"Garden of Virtual Kinship" is part of the series "Reversal of Fortune," a project by Stephanie Rothenberg exploring the intersection of social media, finance and philanthropy that uses plants to represent human life.
Featured in the exhibition "Global: Infosphere" at ZKM Center for Art & Media, Karlsruhe, Germany
September 2015 - January 2016
"Garden of Virtual Kinship" is a telematic garden, both real and virtual, whose lifeline directly correlates to monetary exchanges between the developed and developing world. The project examines the cultural phenomena of online crowdfunded charity, or microfinance, through philanthropic social media websites. These websites enable more affluent individuals primarily located in Western countries to collectively donate small amounts of money to individuals and small communities in extremely economically challenged regions such as East Africa and Central America. The funding is intended to finance small-scale “entrepreneurial” goals. Examples of these pursuits include small retail businesses, local agriculture and farming, transportation and health needs.
But contradictions abound within this economic model. What goes unseen are the exorbitant interest rates and fees, borrowers must pay. These can range from 30% up to 60% or higher, and for a loan of only a few hundred dollars. Who profits? It isn’t the lenders with good intentions, but an entire network of banks, starting at the local level and up to multinationals.
"Garden of Virtual Kinship" makes this controversial economic circuit visible. The live garden takes the form of a global map with the plants residing in small containers within a dot matrix grid. Each plant correlates to a borrower on the social media websites requesting funding. An overhead computerized watering system is connected to the Internet. The amount of water the plants receive is dependent on investment information data collected from the websites. Successful entrepreneurial ventures trigger appropriate nourishment while failed ventures may lead to dying plants. Yet the plants that do receive water, only receive a few drops. The majority of the water is pumped into a second tank — symbolizing the high fees and interest rates microfinance borrowers pay.
The project extrapolates on the seminal telerobotic artwork entitled "Telegarden" created in 1995 by Ken Goldberg that enabled a global community of online users to “telematically” care for a live garden through a web interface.
The goal is to explore the contradictions inherent in this new model of humanitarian activity. Although microfinance websites can help borrowers achieve real material needs and empower them to become successful leaders in their communities, there are disadvantages that are often overlooked.
Version 03 additional coding and CNC fabrication by Tom Stoll and Zeven Rodriguez.