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This unpublished/unedited essay stems from a 2009 exhibition proposal that was later developed with Raul Martinez and, with his contribution, became the exhibition Transactions/Transacciones, presented in the Autumn of 2011 at Galeria Horrach Moya in Palma de Mallorca and later on at the Centro Cultural de Espana (CCE/G) in Guatemala City. Many thanks to Juan Antonio Horrach Moya for believing in this project and to Emiliano Valdez for inviting us to travel the exhibition to Guatemala. In this form, the essay would have not been possible without Raul’s collaboration, who shared many of the opinions and ideas herby discussed and who has in order informed and inspired many of my own ideas. 

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The Cracks
On transactional reality and its repercussions on contemporary artistic discourse
by Marco Antonini

Until the late 19th Century, any business owner who defaulted on payments was personally liable for the debts of the company. Upon bankruptcy, a judge, on behalf of creditors, could immediately sell the shareholders’ personal belongings to pay the company debts. Around 1850, in order to reduce the risks that financial investment entailed and channel capital to emerging industrial entrepreneurs, England came up with a new form of incorporation: the Limited Liability Company. Needless to say, the applications of this concept rapidly multiplied across the globe, reaching unfathomable success.

As LLCs grew into multinational corporations, the responsibility of the involved individuals became impossible to track down, dissolved in a pool of anonymous shareholders whose participation in the business become largely irrelevant. Humanity itself progressively disappeared from the financial world, making space to algorithms and automation, some of the most trusted tools currently in Adam Smiths’s “Invisible Hand.” As the Market –and the financial systems that we created to regulate it– acquired an apparently uncontrollable power of self-determination and adjustment, responsibility and awareness no longer made sense. Profit was no longer related to product or service exchange, but to abstract financial instruments that even professional economists struggle to keep up with.

A household name to even the most financially illiterate (ironically, mostly as a consequence of the popular debate surrounding the causes of the recent worldwide financial breakdown,) derivatives are financial instruments that are derived from some other asset, index, event, value or condition. They offer an example of abstraction in finance: rather than dealing with the reality of the so called “Underlying Asset” itself, derivative gains are given by its foreseen adjustment or reaction to space, time, market and –of course– chance-based events. This might sound very “now”, but derivatives have been around since 1841, when the Royal Exchange in London permitted forward contracting.[1] The massive use of derivative products in today’s financial systems is one of the indicators of the ossification of a strictly transactional approach to exchange and, ultimately, reality. Another important indicator of this ongoing process lies in transaction expenses. Responding to increasingly specialized economic models, the costs of “dealing” with money and/or information (two words that could easily be considered as synonymous) have grown disproportionately, creating a black hole where minuscule amounts, extolled here and there, can quickly sum up to fabulous, well concealed fortunes. According to many, the shift from a transactional economy to a transactional reality is not only well under way, but might has already gone contaminated moral values and human relationships worldwide.[2]

Rather than merely questioning the evident, yet apparently unalterable, wrongs of this situation, a number of contemporary visual artists have decided to face the reality of our society’s (often subconscious) cooptation of the system, its values and mechanisms. Rethinking the transactional dynamics of finance and market economy, they combine business, visual communication and marketing strategies, adopting the moral relativism and visionary approach to reality that financial institutions have pioneered and positioning their work on the fine line between endorsement and criticism.

Artists like Santiago Sierra and Nedko Solakov have both, and in very distinctive ways, pioneered a specific interest in the grey areas between exchange and exploitation. Sierra’s works notoriously feature paid individuals taking turns in performing boring and often humiliating chores that are eerily similar to duties performed by real-world workers. The total futility and brutally repetitive nature of the tasks brings them dangerously close to forms of physical/psychological torture. A mundane transaction is also at the core of Nedko Solakov’s video The Deal, in which the artist converts a 1000 Danish Kroner banknote into American dollars, then back into Kroner and so on and so forth, until the money is completely spent in exchange fees. Solakov’s gesture exposes the frightening vacuum underlying even the most simple among financial institutions. This sense of emptiness is equally prominent in Elizabeth Smolarz’s One Hundred Dollar Project, a more recent work in which small groups of people are given a total of $100 to basically do nothing (or better, do what they want.) The number of Smolarz’s “workers,” hired exclusively in G8+5 countries, reflects the different buying power that a $100 can have in different economies, as well as different individual and group strategies to cope with minimum-wage boredom.

