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March 28th, 2022


It’s interesting that the two women contributors of this project are both choosing to remain anonymous, but maybe it makes sense in relation to the sensitive content we have been discussing. There’s some really nice food for thought in our first conversation about the importance of maintaining the flow of resources and how the Myanmar government is exerting control over people through these flows. You only briefly mentioned the music compilation project and there was no mention of the coordination efforts that are in place to distribute those funds through a global network of people that are cooperating based on trust. You described it as “you trust someone with your life” kind of trust, with money changing hands through many strangers to get it where it needs to be. Maybe you can tell me a little bit more about your compilation and how that evolved as an idea. I want to hear as much as you’re willing to reveal about the creative side of that, who the artists are and how you curated them and how that’s going. I’m also hoping that you can describe the network of people that are coordinating with you to distribute the funds, where it’s going and who it’s going to and what they’re using it for. You’re leveraging your creative productions to resistance value, mobilizing a creative human network to get essential supplies — like oxygen — through government firewalls.

In February, I started seeing some of my friends from Myanmar posting videos of protests, mostly in Yangon, because that’s where most of them live. I had heard about the election in December. It’s not surprising that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party would win the election, because who would vote for fascism? The military decided that the election was fraudulent, taking a cue from what Trump had done with the US election that same year, with the difference being that, as a political entity, they still controlled the military. They are the military. Aung San Suu Kyi and the political members of her party that held positions in the cabinet were arrested and taken to Insein, a really large prison complex, without any explanation as to what was going on.

There was a ton of response on the streets of Yangon and Mandalay. The protests were very lively and creative, with lots of things happening within the contemporary arts spheres. The museums and galleries were participating by hosting artistic interventions. I was perplexed, because I understood the history of Myanmar and I had a gut feeling that this wasn’t going to be a short term thing. My partner runs an experimental record label, and he was like, maybe we should make a music compilation and invite a bunch of people that we know to try to get some money to the artist-activist groups. We sat on the idea for a couple of weeks and in the meantime, a Lebanese person living in Berlin, who had also been to Myanmar, put up a compilation. We bought the compilation and supported this person. Seeing them do it made us feel like we were ready and it felt like we really needed to do it fast, because things were escalating in Myanmar really quickly.

We reached out to everyone that we could think of, the first 50 people who came into our minds, musicians of varying sorts, and said we need their contribution back in 10 days. Pretty much everyone who we asked said yes. It was a quick scramble. Some people gave us music that they had already made. Some people wanted to make new tracks. I had been collating a folder of sound files that I was pulling from videos that my friends were posting on the internet. About 10 of the tracks are made from these local sound sources that I created, so people were feeling very inspired to consider intentional ways of working with the sound clips to create compositions that reflected hope for something better or to convey the intensity of the moment. It went really fast. Within 10 days we had the comp on Bandcamp. It was an incredible effort from everyone who participated in the compilation. We made a substantial amount of money, several thousand dollars in the first weekend, and that continued to roll in for a while. A few artists reached out to apologize that they couldn’t get their tracks submitted on time and asked if there would be a second release, and we were like, a second one? Really? Okay. We can pull that off.

It’s almost impossible to get money into Myanmar directly. Most people don’t have PayPal accounts, because most people simply don’t have bank accounts and there are so many restrictions on how to transfer money. I asked my friend in Myanmar where I should send all this money and he connected me with a professor who had lived in Myanmar for a really long time and was trusted, even though they’ve never met. I contacted this professor and we had to feel each other out a little bit to figure out the trust. It’s tricky when it’s a faceless and unverifiable connection. The only person we had in common at the time was my friend.

This is a very important point. How do you create that sense of trust? You met this professor under the auspices that you are very strongly aligned on this ideological goal and you had one person in common. Time was of the essence, but it was also absolutely essential to build trust without really having the time to properly vet this person. Trust is typically organically generated through an accumulation of experiences where individuals prove themselves to be reliable. There’s a sensitivity to this scenario, a certain weight to not revealing too much, an inverse tension where you don’t want to reveal so much to remain aloof from political persecution, while also wanting to reveal as much as you can in order to solidify a trust network. Is that right, or how do you see it?

Let me explain a little bit about this person. The professor had a publicly accessible fundraiser focused on supporting the ethnic minorities in Myanmar, because they have been historically the most persecuted and they are also the most likely to fight back. Even in the most peaceful times, the ethnic minorities along the eastern border with Thailand are in constant conflict with the military for a variety of different reasons. He posted his donation spreadsheets to provide transparency, which helped, because we live in an era where anyone could concoct this entire thing.

You mean there is a possibility that someone could be weaving an elaborate scheme for malicious purposes to steal this money?

