In this episode, we talk to Frances Negron-Mutaner, an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and scholar and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York City. We discuss her Valor y Cambio or Value and Change project that brought a disused ATM to the streets of Puerto Rico filled with special banknotes. On the banknotes were the faces of Black educators, abolitionists and visionaries of a Caribbean Confederacy - people who are meaningful and inspirational to Puerto Ricans today. The machine asked the person retrieving bills what they valued, and in doing so, sparked what Frances calls decolonial joy. Together, we explore the unintended repurposing of technologies for decolonial and anti-capitalist purposes
Frances Negrón-Muntaner is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and scholar. She is the recipient of Ford, Truman, Scripps Howard, Rockefeller, and Pew fellowships as well as a Social Science Research Council and Andy Warhol Foundation grants. She is the author of Boricua Pop: Puerto Ricans and the Latinization of American Culture (winner, 2004 CHOICE Award), and the editor of several books, including Puerto Rican Jam: Rethinking Nationalism and Colonialism; None of the Above: Puerto Ricans in the Global Era, and Sovereign Acts. Among Negrón-Muntaner's films are AIDS in the Barrio, Brincando el charco: Portrait of a Puerto Rican, and War for Guam. She is currently completing various films, including on Valor y Cambio, her award-winning just economy public art installation of the same name, and writing an intellectual biography on Arthur Schomburg. Negrón-Muntaner is also a founding board member and past chair of NALIP, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, and the founding curator of the Latino Arts and Activist archive at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript. She has received various recognitions, including the United Nations' Rapid Response Media Mechanism designation as a global expert in the areas of mass media and Latin/o American studies (2008); the Lenfest Award, one of Columbia University's most prestigious recognitions for excellence in teaching and scholarship (2012), an inaugural OZY Educator Award (2017), the Latin American Studies Association’s Frank Bonilla Public Intellectual Award (2019), the Premio Borimix from the Society for Educational Arts in New York (2019), and the Bigs & Littles Impact Award (2020) for her work as a mentor, artist, and scholar. She also served as the director of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race from 2009-2016.
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Hi! We're Eleanor and Kerry. We're the hosts of The Good Robot podcast, and join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And what does feminism have to bring to this conversation? If you wanna learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list with work by, or picked by, our experts. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode.
Today, we’re talking to Frances Negron-Mutaner, an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and scholar and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York City. We discuss her Valor y Cambio, value and change project that brought a disused ATM to the streets of Puerto Rico filled with special banknotes. On the banknotes were the faces of Black educators, abolitionists and visionaries of a Caribbean Confederacy - people who are meaningful and inspirational to Puerto Ricans today. The machine asked the person retrieving bills what they valued, and in doing so, sparked what Frances calls decolonial joy. This is a great episode and a fantastic project exploring the unintended repurposing of technologies.
Well, it's a joy to be speaking with you. I know you pretty well. You've had a fascinating career as a filmmaker and academic. And I was incredibly lucky to have you overseeing the short films that we made for GRACE, which was the Gender and Cultures of Equality in Europe project. So to kick us off, can you tell us who you are, what you do, and what brings you to the subject of gender and technology?
Well, my name is Frances Negrón-Muntaner. I'm a Professor, scholar, curator and filmmaker based in New York. And how I get to gender and technology … I think from the start. Because if I look back on my process, as a filmmaker, for instance, as a young girl, I was constantly working with technology like my grandfather, who was a photographer, used to give me tape recorders and cameras since a very early age. And in fact, one of the films that I'm working on right now is based on those recordings and those films that I shot from age four to about age 12. I think more recently, I would say that I arrived at this conversation through the project, Valor y Cambio, Value and Change, which among other things, took outdated or ageing technology and reconfigured it to meet new needs in the present. And I think the gender and feminist dimensions of that project, were many. One, apart from the framework of our project, which very much centred on debt crisis, and it so happens that in debt crisis, women are often the ones that shoulder the burdens because they are tasked with reproduction, which includes health, and it includes education, and feeding people and taking care of older people and so forth, which are precisely those areas that austerity often most attacks and tries to destroy, right. And, and it was interesting to me also to see how the fact that this project was mostly led by women from it's designed to its implementation, its outreach, almost every facet of the project became an element in the reception of the project. Because over the last several decades, community leadership in Puerto Rico is fundamentally women. So the fact that it was women doing the project, actually was seen as part of its design and in a way that it communicated and it could be easily integrated into what was going on already.
