|Mentality behind contemporary economics
art & economy
An art project by the Landia Foundation
Anke-Sophie Meyer, Publicist, Berlin
Do we still understand the world? Indeed, this is a prerequisite for the sovereignty of democracy; the responsible citizen. We’re inclined to say no, right? And if we do understand, then it’s only the tiny details that lie within our area of expertise. This is an insight that cannot help but undermine all those who feel bound by the Kantian Enlightenment in line with the credo: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.”
Thus any attempt to analyse, question and then reconstruct that which makes up and defines our world seems all the more worthwhile. Science has been attempting to do this for a long time, yet is often hard to comprehend for the uninitiated.
Things get really exciting, however, when artists renounce the “l’art pour l’art” principle and take on the big questions of the day. The artist, curator and founder of the Landia Foundation is attempting to do just that in unique and special ways. Marina Landia has invited artists to explore the system “as a whole” and to document this in a catalogue – a principle that follows the system theory of Nikolas Luhmann, without expressly referring to it.
The principles of the Artist Placement Group (APG) could be considered a cornerstone of this analysis of the interaction of systems and artistic home turf. Here “artist placement” should be read quite literally: the artists place themselves in a specific, deliberately chosen social context.
This also applies to the five artists presented here: they analyse the central tensions and mentalities of our time. Examples might be: being at somebody’s mercy and self-surrender to opaque structures of power, the citing of that which is not expressed by politics and of unpopular truths, the egoisms of a lived neoliberalism, the disappearance of a humanist world view that preserves the environment and human dignity, or the haphazard nature of a financial capitalism whose consequences cannot be foreseen.
The noble claim of art in the 1970s to be able to influence the centres of power through its own reflections and thus prompt social change, is being unravelled in the year 2013 in favour of pure curiosity about understanding the mechanics of power. Something closely interwoven is being broken open and is thus revealing its deeper existence.
Many can benefit here, because at the centre is a discourse that pushes outwards from the world of artists and the art market and addresses those who are active “in the very middle of the economic system”: the decision-makers, the world leaders.
They have the red carpet rolled out for them. It is the unspoken strand of their cosmos that is explored by artistic means.
What becomes possible is identification, rediscovery, and a potentially new outlook on one’s own world. The crucial questions of the business world are discussed – questions that everybody deals with, yet nobody mentions. Do stock market traders function similarly to rats? Are they just cogs in the system? Can they drop out? With what consequences? What is their inner world made up of?
And therefore the curator’s undertaking represents a great opportunity, a delectable offering to think outside the box and to view one’s own milieu from a bird’s-eye perspective. And, indeed, to do so without being repelled by overly appealing or accusing tones. With incomparable entertainment value for those who are prepared to embark down this path.
Take the artist and businessman Michael Marcovici, for example, who made a name for himself as an eBay trader, then had to file for bankruptcy and now works as a fund manager and trades in internet domains. Probably his most exciting art project is “Rattrader”. Here, trained rats trade in foreign currency. In order to train the rats, a box was developed in which the animals learn to behave like real traders, to analyse the market and to make decisions. When they make the right decision they are rewarded with a bonus. If they make a bad decision the animals face a mild electric shock. After just a short time it is possible to see which rats have the greatest hit ratio. The rat known as Mr. Lehman makes the right decision in buying crude oil and achieves a success rate of 53.2 percent.
In a video shown on an Austrian finance channel, Marcovici even claims that the rats make better traders than people, particularly as they are not dependent on psychological factors. In the video, he suggests that his rats have long been used by big banks in the classic finance industry. An ghostly scenario unfolds, whereby the audience can no longer distinguish precisely: Is this reality or are we operating within an art project? Strict scientific findings provide the basis for functionally viable economic courses of action. It is a successful artistic coup that shows what makes the financial world tick. The optimisation ideal has long put paid to any form of ethical correctness. Why shouldn’t rats run the money market business if it’s more effective that way?
Equally shocking is the artistic approach taken by Karl Thorbergsson. With the necessary dose of chutzpah, in his video he tries to make the advantages of slight global warming palatable for his audience. He seeks to grow apples in Iceland, and to do so, a temperature rise of one degree would be extremely helpful. He claims he has already lost a lot of money with his apple orchards, because lots of trees have frozen. Thorbergsson, too, flouts ethical standards within his artistic approach. He ignores all scientific findings on global warming, its influence on nature and life under climate change. He consistently pursues his personal interests in the here-and-now, interests that will bring only him personally and his immediate descendents advantages in the form of commercial success. His project ignores the needs of future generations. Here too, there is a paradigm shift from the ethical principles of humanism to the tenets of neoliberalism. Thorbergsson outlines a rigid line of argumentation as we have heard espoused a thousand times by businesspeople; a chain of argumentation as a form of art, which holds a mirror up to the prevailing system and exposes current economic practice for what it is.
