What if artists rehearsed a life-affirming economy?

Practicing world-building through art

Reimagining Economic Possibilities
10 min readOct 27, 2022


Text says “Amahra Spence” in italic font, on a purple background. To the right side there is a graphic of a door, through which we can see a galaxy

This blog is part of the Reimagining Economics Possibilities series. This series accompanies the Neighbourhood Doughnut portfolio of work in which CIVIC SQUARE, along with many neighbours, researchers, partners and visionaries have, since 2019, been exploring large and small scale ways to reimagine economic possibilities.

The series brings together 15 commissioned works by visionaries who are reimagining economic possibility from a number of different angles. We are deeply passionate about Doughnut Economics and recognise the wealth of possibilities it unlocks, as well as its limitations. As Kate Raworth has said, quoting British statistician George E. P. Box, “all frameworks are wrong, but some are useful.” Therefore, we want to be able to stretch as far and wide as the Doughnut Economics Action Lab invites us to, seeing it as a platform to organise, whilst also encompassing a plurality of bold visions.

AMAHRA SPENCE is the founder of MAIA, an artist-led social justice organisation. In this piece, she talks of the role of the artist in imagining abolitionist futures and a life-affirming economy. Drawing inspirations from radical concepts such as mutual aid rather than the culture sector, artists can dismantle and recreate the economy.

“In order to dismantle systems of harm and punishment that sit at the base of our economic model, we must cultivate new visions for space, how we build and tend to relationships, where we get to practice this reality and who we do this with.”

When I look around me, I see the brutal reality of compounding crises that have been accumulating for generations. Our world is burning, people are drowning and fleeing as we speak, and the parallel extraction of our kin and our natural resources persist as the foundation of current economic practice. Right now, here in the UK, in our supposed developed country, we have people weighing up whether to refrigerate their medication, feed themselves or turn their electricity off as the cost of living becomes unbearable. Weekly conversations with my community tip me over the edge — many are stuck between suicide ideation and insurmountable debt because they literally cannot afford to live. This is our current economic condition — a matter of life and death.

One definition of ‘economy’ articulates the “careful management of available resources” and as I sat with my thoughts in writing this, I couldn’t help but think how the societal governance and economic landscape we have inherited couldn’t be further from this truth. In government, any remnants of care were long eroded from decision-making and all management of resources seems to orient towards wealth hoarding, at great detriment to our planet and our siblings across the globe.

We are out of time. Our frustration at prospects of incremental change that have never materialised mean we have no more patience for surface-level interventions that don’t address the root causes of our unjust economic system.

Tweet from Amahra Spence: Liberation practice is practicing racial justice is climate justice is economic justice is healing justice is migrant justice is queer justice is gender justice is class justice is ecological justice is youth justice is transformative justice is reparative justice and and and…

Our resistance must be more than just spectacle. We must get organised, and this is no longer a task we can afford to defer to some mythical future or some utopian optimal timing, nor can we wait for the arrival of some charismatic leader who we expect to magically fix everything. As the great poet, teacher and ancestor June Jordan taught us, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”

While current Western economic practice escalates the ending of life, the world that our ecosystem is calling for is centred around a life-affirming economy; one that responds to the invitation presented by abolition.

“Throughout history, artists have been meaning makers. Artists helped give a vocabulary to our oppression, our hopes, fears, joy and yearnings.”

I use abolition in this context to refer to the ending of the prison industrial complex, meaning a dismantling of all the sites of policing and carcerality. This includes prisons, but also, detention centres, courthouses, the Home Office, mental health institutions, pupil referral units and all other punitive spaces that exist with an economic driver to exacerbate harm.

Inspired by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, leading abolitionist scholar and writer, who reminds us “abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions,” I explore this thought experiment in intimate scales — from interpersonal relationships to the neighbourhood as a unit of change. Despite connotations that abolition is about demolition, we must understand abolition as a creation project. When carceral responses have been our default for so long, to reimagine how we envision safety calls us to reimagine everything, including the foundations we build our society on. What could this look like in our homes and neighbourhoods? In order to dismantle systems of harm and punishment that sit at the base of our economic model, we must cultivate new visions for space, how we build and tend to relationships, where we get to practice this reality and who we do this with.