Fantastic. We can't wait to hear you explore all these amazing experiences you've had over the course of the interview. And so our podcast is called the Good Robot. And with this in mind, we'd like to ask you, what does good technology mean to you? Do you think it's possible? And if so, what does it look like?
Well, I think as every human practice, some of the fascinating dimensions of that is that you design something for a purpose or for a reason. And then there's all kinds of unintended effects of it. Right. And also, that everything that's designed is designed with certain interests and around certain logics that could be clashing with others. So in that sense, good technology would always be … have to be contextualised. However, I think it's much easier to see bad technology, you know [laughs], it’s much easier to identify what are the characteristics of bad technology, right? So technologies that subject us in ways that limit our possibilities and our ways of being in the world, for instance, technologies that, you know, destroy our environment, technologies that are designed for destruction, you know, so in that sense, I would say that whereas the idea of good technology could be contested in so many ways that the contours of that debate are a bit different from the contours of the bad technology, which I think its effects are much more obvious to all, right.
You mentioned the Valor y Cambio project, which was this incredible project.... and I've had the delight of reading your paper about it. So can you tell us a bit more about this machine that you built and the way that you filmed people's interactions with it?
Yeah, so Valor y Cambio depends on who's asking me in what context, I define it differently because there's so many components and the ways that the components relate, you can highlight different dimensions of them for different reasons. So here, we could say it's an art installation, a public art installation, that made use of Just Economy principles to achieve three goals. 1) was to raise the question of what people value, 2) introduce the notion of a community currency, and 3) to provide an experience of what would it feel to be a part of an economy that was non extractive, and not based on profit? So those are our three goals. Now, why did we raise the question, or why did I want to raise the question of value? Because the project was in many ways triggered by Puerto Rico's debt crisis and the several years that I and others spent in the working group trying to understand how we got there. So this question of what is value, what do we value? Because I learned, I kind of saw that in a debt crisis you have at least two obvious issues. One is that you “owe”. And the second one is that you have limited resources. So that raises the question as: what do you do with the debt and with your limited resources? Which immediately to me raises the question of what do you value? Because you must make decisions, right? The second goal that had to do with a community currency was because in the course of studying debt crisis all over the world, it caught my eye how in many of these contexts, community currencies were created, for the purpose of facilitating the recognition of valuable resources that people have and to facilitate their exchange. And I thought that a place like Puerto Rico, which has high levels of debt and unemployment, but also high levels of educated people, and vast resources of knowledge, that are marginalised and not even recognised by the market, so you're not employable, yet you have these skills, and you have this knowledge that a community currency would actually be a tool that some communities might find useful in order to make better use of their resources. And the third, which was the experience of having or participating in a non-extractive economy, I think it's very important because sometimes and often, and I saw it on the ground in Puerto Rico, you have a sense that things could be different. But so many things around you tell you, it cannot be, like, there's such an ideological lock on the imagination, that you, you might feel these things, and you might envision them, but you can't see how they could be implemented. And so providing opportunities to experience this confirms that right, and I saw that very much on the ground in Puerto Rico, and in some experiences in New York, when people had the experience, they realise, oh, yeah, we can have a different world. And we don't have to wait, we can start doing it right now. Now, you were asking about technology and the role of it, so these were our goals, right? How to design something that then could make this possible. So the first thought I had, well, we have to invent this currency, we have to create it. So I collaborated with a graphic artist, Sarabel Santos-Negrón, no relation to me, who … we worked together on designing the currency and that was the longest part of the process. It took us about eight months. We studied all kinds of currencies, art currencies, community currencies, national currencies, particularly of Islands. And we came up with a design that told stories that embodied several values of the project such as solidarity, justice, creativity, and told stories and that's how the economy that we created was a storytelling economy. So everything that happened in the project, everything that is part of the experience involves an exchange of stories. So, and that brought up the question of Okay, so how do we actually facilitate this exchange of stories and the big … from the start, I felt we need an ATM to do this, right. We need people to go to the ATM and tell the story and in exchange for their story they get a bill and that bill on the reverse, on the other side of the bill, the … not the face, the counter of the bill, it had a QR code that you could go into the computer and receive the story of that person, or group or community. The machine now became not only the way you were going to get the bill, now it became a bank of stories, a repository of stories like a walking ethnographic apparatus. And we had kind of foreseen that because we called the you know, in the actual design, the exterior visual design of the machine, we had called it a bank of stories, you know, so but what we realised [was that] obviously that apart from being capable of dispensing, this machine was also gathering all the stories of everyone so it was a bank in that sense.