In his film “Timeless”, David Cross documents how the mechanisms of neoliberalism shape our view of reality. From the viewing platform of Renzo Piano’s Shard building, he shoots a film that lasts 29 minutes and five seconds and addresses the change in London’s economic fabric. “The Shard is a sensor of London, reflecting its mood”, is how the star architect himself put it. Cross, for his part, explains: “The film couldn’t be any longer because then I would have had to use a different camera and pay more tax.” In other words, tax laws dictate human actions. David Cross raises the question: How free are we still? He talks about property purchases by globally operating oil, gas and coal barons in London and criticises the exploitation of the earth’s resources according to the principle that “anything goes” and the influence lobbyists have on scientific reports that examine the impact this exploitation has on the climate. “We are cutting down trees so fast that they cannot grow back, and we are fishing the seas dry, without fish stocks being able to regenerate, and we think we can go on this way for ever.” As Cross sees it, art is a matter of political analysis, a statement, an appeal to us to open our eyes, and thus passes comment on Renzo Piano’s statement: “I have never understood this idea, as if there is money that smells, or money that has a perfume.”
Stephen Grainger is a little more subtle in his approach. He addresses the question of what a human being is worth. “How much money could I demand if I sold quarter of an hour of my life? How do you establish the value of such a thing?” Grainger designs a thought spectrum that allows for all forms of masochism all the way through to complete powerlessness. Everything a person possesses, even his freedom, can apparently be sold – and can be paid for with money.
Here the artist takes up an idea that is definitely already widespread in the United States and the UK, according to which anyone can sell his or her life insurance policy to someone else. If the seller is seriously ill and the likelihood of his or her death increases, then the buyer’s profit rises accordingly. What’s being discussed here is a business that uses the human being as a commodity. The value of a human being can be expressed in money in the case of disease, congenital predispositions, high stress levels or high-risk hobbies.
Such a cerebral version of neoliberalism holds any humanist view of man up to ridicule. The sale of a person’s body parts is agreed in the form of a written contract and is thus given a somewhat official status. This fits with the conceptual framework developed by philosopher Hanna Arendt, who talks about the banality of evil: Selling human beings off is being given a legal basis and thus stripped of any notion that it would be awful, not to say intolerable. As a result, a horror scenario is readied for its incorporation into everyday life, and from now on belongs in the canon of the normality of human existence. With Grainger, using language as his stylistic tool he has created a work of art as an idea.
And then there is the video art by Marina Landia herself, curator and founder of the Landia Foundation. In her latest video “Enjoy Business 5”, she again brings a much derided species before the camera, in order to draw out her subjects’ views, and rare they are, too.
This time it is not she herself who asks the questions, but rather an eight-year-old girl, the daughter of a business journalist, who has been familiar with the tone of stock market reports since she was very young. A smart artifice as a world leader will probably answer a child more honestly than he would an adult who is used to off-the-cuff, vacuous communications that comply with the system.
Her first question to the top executives is: After all the turmoil, do you better understand the methods that make the global economic system tick? The decision-makers’ answers are surprisingly honest.“No one can really have the full picture − you have your area of competence. Right? ” answers Merit Janow, Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at New York’s Columbia University and Chairwomen of Nasdaq Exchange.
“I don’t think that CEOs have any particular capacity to have a greater understanding of the whole situation than anybody − they understand generally their own industry,” is the view of Andrew Gould, former CEO of Schlumberger. “A classic sanction is bankruptcy, but some companies are too big to fail,” summarises Ewald Nowotny, President of the National Bank of Austria.
And Jürgen Grossman, former Chairman of the Board at RWE Germany, notes something else a little later on: “I’m not sure whether we have really mastered the crisis. Perhaps we should have saved only specific products and allowed the banks to fail.” Homaid Al Shemmari, CEO of Mubadala Aerospace in the United Arab Emirates, was able to draw something positive from the crisis: “The global business map has changed. mankind needed this crisis in order to see that the western world doesn’t control everything.”
It is part of Marina Landia’s artistic system to expose the decision-makers of our time using means other than words or images. A furious, wide-reaching unmasking or a “bashing” like that which could be heard in idle chit-chat and in the media after the Lehman bankruptcy is not the intention. There is no use of manipulative editing or unfavourable camera shots to show up those being filmed. Instead using the psychoanalyst’s technique of countertransference, from the answers of those questioned Landia roots out what she feels to be the fundamental statements of our times. “I watch the interview material for so long that I almost know it by heart. After a certain point, particular statements feel different to the rest. They resonate with the issues and dilemmas that hang in the air, but which have so far been left unanswered as far as I can see.” From the sequences selected in this way, Landia then constructs a confrontation between the project participants that has not actually taken place in reality.
She creates a fictional discourse, which is in short supply in reality, but which is urgently necessary for a democracy to function. Thus, in a unique way, with the other artists presented here she writes a history of the mentality of contemporary economics.