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<nettime> Feral Trade's Packet Network
Matthew Fuller on Thu, 25 Jul 2013 22:41:51 +0000 (UTC)

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<nettime> Feral Trade's Packet Network

Feral Trade's Packet Network

Kate Rich is a Bristol based artist who for ten years has been running
Feral Trade (feraltrade.org) a global trading network working with
people's incidental carrying power. Social networks here provide, not
sets of spindly lines and nodes as graphs for the extraction of value,
but a means of hefting foodstuffs in suitcases, rucksacks and bags as
people travel.  Feral trade is currently a means of circulating coffee,
blue corn, agave syrup, mescal, chocolate, olive oil and the syrup with
which to produce 'Cube Cola', an open source cola devised for the cube
cinema. The fascinating Waybills of Feral Trade transported goods
provide a log of the transit of each object, mixing logistical
information with reminiscences, photos and personal data, making another
map of infrastructures, informal trade and data-structures as they move
through idiosyncratic channels around the world.

(This interview was carried out by email in mid-2013 by Silvia Mollichi
and Matthew Fuller.)

SM: The Feral Trade website mentions its use of the "surplus potential
of social, cultural and data networks for the distribution of goods". Is
it possible to relate this surplus or excess to the slowed-down rhythm
and non-linear routes your traded items transit through? Would you say
that your business re-defines questions of efficiency?

KR: Yes I think so. Or replaces one idea of efficiency with another one.
Right now I am shipping 6 bags of green tea from Fujian province to MoMA
in New York, via around 5 other institutions and private homes in China,
UK and USA, which are acting as depots or transit points. Another pack
of tea arrived from India to my flat in Bristol and then toured the Lake
District before passing back through my flat & departing for Heathrow
Airport, where it had touched down from India weeks before, to fly to
New York in someone else's baggage. Both these shipments were actually
super-efficient. The products got delivered to their exact destinations,
they were enjoying not just frictionless but fruitful passage,
hitchhiking on existing travel or at the most diverting their couriers a
couple of blocks, so it's efficiency along completely different lines
than streamlined or containerised cargo. The loops, which occur when an
item passes through the same space twice can actually enhance the
product's value in terms of its CV.

SM: A widespread network of relations, especially among art and business
people, is what makes Feral Trade possible. Yet, your Internet database
mentions the people participating in the project, its essential human
component  (the chain of sender, receiver and courier/s), mostly just by
name. The relations amongst them, or their interests, this key layer of
the  infrastructure, are often left to the intuition and conjecture
based on brief  couriers" reports. Could we say that the main focus is
kept on the transiting object and its route? Is there a specific reason
for this, other than perhaps privacy?

KR: Feral Trade is essentially not web 2.0 - it anyway preceded facebook
and I would suggest presents a radically different vision of what real
social networks are like. The database is set up specifically to not
harvest social goods. So if you search for transactions by agent you
could see all shipments that that particular individual has been
involved in, but you would have to then draw your own conclusions. In
some ways it's a cynical database because it encourages the futility of
trying to capture social networks, over and above any notion of
individual privacy.

The focus of the project is actually the load-bearing capacity of the
network - how can it handle materials? - along with an interest in the
agency of things, which effectively hands off subjectivity to the
travelling grocery object. So the product gets the full joined-up
biography, the agency of the couriers comes out through only partial
narratives, chopped up.

SM: Couriers do not necessarily know each other or you directly and
Feral Trade constitutes a chance to become part of a permanently
expanding network.  What"s  interesting though, is the contingent nature
of the network itself.  During their brief meetings, couriers get to
know each other while swapping their  roles, shifting from the receiver
of the object to its giver. Yet, the only thing they have in common
might be exactly the transiting object, positioned in between the two of
them. Are the dynamics of these odd encounters something you are
interested in?

KR: The network is more like permanently drifting than expanding.
Couriers come and go, some take on frequent and huge loads, others are
intermittent, but the network has settled in at its own scale. It flies
in the face of for example facebook's proposition that social networks
can just scale up indefinitely.

I thought about it recently as a normal courier system, like DHL, but
without any actual infrastructure. So no wages, uniforms, fleet,
schedules, forms to fill out (other than the online courier report which
is entirely voluntary and subjective), warehouses, scripts or protocols,
aside from normal social ones. When two couriers meet on a street corner
to hand over a travelling product, all you are left with is the social
transaction. Which despite being the essence of the whole process is
essentially out of the trader's field of vision and control.

I'd also like to point out it's fundamentally different to drug running
networks! - everyone seems to want to flag that comparison up - which
are primarily coercive and hierarchical. When you have a peer network
and it's your own friends, colleagues, neighbours, bosses etc doing the
running, it's impossible to structure in that degree of exploitation.