One of my favourite things about this work is the concept of decolonial joy that you establish, and how you talk about this term in relation to the project in the paper of the same name, which we'll put in our reading list to go with the episode. And in that paper, you reference Chela Sandoval's term decolonial love, a love which is created and felt between people who have been marginalised by hegemonic powers, and which therefore happens because of suffering and not despite it, and which can be a, and I quote, “technology of social transformation”. I thought it was so interesting that you locate the moment that participants experience joy, as the moment that they receive the bills, which you say resonates with Thomas Aquinas’s line about joy being a response to having been united with what we love. And this is so beautiful, and made me laugh out loud, because in our line of work that's not something we think about a lot, this kind of joy. So can you tell us what the role of decolonial joy is then in your work, and what it can do for the study of design technology in the future?
Yes, from the start I felt joyous working on this project, which is not that unusual, I often feel joyous working on things that I love. But I sometimes wonder, I had questions about this joy, because not all joy is “good”, or for a good reason, right. But on the ground, what I felt was fascinating is that we had designed this project with the assumption that people would be using these bills for exchange because you could actually, for the duration of the project, use them to exchange with about 42 participating organisations and businesses. So if you have a context where about half of the population is living under the poverty line, under very pressuring austerity juncture, you would imagine that people will use what would appear to be “free” money for the exchange of goods, and a lot of the participating businesses were food related. Yet, by the second or third day, I was saying, I was wondering, and asking, so are people using the bills? And again, and again, the businesses said, No, nobody's using the bills. And I wonder, why is that? And then I started noticing that when people received the bills, they would burst into tears, into laughter. I mean, there'll be the happiest moment. And I started asking people, why are you so happy? What in this experience makes you feel joy. And when people started responding, I started seeing that this is a particular kind of joy. It should not be confused with, you know, that individual happiness, kind of concept. It was a collective sense that we could live in a world that is not colonial. And that's why I call it decolonial joy, because the reasons people were giving me was, well, “I love this bill. And I stood in line” - because we shouldn't forget, people often stood in line for hours, day after day after day, to get a particular bill. So people say I wanted to get this bill and it makes me so happy, because it's about you know, a feminist poet, or it's about a Black educator from the 19th century, or it's because it's for an abolitionist, visionary of a Caribbean Confederacy, and those are all visions that I share, and feel joy at feeling the possibility that they could come to be. So when I started writing the piece, though, I started saying, well, has anybody else you know, thought about decolonial joy and I found something interesting, which is in the literature of decolonial theory, there was very, very little attention, located in joy, most of it was in love. And when I started trying to create a genealogy for what I was trying to do, I started thinking why should we also focus on joy? I mean, one of the reasons, I think the last decades has made this very, very evident, is that politics is founded on emotions. So, and often the emotions that are investigated are the so called negative emotions, you know, whereas joy was less of interest, right. In fact, some of the fields that pay the most attention to joy are theological and religious fields. That's where our [missing word] is and another thinkers, that's where I encountered them in trying to figure this out. So one dimension of decolonial joy, one of the questions that it raised was, what is the relationship between emotions such as joy, and political projects? And part of that is in the, in the march, in the social movements themselves, but also how much emotion or how much joy is there for a project, is a way to measure that intensity of how much investment people have. So that was like one part or one one aspect of it. Then, as the project ended in Puerto Rico, and we moved it to the US, and we saw people's response, including in their spectrum of emotions to be very different, then it raises new questions about joy, as … this concept of decolonial joy, what could it account for? What kind of questions could it provoke?
