Reversal of Fortune: Planthropy

Project funded by a Creative Capital award in Emerging Fields.

The series Reversal of Fortune uses the metaphor of a garden and its struggle to survive to explore the complex relationship of economic growth to human life – between the cultural and the organic. The artworks focus on how social media platforms, specifically online crowdfunding, are facilitating new forms of charity-based micro lending. Through a collection of interactive artworks, videos and drawings, the series asks: What are the underlying mechanisms that enable these new networks to emerge? How do these platforms shape the affective dimensions of empathy-at-a-distance and drive us to donate? In evaluating the actual impact of these systems on their borrowers, can we move closer towards a true digital commons?

Above images from exhibition “Right Here, Right Now”, The Lowry, Manchester, UK. Photo image credit: David Lake Photography

The techno-social rhythms of social media and philanthropy are animated in Planthropy. In this interactive installation grow lights immerse the viewer in a garden of illuminated hanging planters constructed from clear plastic tubing. The effect is suggestive of a strange bio laboratory setting.

The planters respond to Twitter posts about why people donate. Each wifi-enabled planter is equipped with an automated watering system connected to a small LCD display and speakers. When a Twitter post is received it activates the system causing the plant to be watered followed by a scrolling message on the LCD display about what drives that person to donate — “I donate because it’s sexy”, “I donate because I’m a post human”, “I donate because I’m luckier than most”. The computer speaker reads the message aloud. The result is a global “heartbeat” of flickering messages and synthetic voices emoting the feelings of lenders from around the world.


In her book Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development, scholar Ananya Roy stresses how the alleviation of poverty has been inserted into our everyday acts of consumption, a “politically correct” consumption.

For Roy, microfinance is celebrated as the people’s economy, democratized capital, and through social media the microcapital of the poor is converted into new financial global flows. Roy explains: “On[…]users can integrate such conscientious practices with the techno-social rhythms of their daily lives. Kiva ‘lets you browse loans on Facebook, and show off your loans in your Facebook page.’ There is Kiva for the iPhone, which ‘lets you get your Kiva fix from anywhere you bring your phone,’ and Kiva Tweets, which ‘automatically posts new loans to your Twitter account daily or weekly.’”

Through Kiva and similar platforms, the ethical economy meets the reputation economy. With every “like,” the privileged are empowered to empower the global entrepreneur in a seamless circuit of warm and fuzzy affective production.

Read my essay about the project “Reversal of Fortune: Visualizing Marketized Philanthropy” in the MONEYLAB READER: An Intervention in Digital Economy. A publication of the Institute of Networked Cultures. Co-edited by Geert Lovink and featuring essays by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Andrew Ross, Saskia Sassen and Tiziana Terranova.

Exhibitions include

Multiple Contingencies, Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA), Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD), Toronto, CA
Nov 15 – 18, 2018

Three Acts, Three Scenes, Kunstraum LLC, Brooklyn, NY
June 24 – July 22, 2018

The Festival de la Imagen, Universidad de Caldas, Manizales, Colombia
June 11 – 18, 2018

Samek Art Museum Downtown Gallery, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA
Solo Exhibition
Oct 25, 2016 – Feb 12, 2017

Sight and Sound Festival, Eastern Bloc, Montreal, Canada
Sept 28 – Oct 2, 2016

Right Here, Right Now, The Lowry Galleries,Manchester, UK
Nov 12, 2015 – Feb 28, 2016

Hyperplace Harlem, City College of New York, NY, NY
Oct 4 – 6, 2014

Additional project support:

2014-2015 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Workspace Residency
2014 University at Buffalo Humanities Institute Fellowship
2015 University at Buffalo Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development and Humanities Institute Seed Money in the Arts and Humanities Award

Exhibition at The Lowry Galleries, Manchester