Trickling-down of ind ebt ed amber

> Adriana Prodeus


When Banksy’s work self-destroyed moments after it had been auctioned, paralysing the art world by doubling in value relative to the selling price, the Kunst = Kapital relation regained its full strength. As if the famous banknotes signed by Joseph Beuys went into circulation again, only that the German marks cannot be exchanged for the euro any longer. Depending on the adopted perspective, either Banksy’s strategy absorbed investors’ insatiable appetite for profit, or the market more than compensated for the loss caused by his prank. The only capital for the onlookers was the very performance shrouded in the aura of a scandal created by the renowned artist.

The same equation became the focus of Kamil Kuskowski’s work ≠, although in this case the title sounded more like wishful thinking than an acknowledgement of the fact that art is seemingly more durable than capital. It would be hard to perceive it as a triumph, but perhaps the crux of the matter is that both ideas – of money and of an art that is independent from it – sound equally abstract and are equally open to question. One could ask, How many bitcoins would you pay for this gesture? As Kuskowski suggests, the art market, as part of the (seemingly) free market, has entered the decadent phase, so the equation is not correct. It is difficult to say why and whether this is true, especially after Banksy’s feat. I do hope, however, that Kuskowski’s diagnosis will soon become commonly accepted and we will no longer be under the illusion that neoliberalism is the only mechanism that we know how to use and that “economic miracles”, indefinite economic growth or the global expansion of the strongest players in the “emergent” financial markets are ordinary processes that should be supported. This kind of critical thinking is what art is for, isn’t it?

A lesson that could be drawn from Banksy’s action is the conclusion that art has become a media asset – extremely fluid because it is devoid of the “patient” capital capable of making the viewer understand and appreciate the logic and value of contemporary art. Let us stress that this capital is very different from the one that makes some people take off their hat upon hearing that a painting has been sold for millions of dollars – this is not the kind of respect that I mean. Without “proper” respect, artists fall deeper and deeper into the abyss of precarious work, being forced to justify not only the character of their practice, but also its significance for the art world. Gallery owners and curators offer them little help. What is therefore the perception of the evolution of capital by artists, who are precarious workers by default?

Let’s start with students. This year’s presentation of art schools at SURVIVAL was an opportunity for the youngest generation of practitioners to take the floor and examine their attitudes to the current status of artist, which they would like to achieve or define. The strategies put forward by those who are at the beginning of their artistic careers are interesting because they decode a certain manner of thinking, perceived in the extant reality.

Grigori Skrylew and David Salazar Bianchi, artists studying at Muthesius Kunsthochschule in Kiel, analysed their own experiences by comparing the formats, colours and nominal values of banknotes from Kazakhstan and Guatemala, which ultimately turned them into abstract forms, visually similar on many levels. Is this how the economies of poor countries are viewed from a global perspective? The economic situation in Guatemala is equally unknown to us as the one in Kazakhstan. What money is driven out by what money? Should everything be pegged against the non-existent bar of gold or a barrel of oil? The only determinant is the price of the same product in both countries, measured not in nominal values, but in the number of hours one must work to acquire it. This is the question that the youngest generation asks most often.

Where you live therefore matters more than where you come from, because we are constantly migrating. For some, the decision to not settle down is synonymous with freedom, with finding a space that will always be your own, irrespective of housing crises or the current value of a mortgage denominated in Swiss francs. This is why Hanna Kaszewska of the Academy of Art in Szczecin drew floor plans of flats as if they were paintings. Her Foundation praised the autonomy of non- -dwelling not as a loathsome necessity, but as acceptance of mobility and a method of working with identity – and therefore memory – which is reinvented whenever I decide where to live, what to choose, what to remember and what to forget.

We are accustomed to perceiving capitalism as a peculiar perpetuum mobile going round and round in circles for its own sake, not because it is the most advantageous way of organising life. Florian Grebert of Muthesius Kunsthochschule built an instrument for hitting a golf ball with a club, which was a stylish mockery of the favourite pastime of the greatest beneficiaries of neoliberalism that simultaneously highlighted the pointlessness of the system. His Chip demonstrated that scoring par on a golf course is as abstract a notion as expenditures, tangible and intangible assets or an investment portfolio. They are all intended solely to generate bigger profits. Of course, Grebert’s installation featured a para-perpetuum with a hidden engine. We, the human capital, are the hidden engine of neoliberalism.