Julien Previeux and Martin John Callanan have tackled similar issues while exposing and manipulating the absurdity of bureaucracy. Questioning the role of institutional structures, Previeux’s Non-Motivational Letters have become a symbol of active resistance to the requirements of a professionalized world. Their stout refusal to comply with the standardized communication forms of job applications and professional correspondence uses the invisible gap between demand and request as a poetic field of action. Callanan’s open ended (yet formally composed and presented) letters to leaders and notable individuals worldwide also explore the emptiness of bureaucratized exchange. Cryptic yet powerful messages such as “I respect your authority” or “When will it end?” prompt underwhelming template replies, probably sent by puzzled office assistants and interns.  Interestingly enough, replies to both artists’ missives range between the funny and the nonsensical, demonstrating a chronic inability to deal with genuine human content and the unexpected on the side of professional organizations large and small. While Previeux and Callanan’s works show a clear interest in reassessing a human potential in the transactional space of communication, Walead Beshty’s FedEx shatterproof glass solids document the transition of inanimate objects through similar interstitial spaces. Allowing the damage collected by each box during its own shipping to show the reality and “cost” of an otherwise apparently automatic and harmless process, the cracks on Beshty’s sculptures strike as a sad monument to transience, standardization and anonymity, in a global economy that conceives of physical goods as little more than numbers. Each individual crack, with its painful physicality, can be assumed to symbolize an unexpected gap in the flow of information economy, a temporary autonomous zone in which to plant ideas, growing and spreading like urban weeds on a broken sidewalk.

Works like Caleb Larsen’s A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter also exist in an interstitial reality, and are symbolic of the disappearance of humanity (and its priorities) from transactional exchange systems. Larsen’s non descript black cube is connected to the internet and constantly auctioning itself on eBay, selling itself and changing owner in a process that effectively marginalizes human participation. Along this line, other works like Social Motions, by Katarina Sevic‘s strive to re-establish the significance of a human presence via forms of codified social interaction (strikes, manifestations) that are already on the brink of total irrelevance. The silent mass movement in Sevic’s performance and video is a ghostly signifier of past agency. Using objects instead of human bodies, KUNSTrePUBLIK’s Landreform Carousel, invests a symbol of affluence and power (the black BMW sedan) with new meanings ranging from the tribal to the erudite, bending its corporate identity and visual status to new playful needs. As it seems appropriate, Social Motions and Landreform Carousel were both performed in the nondescript urban lot of Skulpturenpark, in the heart of gentrified Berlin, a city that has become symbolic of creativity human resistance to abstract development patterns and profit-driven logics.

Developing on the idea of transactional reality, an increasing number of visual artists is proving how the cut-throath logics and moral standards of the financial world have slowly trickled down to society at large, silently influencing its development and future perspectives. After all, art is a form of cultural and emotional exchange, an exchange that initiates or facilitates dialog and ultimately leads to awareness and knowledge. According to Joerg Heiser “the values co-regulating the immaterial production of cultural knowledge –aesthetic potential and political gravity– both charm and disrupt the economy’s thirst for inventiveness.”[3] This love-hate relationship represents for the artist a unique opportunity to infiltrate the Invisible Hand’s system from the inside, wedging along the lines of its many cracks while becoming an active part in its evolution.

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Images:

Paolo Cirio: Face to Facebook, 2011.

Paolo Cirio: Face to Facebook, 2011.

The first installment in Paolo Cirio’s “Hacking Monopolism Trilogy”, GWEI (Google Will Eat Itself), set an extraordinary open source system in motion, to trick Google Inc. and redistribute part of the wealth generated by its online advertising to a community of users and allow them to reinvest in Google stock options and, in theory, progressively buy out the company. Following chapters of the Trilogy, Amazon Noir and Face to Facebook, infiltrated the public online spaces offered by internet markets and social networks alike, debunking them and setting ambitions social mechanisms in motion. In Face to Facebook’s case, a million Facebook profiles were hacked, and uploaded to a custom built online dating website. The high level of automation used to implement this process highlighted the possibilities offered by using free and accessible information, and the leaks and structural limits of online platforms that we are growing to understand more as basic needs than products. In Cirio’s intentions, such experiments could translate in new forms of active re-shaping of the social reality.

