Sue Ball, director of MAAP and founding committee member of the Leeds Creative Timebank invited me to Leeds to speak with some of the users, timebrokers and steering committee of the Timebank as a means of introducing me to the working infrastructure of the project and to benefit some of my research around alternative systems of value and exchange.
In October 2013 I started my PhD research at the RCA, London as part of the Creative Exchange project across Culture Lab in Newcastle, Imagination in Lancaster and the RCA. My research focusses on knowledge mobilities, through contemporary art, cultural theory and policy. I am particularly interested in alternative readings and practices of knowledge exchange. I facilitate in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths and I organise the JOURNEY/SCHOOL nomadic seminar/salon project, AOTCS Press and am part of practice-based research group, KIOSK
I am interested in considering the following aspects of value and knowledge exchange through the working structures and practices of the Timebank, potentially towards the development of a case-study for my research:
- (Situated value.) As a site of knowledge production and exchange.
- (Objects of value.) Where time is the object of value (currency) asopposed to a monetary-based currency system.
- (Agents of value.) As a site whose componential value as a whole isgreater than the individual value of its components. ie, value accrued through community and not through the individual.
I held open, and informal conversations with users, time brokers and steering committee members of the Timebank in order to gain a clear understanding of the value of the Timebank in context to the local creative community in Leeds. I was interested in focussing on the potentially various perceptions of knowledge exchange taking place within and about the Timebank and as a result of the Timebank; how the Timebank can or may facilitate knowledge exchange and how precisely the Timebank’s alternative exchange structure and system informs such facilitation, for example, subsequent opportunity; problem solving; community, relationships between practitioners, academics, industry and so forth.
Through the conversations I had, I was interested in understanding the notion behind calling the Timebank an ‘alternative’ exchange structure; how is this a working alternative; is it efficient and productive in contrast to using the commonplace monetary-based exchange system? What are the benefits? Is it instead perhaps a complementary system to the commonplace? Is this considered a service? How?
My time in Leeds allowed me to understand the working nature of the Timebank and has led me to consider the theoretical underpinnings of such a project. I was drawn to the idea that the Timebank offers a mediating space for creative practitioners to not only get things done; I need someone to help me with some graphic design for my website; I have a car and am available to drive every Monday and Wednesday afternoon; I have experience in local council governance and am free to help write funding applications, etc, but also helps to build and nurture the local creative community, bringing practitioners and their skills together as a resource; it manifests as both a skill service and peer-to-peer learning body.
My previous understanding of the Timebank model initially led me to believe that the Leeds Creative Timebank would function as an extended, collective creative practice; that it’s relatively open form, would inform a largely experimental space of negotiating value between, predominantly, artists and academics, thinkers and creative practitioners. This stemmed from my experience of the generic Timebank model being relatively limited in its actual potential as a true, working alternative (substitute) to our commonplace, money-based economic system of transactions and instead being a supplementary or additional, alternative model. In my previous opinion, Timebanks, whilst perhaps alluding to an ideal alternative, in practice, often remain to be a luxury of creative practitioners who can afford (time and money) to utilise such a system (of virtue and good will), as supplementary to a tried (never-the-less Capitalist) system of economic value.
