Hello! I am Xiaoji (Xiao Xiao). I am an artist, researcher, activist, and community organizer based in Berlin but my heart is always in my hometown Wuhan. Many of you, I have already met in Costa Rica, and many of you I have not yet met, nice to virtually meet you!
I have had already conversations with many of you on what I care about the most, feelings, emotions, politics, politics of emotions, the mix of all these, the things that are not always comfortable to talk about but are extremely relevant for all of us. To have these critical conversations, we need a space with a sense of safety and community care, but also a space that allows radical imagination. That is also what my work is often about: to facilitate critical conversation in a safe and caring space, and to build infrastructure for radical imagination.
This is also the kind of work I wish to do with my project, as the Interledger FUTURE|MONEY grantee. I am incredibly honored and grateful for having the opportunity in trying to stimulate some dialogues and poetic imaginaries on how the future might hold in our everchanging financial systems through the lens of our personal relationship with the financial systems we reside in. So as promised, I am here to provide some updates on the specific progress in the past months.
Like any other art project I have done in the past, the Parallel Society is a bumpy road. In the past months, I have worked back and forth by iterating my methodologies, mediums, creative focus, and narratives. However messy the process is, I am happy to say that I have manufactured a concise structure with some tangible and poetic sketches to pave the way for the coming months of production time. Last month, in November 2023, based on the current progress, I gladly had the pleasure of participating in the Open Studio Exhibition during the summit. With the help of Lawil, Chris, Kokayi, Ayesha and Hollis and many many other wonderful artists, staff, friends, I manage to put together a video installation that fits my vision, with a velvet blanket, gold dusts all around, and a mirror as the screen for my poetic interludes. My video installation features three visual poems on the emotional relationships the characters have with money, which was visited by many, and helped me to start so many intimate and incredibly relevant conversations. It was truly a powerful experience to see people connecting with my work, and sensing that it has been meaningful for them.
So, what is the Parallel Society actually about?
To first introduce the project: In what ways do a migrant who journeys thousands of miles from their homeland and a rural villager who has only known the town adjacent to their birthplace echo, despite their seemingly disparate backgrounds?
The Parallel Society is a cyber drama that explores the emotional dimensions of being historically marginalized and therefore excluded from financial systems, by featuring the parallel fate of two characters, a Lebanese migrant in Barcelona and a villager in rural China's Henan province. The game sheds light on financial traumas, such as behavior patterns and psychological impacts as results of financial exclusions experienced by these two characters, and radically imagines a world where such barriers no longer exist, but the characters are still trapped in the old pattern. The fictional borderless state is an "in-between afterlife", a mystical dream-like world they were transported to after their deaths.
During the last months, I managed to have my vision slowly turning into reality in the visual and literary spaces, but am still working out the design of incentive structures for the interactive part of the game. The current research and experiments are showcased in the video installation, and I was invited to a panel talk that is relevant to my research. The following is my specific progress.
I often work with community-specific experiences: The Parallel Society project aims to target two specific communities: migrant communities who often face assimilation pressure without any support to navigate the bureaucratic violence in their society, and the rural working class who face limited mobility, access to educational resources, and financial services. These two groups share a disadvantaged position due to financial exclusion resulting from multiple barriers. In the backstory of the project, a migrant was scammed by a currency exchange scheme targeting the diaspora and committed suicide after realizing the money was gone, and a villager who lost his life savings in a rural bank collapse due to local government corruption and died in a protest, with no access to other financial services due to the Hukou system's strict internal mobility control. Both stories are based on real events that have received limited media coverage. Despite both characters and the communities they represent being historically excluded, they are often pitted against each other in political discourse due to the media framing, asymmetry of information, and financial traumas that have influenced their ways of living, expressing themselves, and seeing each other.
In the past months, I spent the majority of my time conducting extensive research for writing and designing the narrative of the game. Trained as a social scientist, but worked often in the interdisciplinary arenas, I often work with a mix of artistic research and qualitative research methodology. Firstly, I was focusing on the emotional aspects of financial exclusion, the embodiment of inclusion and exclusion by drawing from literature ranging from sociological, and psychological to philosophical contributions. This supports me in narrowing a few exploratory domains on the directions that my project would go, for example, this study on the embodiment of (non)belongings has been an inspiration and have given a range of analytical angles that opens my understanding of "belonging", and see how it can be of relevance to the topic of the financial system as a whole. I have also summarized a few thematic that often occur in literature, trauma, anxiety, sense of belonging, bureaucracy, lack of access, sense of time, and trust. I have also noted, for immigrants and villagers, the different but also parallel occurring thematic: for immigrants, avoidance, overspending, frugality, lack of trust, semi-banked, and fraud are common statutes; for villagers, the common themes are money avoidance, under-earning, frugality, sense of scarcity, semi-banked, governmental restrictions.
To touch upon these specifics, I have also conducted research based on the contexts of the two characters, immigrant communities in Spain and the rural population in China. In both Spain and Henan, China, distinct financial challenges confront immigrant communities and the rural population, respectively, with noteworthy parallels. Immigrants in Spain, often younger and residing in lower-income households, exhibit disparities in possessing financial products compared to native-born individuals, as highlighted by the Survey of Financial Competences and research reports, similarly, the rural population in Henan faces compounded challenges due to the restrictive Hukou system and the fallout from the collapse of four rural banks in April 2022. The Hukou system limits access to vital services, mirroring the financial exclusion experienced by immigrants. The banking crisis, stemming from financial misconduct, prompted widespread protests among the rural population, emphasizing shared frustrations and the need for central government intervention to address systemic issues and economic vulnerabilities. Recognizing and addressing these disparities is crucial for fostering social and economic inclusion in both contexts.
