Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship (2014)

"Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship" is a telematic garden, both real and virtual, whose lifeline directly correlates to monetary exchanges between the developed and developing world. The live garden is designed in the shape of a world map with a digital irrigation system underneath. The amount of water and light the plants receive is dependent on investment information received from popular microfinance websites such as Kiva.org. Successful entrepreneurial ventures trigger appropriate nourishment, while failed ventures may lead to dying plants, making visible the circulation of finance. Through the poetic gesture of a garden, the complex relationships between human life and economic growth within these new alternative economic models are brought to the forefront.

Full Description

"Reversal of Fortune: Garden of Virtual Kinship" is a telematic garden, both real and virtual, whose lifeline directly correlates to monetary exchanges between the developed and developing world. The project examines the cultural phenomena of online crowdfunded charity, or microfinance, through the popular social media website www.kiva.org. These humanitarian aid websites enable more affluent individuals in the West to collectively donate small amounts of money to individuals and small communities in extremely economically challenged regions such as East Africa and Central America in order to help finance their entrepreneurial goals. Examples of these pursuits include small retail businesses, local agriculture and farming, transportation and health needs. The result is an alternative economic model that attempts to build local infrastructure that would otherwise go unfunded due to a lack of government support and/or political corruption.

The live garden takes the form of a global map with the plants residing in raised platform beds shaped like continents on the floor. Each plant correlates to a borrower on the Kiva website requesting funding. Within each “continent” is a computerized irrigation system that waters the plants on that platform. The amount of water the plants receive is dependent on investment information data mined from the Kiva website . Successful entrepreneurial ventures will trigger appropriate nourishment while failed ventures may lead to dying plants, making visible the circulation of finance. Animated projections further underscore the flow of capital from the Global North to the Global South as well as provide an overview of the specific borrowers and lenders engaged in the exchange. The project extrapolates on the seminal telerobotic artwork entitled Telegarden created in 1995 by Ken Goldberg that enabled a global community of online users to “telematically” care for a live garden through a web interface.

The goal is to explore the contradictions inherent in this new model of humanitarian activity. Although microfinance websites can help borrowers achieve real material needs and empower them to become successful leaders in their communities, there are disadvantages that are overlooked. In its struggle to survive, a garden inherently maps and exemplifies the complex dynamics between the cultural and the organic. Through the poetic gesture and metaphor of a garden, the project 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? In evaluating the actual impact of these systems on their borrowers, can we move closer towards a true digital commons?

Project funded by a Creative Capital award in Emerging Fields.

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