My previous impressions were both right in some ways and also gravely mistaken; in practice and on the ground, the Leeds Creative Timebank works as an effective, composite system of exchange and transaction; as a database offering sector- specific skills, knowledge-based or mentoring skills and general, practical skills. My previous impressions were on the right track, insofar that the Timebank in Leeds is in fact limited or bound, in its effective functionality, to a regulated number of creative-only users – creative practitioners only, must not be a student, and so on – its users need to be capped at around 100, in order for the present administrative system composed of three, part-time timebrokers to be able to cope with the administrative traffic and management of the database. This is interesting, if slightly problematic; I find the idea that the number of users of a Creative Timebank needing to be capped to around 100, as perhaps straying away from its fundamental ideal of being an all-inclusive system of value and exchange; if the cap was lifted, what could be done to ensure that the necessary administrative work could be carried out effectively for example? Employing more timebrokers would mean that all timebrokers would needs to continuously liaise with one another in order to ensure that there were no discrepancies in communication to the users and also that there were no overlaps; switching to a computer-led system, would mean that a monetary investment would need to be made to build and maintain the software and would strip away the element of humanity that currently drives the system. Where my previous impressions were limited or mistaken is where the project, for me, became illuminated and presented the generous effects of collaborative action towards a working, supplementary system of value and exchange. In conversation with Sue Ball, I found her thoughts about 1. how the project emerged, reckoned against 2. how the project actively evolves in practice, being crucial towards this idea of understanding the role of offering an alternative system either as an alternative-as-substitute or alternative-as-supplementary. Sue referenced Andrew Leyshon et al’s, Alternative Economic Spaces to unpick this idea further – in my own research, I aim to consider the position of the alternative, apropos the commonplace, or often, the institution, which I have found begins to become sticky when one begins to consider the linguistic, indeed, political and social implications that come with the annunciation of the ‘alternative’. Taking cue from Alternative Economic Spaces, it is interesting to consider the linguistic distinctions between the types of ‘alternative’ that we speak of both in context to the Timebank, as an attempt towards practicing an alternative value system, and indeed in a wider socio-political context. Sue explained how the emergence of the Timebank in Leeds, posited a working alternative economic system in opposition to the commonplace economic system that was categorically failing or at least causing grave affect on the creative industries in the wake of 2008’s financial crisis. The idea that the Timebank would function in opposition is crucial. Highlighting the credit union model as exemplar, chapter three, ‘Alternative Financial Spaces’ in Leyshon et al’s book considers three types of working alternative modes:
Alternative-oppositional as an act of embodying difference in opposition, rejecting the norm.
Alternative-additional, offering additional modes to extant modes.
Alternative-substitute, as a replacement.i
Sue explained that the creative Timebank initially materialised as an alternative- oppositional model that built on historicised peer-to-peer networks of guilds, lets, societies and clubs; taking form theoretically as a critique of formal, cash-based economic bodies. Value and worth being at the heart of the project over money and profit and taking cue from other locale and community-based projects in the creative and social circles in Leeds. Paired with an invested interest in the political implication of setting up such a potentially radical project, what emerged between Sue and her colleagues when setting up the Timebank was a project that could potentially and gradually shift the local social and cultural consciousness of creative practitioners – the realisation of this began with several attempts at trying the Timebank model, and with additional research in 2011 the Timebank was beta- tested and has grown in size gradually over the course of the last three years.
Through speaking with Sue, I learned that the Timebank aims to present and offer the breadth of culture and social capital that the creative community of Leeds is enriched by; the potency of spirit and value amongst the Timebank’s users, brokers and steering group is immeasurable. It presents itself as the effective and affective embodiment of network culture; trust; neighbourly-ness; good will; skill; aptitude and knowledge mobility, as an active and non-homogenised group. To return to the idea that the Timebank takes form as a composite body; what struck me, is the effective and smooth execution of a constantly evolving project that is theoretically complex in terms of what it attempts to achieve; in terms of what it offers to its users, it is composed by a three-part structure offering a presently, and as its users increase, non-exhaustive database of sector-specific skills, mentoring and consultancy-based skills and general skills to a close-knit group of individuals both offering their own skills and actively using others’ skills.
Another source of interest to me is the vast archive of records that over time, the Timebank has amassed; it would be interesting to look further into this in order to read into and derive potential trends over the period that the Timebank has been active. Additionally, in terms of forecasting into the future of the Timebank, should the steering group wish to expand, or link up with other national Timebank bodies, then utilising this body of data would be imperative.
