This essay is the first time that performingborders has involved an artist in an evaluation and discussion of the budget for an issue of an e-journal. Being an artist who uses law and governance as creative medium, this was an opportunity for me to consider budgeting as a creative activity and to explore the cultural and social dimensions of budgets. More significantly, this commission lays bare a behind-the-scenes of this particular e-journal budget: the anxieties, hopes, accountabilities and labour that this budget hides.
The brief asked me how performingborders could have “a transparent budget and publish it directly into the e-journal as an entry and as a way to embed it within the project”, and to reimagine “what a budget should really take into account”. We decided to present the entire budget spreadsheet for this issue as part of this essay. In it, I asked performingborders (Alessandra, Anahí and Xavier) to add budget items representing what is normally invisible or othered in budgets, and even to try costing or quantifying these budget lines.
In this way, the budget spreadsheet became a live in-conversation as we tried to pin down these budget items, such as ambitions, emotional labour, public duty, experimentation/failure, the weight of guilt from taking time away from family/children, and performingborders’ entanglement with politics and society. As you might expect, much of this was impossible. The difficulties that emerged showed the limitations of budgets as a tool for describing complex things like organisations who want to be socially responsible, ethically evolving and embodying care for their workers, stakeholders, audiences and the environment.
More importantly, this exercise showed me that budgets offer a very particular (or blinkered) version of reality. It is a reality where only items and actors that can be costed (i.e., allocated a number to) are visible-ised and therefore counted. This action of assigning numerical value to phenomena in order to make them visible as legitimate data is a form of positivism.1 My own issue with positivism as the only way in which to understand the world or to take organisational decisions is that artistic, ethical and social knowledge—embodiment, flux, pace, relationality, care, dignity, instinct, praxis, human rights, more-than-human rights—does not exist, and therefore does not count, in the logical world that a budget creates.
So in counterpoint, this essay offers introductory and not necessarily related thoughts on the ‘beyond of budgets’, and how its effect runs through my own personal experience and the events currently around me. It attempts to make visible and to count the cost of the various entities and agents behind the veil of budgets. For performingborders, being transparent about the current e-journal budget is not an easy thing to do. It is not comfortable for them or any organisation firstly to expose the official budget, and then also to talk about the hidden unbudgetable costs of producing the journal. But I hope this text also prepares you, our reader, to encounter the honesty and vulnerability of the conversation in the spreadsheet, and provides a frame of understanding how the other of a budget always haunts it.
I suppose the first time that I ever encountered the idea of ‘budget’ was when I was six years old and my mother announced one day that I was her ‘investment’. Of course, I had no clue what she meant by this. In retrospect, I like to think that she made this pronouncement with love and pride, that I was (eventually) a good investment. And here you have to understand something about my mother, or dare I presume all immigrant Chinese or Asian mothers of a certain generation who survived a war, and whose own mothers survived and fled other wars and revolutions. My mother, like many other aunties of her generation, also kept a stash of jewellery in a safety deposit box or an attic or deep in a wardrobe. For her/them, security and survival was not just about owning those bits of paper we call money. Money, they knew, does not always translate after you cross a border nor, like the WW2 Japanese-issued ‘Banana Money’, does it hold any value after a war ends or a regime collapses. Instead, their sense of security and survival is imbued in material objects too: in jewellery, in gold, in bodies, in the labour of bodies, in offspring.
I must declare that I am not an economist or have any expertise in accounts. In fact, my own dyscalculia makes numbers, dates and chronologies difficult if I am forced and expected to use accounting systems in the neuronormative way they were designed to be used. Instead, budgets are a humanities subject for me, a social object or an aesthetic lens. Therefore by ‘budget’ here and throughout this essay, I am referring to the overarching system or perspective of finance and its accompanying aesthetics of numbering/counting that contextualises, produces and performs my body, my person and my relationship with others and the world. This would include ideas like a child being an investment. Of course on the one hand, a budget is a very useful planning and tracking tool for allocating organisational or personal money. It ensures an organisation’s or project’s viability by helping to meet one’s fiduciary responsibilities. And on a personal level, budgeting secures our own very basic needs of food, shelter, travel and communication. But on the other hand, my mother’s and my mother’s mother’s experiences also tell me that this strict understanding of budgets cannot tell the whole story of what a person or an organisation was, is or hopes to be. There are other energies, synchronicities and attentivenesses that have to be accounted for in order to understand more fully what makes something, someone, some organisation viable and thrive.
I write this text also in the few weeks after British ex-Chancellor Kwasi Kwateng announced his disastrous ‘mini budget’ in Westminster, which led to his own resignation and that of Liz Trust, the briefest Prime Minister in the history of the UK. This was an unaccounted budget where they intended to make £45bn worth of tax cuts but with no costing for how that shortfall in the public purse would be funded. The idea was that the tax cuts would somehow create a vibrant growth economy and would transform Britain into a hub of entrepreneurialism, a Singapore-on-Thames as it were. This was an expression of ideology as if mere expression itself was enough to create reality, and as if pure representation was itself knowhow, production and skill.
