Digital/Debt/Empire EssaysFeatureImaginal Politics

(Sur)real Estate, Speculative Capital and Housing Displacement

An interview with Cassie Thornton

A visitor approaching Dream Farm Commons, a small storefront gallery in downtown Oakland, California will find themselves faced with two doors. On the right is a clean, bureaucratic and hip business, labeled Desperate Holdings Real Estate Agency. In full real estate drag, the art gallery holds a desk with an eager “agent” and cases full of what appears to be clay that was removed during the digging for the foundation for the new Salesforce Tower in the Financial District in SF. On the left is a dubious, chaotic and dirty enterprise, ominously named LandMind Spa, where untrustworthy therapeutic furniture all appears to be covered in a layer of clay or mud. Together, these two spaces, separated on the interior by a black curtain, comprise the latest intervention by formerly Oakland-based artist Cassie Thornton, who often (like this time) works collaboratively with others under the banner of “The Feminist Economics Department .”

Thornton’s piece is a means to strike back against the now-notorious power of real estate and gentrification that has led to massive housing encampments and the mass eviction of the poor, racialized and “economically unproductive” from the city. Like any real estate agency does, the Desperate Holdings window display features a grid of plexi-glass frames showing available properties. On closer look, the images and addresses are of homes owned by local developers, eviction lawyers, enormous investment firms like Blackstone and other villains of the Bay Area. The property info sheet with the address and photo of Andrew Zacks, the litigator currently attempting to halt the building of a homeless shelter in San Francisco, reads “ready for community reclamation!”

Meanwhile, at LandMind Spa, Thornton has collaborated with several other local artists, almost all of whom are housing-insecure, to provide a set of “services to heal your broken potential for finding escape, security or shelter” for visitors, real-estate speculators and gallery-going gentrifiers. Services feature titles like “Cloudburst Philanthropy,” “White Culture and Your Mind/Body,” “Survivors’ Guilt Art Therapy,” and “Good Life Hospice.” The project’s website reads “Desperate Holdings is here to create new methods for land distribution which do not evict or destroy the very land and people who create this richness. In an artisanal process we have removed the toxic energy of real estate speculation by hand. For the first time in ages, you can safely touch, hold, or wear real estate as you transform into a future self, a person who holds and cares for land as if it was home.”

In anticipation of her participation in the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver April 25-28, the convenors/editors posed a few questions about the project to Cassie in March.

DDE: Can you discuss this project as it relates to your work on debt and financialization?

CT: San Francisco is the place where my artistic practice changed dramatically when I went there for graduate school in 2010. [1]

When I moved to the Bay, I initiated a body of work about debt at the California College of the Arts. Observing that me and my classmates were paying 40k in tuition and making politically fearful art, my frustration and inspiration was that we were much more effective at producing debt than art. In my perspective the production of debt had subordinated the production of art. What I sought from that work was to reveal hidden solidarities created by structural oppressors like student indebtedness. I felt that there was a real possibility there hidden in plain sight– we were all radicals being damned to a life ruled by money and work– and that if we all acknowledged it together it would give us more power to abolish or create pressure against this system rather than tacitly reproducing it.

Working with real estate and displacement, it’s scarily similar. Most people in the Bay Area are housing insecure (there are currently about 25,951 homeless people and 100,000 empty units). Though the housing crisis is not a hidden issue, displacement is actually so common that many people are doomed to an individual struggle, and thus they don’t feel like they have the capability to interface with it as a large collective social problem. For many working people in the city, in order to continue to live in the Bay Area they must look away from the housing crisis, which colors every part of life. Whether walking by an underpass where there’s 200 people living outside or you see the way the police treat those people, or whether you understand that most of your friends live with a high level of trauma related mental health issues from being housing insecure, or if you have spent 2 years trying to find a safe place to live, it’s hard to constantly survive and to be creative about a long term collective strategy for better survival.

As we look at debt, inequality, houselessness and gentrification, it is most important to acknowledge two things. First, as Kenneth Bailey (of the Design Studio for Social Intervention) says: “the crisis is not evenly distributed.” The second thing is that the only way to move on any of these issues is to use our common oppression as a cause for solidarity, and to punch up, not sideways. The argument that artists are the cause of gentrification only views 10% of the entire racist financial steamroller that creates that dynamic where no one can find anywhere safe to live without hurting someone else’s access.

