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The Hologram

Gabrielle de la Puente

I have a proposition for you.

Last year, I learnt about something called The Hologram. It’s a simple idea by artist and activist Cassie Thornton that consists of four people getting together regularly so that three quarters of the group can look after one person in particular. The three are tasked with asking questions about the fourth person’s physical, psychic and social health, with each person taking on one of those duties. The meaning of physical health is obvious enough. That question-asker might enquire about the body, sickness, medication, energy, food, mobility, genetics, and general independence. The second person is responsible for asking after psychic health, and psychic is meant to refer here to the mental, emotional and even the intellectual wellbeing of the individual. How they’re thinking, learning, imagining, feeling, reeling; the full state of their interiority. Finally, the third person is there to focus on social health. Relationships with friends, family, co-workers. Relationships with work, money, debt. Their housing situation, too, because that brings them into the social, or it can take them away from it.

And all of this — physical, psychic and social — is part of the conversation when the four sit down for this thorough, peer-to-peer health check. That’s because all three aspects are very much connected. If you get a sudden eviction letter that surges your adrenaline and means you cannot sleep for worry, and you become irritable with loved ones because you haven’t been sleeping much lately, and you can’t find anywhere affordable to live and maybe you have children to look after, and then the tenancy ends and you’re paying out of pocket for a room in a hostel and the kids are acting out because they’re in a new place and a co-worker comments on your weight loss and all of the deep stress has broken out across your body in sore red hives and — well, when the doctor prescribes topical creams for the rashes, their help can only go so far. The body and the mind and the social will all continue to deteriorate until you have housing again, and with it, safety and dignity. The Hologram aims to address all the dimensions of a person’s life. In common parlance we say, ‘the doctor will see you now’ but an NHS general practitioner is overworked and rushed and will almost definitely forget your face as soon as you leave their office. The three people who meet for The Hologram conversation are able to really see who the fourth person is because they draw out more holistic data.

The three people do not need to be medical professionals, or social workers, or Martin Lewis-money-saving-experts in order to pull you out of holes. They don’t need to be sages, big sisters, or perfect middle class people who are better at living than you are. Normal people achieve plenty outside of institutional structures of care; and anyway, institutional structures of care can sometimes do more harm than good. As Cassie writes, ‘we’re constantly told to trust corporations and politicians we know are ripping us off just so we don’t have to learn to trust ourselves and one another.’ The three don’t need to be experts because as time goes on, the fourth person will learn for themselves how they need to be cared for. The three will learn with them. The four will collude. Reach down those holes and trenches, take turns shovelling dirt. And that’s good! That’s great, needed, and powerful. But what really struck me about The Hologram is this: because the three aren’t paid experts and they’re just like the rest of us, needing of support and shovels, once the first Hologram of four people is established, each of the question-askers is asked to form Holograms of their own in which they would become the focus of attention. That is to say, three other people would be taking care of each of them. Plus, the person being looked after in the original Hologram would join a team of three tasked with looking after somebody else — and so on and so forth, so that these triangles of three gazing towards one are repeated and tessellating in this potentially infinite web in which everyone is given care but also giving care. Freely, slowly, widely, finally.

This isn’t a see-saw case of doing something for someone so they’ll do something for you, or feeling a nagging guilt that you owe your own three caregivers some equivalently valuable thing to pay them back for their care. It is, as Cassie Thornton writes, ‘a chance to reprogram our ideas about reciprocation and transaction within a caring network of people, when we know that care is being well distributed and that reciprocation is always happening.’ The Hologram is always paying it forward — or it’s not paying anything, because it’s trying to coax us towards living with each other in mind without money in mind too. I really feel that. Really need it. I find that sometimes it’s easier to be kinder to a stranger in a queue or on public transport because I know I can show them kindness without putting them in a position where they are expected to re-pay that kindness back to me at some point in the future. I worry if I get a friend something that made me think of them, I am forcing them to take part in some insidious equilibrium, so maybe it’s easier not to! But I want to so I send one friend books every now and again, and this horrible capitalist vernacular that has trained my brain notes that they never send anything back. On paper, I know I don’t care, but the economy speaks through me like a ghost. Another friend sends me a comic, years have passed and I haven’t sent her anything back. On paper, I try not to care, but the economy still fucking haunts my every interaction.