As someone who grew up in Singapore when it was still a ‘third world country’, I found it naive to think that Britain could achieve the Singapore dream simply through rhetoric, or more precisely through the use of (mini) budget as rhetoric. Can you really make a country ‘great again’ by simply saying so? In the 70s and 80s, I lived through some of what Singapore (and other rapidly developing ASEAN 2 countries) had to do to manifest a buoyant economy today. This was no miracle. It included decades of investing heavily in health and education, mass building and rebuilding of infrastructure and housing, law-making and reform, and growing the country’s financial assets.
Of course Singapore did rhetoric too in bucket loads, with daily recitals of its citizens’ pledge, annual patriotic productivity songs and visionary National Day speeches. But this national hurrah-ing is backed up by having the second highest GDP per capita in the world at about US$97,000. And for me as a Singaporean, that number is not just data but also represents the journeys and histories of work, migration, riot, sacrifice 3, waiting, loss, experimentation and survivability of a people. I am not sure Kwateng and Truss budgeted for these items in their desire to transform the British economy into Singapore-on-Thames.
As the artist-in-residence for a museum board of trustees, I once offered a provocation at a board meeting about the ancient Incan system of accounting, the Quipu. This is what I said:
The Quipu is an ancient materialised accounting system used by the Incas. ‘Materialised’ because the accounting isn’t represented as symbols on paper or on a tablet. The Quipu is made up of lengths of thick string bundled together with different knots tied along each string. The type of knot, the position along the string and colour indicate precise quantities of the things being counted. They were used throughout Inca society from merchants and village elders to judges and kings as a forms of accounting.
People who could read quipu were called Quipu-cama-yocs. You could say they were the equivalent of our chartered accountants. However, they did more than just check and read the numerical data contained in the strings. Research has suggested that Quipu also contain military knowledge, information about ritual organisation, calendar events, documentation of laws and history. As such, Quipu-cama-yocs were not just accountants, but historians and story-tellers. In fact, some writers have suggested that the Quipu acted as performance scores and indicated to the accountants how the story of the accounts should be told or acted out by them.
So what stories are hidden or erased in our modern approaches of accounting today and how can they be brought to life?
Perhaps our propensity to purge numbers from their stories or messy origins aligns with a European enlightenment preference for logic, rationality and a clarity (and cleanliness) of thinking. In this way, numbers can have fixed one-dimensional and manageable meanings, like bigger is better, or smaller is poorer. The messiness of human lives, historical trauma, social injustices, and environmental/more-than-human cost can be discounted, or held as an arbitrary constant, or othered in the budget for fear of impeding progress, profit or growth.
Sometimes people account for extra-budgetary items, these energies, as ‘in kind contributions’, ‘social capital’ or ‘reputational value’, or they are lumped together as ‘intangible assets’. Unless there is a sale of the business or some court litigation, there is rarely a breakdown or accurate costing of these in monetary terms, in time taken or the opportunity costs involved. In the small to medium sized arts budgets I have come across, these items are also usually framed as a secondary category of resources within spreadsheets if at all, and often at the bottom, often after the ‘contingencies’ line, or often in a completely separate table.
The items that are foregrounded in budgets are the ones that you can put a number value to and ones that you can empirically know. The secondary ‘fuzzy’ budget items are there more to acknowledge and forewarn the range of extra-budgetary or other activity in the project, activities that don’t really count.
Why, I wonder? Why the separation between data and knowledge, between labour and work, between labour and emotional labour, between reason and feeling, between office hours and time, between hard and soft decisions, between rationality and a hunch? Indeed, why the separation at all between budget and everyday life or worlding4?
Our spreadsheet tries to bridge these gaps by trying to itemise and quantify these other items. In doing so, we may find that numbers and budget lines do not have the clean and hard boundaries that we normally think they do.
1. Positivism is a philosophy that considers facts are only valid if they can be determined by discernable ‘positive’ evidence or experience, or through pure reason.
2. Association of Southeast Asian Nations
3. In my view a particular sacrifice or cost of national productivity and efficiency includes Singaporeans agreeing a social contract of accepting limitations to Western-style civil liberties and human rights in exchange for security and economic success.
4. I use the term ‘worlding’ here to refer to both its postcolonial and new materialist meanings. Within postcolonial studies, worlding can refer to the process of archiving and recording by the coloniser, an activity through which the native’s world is reconfigured as a colonised world, and that this new colonised world is the natural one. Mapping, recording, registering and budgeting were colonising activities in such worldings. https://postcolonial.net/glossary/worlding/
In new materialism, worlding refers to how the world is a context for and result of human and more-than-human encounters and entanglement. In this sense, a budget is both what we make but also what makes us and through which world emerges. https://newmaterialism.eu/almanac/w/worlding.html