Glenn Loughran  |  Glenn Loughran is an Artist and educator working in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).


Working as an artist and educator I constantly find myself drawing on the links between theory and practice in socially engaged art. These links often focus on practical ways that certain methodologies overlap, the common histories they share, and the different discourses that guide such practices. Some of the key discourses which link education and socially engaged art, are; sociology, pedagogy, art criticism, critical theory and ethnography, many of which intersect with socially engaged art through an emancipatory tradition that reflects critically upon the alienating effects of the city. In this article I consider our relationship with the city through the concept of ‘exchange’. Modes of exchange are a central feature of many socially engaged practices; yet we do not have a systematic understanding of their values and histories. This narrative will engage with this concept theoretically, moving from an historical point up to the present and leading into a brief account of a project that I was involved in which explored alternative modes of ‘exchange’ through a type of praxis that I will call ‘subtractive’.

In his 1903 text ‘Metropolis and Mental Life’ German sociologist Georg Simmel analysed the psychological impact of city life on the modern individual (Simmel, 1903). Within this context the city is seen to alienate individuals through spectacular over-stimulation, fragmentation, and the increasing commercialisation of society, producing a ‘psychic mood’ which ‘is the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy’, which reduces the complexity of social relations “and expresses all qualitative distinctions between them in the distinction of “how much” (Simmel, p. 2).

To cope with this ‘psychic mood’, the metropolitan subject develops an attitude that Simmel calls ‘blasé’, and which functions as a ‘protective organ’ against the disorientating environment of urban life. The blasé attitude relies on the ‘intellectual’ domains of exchange, where rationalising effects such as quantification, measurement and calculation slowly begin to determine human interactions, he writes,

The metropolis has always been the seat of money economy. Because the many-sidedness and concentration of commercial activity have given the medium of exchange an importance which it could not have acquired in the commercial aspects of rural life. But money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one another. They have in common a purely matter of fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things in which a formal justice is often combined with an unrelenting hardness.(Simmel, p. 2).

Similarly, for Karl Marx the modern subject is alienated from the concept of social ‘intercourse’ through its equivalence with the ‘profit drive’ of the capitalist economy, he writes ‘with money every form of intercourse, and intercourse itself, becomes fortuitous for individuals’ (Marx,1845, p.85). As is well known, Marx understood history as a process which is determined by ‘modes of production’ (technology) and ‘relations of production’ (property), from ancient societies through to empires, from feudalism to capitalism. This analysis is supported by an interrogation of the capitalist system, which begins with the commodity and the strange types of value produced in its ‘exchange’.

Modes of Exchange

It is within the context of the commodity form of exchange that Japanese Philosopher Kojin Karatani has begun to re-consider the history of social formation. In a recent text titled, ‘The Structure of World History: From modes of production to modes of exchange’ (2014), Karatani develops a systematic analysis of the history of ‘modes of exchange’ and their emergence through the mutually supportive system of Capital-Nation-State. In this analysis he suggests that each of these elements defines a unique conception of ‘exchange’, which can be understood as follows:

Mode of exchange A: (The Nation). Defined by a logic of reciprocity. 

Mode of exchange B: (The Nation). Defined by a logic of plunder and re- distribution.

Mode of exchange C (Capital). Defined by logic of market exchange,  namely profit. 

Within this context, the act of plunder represents the act of taking an object or service without giving anything back, whereas reciprocal exchange is co-operative, it takes place when the object or service we give is returned without condition, and finally the commodity form of exchange happens when an object or service is exchanged using money. All three modes of exchange have influenced the history of social formations at different times; however today it is Mode C which dominates the other two. The consequence of this situation, is that social exchange is motivated the extraction of surplus value, thereby reducing social interaction to a means-end logic, that will always produce conflict (Karatani). To begin to think beyond this conflict is to engage with the possibility of counteractions which cannot be entirely absorbed by the ‘commodity form’ as ‘primary’ form of exchange, and, turning to Immanuel Kant’s theory of the ‘kingdom of ends’, Karatani develops an ethico-economic theory of exchange based on the moral imperative ‘act so that you use humanity, whether in your person or in any other person, always at the same time as an end, rather than a means to an end’(Karatani, 2005, p.6).

The application of this theory is developed through a fourth mode of exchange called Mode of exchange: D. which he calls (after Marx): Associationism. So, between the Kantian ‘Kingdom of ends’, and Marx’s conception of Associationism, the logic of Mode : D  is realised in its contemporary form, however, to understand the development of this type of exchange Karatani emphasises its emergence in universal religions, he writes

The money economy freed individuals from the constraints of the community and made them into members of the empire-cosmopolis. In addition, this ‘radical leveller’ undermined the egalitarianism of the community – in other words its economy and ethic of reciprocity. It also led to growing disparities in wealth. These were the two preconditions required for the emergence of universal religions. In the process of empire formation, there is a moment when, under the sway of mode of exchange b, mode of exchange c dismantles mode of exchange a, it is at this moment, and in resistance to it, that universal religion appears, taking the form of mode of exchange d (Karatani, 2014, p.135). 