The Hologram could be my exorcism. The Hologram could be my hospital. The Hologram is my proposition to you. The Hologram requires the group to meet regularly, whether that is once a month, or only ever on the fourth person’s birthday. That way, the three can begin to see any pattern that might emerge in the fourth’s life. How they get sad, what has to happen for them to feel happy again; signs they are withdrawing, how to invite them back into the world. I like the sound of that. I’m too busy walking down my patterns to see I’m in a maze. I wish there were three people who could see them for me. Give my head a wobble, give me a grip. Time moves over my head and I don’t notice it leave. I would love to have to slow down. I think constantly about everything but those thoughts don’t necessarily go anywhere. I think so many things I forget half of them, and I like the idea of being wrangled and interrogated (gently), so that I can sort through the mess of my own head. Three could act as a council to help me make important decisions. Three could identify the things in me a doctor isn’t positioned to; the things a partner is too kind to raise; the things a best friend is already complicit in; the things I might not ever see if I tried to look alone. The Hologram is not exactly a cure-all but closer to a max-strength painkiller. A way to stitch the safety net outwards in all directions so that there is more room to save people beyond the small ways we try to show up for each other.

If that is all you read of this text, that’s fine. The most important thing is that I pass the idea to you so you can keep hold of it… or pass it on to three other people, see what happens. The Hologram could be a different kind of virus, like a meme, gossip, or a hot tip (like constantly switching banks so that you get free money rewards from all these stupid banks); some thing that replicates from person to person without financial transaction or ownership, but because it has so much momentum to replicate that it just has to. It was first passed to me in the audience of a Dead Ink Bookshop talk where I was listening to the writer Sophie K Rosa discussing her book Radical Intimacy with artist Laura Yuile. Talks between writers and artists take place between a rock and a hard place, whispers in a cave; between emancipatory imagination and potential futures nullified through a lack of resources; between the heft of the entire global population who can’t agree on anything and one atomised individual who has everything perfectly worked out. It was in that slight gap that Cassie Thornton’s work was referenced. The reference was gossip that I accepted immediately as truth, and when the talk ended, I went on my phone to order a copy of The Hologram, a 2020 publication from Pluto Press that acts as a sort of handbook for the project.

The book contains advice on kindling your own team of three, with ample question and answer exercises so that the reader begins to consider how their own Hologram might function. There are questions to work through such as, ‘What have you been taught to want?’ and ‘What do you wish you wanted?’ I have been taught to want private property. I wish I wanted to live in England. I have been taught to want wealth. I wish I wanted a job that bought my safety. I found the contents of the book genuinely helpful, and clear without being austere or commanding and cultish. It was like the writing in a cookbook. But it is written by an artist, so it does feature a fictional Wikipedia entry from the future that describes a world in which the Hologram has replaced all of our current isolating systems of power. Cassie Thornton is also interviewed by director of Furtherfield gallery Marc Garrett, where the artist ran workshops with participants to develop the initial idea — workshops that fatefully began in March 2020 and had to continue online.

The 2020 release of this book is helpful framing because it shows how realistic The Hologram actually is. People were organising mutual aid via WhatsApp groups to help each other survive the pandemic. They weren’t waiting for the government to put them at ease. I was living in my Nan’s house during the first lockdown in England, fully gripped with fear because she had carers coming in three times a day and once at night, and none of us had anything besides a travel-sized hand sanitiser to keep this matriarch alive. I wrote about the situation at the time, and how jarring it was for me to see other people enjoying a bit of time off work, and an artist in Germany shipped a box of masks over to Liverpool for us. The box arrived before the carers’ company ever managed to find any — carers who were wearing plastic aprons much thinner than big bags, and still coming to work every day. We have it in us to protect one another and I think we should do it more often, simply because we can.

If the spread of The Hologram is like gossip, the book takes us back to the source in the Solidarity Clinics set up in Greece in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Part of a wider solidarity movement of free classes, open kitchens, legal aid hubs, and new distribution chains for fresh produce, the citizen-run health clinics provided free medical assistance to the significant percentage of the population who could not afford health insurance. They still do. It works because medical professionals volunteer their time, the clinics fundraise for equipment and medication, and also because the people involved believe everyone is deserving of good health and social security whether or not they have any money. It should be so simple. It can be. It is. And yet it seems unbelievable that there could be such help readily available. I am pretty hopeless most of the time. Locked inside a tired naivety, and a very narrow present tense, a better future (or any future) seems completely impossible (or fictional, like the book’s Wikipedia entry). The most effective way to reverse that hopelessness is to learn about instances in which people have had their needs met. Have had, already. Evidenced, already. History as an instruction manual. A reminder we don’t need to work from the ground up.

