Between You & Me: Conversations on Space, Time and the Economy of Relationships w/Lara Oppenheimer

Editor’s Note: This article was originally written for The Literate Epoch in 2014 at a time when Chicago Time Exchange was experiencing a revival and is the product of a timebank trade for which I received tickets to the show. It was my initial introduction to our local timebank at the time and may be credited as one catalyst for my current fascination with weaving together Chicago’s experimental economies.


Negotiating Space

Lara and I met through the “Requests” section of the Chicago Time Exchange (CTE), a metropolitan Chicago-based timebank which is working to assemble a network of traders, crafters, creatives, makers, artists, activists, organizations and other community stakeholders who wish to participate in a local co-production economy.  Co-production seeks to formalize the exchange of gifted time between community members in order that their individual assets become a single pool which is accessible to the whole community.  The timebank is founded upon five basic principles as set forth by Dr. Edgar Cahn: assets, redefining work, reciprocity, social networks and respect.  By shifting our thinking about these gifts from a purely emotional sentiment towards an economic investment, value is restored to the simple act of offering one’s time.  Value which has been either miscalculated or lost to the churn of our present day market economy.

When I can freely discover in my own inventory of skills an opportunity to fulfill the needs of another, I acquire not only a time credit for my efforts, but the satisfaction of being a productive member of this extended community.  In the negotiation between Lara and myself, she sought a compelling narrative which mapped the intersections between timebanking and her current artistic process while I needed the opportunity to expand my interviewing toolkit.  Together our gifts and needs became a match within the timebank.  I sat down with Lara at the Robust Coffee Lounge to further discuss gift economies, relationships, ecology, creativity and the negotiation of space.  While I had planned for an hour-long interview at best, the fluidity of dialogue and our mutual enjoyment of exploring tangents eventually spun off into a two hour discussion which moved from market economics to mycelium.

The Space Between Us

Our interview hinged upon the creative evolution which lead to Lara’s upcoming performance “The Space Between Us” described as an exploration of “intimacy, economy and ecology through the lens of a fairy tale and the question of how we name home”.  In further elaborating upon the title, she located her inspiration in stating “…the place where I actually find out who I am is between you and me.  And it’s always in relationship.  Who we are is always in relationship to the other.”  “The Space Between Us” is further expressed as a gift of self discovery which we offer to each other while we engage, interact, grow and understand ourselves through the framework of relationships.

Rooted in a deeply emotional reaction to the ecological disaster of the BP Oil Spill, the performance is richly informed by a concern for the environment.  Out of a momentary lapse into a space of hopelessness about the state of the planet was discovered the will to seek out those who were both hopeful and helpful within the world.  “What do I do then if I don’t leave the planet?  What do I do?  Well, I go and look for some people who are doing something small that’s helpful and I go and be like them.  I go stand by them and I imitate them and I do like them until I too understand that I am doing something helpful no matter how small.”

Alternative Economies

This renewed exploration of meaning and transformational relationships would guide her first towards the gift economy and later timebanking seeing these alternative economic frameworks as a tool for modeling shared communal exchange.

“I started thinking a lot about gifts and needs because it seems really fundamental to how we are in the world.  It seems like most things can really boil down to gifts and needs.  Usually one or the other is a little hard for people.  Either it’s harder for you to speak your need or it’s harder for you to see that you have gifts and freely offer them.  People tend to fall on one side or the other.  That’s the thing I like about the gift circle.  It’s both.”

The gift economy is a classic tribal system which is still seen prominently amongst smaller societies organized along political, kinship or religious ties.  While there is no explicit contractual obligation or expectation of return, there is an embedded social pact which guides the behavior of each party to the exchange.  In these communities, the gift is seen as an inherently shared resource which is offered to the receiver with the understanding that it will be gifted forward to someone else in the future.  “It’s always circulating.”  This understanding of the gift economy is related to the disparaging term, “indian giver”, assigned to indigenous Americans by European settlers who misunderstood their concept of communal ownership and common property.

“The thing that I’m finding about these economies, both the timebank and gift economy, is that the whole person is invited in.  I don’t know what your roles are in the world and you don’t know what mine are, but we know about each other’s passions.  We’re here to talk about what we care about and so that’s how I’m going to see you is through the skill that you’re offering to me and you’re seeing me through the thing that I’m desiring to explain and share with other people.  It’s really interesting to be working with other people in that way even in an administrative setting.”

While these direct negotiations between individuals might at first appear inefficient to those who have become accustomed to the market economy, the efficiency comes from being emotionally attuned and in relationship with each member of the community.  This continuous communication of needs and gifts becomes the way that people learn about and relate to each other.

“It’s interesting to me when you said the word “inefficiency” because there’s something about the inefficiency of relationships and I’ve been thinking about this idea of networking hearts.  We’re already networked through our brains; through the internet and the information we exchange, but we actually need to be networked through our hearts.  To have an understanding of who people are and how people are and how they are out in the world and connected to each other.  Because when you get a group of people together that care about each other and then offer them a problem to solve, if you already have group energy and there is already some play involved, then the solution can come a lot faster.  Whereas if you gave that to a group of people who had never met each other before, they just met each other through the market economy, it’s going to take them a lot longer to solve a problem because they’re not networked emotionally.  They don’t have a sense of group dynamic or their place within the group.”