As a result of this dynamic, Mode : D functions like the ‘return of the repressed’, whereby, although universal religions may no longer dominate the scene of social cohesion, the reciprocal forms of exchange upon which they were premised are eternally destined to surface and resurface within the structure of world economies.

It is worth considering this line of thinking in the contemporary context.

Subtractive Praxis

Due to the profound crises of confidence in the nation and state which emerged from the breakdown of the capitalist economy in 2008, a new ethos of experimentation with ‘modes of exchange’ surfaced. Attempting to function outside the state or at least subtracted from the state in the face of its inaction, these experiments can be traced through both global (Occupy Wall Street) and local events (Spectacle of Defiance and Hope). As an example of this logic I want to point to a long term project which I was involved in, in an inner-city community in Dublin.

In 2008, the collapse of a public private partnership project in the inner city led to the development of a 2.4 acre site by a local group of volunteers supported by a community project for community gain. This site was located on Bridgefoot Street, between the River Liffey and Thomas Street, in Dublin 8. Initially the site had been due to deliver over 400 private apartments and a badly needed community resource centre. The community responded to this impasse by developing their own resource, a community garden.  In the first phase of the project (2008 – 2012), the garden had over fifty plots, was attended by over 250 individuals, with eleven different community groups working at different times on developing the resource. During this time it housed chickens coops, bee hives, and pigeon lofts. It facilitated food production and food events. It was used as a pedagogical space and a laboratory space for ecological experimentation. It became a unique and rich resource for alternative modes of exchange through socially engaged arts, theatre and film based workshops, and inter-cultural sports events.  As a result of these events, the garden became a great source of curiosity and interest to other local communities, Dubliners, tourists and academics alike. It was the impetus of a European-wide project led by UCD funded under the FP7 stream called TURAS. As a result of this intervention, the site is now no longer earmarked for development and has been transferred over to the parks department to be developed as a permanent public park and community garden. 

However, it was not without its difficulties. In the case study developed for the TURAS project, key issues were highlighted around; anti-social behaviour, lack of funding and resources, lack of support from city officials, questions of sustainability, management of multiple individuals and communities, and ensuring the stability of foundational values. Any large-scale project operating within a public space will have to negotiate such tensions, and these are often exacerbated in areas of disadvantage, however, what is worth considering in this project are the various strategies which were developed to define these negotiations, and which I want to suggest also define a subtractive praxis. 

There are three keys points which were crucial to the success of this project. The first was how it began with a logic of subtraction, that is, a logic of withdrawal from traditional routes of community engagement. Rather than ask permission from the local council to engage in such actions, the group simply decided to work in the space. The second principle extended the first by deciding to work at community building under the radar of the state rather than against it. And finally, the third principle aimed to develop a site for the exploration of ecological practices through reciprocal modes of exchange, where no-body was in the position of using the ‘other’ towards instrumental ends. In this sense the project began with the assertion of modes of exchange which subtracted money as the mediator of a ‘general equivalence’ between relations. As result of this decision the intuitive moral code which guided and motivated the core exchanges at the centre of these everyday operations expressed a strange religious hue, whereby, a tradition of Christian exchange had somehow been transplanted beyond the failures of its institutions into the very fabric of the political economy. Given the conflicts and perversions enacted on this island in the name of religious dogma, it may seem necessary to critique or dismiss the link between this type of act, and this type of exchange, and their these types of values, however as Karatani has illustrated, universal religions may also represent a site of possibility for extracting the best of our worst historical institutions to challenge the most alienating of our present ones.  

Mode D

My involvement in this project was primarily as an artist and educator working with various groups around key areas of interest and development. I have captured the exchanges and the rich texture of voices within this process through a film and photography project titled: Squatter Sovereignty (2012)1. These engagements have led to the development of an artistic/pedagogical platform within the Robert Emmet Community Centre on Ushers Quay, Dublin 1. The aims of this platform are to explore the value of different types of exchange, their theories and practice. The name for this Platform is Mode: D:


Karatani, Kojin. (2014)   The Structure of World History: From modes of production    to modes of exchange. (2014)

Karatani, Kojin. (2006)    Transcritque: On Kant and Marx. (2006)

Marx & Engels  (2006)    The German Ideology(1845)

Simmel, Georg   (1903)   Metropolis and Mental Life

Simmel, Georg   (1907)   The Philosophy of Money.