Speculative Futures

Thursday, June 23, 2011

By Shaun Randol

Three Reviews

Context is a much overlooked aspect of art review and enjoyment. One is inclined to admire and critique the work in a vacuum—a painting is confined to its canvas, the museum wall on which it hangs is non-existent; the sculpture is viewed in a three-dimensional white space. Exceptions are made, of course, for performance and installation pieces; Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (1970), for example, cannot be divorced from the taste of the salty air, the calm lapping blood red waves of the Great Salt Lake, and the ever-changing dome of a sky under which the earthwork rests.

And so it is the same with corporate installation pieces: context matters. Diego Rivera’s “Man at the Crossroads,” for example, which featured (much to the chagrin of Nelson Rockefeller) a portrait of Vladimir Lenin, wouldn’t have drawn such ire had the mural been painted in, say, a union hall, rather than in the corporate-capitalist Rockefeller Center.

At Bloomberg’s corporate headquarters in New York City, “Speculative Futures” (curated by Regine Basha) drew as much on the art it featured as the art demanded of its surroundings. Even the title of the temporary installation nods respectively at some of the driving forces behind the media and financial firm’s success: speculative conjures up the half-crafty, half-skillful attempts by traders worldwide using the Bloomberg Terminal to make fortunes on speculative trading. Also, “futures” are, of course, trading products. It is fitting, then, that the art featured in “Speculative Futures” found a temporary home at Bloomberg, a company that thrives on variations of speculative futures.

Post Apis

Busy as a bee—we’ve all heard this expression. From the beehive emanates a constant hum, a low buzzing indicating to the passerby that, within these fragile walls, business is being tended to at a frantic pace. No time to stop. Buzz buzz buzzzzz. At Bloomberg’s world HQ, nowhere is the analogy of a beehive more appropriate than on the sixth floor, where “Post Apis” made its debut. The sixth floor is home to two pantries which provide the “nectar” for busy worker bees passing through the hub to reach departments across, above, and below its wide, active expanse. Even the architecture of the area takes a hive like shape, where one can see 360 degrees of activity and the window framing provides a honeycomb latticework.

The parameters for Ana Prvacki’s artwork must have been puzzling. How to create awareness of a natural plight in a decidedly a-natural atmosphere, and a techno-financial one at that? Her solution is both creative and urgent. Faced with scrolling news items and flickering ticker prices across the Bloomberg Terminal, we can immediately see the implications of so-called “colony collapse syndrome” on global commodity prices. Tying money into the plight of the Western honeybee (Apis mallifera) is a unique way to view the bees’ dire circumstances.

Beekeeper Chris Harper lectures in front of Ana Prvacki's "Post Apis."*

The implication for “Post Apis” is that action is needed now in order to prevent further collapse of the Western honey bee, but what form of action can occur behind a terminal? The immediate, cynical approach is to take the information spewing from the screens and turn toward commodity speculation, but this takes advantage of not only the plight of the bee, but also the troubles of much of the world’s inhabitants. Crops depend on the bee to pollinate and produce—fewer bees, fewer food. The immediate impact of this is not felt in the United States, where a mere ten percent of household income is spent on food. Rather, the real pinch is put on those in developing countries, where families can spend upwards of eighty percent of their income on foodstuffs. Already this has led to unrest in geopolitically tricky places throughout Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.

"Post Apis" at Bloomberg's world headquarters.*

“Post Apis” claims to actualize a solution for the bee crisis, but standing in front of the Terminal one can only foresee further problems, at the very least, and, at its most base, a way to actually make money off colony collapse syndrome. Indeed, as a response to colony collapse, Prvacki calls for an investment in honey—liquid gold. Unfortunately, like any commodity: the scarcer the gold, the higher the value.  

Meanwhile in Nigeria

In contrast to Prvacki’s call for investment in a tangible good, Julieta Aranda takes the viewer into the world of abstraction. Aranda’s “Meanwhile in Nigeria” may be a flat installation, but the information contained within launches the viewer across the mighty Atlantic (via metaphorical fiber optic cables) into the shadowy realms of memory and the future, journeys along a Z-axis that force ponderous moments on the idea of (and need for) money.

There is much to absorb in “Meanwhile’s” dualistic presentation of the abstract and conceptual meanings of currency and credit. A brief entitled “Somewhere in America” successfully provokes consideration on the concept of money in the most concise history of credit outside of Webster’s dictionary. In the mini essay, the idea of money transforms from a foundation built on substance (gold) to one on promise (credit). The near-fall of the Western financial system is made accessible … and disturbing.

Conversely, the eponymous “Meanwhile in Nigeria” essay describes the explosion of promises of wealth in recent years. In this reflection, Nigeria as the promise-centric (promise is another form of credit) epicenter of a new global economy of incalculable possibilities (ok, $10 trillion worth) replaces the swirling vortex of lost money on Wall Street.  One can imagine an alternative take on this same installation: a giant balloon rhythmically squeezed, where the air (the money) moves to or escapes from elastic ends marked The West and Nigeria.

In other words, the U.S. and the rest of the world didn’t lose $10 trillion in the recent (ongoing) financial crisis—it was simply shifted to the alternatively ill-begotten, hard-won, or lucky hands of widows, political refugees, airplane crash survivors, and lottery winners, mostly based in Nigeria.