A similarly absurd process of capital accumulation in its probably most mythical dimension was shown in the VR work titled Amber Room by Jagna Nawrocka and Michał Żołnieruk of the Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław. The legendary treasure, which is rumoured to have been found in Lower Silesia every now and then, could finally be seen in front of the visitors’ eyes, only to say goodbye to a dream. A dream about riches, unexpected inheritance, hitting the jackpot – anything that could finally make capital tangible. Thanks to the Amber Room, you could accept that it will forever be virtual.

Aleksandra Nowysz in her work titled Debourgeoising showed how easy it is to change our thinking patterns. She turned the palace into Charles Fourier’s phalanstery so that a venue that is typically reserved for representatives of the upper classes now housed the Hall of the Combined Order, the Group Hall, the Public Square and other places. It is heartening that we are ready for change, but at the same it is terrifying – that we are so susceptible to suggestions resulting from the imposed vocabulary, although in this case the intent was noble due to the belief in the possibility of social change.

Capitalism as a conspiracy theory
The commodification of art has currently become a fact that is as obvious as the one that you must finish a school to be called an artist. Patryk Wilk of Muthesius Kunsthochschule encoded his personal data and “market value” in a barcode, a peculiar navel that testifies to the birth of an artworks producer. It was precisely his signature that became commodified, Wilk said, situating himself not so far from Beuys’s idea of equating his handwriting with the signature of the head of the central bank, which turns a note into legal tender. The banknote could be valid only for him or for those who have recognised his identity, but what if the bank boss was an artist?

The value of the family name was also tested by Piotr Kmita. Following in the footsteps of the Pachaly family, who are said to have bought their noble title, he found his alter ego in the character of the Great Crown Marshal depicted in Reina Bona, a Polish costume series (1980–1981). A manipulated excerpt featured the artist’s namesake – a member of the “Polish Medici” family who came to prominence in the 15th century. Kmita’s found footage raised questions about identity as a capital, which is crucial in the contemporary market because it could be used as a foundation for a career that is otherwise devoid of substance.

A reference to history was also made by Maryna Sakowska, a student at the Academy of Art in Szczecin, who carved Latin sentences in faux marbling plaques that praised the accumulation of capital, seemingly through hard work. Placed in the servants’ quarters, the maxim Beatus qui tenet (“Happy is the man in possession”) sounded sarcastic because accumulating capital depends on the class. Probably the only appropriate motto for illiterate servants, who obviously did not know Latin, could be “from rags to riches”, scratched in concrete in Antiqua.

The sentence “Capital Saves” sounds as if it could be carved in Roman square capitals in similar plaques. This is why Jerzy Kosałka confronted it with the literalness of a museum exhibit – a chain mail made from Polish coins. As we know, blind faith in the supernatural power of investment did not shield the Wallenberg-Pachaly family, and many other aristocratic families, from the atrocities of war, purges of different regimes or simply death. Kosałka’s art resonates with existential giggle among the ruins that will soon be left by capitalism (even if Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the face of the earth by then).

Lack of balance between capital and “real” activity was emphasised at SURVIVAL by performances such as VIP Room (Dominika Oleś, Martyna Podwysocka) or Handshake (Nadia Markiewicz, Grzegorz Demczuk). On the other hand, the “real” was the subject of The Professional by the Dracena collective, which commented on the need to accumulate capital by proposing a structure similar to that of Catholic churches. A collection of participants’ confessions, intended to generate assets in the form of good deeds whispered to volunteers and carefully saved for the inspiration of fellow humans, was successively displayed on an LED screen. Realness cannot be verified – this conclusion could be drawn, if only by looking at the number of people who helped elderly ladies safely cross the road.

The principles of “trickle-down economics,” which is a theory according to which the rich should be allowed to grow richer because it will benefit those who they employ, and eventually the capital will “trickle down” to the poor, were questioned by Anja Fußbach in her work titled Church of All Money Can Buy. A shrine comprising objects of consumers’ cult served the role of purgatory where we asked ourselves: How much do we spend on unnecessary things? Why do we complain about prices if we are nowhere near poverty? Why does capitalism need trophies so desperately? On the altars of materialism, income inequalities are of secondary importance as long as you can afford a given product right now. The circumstances do not matter: loans, leasing, debts. Personal costs are even less significant. Income distribution favouring the poor is a fiction of capitalism, mocked by those driving Lamborghinis.