That definitely seemed possible. He published his spreadsheet of organizations that have benefitted from the donated money and there was a large number of Burmese Americans who have supported this fundraiser. I have a deep level of trust with our mutual friend, so that helped. There’s a point where one has to choose whether to release the skepticism to move forward or to hold on to the skepticism and not move forward. In that moment, there were enough indicators for me to feel like any skepticism that I had could hinder the potential of what we were trying to do. I sent a third of our profits at first and shortly after that he asked me to join him on Signal to talk more about some of the other aspects that he was dealing with. He wanted to be really upfront to say his fundraiser was legitimate, but he also had another project that directed the money to support the training and arming of people who wanted to form a people’s army.

Not exactly safe-for-work Facebook content.

Yes. There was a small group that he selected to discuss the ramifications of being involved in such an endeavor. Could we potentially be charged with war crimes? Could it actually go that far? Do we care? We tried to hash out exactly what we were doing and if we were willing to move forward with those ideas. That project continues to exist to this day. A few different groups are funded, such as the Free Burma Rangers who are very open about what they are doing, along with many smaller coalitions who remain completely anonymous.

In the Signal group, none of us were using our real names. I told the professor that I would continue sending money to support these efforts, but I couldn’t be a part of that conversation anymore. I realized that my ability to gauge safety is more loose than many people, but I have a kid and I needed to be aware of her safety and well-being. There is also a punk rock band called The Rebel Riot, that has two tracks on the second compilation that we put out. The lead singer, Kyaw Kyaw, is a very vocal and visually available person. He has a Swiss girlfriend and there is some level of protection there, or he just doesn’t care, because he’s so adamant about his position. He runs the Food Not Bombs in Yangon and another large percentage of the money generated from the compilation goes to him through his girlfriend’s Swiss bank account. They spread it out through the community of punks and anarchists. That kind of trust is different. We know each other and I understand what he’s doing and he understands why I’m helping. It’s embodied trust.

A graphic designer in that scene designed posters that he wanted to get out of Myanmar to fundraise and gather awareness. His original idea was to print the posters in Myanmar and then mail them out, but there was no fucking way that was going to work. The likelihood of them ever making it out of Myanmar — because of the scrutiny of the mail system and the chaos of COVID — was very low. We had money in the shared account attached to the compilation, so I suggested we buy the JPEGs and put them up on Bandcamp as prints. As we sold the prints they became a rolling income for the people on street level. There was another artist I was working with that wanted me to sell her performance art photography in the way she typically sold to museums, and I was like, Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not my world. It was very unlikely that I would be able to sell one of her photographs for a couple grand, but if we made them smaller she could have a rolling income, so I offered her that. The way that we’ve been working is very decentralized and rhizomatic. The art world gallery system doesn’t work for these purposes.

The gallery world is more of a closed system. It is operated by centralized authority, so to speak. There’s a gallery proprietor, an in-house curator, an in-house family of artists, and there’s a closed economic loop with a service being offered to connect the clients to the work. There are barriers of access for artists to engage with the market directly. The art may be evaluated by its merit, but it’s not like anybody can bring art to have the opportunity to connect to buyers, as opposed to a decentralized system that might be open by design.

My partner and I were having conversations about gallery representation. He has a rep for his photography. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not, but I distrust that world. I worked in galleries for a while and I don’t believe in that world, because of how closed it is to revolutionary or radical ideas. I don’t believe that world is the place for real action to occur. It cannot connect to revolutionary radical movements. It is in direct opposition to the intention of revolutionary radical movements, generally speaking.

On all sides! On behalf of the proprietor, the gallery owner and the curator, it is built upon a model of exclusivity and scarcity. On the side of the artist, regarding accessibility and the potential to include a diverse chorus of voices, it is closed to all but the chosen few. Most importantly, the audience is barred access. Most people off the street can’t afford a painting off the wall of a white cube, fluorescent lit, Chelsea District art gallery. If you’re a normal working person living in America, where the average salary is something like $40,000 a year, one artwork might be a quarter of your annual income and is often quite more expensive than that. There’s a classist hierarchy, a hegemony built upon a perverse aristocratic tradition that enforces the rarity of the art objects. It’s wrapped up in the 20th century conversation about the sacredness of an artwork due to its uniqueness embedded within the material. It proliferates inaccessibility, an impossibly high barrier of entry, that only those that are initiated into the inner economic circle have access to.

We all know that system is not for the benefit of the artists, regardless of how financially well off they might seem to end up in their lifetime. Those works of art are basically stocks, cold calculated investments.

I want to go back to a couple of things that you brought up earlier. I had a question about the account that the money for the compilation goes into. You are serving as a custodian to an account and then you send that money to the professor and he passes it along to Kyaw Kyaw? It’s an account that you are overseeing or is this an account that numerous people have access to?

PayPal is the first step of this flow of income. I send it to Kyaw Kyaw or to the professor or to a couple of other different places. Once it’s in the account of someone in Myanmar, it’s converted back into local material currency that is used to procure whatever resources are needed at that moment.

What’s the final step? The music compilation generates money through sales, people pay you through PayPal, you transfer that to Kyaw Kyaw’s Swiss girlfriend, and how does the girlfriend extract it? She pulls out Swiss francs and they trade it at a local currency exchange in Myanmar?