In addition, I would be keen to research further into the idea that whilst the Timebank originally positioned itself as a working alternative-oppositional model, over time it has evolved into a model that manifests as an alternative-additional. On the basis of its proven effectiveness, measured against feedback from several users and initial ideas about the project from the steering group, I would posit that it would be interesting to consider if and how the Timebank in Leeds could potentially join forces with other Creative Timebanks nationally to provide an even richer network of practitioners and greater scope towards sustaining, what is clear to me to be, an invaluable resource. And then, in terms of my own research, I would be interested to consider what the shortcomings would be; how far could you take a model that was originally conceived as a site-specific project for a very particular group of creative users; what is its lifespan; what sort of hierarchical structure would need to be implemented in order to maintain the increasing number of traffic; would financial support be necessary; to what extent can we rely on good will, generosity and gratitude in a system that aims to exist in opposition to a system that in turn relies on value determined by cash-based exchanges?
Notes from conversations:
Having met with eight users, brokers and steering group members of the Leeds Creative Timebank; there emerged several consistent themes and or issues raised about the functionality; effectiveness and future of the Timebank, which was interestingly offset against many of the varied, individual experiences of the Timebank.
Something that flagged up several times was that users found that they could offer lots to other users but found it difficult to work out how they could use the Timebank for themselves – and thus accruing many hours, without knowing how to benefit from the Timebank. Often, the Timebank is used to supplement practitioners’ own work, whether through assisting in making work, consultancy and development, or giving time on the ground through invigilation or transportation – in the case of artists exhibiting, for example. Which seems to work really well; here, it is clear to see that where, outside of the Timebank, artists would perhaps struggle both with time and money to get this sort of networked support, ie, they would have to pay for assistance, consultancy, or transport, within the network of the Timebank, money is directly substituted with time, and to this end; is the most visible example of the virtues of being part of the Timebank network.
Issues of scalability, in terms of skill and value were equally considered to be a crucial component of the Timebank; interestingly, this came up several times when the subject of fairness and democracy came into play. It was suggested that the egalitarian nature of the Timebank allowed for an inclusive experience of all users (providing users are active), for example, transactions, exchanges and jobs are dealt, or selected on the basis of representable skill as contained within the database. A relationship is forged on this basis, and as such is entirely democratic. Value is assigned to skill and not the user (irrespective of experience or any previous relationship). Hours become the unit of transaction and value. It was interesting to hear the users’ thoughts on whether they could imagine the Timebank model working outside of the creative-only community, for example, could one begin to imagine the model being implemented in huge finance corporations? I would argue that these sites would benefit greatly from this sort of de-hierarchisation, but equally would speculate that notions of scale and value would become problematic; can one appropriately measure the value of an executive’s legal consultation time against the value of middle-management human resource time, for example?
Self-reflexivity and reflection:
It was interesting to speak with some of the users particularly about how the Timebank afforded them the time and reflective space to work out exactly what their skills, strengths, interests are. These conversations particularly resonated with my own experiences as a researcher in the arts and humanities, pursuing my own work, in that I have found that peculiarly within the creative industries, or rather, within an arts context, one often feels in the midst of a minefield of reflection, skill-honing, work, interest and being able to work out how you identify with all of these attributes is crucial. Perhaps I’m not being as concise as I should here; what I mean by this, is that being an early career artist, for example, whilst trying to work in order to earn money to live, let a lone pursue a practice, is increasingly difficult, as competition for space, time, attention is limited to a lucky few and so to have the support network of people and projects through the Timebank is clearly invaluable and truly affords individuals the time to reflect, learn, exchange skills and knowledge and time. However it would be interesting to consider that perhaps in some cases, use of the Timebank may be limited by some users not having the ability (in light of the above) to articulate, define or translate specifically what it is they want, or what they can offer – so perhaps to resolve this, there could be additional space for social events in which to work inline with these difficulties that many encounter. Perhaps this is where the mentoring / consultation strand could be presented as being useful prior to making further exchanges or relationships.