Absolutely, and I absolutely love the kind of work that you're doing on emotions. And sort the inherent political qualities of emotions, I think this really resonates with so much feminist work, which does try to look at the ways in which emotion has been so undervalued as a site of knowledge and a sort of generative site in and of itself. And I want to ask you a bit about people's emotional responses to the ATM, but specifically the differences in their responses. So some people were really distrustful and apprehensive, whereas others, as you pointed out, were really overwhelmed with joy. And this was really related to the place in which the ATM was used. So what does this tell us about people's relationships with technology and how they are shaped or mediated by different contexts?
So there’s a few things I wanted to talk about just briefly before I get to that. So the other body of literature that I found affinity with was Black feminists, who had been looking at the relationship between politics and joy much more than decolonial theorists. And, and that was, I think, not totally surprising, not only because of the of the work that Black feminism has done over over time, but also because our project was not only feminist and decolonial, it was also anti-racist. And one of the participants that I, someone I knew that participated in the project, said, You know, I wanted to ask you about the figures, because most of them are Black, was that by design, and I said, it wasn't by design in the sense of, Oh, we need to, we have six bills, we want some measure of them to be Black and some to be women, we didn't really have that criteria. But the values that we had identified seemed very well exemplified by these figures that we picked. And I don't think it's a coincidence that they were Black figures. But we arrived at it through a different process, right. And I wanted to say something about the ATM as technology. So at the beginning, I felt very strongly that the ATM was the best way to enable the exchange, because it validated the idea that the currency that was circulating was currency, and that [missing words] about the economy signalled all those things. But I also discovered that people in Puerto Rico had a special relationship to the ATM. You know, in comparison to New York, let's say, people really enjoyed going to the ATM. And I actually got to ask people about that. And a number of them said that it was awkward to talk to a machine about what they felt was such intimate questions. Like, I was always surprised that people told me a number of times that to ask them “what did you value” was a very intimate question. Some people felt it's kind of strange to talk about such intimate things with a machine. But a lot of other people actually felt enabled by the fact that it was a machine, had it been a person you might have anticipated, well, they might have a response. Maybe they disagree. Maybe they think I'm ignorant. Maybe they … what have you. Like all kinds of judgments that might have come into play. But the fact that it wasn't, I think made people treat the machine as if it were almost a priest in a confessional. And the contrast with New York is big, like we have footage in New York and Wall Street, for instance, where people don't even see the machine. And they're like leaning on it. Like they're not even seeing that it’s an art project or that you actually can get money from it, it’s just they don't see it and just use it as a, you know, to lead in. So in Puerto Rico, I saw that the fact that it was a piece of technology that people already had a relationship to and associations with, played a role in the process. Whereas that same setup in another context with people having different relationships to that technology and associations would enable or disable different things, right. So in New York we moved the project in several areas. We were in the Lower East Side for some time, both inside a cultural centre and in a festival, we also went to markets, we moved it to East Harlem, or so called Spanish Harlem where historically Latino communities live. And we also went one day to Wall Street. In every one of those spaces, it was very different. And what people spoke about was different, and how they related, and if you break that down even further, for instance, not only by location, but also age groups. The response between people of different ages was different, of different racial, educational backgrounds was different. It was actually much harder to sort out what those differences mean, and how they were playing out because it was such an enormous range of difference. Right now, we are analysing the recordings, we have about 3000 recordings that we gather from all locations, and we are listening to them and seeing what do people say in Puerto Rico? What the young people say, what did women say? Was it different across locations, across age groups, racial groups, and so forth. So I'll have more to say about that in the next about one month to two months. But, but some things were pretty evident. Children loved the project. And in the Lower East Side, because we were there in the summer, we hosted a number of summer programmes for kids, most of them from 9 to 11. And in one of those visits, I actually got the opportunity to ask them, why did they love the project. And there was one participant, a nine year old boy, who was extremely eloquent about why. And he basically said that the reason he loved the project was because you were able to participate in something, received a reward that you had earned, and that you like, and what that opened up for me was that Oh, that this young ... the kids see that the project recognised their economic agency, which is denied to children in general, right. I mean, there's