Several dozen paintings packed by Piotr C. Kowalski and Joanna Janiak (Hidden Capital) into a several-meter long warehouse block could be perceived as a reserve of symbolic capital or metaphysical savings for a rainy day. The artists presented art as a burden for the household, which had functioned for several decades in symbiosis with artistic activity. The real is intertwined with the virtual when it comes to organising the living space.


Invisible marketing
Measuring symbolic capital by the amount of interest it generates was wittily summarised by Grzegorz Demczuk in his Attention-Meter. Here, the value of a museum exhibit was determined in the same way as that of any other object in the social media – by the number of clicks and  shares, not by real focus. Demczuk’s Attention-Meter measured the time spent by viewers in front of the work, even if they were talking to a friend, staring at the phone or daydreaming. Presence as capital is something so empty and difficult to experience that none of the visitors to the Review, including the author of this text, would be able to recreate what they saw when standing in front of each work. Whatever it was, it counted for the Attention-Meter.  

“Life is capital and time is its currency,” read a slogan in Paweł and Szymon Modzelewski’s animation, which could just as well be a promotional spot for SURVIVAL and not one of the works featured at the exhibition. The artist toyed with this ambiguity by pointing to the affiliation of an artistic event rooted in independent culture, as it would be termed in the previous century, to the very 21st-century reality of marketing and advertising. After all, speculation in the art market is only slightly more risky than in other fields. What percentage of capital do you spend on self-promotion? That should be the question. Just like the banner of the long-forgotten Commerzbank, which Tomasz Domański used to promote investment in art, his call contributing to the noise of advertising flooding the public space. This brutal gesture aroused contradictory feelings: on the one hand, it directed the viewer towards the Review, but on the other hand its visual shape was so off-putting that it was difficult to look at it. Predatory capitalism has only dulled the claws of its target audience – us.

The well-known slogan “Fuck poverty” (“Jebać biedę” in Polish) in the form of a hashtag was used by Karina Marusińska, whose installation emphasised the ambiguity of the abbreviation #jb, which can also be deciphered as “Fuck richness” (“Jebać bogactwo”). For the middle class, who are dominant in Poland, both categories – richness and poverty – are just as abstract and seemingly out of reach. Lack of communication between social classes, lack of mutual understanding and attachment solely to the values held by their class – this was the subject of this minimalist work, which nevertheless stirred the imagination.

The fact that the conversation revolved around virtual entities was brought up by many artists who had decided to use modern marketing tools in their works. Wykwitex, a peculiar cooperative operating in a villa in Zacisze, Wrocław, mocked business jargon. Their manifesto speaks volumes: “Our company enjoys the leading position in all the market segments where it operates. We are constantly launching new products that are successful on the market. [They] are characterised by long-term appreciation in value. We grow organically by cooperation with non-related entities. We also use the policy of consolidation – it is applied when it can bring long-term and multilateral benefits.” The artists used a presentation with infographics that were not supported by any real data. In their work, imposing values such as usefulness, visual attractiveness and encouragement to invest (in their business) was a witty challenge issued to the market. It would be hardly surprising if there were potential business partners who would buy them out.

Information noise as a form of confrontation with neoliberal everyday life was also addressed by Jarosław Kozłowski in Rhetorical Figures II – a work illustrating the speed of data flows that seem impossible to perceive. We would like to believe that our ability to deal with complex information is virtually unlimited. Meanwhile, an economic crisis, a credit crunch or “innovative insurance products” clearly prove the opposite. If we are so eager to believe in “economic miracles” unsupported by economists or readily accept various pathologies of neoliberalism, why do we grant ourselves the status of rational individuals? After all, what we suffer from is not information scarcity, but information overload, which makes us painfully aware of our limited capacity to process it.

Last but not least, Tomasz Skórka’s Decapitalisation – an installation based on the idea of mining columns with fake explosives resembling piggy-banks. It was essentially a mockery of the very idea of capitalism, which is able to capitalise on everything, even elements that are dangerous to itself. Although this rather pessimistic conclusion was presented in a playful form, the viewer could only hope that the artist had actually used fake bombs. Otherwise, the dream shared by many people would come true and neoliberalism would indeed be damned. But then we would no longer be in the right. Only Banksy would thumb his nose again and blow up new illusions. Artists are always right, even when we let them decapitate us.

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