Based on this contextual information and also research findings about the dimensions of the lasting impact of exclusion on marginalized groups' emotional relationship with money. I started to write the biographies of the characters. By embodying these characters, I started to write monologues and poems that are based on these monologues.
To give an example of one of the poems written during the process:
I always fantasize that I get to have a pick
I often say that I do not remember that day
When the news hit, I smelled the burned pig fat from the oven
Spanish police took 4 days to process a request from me
Overslept, with doors open
The lady from Shanghai came into the restaurant
With sleek promises
Showering the standing 53 years old immigrant with affection
Resting, with doors open
The swift account creation with an oily phone screen protector
Half broken, with cracks
Stand up, shall we?
Resting our case
After 24 years and 5 months, after 2 restaurants and 3 children, after boat and dragon
We stand, up and upside down
Too many missed accounts
Your father needs this, she said
I cannot jump up and refute
The tangling feeling, the rash
The ever-evolving landscape of the nation, >nation states, states of the nation
States of leaking pipes, hovering over my >ears
The sound of counting the clicking >hallucination of integration
Between the lady from Shanghai and the lady >from the front desk
I always fantasize that I get to have a pick
In the meantime, I started to collect and organize visual materials that share similar codes with the poems and characters I am developing, from footage of money to the archival footage of political memories that are relevant to the characters. I produced in this process the video poetry for the Interledger exhibition: the Poetic Interludes.
By putting together one poem that represents the lived experience of the immigrant community, one that represents the lived experience of the rural villagers, and one poem that represents their parallel experiences, the video installation prompts visitors to look down to the mirror below them, which are placed on top of a red velvet blanket and covered in gold dust.
During the Open Studio, I invite everyone to step on top of the velvet blanket and read the video poetry together with me.
In my original proposal, I have proposed some goals I wish to achieve, when I have a chance to connect with such a diverse community of technologists, policymakers, artists, community organizers, and other practitioners in their fields trying to change the world for the better.
One of the goals is that by promoting greater visibility for the long-term psychological impacts and relevant behavior patterns of the communities affected by financial exclusion, I want to create more possibilities for these marginalized communities to be seen and heard, and also for topics such as emotional relationships with money to be of bigger relevance in the discourse around financial inclusion. I gladly want to share that I think I have managed to make progress in this goal of mine. Besides all the wonderful and sincere conversations I have had with the visitors of the exhibitions and the new friendship formed in the process, I was also honored to be invited to a panel talk hosted by Raashi Saxena and joined by Victoria Coker and Julaire Hall on Women of Color Reshaping Financial Inclusion. It was an absolute blast to share a stage with these inspiring, outspoken, sharp-minded women. Together, using our diverse sociocultural backgrounds and situated knowledge, we discuss our experiences with the ILP community, as well as open payment standards, on both personal and systemic accounts. By analyzing and comparing our diverse backgrounds and best practices with advancing gender equality in our fields, we brought about our visions and proposals for how the financial services by ILP can support women of color from diverse backgrounds all around the globe.
Additionally, The Parallel Society project aims to inspire more participatory design in the research and development process of relevant tools in the open payment system ecology. By highlighting the underlying behavioral patterns resulting from financial exclusion, the game invites players to imagine and work towards a more equitable financial system, and to engage in democratic technological governance by empowering affected communities to understand and participate in the debates and development of such systems. I also consider my participation in the summit to be a huge step towards this objective, through the dialogues I had the privilege to have during the panel, as well as in the continued exchanges during the summit period.
So, the next steps are quite clear now!
Generally, embrace the messiness in the process, and embrace how messy and complex the reality is for the marginalized communities I am working with. For the coming months, I will be busy taking these lessons and thoughts into the development of the incentive structures and the narrative and thinking about what forms of inclusion work and open payment standards application would actually support these communities in need. Specifically, I will start to get in touch with developers, build the web of narratives, and start to translate them into an interactive journey for real.
I would love to connect with you, in whatever ways. Your lived experience and feedback would be of immense help. New and old friends, let's get in touch! I would love to hear your thoughts on my creative process, and on the topics that I am working on. What are your personal relationship with money, and financial systems as a whole? Are you in touch with any immigrant communities and communities from rural areas who are historically or still excluded from the financial systems? are you interested in how your work, being a new technology, policy, other forms of innovations, and undefined practices might be helpful for a shared future vision of a financial future with equity and inclusion?
Let us read poems, watch video clips, play games, and share our dreams with each other.
I am so grateful for the past few months: As a migrant from a diaspora family, I did not grow up hearing stories about people like myself and looking at artworks that reflect my lived experiences. Now as an artist, I believe it is my responsibility to lift marginalized communities' lived experiences to the stage of being seen and heard, creating dialogues in caring and safer environments. To achieve this, I focus on crafting socially relevant and community-specific experiences. In my past projects, I worked with migrant women, refugees in Germany and the Netherlands, villagers in rural Bulgaria, and political dissidents of authoritarian regimes. I want to create experiences that matter to them and bring their perspectives into the urgent public conversations of our time. This is very often not easy to have resources that support me to bring my work to a diverse audience beyond the art world regulars in the institutional structure I often work with. I am therefore incredibly humbled to have the opportunity to bring these marginalised experiences to you all through my work here.