differences in class, and another location and so forth. But in this particular context, children do not manage. So what I understood from his response was that he was saying that the project recognised the economic agency of children and their value to the community, not as, you know, a marginal element, but as participants. And it's interesting, because in some of the literature on community currencies, one of the uses of it is precisely to recognise and incorporate children into exchanges in a community. And this experience here suggested that there's no reason why children should be marginalised from exchange. Because children as young as 9 in the case that we were able to, you know, work with, were extraordinarily aware about the mechanisms of production and extraction and hierarchies in society. Like we had a conversation with a group of kids about the aesthetics of the US bills and compared to our bills, you know, that feature women and men and families and communities and Blacks and people working as labour leaders or teachers, a variety of occupations, and then we compare it to the US where, I asked So what's the difference? And, you know, well, I mean, they're all white, wealthy men with connections to government. And the next question is, so what does that say about the US and what they value? Or the US as a society and one of the kids said, well, it's a racist, sexist society [laughs]. And these, these are 9 and 10 year olds, right. So they're extraordinarily aware of what's happening. And I guess adults don't give them credit for that. So the other experience that really … a couple more ... one is that when we went to El Barrio, to Spanish Harlem, most of what people were talking about was gentrification. And there were a number of moments in the process where people spoke about dispossession, and expulsion from their space. And, and the project in that sense, served as almost like a catalyst for people to connect, which was one of our goals that the project would be an opportunity for communities to reflect together, like out loud, right. And then in Wall Street, we thought that since the Puerto Rico debt was held by Wall Street, that we should pay Wall Street a visit. So we took it and we took it to two places, we took it to put it right in front of the Bull, for part of it. And the other part of it, we went to the stock exchange, when we went to the stock exchange, we put the machine down, and in about two minutes, there was an officer that came and told us we had to leave. And not to touch the machine, when he told us we had to leave and not to touch the machine. Because maybe the machine was a bomb [laughs]. You know, so then we were like, I was negotiating with the policemen about how we were going to move out, and also my crew was very nervous, and nobody wanted to be arrested. So um, you know, we got out of there pretty quickly. And then we put it in front of the Bull for a while and what was fascinating there was, nobody was coming to it. And, you know, it was interesting, because it was right in front of you, you know, the people that were gathering to go see the Bull, yet, though all they could see was the Bull. So then we decided, well, maybe we just need to tell people about it. So then I crossed the street, and I started trying to tell people about the project and whether they wanted to participate. And we had the most violent kind of responses that we experienced in the entire project, right? Like, ‘get away from me’, ‘don't talk to me’, or like very hostile. And I know, in a way, you know, we were like, well, is this surprising? I mean, maybe not surprising, but the experience was a little bit heartbreaking for all of us that went through that.
One of you mentioned earlier about distrust. So one thing that I could mention about that is that in Puerto Rico, people were very open to it. So whether the machine was on the ground or was inside a space, people would just enter it and not feel that they were coming into a trap. Although a lot of people did ask me, does this have anything to do with the government? And I said, No, nothing whatsoever, we're not supported by the government. I've never heard from anybody from the government. And that made him feel that's good enough, like because the government is associated with corruption and, and other problems, so our project was independent, and it was perceived as an art project by many people actually helped improve the trust. Whereas in New York, a similar population, many times Puerto Ricans that were in New York, started asking questions, “and what are you going to do with those recordings” and didn't want to get inside a space, so we created like a booth, like a see-through booth to protect from the noise outside. And so the recording would be cleaner. And some people really were afraid to go inside that booth, although it was see-through and there were lots of people around it. So what did that tell us? Obviously, there were a lot higher levels of distrust in New York than in Puerto Rico, although in many ways the people in Puerto Rico would have a lot more reasons to distrust technology and a see-through booth than people you've never met before. Right. So there was a conversation we had in Harlem, where someone from the community expressed also distrust that, or asked whether we were just trying to experiment, you know, you know, in a low-income community, and we kind of explained the history of the project and that was really not our intent. But although at all that awareness of the ways that technology can be harmful to people of colour, or to low income communities, was much more present in New York than in Puerto Rico, although Puerto Rico has a long history of being harmed by experiments of technology, medical and other kinds.