Just like in grad school I ask the question what if we didn’t see our housing or debt crises as individual, but addressed them as social crises? What if we didn’t wait for a market solution, but we rearranged our lives as if our ability to have comfort and belonging was tied directly to the survival and comfort of the people on the street? Can we even imagine such a thing? The truth is most people survive living in this most sought after place in the world with no sense of security or belonging, never able to guarantee housing, feeling guilty for being white or causing gentrification, feeling unwanted because of systemic racism, feeling like they don’t belong on stolen land, and all of this is built on many many layers of bad planning, corporate decision making, and a will for profit instead of for justice. If we could all acknowledge and act together on this collective problem, with the hope to make a very big collective change in how we care for people and land, our insecurity could become a source of power. But we would have to figure out what else to want. What is there to want beyond bare market survival, or maybe individual success?

The Bay Area was built on stolen land that was tended by the Ohlone people for 15,000 years. This dispossession is not always acknowledged when we talk about gentrification in the US context. However, Desperate Holdings & LandMind Spa is about something hidden from everyday sight beneath “gentrification”, which feels like the meaning has been used up; I want to unpack the assumption that the real estate market is natural or historical. According to author Samuel Stein, real estate has become the largest investment vehicle for the rich all over the world. Sixty-one percent of the world’s assets are invested in real estate.

DDE: Can you discuss the work in terms of your experience and research about the hyper-speculative property market in the Bay Area, a market largely driven by the tech sector? 

CT: Visitors to Desperate Holdings Real Estate experience real estate from the future, when as a society we are no longer buying, selling or renting land. This future could be the result of the many tech companies (Lyft, Uber, Pinterest, Slack, to name a few), releasing thousands of new millionaires into the California market, freezing access to housing except for the ultra rich; or it could be the result of a decision not to use the market to define who gets to live where. Either way, Desperate Holdings Real Estate is predicated on updating the public’s relationship to land, belonging, and home. That’s why we look like real estate but act like a revolutionary spa. The workshops, events and services that we host in the space led by local artists invite people into a new relationship to home and land that is not primarily financial relationship.

Desperate Holdings Real Estate and LandMind Spa represents a possibility for rethinking something that has become a very standard and fundamental part of how we understand cities. It seems like the real estate market is almost natural, but anyone with an imagination or a pre-history history book will realize that it hasn’t always been here. As Stein has said, real estate has recently become the “global safe deposit box”. Investors want to earn money on their investments, avoid regulation and they use real estate for this. This horrible real estate market is not the only way that we have to organize how we distribute homes and land. However, I think that the only way we could possibly begin to get our head around other possibilities is to look to the past that most settlers don’t know. It helps to ask for an Indigenous perspective here, one that remembers that precolonial times existed.

Even when there’s not written history there is a deep understanding that there are other ways that resources have been used. In order to make contact with those kinds of histories and ideas you have to shut down all of the technology and systems that we have become reliant on and obsessed with, and you have to stop problem solving the way tech people do. Creating a space that could bring into question the place that real estate holds in our culture, or which would question assumptions about what real estate is, and how it works, is really important.

The space me and my collaborators are trying to create inside of Desperate Holdings and LandMind Spa is a place where a person can find guidance to lose their rational mind. To lose the connection with the rationality that says that the real estate market is what makes sense and that all the people who are not surviving are wrong, instead of questioning the system for land distribution which leaves most people struggling for survival.

Tech solutionism is naturally afraid of looking to the past or looking underneath what is the source of a problem. When 87% of households in the Bay Area cannot afford their own home, we are lucky to get a donation to the library from the largest tech firms in the world. We are addicted to responding to current symptoms while the clay represents an opportunity to expand our sense of time, and our sense of the ancestry of the Bay. The clay has a memory of all the people and all the effort that has gone into making the Bay such a valuable and commodifiable place. In all its sacredness and toxicity, it’s more than tech could possibly solve or understand.

Cassie Thornton is an artist and activist from the US, currently living in Canada. She refers to herself as a feminist economist, a title that frames her work as that of a social scientist actively preparing for the economics of a future society that produces health and life without the tools that reproduce oppression — like money, police or prisons.


[1] As a white artist I want to acknowledge my role in the gentrification of San Francisco from the beginning. As I moved there the displacement numbers shot up for all POCs and low-income residents.

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Cassie Thornton

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