MF: The relation to the commodities and goods circulated is particular
in experiential terms, these things are lugged, smelled, they leak,
sometimes, they have heft, they are packed in with clothes that perhaps
take on their aroma.  Couriers get a sense of the sheer mass of stuff,
the physicality of the matter that is being hauled around the planet in
ways that are both phenomenal, sensual, annoying or exhausting,  and
ecological. How does this side of the work factor into the project?

KR: Yes fundamentally. It's commodity trading as super-material, carried
out at the scale of the human. The work factor is part of the promise of
Feral Trade. Unlike Fair Trade which invites you to view a photo of a
happy farmer on the package as your means of particpation in trade
justice, with Feral Trade you actually have to throw your body in and
participate in the manual activity of lugging oil cans or agave bottles
through airport lounges. Which people are surprisingly happy to do. The
organic matter of the groceries is part of the appeal though, it would
be much harder to ask people to carry something inert like rocks or

It is probably also a rebellion against the ethereal promises of digital
life that I still remember from the '90s, with VR and pretending to be
'flying' while wearing those ridiculous headsets.

SM:  Do you know of instances in which Feral Trade"s shipment machine
went out of your control, and parts of the network activated themselves
and started trading independently, out of your reach? Is that a concern
for you?

That would probably be a sign of wild success. As of now the project
still relies on the energy of the trader to keep all the groceries
moving on their trajectories. But off-market trading goes on everywhere
already, it's the great unmodelled story of economics. A lot of my
products are already being traded locally along family connections and
by cellphone, I'm just adding the transnational potential to that.

MF: Given that, how would you explain your role as trader as
differentiated from the general run of participants in the network?  How
too does the network link in to diaspora networks of dispersed families
and friends?

KR: In terms of my role it's a traditional grocery business. It's not
horizontally organised - I'm suspicious of the idea that you can design
in horizontality - so as sole trader I am part curator and guarantor,
mainly my job is to supply the narrative that links the grocery and
human parts of the network together. But there's also a point where the
hard boundaries between yourself and other entitites and objects are
hard to distinguish, so in that way Feral Trade is also a kind of
self-portrait, drawn over time.

The network does link into other peoples' diasporas: friends'
neighbours' families etc. Peoples' parents make the best couriers, they
have a higher level of attachment. The difference with Feral Trade is
that it's more like a multi- or inter-diaspora so it doesn't adhere to
any particular land or kinship group. It does parasite on movements
around art and cultural territory as that's where I'm 'from', but also
business travel, child custody commutes, expat homing routes...

MF: Feral Trade seems to me to be part of a wider move towards an
approach to organisation that sees intentional social structures as
bearing multiple kinds of aesthetic and intentionally brings these to
the fore. Olga Goriunova and others have started talking about
'organisational aesthetics' in this sense.  Do you feel an affinity with
this debate?

KR: Yes I would like to hear more on that. I am particularly interested
in the aesthetics of infrastructure, and how this is often either
antithetical to the projects and ideals the infrastructure is supposedly
carrying out, or else just completely ignored...

MF: There are an enormous set of interconnecting concerns and conflicts
around food that Feral Trade seems to provide some sort of slice
through. Food, which is so intimate to our bodies and experience is
often immediately implicated in its production with systems of violence,
exploitation and the occlusion of such.  At the same time there are
numerous attempts to ameliorate, resolve or plaster over such conflicts.
Aside from the food itself, the waybill seems to be the diagram that
sets out the forces at play in Feral Trade.  What were the
considerations that went into deciding what appears on the waybill and
what does not?

KR: The idea of the FT waybill is in the first place a riot of data. It
tries to not reduce the information around food to an easily digestible
summary. To again look at the Fair Trade packaging convention, which
addresses peoples' deep guilt around food provenance by picturing the
happy farmer inevitably saying that he uses the money for his childrens'
education: in contrast the Feral Trade waybill does not make any
particular claim on ethics, just methods. Which are at least in part
laid out - how the trade was conducted - and are shipment-specific. The
waybill is designed to be seen from both ends of the route. The farmer
can see product delivery, the customer can see the actual site of
production - and all parties can view the fragmentary reports from
couriers and handlers on the way, including any problems. Which are some
key aspects of food provenance normally obliterated from its

The waybill also has an itemisation to show where the payments were
strewn out. The Shipping Facts label attempts to render the details of
shipping and handling with the same kind of microattention that
ingredients normally receive - it's a parody of the nutrition facts
label, which is a rich source of data on what goes into you but ignores
the outer context.

(Silvia Mollicchi is an MA candidate at the Centre for Cultural Studies
at Goldsmiths, University of London.  Matthew Fuller is part of the
Digital Culture Unit, Centre for Cultural Studies.)

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