If your debt were a real, tangible thing -- something you could literally hold in your hands-- what would it be? That's the question Cassie Thornton has been trying to answer since 2008. That was the year the financial crisis hit, and Thornton was living in New York. "Everyone was talking about debt and I didn't understand what it was," says Thornton.
After years of exploring the psyche of debt, meeting with over 100 people and asking them to visualize their debt and describe it as physical forms, the artist is hosting a free workshop, "Worries are the new Piñatas," tomorrow and Saturday at Cannonball. Participants will collaboratively build piñatas in the shape, form and colors of debt imagined by four financial personalities. Ironic? Well, yes - that's the point.
"I'd always worked with people who considered themselves indebted and coined debt as a burden," explains Thornton. "So I became interested of looking at it from a different perspective and with people who manipulate debt and use it as a tool in their everyday lives and careers."
Since childhood, Thornton has been interested in changing the meaning of debt so it's not so scary. The artist was raised by a single mom; overcharging credit cards, she says, was part of her upbringing.
"When I went to college and took out student loans, I felt I was recreating my childhood, but it was the only way I could afford anything," she remembers.
And then the recession struck. Thornton became interested in the subject as a philosophical question: "What does it mean to have debt, and is it even real?"
The question came out of her fear of not being able to pay bills. She then left New York to go to graduate private school at the California College of Arts in San Francisco, where she collided with her own beliefs and racked up some more debt. At her graduation she realized that her class alone had accumulated $4 million in debt. "I wasn't clear whether we were making art or debt. How could we ever make $4 million of art?"
That's when she started her trying to show that difference of debt on a scale, showcasing not just how much debt we have but what it would look like if it had a physical vehicle. "Most people described it to be as the thing that's always looming over, kind of like a personal rain cloud," she explains. Thornton asked people to close their eyes and almost meditate before visualizing debt. "On one occasion, this guy saw it as big and dangerous looking metal shapes coming out of the earth." Sounds like a bad acid trip.
Thornton learned that debt isn't just an intangible object: "It impacts our unconscious and lives inside of us in a way that affects how we feel about ourselves and limits what we think we can do." By asking people what it looks like and trying to visualize it as an object outside of themselves, she hopes to help them get rid of it. And what better way than by making a piñata that stands for debt and then smashing it till it completely disintegrates into nothing but dust?
The open workshop is free to the public and will take place tomorrow, June 13th (freaky Friday) from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. Thornton will be splitting participants into groups and these groups will build two piñatas at each workshop - one for each of the four financial personalities. These finance professionals are local and include a hedge fund manager, an investment banker, corporate lawyer, and director of a foundation. "Even though these people aren't directly affected by debt because they have enough money, they still had the same thoughts of fear," says Thornton. "They don't ever want it and so they visualized some pretty crazy stuff."
Thornton will share the four interviews that she's transcribed in order to figure out how to make that into an abstract piñata. There will be refreshments and music to make it a party - a strike debt party.
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Since everyone sees debt differently and will have a hand in the process, the results are sure to be surprising. But you'll have to come back to Cannonball to see them for yourself on June 26, when they will actually hang them and smash them after a discussion on debt and its meaning.
"What I've learned along this journey is that everyone is in the same boat: afraid of running out of money, of falling into debt and of not being successful," says Thornton. "But we all have different ways of putting it into perspective." Seems like debt, similar to beauty, is simply in the eye of the beholder.
"Worries are the new Piñatas" is free and open to the public. The two day workshop starts tomorrow, June 13th from 3 to 7 p.m. and continues Saturday, June 14th from noon to 6 p.m. Cannonball is located at 1035 North Miami Avenue. Anyone is welcome but Cassie asks that you please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org