethereum, scientology), sometimes the original creator totally leaves (bitcoin, christianity), either way at the start of these open projects is an authoritarian seed. That seed is a really curious object; it's a prediction of the future wrapped in a vehicle that only functions in that future. It's a gift with an agenda. At the heart of the three projects mentioned above is the same thing, an interface wrapped in a gift. The spectacle value of the ‘gift’ makes it a lot more desirable (and fun), and leaves the interactor in each situation with a new interface: in Eatquity — ownership, in the Cave — a local currency, and in Gutmesh — a new identity.

Sunset on Gutmesh
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