Part of the reason it’s so easy to give up the fight is because we are so isolated from each other, physically and emotionally. I have great friendships. We talk through the physical-psychic-social stuff naturally and constantly, but I have never known us to be so tired. Everyone is skint, everyone is sick. They’re sick because they’re skint, or skint because they’re ill and burnt out and they can’t work right now because of it. There is a horrible feeling across England that everyone’s number one duty is to be healthy. It’s a sham. Every healthy person needs to work themselves to death to support their country’s big strong economy, even if that economy isn’t big or strong. The onus is on each individual to be faultless. If there is a fault, there’s an immediate feeling that you’ve done something wrong so you have to fix it quick (a feeling that starts on penalised sick days from school). Catch up. Do self-improvement. Self-help. Go the gym. Get rich. Become better with a friend if you must but be alone together. To speak in capitalism’s faux cutesy language, become each other’s ‘accountability buddies.’ Only spend time whipping your friends into shape. Don’t spend time in pubs comparing notes. We’ll close as many pubs down as we can, just in case. The ones that remain will either be expensive or racist, take your pick. Forget third places. Forget solidarity. Forget sharing the load! It’s fucking relentless.

When I got The Hologram book I actually ordered multiple copies with plans to read it with those friends I love. I wanted us to be together in the same room, soft and warm on couches, scheming. The book is only small but we were too tired for even that; and I only managed to read it because I could put it down as research for my job. It’s funny and fair that I thought a reading group was going to solve everything. It still might. The Hologram does a good job of reminding us that we are all holding more than any one person should. I wanted to write this text as a quick breakdown for anyone who is too worn down to think of reading a full book. I wanted to write it for my friends. I reckon The Hologram could take pressure off friendships and let us enjoy each other, instead of always repairing what the world has broken. To be clear, I enjoy helping my friends in those ways. Those conversations that last seven hours. The love, the honesty, the way we really save each other. But if we each had three people saving us, I like imagining the other things we could do together. We could just play. We could feel like teenagers again. I think The Hologram could make us lighter. Younger.

But on sharing The Hologram with others, there’s something about The name itself that feels like a sticking point. If I was going to describe all of this to my Mum who does learning support in a school, even though she works in a supportive role and she has me for a daughter, I wouldn’t mention the Hologram name or the fact that it was designed by an artist. I wouldn’t want her to write it off as a weird art thing. As radical, uncomfortable, or being spoken of in a different language. The Hologram is so clean that I want to tell everyone about it, but only in the way each person will really, really hear it. I would speak about it in a covert way so that ‘the Hologram’ vision does not come with too futuristic a sheen. One that could make the whole thing seem (science-)fictional, and therefore like a mirage. Something we’re not technically capable of yet. Speculative fiction is energising to artists who are trained in constant speculation. But when we have already had the work of The Hologram in the resistance in Greece, and in the many ways we coped in the pandemic, I don’t want anything to get in the way of us having it now in earnest.

One thing is already getting in the way, however. Myself. I can write this text like a proposition to readers to make this a part of their own lives, but I read Cassie’s thesis a year ago and I still haven’t contacted the three people whose help I would like. I will now. I know what’s changed. I went to Spain recently and while I was there, I felt this blood-call to remember the Spanish I used to know. When I got home, I found a language exchange group that meets in a pub once a week. English speakers practice Spanish, Spanish speakers practice English. I think sometimes, and I will put this down to class and England, I do not reach for the things that I want in life because a nervous excitement prohibits me. It’s this very particular feeling that I can’t imagine having something so good in my life, so I won’t. I can’t. It’s JG Ballard writing that we are satisfied by being abused; it’s another trudge towards a general election while the Tories threaten military service; it’s global warming; it’s doing what Big Business wants us to do without realising we’re doing it; it’s continuing to pay rent and bills, living at the whims of inflation, siloed instead of fighting, knackered, English, and for what? From that deep badness, anything good feels like cheating. Goodness becomes unnatural, happiness a quick shock. And that is especially dizzying if the good thing is valuable whilst also being free — like the language exchange, or The Hologram. I have learnt so much Spanish since I got back from Bilbao, and I’ve learnt it from people who just want to help each other learn. It’s time to write messages to the three people I have in mind so that I can accept my own proposition to be happier in the face of this mess.

After I post this text, I am going to send it to the three people I trust with my life. Now that you’ve read it, you might want to send it to three people you trust with yours. The proposition will pass from Greece to Cassie Thornton, to a talk in a bookshop to me, to you and yours, and maybe life will feel like it’s supposed to feel. Or closer anyway. Anything must be closer than this.

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There is a lot of info about The Hologram online, including a website dedicated to it here

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