Feral Trade’s Packet Network

Kate Rich is a Bristol based artist who for ten years has been running Feral Trade (http://www.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 ʽsurplus potential of social, cultural and data networks for the distribution of goodsʼ. 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 couriersʼ 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. Whatʼs 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 books.

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 Tradeʼs 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?

KR: 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 presentation.

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.)