By being aware of what we have available within the network, we become more responsive to opportunities to fill those needs which are outstanding.  Each expression of vulnerability or availability opens a new channel for the future communication of gifts and needs.  Our willingness to offer all of these attributes to the community becomes our investment in the network.

“When we’re networked together emotionally, we can think together more quickly about how to face things.  So I don’t think its inefficient.  It takes time and time is the currency.  Time and emotion is the currency.  Gifts are not free.”

Economy of Ecology

With us covering so much ground in our dialogue, choosing sections to highlight was a difficult task, but I wanted to make sure that I spoke about “ecology” which figures as one of the key concepts in the development of “The Space Between Us”.  Ecology is our most fundamental shared resource and intimately connected to the economy as that collective body of raw materials we draw upon to generate finished goods for sharing, trading and selling.  Without ecology there is no economy.  Conservation then becomes a much more critical task than mere environmental elitism.

“I looked up the word “economy” and the root of the word “eco-” is from the Greek word “oikos” and it means “home” and “family” and “household”.  What?  Eco – nomy means the naming of home?  That doesn’t make any sense, but I really like it.”

How we arrange our home is directly contingent upon the resources whether human, natural or otherwise which are available in our immediate environment.

“It’s the same prefix that starts “ecology”.  Ecology is the study of home and family.  So you have the naming of home and family over here and you have the study of home and family over here.  Why are they separate?  One is like nature, but our house is separate from nature.  So our economy is separate from nature.  It’s in the house.  It’s a house divided.  There’s the outside which is ecology and there’s the inside which is economy.”

 “The Space Between Us” is rooted in the observation of nature.  Ecology is in one sense related to a sense of economic thrift in our consumption of natural resources and a healthy environmental stewardship.  In another sense, Lara enages principles of permaculture in reflecting upon how nature operates.  The adaptability of other organisms to consequential changes in their environment becomes an object lesson from which humanity can draw understanding in finding their own way forward.

“I really started looking at frogs intensely and frogs are like masters of transformation.  And their bodies are so responsive to the environment.  They breathe oxygen through their skin as well as their lungs.  And when they’re in the water they’re absorbing oxygen, but also like salt, copper and other things.  They’re like these amazing bio-indicators.  You know shits fucked up in the environment because the frogs start mutating because they absorb everything.  They’re this symbol of sexuality.  They’re this repulsive thing.  They can kill you with their poison.  They can heal you with the medicine that people are making off the poison.  They bring the rain.  Cultures have worshipped frogs.  They croak and they bring the rain.  And they change their bodies.  They go from being fish-like and breathing underwater with a tail to growing these legs and then losing the tail.  And then they crawl out on land.  For me in investigating that, we have a lot that we can learn from nature if we pay attention.”

This reflection upon nature also seeks to activate our sense of interconnectedness and the awareness that when we are networked creatively, emotionally and intellectually, we will be more resilient in facing the challenges of our future.  We can be better prepared to transform and adapt when we foreground, share and appreciate the gifts of every member of the society.

“Do you know about mycelium?”

“The project or the organism?”

“The organism and how its a gift economy.  I think I want to tell you.  I was studying gift economy and I was thinking about permaculture.  And I was like why the fuck don’t we have a permacultural economy?  They’re missing that part of it.  Permaculture.  The principles hit so many things, but nobody’s talking about economy.  That’s the place that needs it the most, right?  I don’t know when I came across it, but I was reading online about mycelium.  They form these networks.  They’re like nature’s internet.  One body can be 50 miles long and they are sending information back and forth because their cell wall is only 1 cell thick between them and the environment.  We have like 5 or 6 and they have 1.  So they’re constantly receiving and responding to information.  When you’re walking through the forest and you crush things under your foot, they surge up under your feet because they sense that things are broken open and they can go get the nutrients.  So they’re following your steps.  Then they go and they wrap themselves around tree rootlets.  They’re microscopic, these connections.  And so the mycelium have extra protein and they offer it to the tree.  And the tree is like “I have extra sugar.  Do you want some?”  They just trade this back and forth.  But the mycelium will go over and they will network with all of the rootlets of all of the plants around.”

“The Space Between Us” seeks to be a fairy tale in the tradition of the best such stories which dabble around the edges of moral and social questions in a manner remaining both playful and memorable yet deeply imaginative.

“I’m trying to tell a new story.”

“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step forward. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.” ~ Ivan Illich

Things You Should Do

Join the Chicago Time Exchange and start dabbling in the world of timebanking.

Go see Lara’s performance of “The Space Between Us” during the Spring 2014 LinkUp Showcase at Links Hall today thru Sunday beginning at 6:30 pm.

*Excerpts in green are statements attributable to Lara Oppenheimer

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.