It’s converted from USD to Swiss francs through PayPal and then people extract it from Burmese ATM machines. It is dispensed as Burmese kyat.

It comes out as cash and then people at street level pay for the materials that they might need for the resistance efforts there?

Yes, within their small group of people. On the other hand, when we’re talking about the money going to the professor, that gets a little more complicated. What’s happening through that route is that money is being sent to somebody who has a Thai bank account, someone in Thailand who lives on the border. There’s a couple of different apps that can be used to transfer money, kind of like PayPal but more localized and specific to those governments. The specifics are a little unclear to me, but the professor is able to get physical cash to people within 24 hours, even if he’s never met them before and without knowing exactly where they’re located.

Let me explain. The graphic designer I mentioned earlier contacted me on Signal one night. You know when you can feel emotion in a text message when a situation is really intense? He was telling me he was in really big trouble and needed help. There was some fighting with police or military officers in the street and now they were being pursued. They didn’t take the license plates off of the car that they escaped in, so he was worried that they were gonna find him. He also has kids; he’s a parent, and I could definitely feel his stress. I contacted the professor and told him I had some friends who were in really big trouble and needed help forming a safe house outside of Yangon. They needed $300–500 to procure a car, food and medical supplies, and secure some sort of shelter that nobody knew about. This is where the trust gets really deep. The graphic designer was contacting me, because I’m the only person he could think of who could potentially help him in this situation. I contacted the professor, who said he thought he could get it to my friend within 24 hours. Whatever clandestine channels that dude has got on the ground were able to deliver the physical cash to this person without a bank account.

There’s definitely some serious on-the-ground coordination efforts that were happening there! The hand to hand efforts are mind boggling to contemplate. There has to be some serious physical coordination across country lines, cultural and linguistic barriers, and military jurisdictions. It’s really incredible to hear about.

There’s a deep level of trust among young people who may or may not know each other. We’re talking about very large sums of money for Myanmar. $500 is a shit ton over there. We were previously discussing the snitch culture, the plain-clothed informant culture, that makes one double down on the need for deep trust. It’s partly a leap of faith.

Yes, we were discussing how the government is flexing control over all of the resources, such as electricity, but what about data? These people don’t have bank accounts, but they have cell phones? They’re able to reliably connect to networks that are not being shut down? What about GPS tracking, for example, or the data trail that the transaction history is creating between your PayPal account and the Swiss girlfriend’s PayPal account, or the professor’s accounts? Based on this conversation, all of these transactions seem to be happening on centralized networks that could be scrutinized by authorities. This is where the flow of resources as a meditation on currency meets the issues of privacy and anonymity. This money is really not being mobilized in a secure way, but the risk is being justified because of the time sensitivity and the desperation — these people need it now — and this is the infrastructure that exists for getting it there. Do you hear of instances of the government persecuting people based on transaction history or communications being shut down?

I will not hear from people for a week sometimes and it could be because they’re in the jungle training or because they have COVID or somebody close to them has COVID or it could be because they lack safe or reliable internet access. People rely on VPNs and use encrypted chat apps like Signal or Telegram for all of their communication.

What you’re describing seems like a perfect use case for a radical implementation of cryptocurrency. Anyone can set up a crypto wallet without obligatory KYC verification. KYC means know your customer and it’s the standard identity verification that you have to go through to set up a bank account or a PayPal account. You could bypass the centralized banks to send and receive funds across borders and its processed on decentralized infrastructure. Now, crypto is not completely decentralized or non-custodial, nor is it completely free of regulation and this is a rapidly unfolding global conversation. How would someone on street level in Myanmar turn crypto into food, medical supplies, or local services? It’s still necessary to interface with centralized infrastructure, but maybe this is where that amazing meat-space human peer-to-peer network comes in.

This still sounds like a weird closed system that assumes a certain level of initiation into nested closed systems. I can’t make the conceptual bridge between cryptocurrency and oxygen tanks. I know how difficult it is to find a place in Myanmar where you can use an ATM or VISA card to buy breakfast. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s all cash because nobody has bank accounts. It’s a person to person flow of paper and coin.

I first heard about cryptocurrency in 2011. There was a network called the Silk Road, where people were buying and selling drugs online using Bitcoin. Any substance from anywhere in the world could be purchased while maintaining the complete anonymity of the participants. I never used the service myself, but I remember thinking it was so profound that virtual currency was facilitating the exchange of physical goods. I also thought it was punk as fuck ideologically, even if it remain somehow disgustingly capitalist. These days cryptocurrency ATMs for Bitcoin and Ethereum are becoming more and more prevalent. These might be considered weak implementations in the context of the struggles of people in Myanmar, but it feels important to continue to contemplate this tethering of our virtual and physical — even if illicit — economies. I’m continuously intrigued with how legacy systems of surveillance and control are evaded by encrypted networks of radical human coordination. Where’s the Silk Road of COVID vaccinations and oxygen tanks?

This series is made possible by a generous grant awarded by MolochDAO. Thank you Moloch!

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