One side of "Meanwhile in Nigeria" by Julieta Aranda.*

The ledger on the reverse side of “Meanwhile in Nigeria” provides levity to Aranda’s heavy message. Over the course of the year, the artist meticulously recorded the names of e-mail senders (scammers) and their corresponding subject lines and monetary awards, revealing a spectrum of creativity in a parallel (but any less shadowy?) economic system. Subject lines of the desperate messages range from the innocuous (“Scam Compensation”) to the pleading (“We fled Zimbabwe for Fear of Our Lives”) to the grammatically handicapped (“Help Me To Spread Goodness”) to the simply puzzling (“My Uncle is Building a Ski Slope!”). All of these gems are worth millions of dollars apiece.

In “Meanwhile’s” ledger, one notices a preponderance of repeating forms: plane crashes, lottery winnings, business opportunities, and—brazenly—claims to reward the e-mail recipient money they have been defrauded by other e-mail scammers. Disturbingly, there are also references to Iraq War victims, an unnerving sign that con-artists are trending toward playing on the guilt of an unwitting American public.

The ledger side of "Meanwhile in Nigeria" by Julieta Aranda.*

Moreover, a discernable trend can be picked up: toward the beginning, most of the e-mails seem to originate from West Africa (Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon), but nearer to the end of the ledger, it appears the Netherlands, Ireland, and the U.K. are getting into the game. Could this indicate that the financial balloon is once again being squeezed so that both fake and real money are shifting back to the West? Check your e-mail for details.

RMB City

Cao Fei’s “The Birth of RMB City” (video here) works on two levels simultaneously. On one hand, her digital creation speaks to the popularity and power of Second Life and other online gaming worlds, phenomena in which the artist also takes an interest. On the other hand, it is a busy, frantic, complicated actualization of the continuously exploding Chinese urban landscape.

To say that online gaming is popular in China is to be mild about the subject; Internet gaming addicts in China are said to number in the tens of millions. The dangers of this are startling: reports of murder and suicide over gaming are common news items. In February, a 30-year old man dropped dead in an Internet café after gaming for three days straight without stopping to eat or sleep.

What is it that makes Internet gaming so wildly popular in China? I speculate that in a country where freedom of expression and entrepreneurship is severely limited, the parallel universe that exists in the digital ether provides a place to escape, vent, release, create, and to be an expressive individual. Such an allure can be powerful … and deadly. As a form of digital creation reflective of the Chinese addiction to gaming, Cao’s “RMB City” carries extra meaning.

A still of Cao Fei's "RMB City."*

“RMB City” is a frenetic, chaotic, but wholly safe (to authorities, anyway) creation of an ideal. To fully experience the work, one must don a set of headphones that pulse with a low, thrumming ambient soundtrack which, if you close your eyes, sounds like an underwater rave happening in some distant mermaid neighborhood. But “RMB City” is more visual than aural feast. The video begins with a blank canvas, or more precisely, a blank island in a vast ocean, over which a spaceship deposits the building blocks of an imagined, circus-like city. “RMB City”—Cao’s imaginative, future city—is populated by, among other things, smokestacks, a bicycle wheel, a floating panda bear, pylons and pillars galore, construction cranes, sports stadiums, and the random people who wander amongst and build such a place. There are many traditional elements (e.g., panda bear, Forbidden City) and contemporary manifestations (e.g., CCTV’s new headquarters, the Bird’s Nest stadium) stacked on top of one another in seemingly random, precarious stacks. Think Rube Goldberg meets China meets Pinocchio’s adventure in The Land of Toys (Paese dei Balocchi).

The chaos is not without meaning, however, and it is all the more interesting because it is Cao’s imaginative city. The title of her urban landscape, RMB City, reflects China’s genuflections toward economic growth, finance, and consumerism, that much is obvious. The thrill comes in picking out the more subtle nods at China today and China tomorrow. For example, at one point in the video a squat, gray structure is built, destroyed, rebuilt, re-destroyed, again and again. One can take this to be a symbol of the constant building and rebuilding of modern China, where the old is constantly destroyed to make way for the new (history, be gone!). I could not help but think, however, that this scene recalled the crumbling of similar looking structures during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 68,000 people. Over 7,000 of these same gray, multistory buildings also collapsed, killing scores of children while they were bent over school books. 

More gems abound. The spaceship from which the city is born (designed?) suggests an over-lording, central authority, reminiscent of China’s current ruling Communist Party, from which all dictates and five-year plans stem. There is also, for example, an obvious lack of green space in RMB City. What does it say that, given the opportunity to imagine a future Chinese city, Cao underplays the park/public space element?  What does this portend for China’s own urban-environmental future?

“RMB City” is populated with whimsical and thoughtful elements that fly onto the screen at such a feverish speed that we are forced to watch the piece over and over again in amazement. Watching “The Birth of RMB City,” then, is very much akin to admiring China’s current explosion into the 21st century.

 

* Photos by Regine Basha.

 

Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol

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Shaun Randol is the founder and editor in chief of The Mantle. He is also an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York City, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the PEN American Center.