Tweet from MAIA: Towards A Life-Affirming Cultural Sector “Grounded in the understanding of abolitionist organising as a creation project”, we reflect on some of the ways we’re rehearsing change. From reimagining governance & structure, to developing spaces & programmes.

So, what if artists most impacted by this scale of injustice were to rehearse the revolution? After all, the great writer, artist and activist Toni Cade Bambara said, “the role of the artist representing an oppressed people is to make the revolution irresistible.”

Throughout history, artists have been meaning makers. Artists helped give a vocabulary to our oppression, our hopes, fears, joy and yearnings. It was poets, writers, musicians, filmmakers — from Lucille Clifton to Bob Marley to Ntozake Shange to John Singleton — that helped me process my own understanding of spatial politics, land inequity and racial injustice at the base of all interconnected struggles. It was these artists who called me to movement work and nurtured my internal capaciousness to imagine alternative possibilities, rooted in Black liberation, Black feminist praxis and global freedom struggles. Could we connect that collective imagination to explore other liberatory paradigms together; to iterate change, to rehearse freedom?

“Before revolutionary movement is facilitated by organisation, art is crucial in helping people build their consciousness to a point that requires revolutionary organisation.” — Tongo Eisen-Martin

Photos from the YARD residency

In 2013, MAIA started with the intention to organise around a vision of a world towards liberation, in which artists are resourced and mobilised to reimagine its possibilities. As an artist-led social justice organisation, we believe that if artists give a vocabulary and an embodied analysis of our experiences, if artists give ideas form, meaning, materiality, context and nuance, then artists can use that capacity to shape the world as it could be. MAIA’s mission is to grow capacity for collective worldbuilding, where culture and Black thought are frameworks for how we do this.

We explore this by creating prototypes and projects exploring liberation through three key mission areas:

· Sites of Imagination: working with communities to reimagine public, cultural spaces as convening portals to rehearse the worlds we dream of.

· Resourcing the Movement: we support the capacity of artists and the communities they’re embedded in, to shape change. We do this by facilitating decentralised mechanisms to meet the various and expansive needs of people — be that financial, creative, access, spiritual or any other — inspired by the invitation of mutual aid.

· Culture x Liberation: we advocate artists as the designers, practitioners, storytellers and worldbuilders for liberation. programmes and residencies exploring the role of art(ists) and storytelling in growing public consciousness and practices for liberatory paradigms.

“We are part of many constellations of artists and organisations demonstrating in real time that the rehearsal for a life-affirming economy is already underway.”

Though mutual aid was an integral philosophy, it became an intentional practice in 2020. Following the example and generosity of artist Luke Barnes’ artist COVD-19 crowdfunder, we set up a GoFundMe to raise £10,000 to support vulnerable artists in the West Midlands. We were then able to leverage that resource to fundraise further. By 2021, we had redistributed over £175,000 in hardship funds, no-outcomes grants, emergency resources and access provision to artists falling through the gaps of state support. Through this, we were experimenting with ways of decentralising resources, in finite and strained conditions.

At the same time, we started YARD as our first Site of Imagination, initially to become an artist residency space. But when the pandemic halted our initial plans, YARD became a community resource centre, supporting urgent needs, imagination practice and entrepreneurship as self-determination. Mutual aid has been key to YARD’s survival, as our community came together to share food, financial tips, skills and materials, all of which laid the foundation for YARD’s Access Library, a soon-to-launch compilation of technologies, resources and links to support community participation in collective study and worldbuilding.

Other recent prototypes include an experimental art school, where our first brief invited our community to imagine a world without prisons and explore this through creative practice. From this, new collectives and collaborations have been formed, including a landworkers club responding to local authority pesticide and carcinogen use in public parks. We also produced the Radical Imagination Cypher, where we worked with artists and partners to explore the pragmatics of radical governance for a life-affirming ecology. This has fed into a wider body of work we’re doing around radical governance and structures needed for this transition.