Mimicry and speculative economy:
On an abstract note – I found a few comments interesting around the idea of reading the Timebank as a speculative future economic scenario. The idea that inflation could take place in a situation where time evolves as a currency is interesting to note; in context to the Timebank, hours accrued through the training sessions are exemplary of this. Limitation of resource, ie, resources or skills bound to the number of users, yet users are gifted induction hours to grant them access to the Timbank, so essentially the Timebank mimics the commonplace, institutional structure of a bank, where timebrokers take on the role of the bank manager and so forth.
Community – relationships: in collaboration, in friendship:
An aspect of the Timebank that seems to be resolutely valuable to its users is the fact that aside from the democratic / alternative system of exchange it offers, the Timebank manifests largely as a social space. Relationships are forged on the basis of good will and develop into both friendships and working-relationships. Thus creating new networks and additional sub- or extended communities within the greater creative community. Relationships emerge from successful (or equally, unsuccessful) working exchanges or partnerships and create new collaborative scenarios and opportunities for individuals, both socially and in terms of their practices. One pairing of users may take on new directions for a particular project and initiate new ways of working and acquiring new skills, and with these types of relationships comes the element of not knowing, risk-taking and chance. Interestingly this aspect of collaboration and friendship feeds into some research that I have been looking at in terms of how we work together as creative practitioners; what are the sites of working, knowledge production, exchange and collaboration? What are the affordances of working in collaboration, via a community built on sharing resources? And how can this be communicated and indeed validated as an effective means of working? What are the similarities and differences between relationships of work, collaboration and friendship? And does this type of thinking and doing occur outside of the creative sphere?
Work / time – values?
In many of the conversations, much consideration was given to the idea of how work is framed and understood in context to the Timebank. When we speak of work in this context, is it interdependent and interchangeable with time? Are we actually talking about work when we talk about time? Is the Timebank actually a workbank? Returning to the appropriation of language, or indeed to the inherent complexity of language, it is interesting to consider further, what is at stake or rather, what are the discrepancies between these two seemingly innocent terms; on the one hand we
can begin to understand time as being synonymous with work, when we return to the idea of assigning equal value to a thing or skill rather than a user of the Timebank – on whose terms and in what context – and on the other hand, work and time are polarised in that conventionally, they are both bound by a series of predetermined notions of and about value which is boiled down to the fact that money generates and is generated by both; in effect they are interdependent. Which leads me to further consider that the Timebank exists, effectively and in terms of its functionality, on the basis that it positions itself as an alternative in both opposition to, and additionally to, another tried system; ie, what would happen if money (manifest and ideally) was withdrawn, would the Timebank cease to function? In terms of deflation; if its users could withdraw their hours, would the Timebank go bust? What happens to the time economy, when money is taken away?
Across the eight separate conversations, several key themes or issues arose, spanning practical and ideological scenarios, these are described above, and additionally, fell into areas such as fairness and ethics towards sustaining the democratic structure of the Timebank; the importance of a non-exploitative work balance between exchange of skill and pursuit of independent praxis; the nature of time-value affording trust and reliability and being non-negotiable, unlike the precarious and fluctuating nature of money-value; usefulness and essentialness of a system such as the Timebank for creative communities and practitioners; recognising the value and need for non-hierarchic and non-homogenised communities; respect and sustaining of humanity in transactions and exchanges.
I would hope that the Timebank model(s) in general, in their various incarnations will continue to work as effectively as the Leeds Creative Timebank, and at some point a national system can perhaps be developed to be adopted and adapted to fit and suit communities spanning industry and academia in a way that benefits all; where systems of value shift to accommodate specific needs and importantly, that time is taken, at whichever pace, to think this through carefully.
i Duncan Fuller and Andrew E.G. Jonas. ‘Alternative Financial Space.’ Alternative Economic Spaces (London: SAGE 2003) p. 57.