Elizabeth Smolarz: The One Hundred Dollar Project, 2006-2010.

Elizabeth Smolarz:
The One Hundred Dollar Project, 2006-2010.

In Elizabeth Smolarz’s The One Hundred Dollar Project, small groups of people are given a total of $100 to basically do nothing (or better, do what they want.) The number of Smolarz’s “workers,” hired exclusively in G8+5 countries, reflects the different buying power that a $100 can have in different economies, as well as different individual and group strategies to cope with minimum-wage boredom. A sense of now playful, now oppressive emptiness connects this series with performances by Oscar Bony, Santiago Sierra and Nedko Solakov: artists who have in very distinctive ways, pioneered a specific interest in the grey areas between exchange and exploitation.

Walead Beshty: Installation view, "Securities and Exchanges," Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China, 2011.

Walead Beshty:
Installation view, “Securities and Exchanges,” Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China, 2011.

Walead Beshty’s shatterproof glass solids document the transition of inanimate objects through the interstitial and, to most, invisible spaces of worldwide trade and exchange. Allowing the damage collected by each box during its own shipping to show the reality and “cost” of an otherwise apparently automatic and harmless process, the cracks on Beshty’s sculptures strike as a sad monument to transience, standardization and anonymity, in a global economy that conceives of physical goods as little more than numbers. Each individual crack, with its painful physicality, can be assumed to symbolize an unexpected gap in the flow of information economy, a temporary autonomous zone in which to plant ideas, growing and spreading like urban weeds on a broken sidewalk.

Martin John Calllanan: Letters (I Respect Your Authority.), 2004-2006.

Martin John Calllanan:
Letters (I Respect Your Authority.), 2004-2006.

Another exemplary exploration of interstitial space can be found in Martin John Callanan’s open ended (yet formally composed and presented) letters to leaders and notable individuals worldwide. Callanan’s missives explore the emptiness of bureaucratized information exchange. Cryptic yet powerful messages such as “I respect your authority” or “When will it end?” prompt underwhelming template replies, probably sent by puzzled office assistants and interns.  Interestingly enough, replies to the artists’ missives range between the funny and the nonsensical, demonstrating a chronic inability to deal with genuine human content and the unexpected on the side of professional organizations large and small. Both Beshty and Callanan’s works suggest the possibility of reassessing human presence, and its imperfect manifestations, in the transactional spaces opened up by global trade, information exchange and communication.

Katarina Sevic: Social Motions, 2007.

Katarina Sevic:
Social Motions, 2007.

Along this line, other works like Social Motions, by Katarina Sevic‘s strive to re-establish the significance of a human presence via forms of codified social interaction (strikes, manifestations) that are already on the brink of total irrelevance. The silent mass movement in Sevic’s performance and video is a ghostly signifier of past agency. Significantly, the event was performed in the nondescript, illegally occupied urban lot of Skulpturenpark (www.skulpturenpark.org), in the heart of gentrified Berlin, a city that has become symbolic of creativity human resistance to abstract development patterns and profit-driven logics.

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Footnotes:


[1]    The first “futures” contracts (a contract to buy or sell a specified commodity of standardized quality at a certain date in the future, at a market determined price) are generally traced to the Yodoya rice market in Osaka, Japan around 1650. (Source: “Essays in Derivatives” by Don Chance (John Wiley & Sons, 1998)

[2]    “A transactional society undermines social values and loosens moral constraints. Social values express a concern for others. They imply that the individual belongs to a community (…) whose interests must take precedence over the individual’s self-interests. But a transactional market economy is anything but a community. Everybody must look out for his or her own interests and moral scruples can become an encumbrance in a dog-eat-dog world.” — George Soros, The Crises of Global Capitalism (Publicaffairs, 1998)

[3]    Joerg Heiser, “Good Circulation”, Frieze, no.90, April 2005.

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