Thank you so much. And it's really fascinating to hear about how hostile and how different those responses were on Wall Street, it’s not surprising. But like you say, when you describe it, it's really striking. And I want to ask you one final question about the idea of secondary uses, so taking technologies and using them for really different purposes for what maybe they were originally intended to be for, and something you talked about at the beginning of this interview, like that technologies are designed for certain purposes. And something I love about this project is taking the ATM, a technology which is about extraction, which is about taking money from an object and turning it into a site of community joy. And so we want to ask you, and do you think that this kind of infrastructural disobedience, or the co-opting of technologies for other ends can be a way of liberating humans and technologies from the bounds of capitalism?
Yes, I want to say something about New Yorkers and hostility before we go into that, because I want to be very clear that not all New Yorkers were hostile. You know, there was quite a lot of support for the project, like over 1000 people participated, right in various places of all ages, of all backgrounds. And when you see the film, you'll see that some New Yorkers also felt joy at the project. But the range of responses was so much greater than in Puerto Rico, where it was almost unanimously received as joyful. And that goes back to the question of design, because it was designed for Puerto Rico, the assumptions of the project, were to engage with the debt crisis, as was being experienced in Puerto Rico at a certain time, with certain stories, which, which means that when we took it to New York, and we did not translate it, even the bills were still in Spanish. You know, every text on the bills were still in Spanish, which means that about half of the people that participated in New York, couldn't even read or know what the meaning of what the words were on the bills. You know, we made some small adjustments in the questions. So we had an English menu and a Spanish menu. And instead of saying, you know, what, the second question was, what things in Puerto Rico could change so it would support what you value? And in New York, we just changed it to community. So we made some small adjustments, and we did translate the questions, but the design of the project itself was not translated. So I think part of the reasons that some people were joyous and some other people were not had to do with how that design resonated with the needs of the participants and the desires of the participants, right. And not everybody that was joyous was Puerto Rican, either. You know, we have plenty of experiences … and in the film it’s very clear, African American members of the community and others, for instance, in the Lower East Side, were amazed at the project and understood the essence of it, even if they were not fluent in Spanish and connected to it. And other people from different backgrounds. So it was not directly related to your background, ethnic or even linguistic or cultural. It had to do with more than that, it had to do with how - What were your aspirations and what do you connect or grasp from the project that resonated with you? But to your question of infrastructure disobedience, well, I think as a general answer, and we can get into more detail is that if you think about the Caribbean it's an area of the world that's suffered tremendous experimentation of the worst kind, right? For instance the plantation, you know, genocide. So it's an object of technologies that were not there, to destroy and it has been the site of, a space to create technologies to enslave, and so forth. So in that sense, infrastructure disobedience would be the only way you know that you could meet such challenges, particularly when the people that are subject to these technologies often are sectors of society with limited resources to create their own technologies at a great scale. So often what you have to work with is the remnants of those technologies that have been imposed. And part of the, how you get through this is creativity, which is one of the values of our project, right? It's like, the ability to bring two things together that perhaps were not designed to go together. But that may in doing so, address a need, right? So yes, absolutely. I think that not only in the future, but if you look at the histories of certain regions, and certain groups of people in the world, I think you can document fairly easily how people have survived to a large extent by using things in ways that they were not designed to do, or to be used, and also to bring together different types of materials in order to fulfil needs, which doesn't mean necessarily that there's no obstacles in that process, that the material is still not giving you all that you would want because it carries that history or what it was, right. But it could serve as openings to different technologies to emerge, right?
Of course, on that very optimistic, wonderful note, we will leave it. Thank you so much, Frances, for speaking with us, your joy and your work is fantastic. And we’re very much looking forward to publishing the reading list to go with this as well.
Sounds great. And thank you so much, it’s been a lot of fun talking to you guys.