Photos from the YARD residency

Currently, we are working to seed a Community Land Trust, tending to racialised land inequity in the West Midlands. We are also developing ABUELOS, an artist-led hotel and cultural centre that redistributes the cultural sector’s hospitality spend back into local artists and community projects.

Our prototypes work to build and practice the types of creative infrastructure, resource and possibility in our neighbourhoods where “rehearsing freedom”, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, is not only plausible, but non-negotiable. And we understand this as an artistic practice, working with space and time as materials and giving form to emergent ideas and philosophies.

As a cultural organisation working with artists, our precedents for how we do this don’t come from the cultural sector, which we see as a replica of the same unjust and extractive economic system our wider society is governed by. Instead, we look to the radical hospitality, ingenuity and creativity of our ancestors, our planet and our Black, queer, poor kin, whose resilience and adaptations in ever-changing conditions are teachers for how we get free.

Tweet from Amahra Spence: “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless & cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers & tactics, but a process that can and must transform us.” — Robin D.G. Kelley

Our work is not an isolated practice. There are many others rehearsing change, connecting creative practice with radical analysis towards liberation and the life-affirming. Black Quantum Futurism is artistically collapsing space-time to bring about the future’s reality. Tony Patrick is co-creating virtual and speculative worlds of Black liberation to map onto our current condition. Sins Invalid are leading the Disability Justice movement, through performance art and advocacy. André Anderson is reimagining arts practice, democratising pedagogy and publishing by creating an art college for everyone. Rene Francis-McBrearty is centring ecojustice in the creation of a science-fiction informed gardening club. We are amongst our kin who are simultaneously dismantling, creating, crafting and iterating work that is as future facing as it is present; all of us building communities and ecologies as we grow.

“To be truly visionary, we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality, while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” — bell hooks

We are part of many constellations of artists and organisations demonstrating in real time that the rehearsal for a life-affirming economy is already underway. A life-affirming economy is not some speculative wish deferred to the future, rather a set of practices that are happening all around us right now, in which everyone is worthy of having their needs met in the present. We know that our solutions needn’t be dependent on the State that consistently shows marginalised people as disposable. In fact, our rehearsals continue to show us that we are indeed the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In this rehearsal, the strength of an economy is dependent on the depth and reciprocity of relationships, the regenerative nature of our (infra)structures and the commitment to affirm life. It’s time to act as though everything depends on it. Because it does.

Reimagining Economics Possibilities also builds upon CIVIC SQUARE’s Department of Dreams portfolio of work, a site to imagine bold new futures that weave together the dreams of many.

Whilst understanding, investing, and unpacking the dark matter of large scale system change, we have learned quite deeply through the practice, inspirational movements, and from imagineers and pioneers that came before us that we must also invest in the dream matter — the artists, writers, designers, dreamers and creative visionaries — those who dare to dream up bold new futures for humanity, and have the capacity to stretch our imaginations further than we ever thought possible.

Thinkers, doers and makers dreaming beyond our existing systems have played, are playing and will continue to play a central role in crafting collective visions that transcend our current reality, and radically illuminate the responsibilities we hold to future generations. This is particularly driven by practices of imagination and identity, and, when woven together with dark matter findings and interventions, has the power to create a supernovae of transformation; the thinking, relating and behaving differently required to usher in a new reality that becomes irresistible, that we can all build and craft together.

Find out more by exploring the following materials from Department of Dreams 2020–2021:

Initial Dept of Dreams Blog — May 2020
Watch Back Re_ Fest Talks — June 2020
Dream Library Launch — November 2021
The Matter of Dreams: 2020–2021 — December 2021



Reimagining Economic Possibilities

Demonstrating neighbourhood-scale civic infrastructure for social + ecological transition, together with many people + partners in Ladywood, Birmingham