Quantitative Easing (for the street), (2014) installation in public space, 1m x 2,5m, steel and plated gold, coin dispenser, euro coins
The public space installation Quantitative Easing (for the street) is based on a coin dispenser which delivers single euro coins to the street in a precisely programmed random pattern. It was curated by Muntean & Rosenblum in the framework of the KÖR (Kunst im öffentlichen Raum) Kunstplatz am Graben program, and realised between Mai 27 and October 28 2014, distributing the sum of Euro 10.000 in public space. The spectator hears and sees the coins rolling out of the dispenser onto the street, pick them up and keep them. Based on a sculptural element, the piece aims to make social transactions visible and to foster discussions about current financial and political practices as well as the meaning of money itself. In this sense it touches upon a number of interrelated layers of meaning. It raises the question how the “qualitative” and discoursive value of art is related to quantifiable monetary value by positioning the distribution of money as an aesthetic act. At the same time the “Quantitative Easing” in the title of the work, refers to the similarly named practice of the American and European central banks, FED and EZB, of flooding the markets with “cheap” money and bulk buying risky debt obligations from banks in order to facilitate economic growth. However, the major bulk of this money never finds its way to “ordinary” participants of the economic system and instead fuels real estate and stock bubbles. In this sense the question, who this money is directed at needs to be posed. Furthermore it is also part of the scope of this work to ask once more what money itself is. Are we dealing with a neutral medium of exchange (classic economy), an abstraction of bodily relations (Pierre Klossowski), a value transport system born from slavery and war (David Graeber), a social hallucination acting al the representation of a cryptic religion (Walter Benjamin), a debt against the issuer?
Quantitative Easing (for the street) is a source of money tapped by a public audience and distributed over the course of its duration until it vanishes when the last euro has been spread. The performative core of the piece targets the attention of passers by in public space and instigates discussions about the meaning of such a source of money.
Quantitative Easing (for the street)
Gerald Nestler (2014)
If the frequently quoted antipodes of modern economics John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek agreed on one thing, it was that a lack of trust has a destabilising impact. If, then, as in the financial crisis of the last several years, this manifestation of confidence is bathed in bright light precisely because it lacks, the power of social relations exceeds beyond economic parameters: the lack of trust desiccates the climate of capitalist trade relationships. Axel Stockburger's intervention in public space draws our attention to such a situation, alluding to a climate change in the mesh of global economics whereby the current crisis is not characterised by scarcity but by abundance. The artist enriches the Vienna Graben boulevard with a sculptural object whose actual inner worth is revealed to passers-by through its performative quality: from 27 May until mid-October an apparently gold-plated vault spits out money in the form of one Euro coins, at one of the flushest locations in Vienna. The horizontal flow of people is accompanied by a flow generated at random for the duration of the intervention that is also an invitation to participate. Quantitative Easing (for the street) does not exclude anybody. On the contrary, it enables people to take the coins and to redistribute them regardless of whether they are flaneurs, tourists, shoppers, business people, beggars, random passers-by or local residents.
The art project, curated by Muntean/Rosenblum for KÖR, engages with the impermanence, the volatility and the inequality intrinsic to an economically defined system of values, at what is probably the promenade and shopping street with the oldest tradition in Vienna. Quantitative Easing (for the street) is part of a long tradition of engagement by artists with the social phenomena associated with economic dominance and its physical manifestation, money. As in earlier works where Stockburger explored contemporary media, like film, video and computer games and their linguistic, gestural and material conventions, his interest lies in social fictions, which in this case are created both by economics as well as by art. Both owe their existence to conventions and are subject to change. They govern our world view precisely because they are constructs of the mind. In this sense the vessel Stockburger has erected on the Graben alludes to the cultural significance as well as to the economical value of gold. This value, among other things, results from gold's ability to “stay alive” beyond death as both a retainer of value and a raw material for the arts. Gold conserves lifetime achievements and is available to successive generations. Gold was and is, alongside its cultic significance, always also the raw material for the physical manifestation of both economics and art, whereby these two functions are frequently inseparable.
What is, however, literally dropping out of Stockburger's fictive reservoir of historical value systems — namely money in the form of one Euro coins — is, at present, subject to an unbounded volatility, to shifts in value that are measured in milliseconds rather than generations or centuries. The reality of money is accordingly at least double-edged: on the one hand, it is "the food" of social relationships of exchange, on the other hand it stands for virtual, i.e. fictitious, prices that are set on the financial markets, to an unimaginable extent and at incredible speeds. Economic as well as artistic fictions are fragile and speculative. While art uses existence in the present to reflect reality in its appearances, financial markets produce appearances that have to be realised as future realities in order to stop the house of cards of speculation and investment from collapsing. What we term "economic crisis" occurs in a reality where this contingent "world" perishes into the bottomless pit of austerity measures. Stockburger's art project enters the arena after the event that defines our globalised world today. It positions itself where a new fiction — that of so-called "quantitive easing" — reconstructs this world, which is now conceived in purely economic terms. Quantitative Easing (for the street) is accordingly an artistic engagement with a financial and political construct intended to save a "world" that has already collapsed. What this means for the resulting social reality, to what extent the fictions of money and art create worlds, and what or whom we can trust, are the questions that Stockburger not only ponders himself but also poses to everybody jostling along the Graben.
Having already suffered a number of "heart attacks" in the course of the sub-prime crisis from August 2007, with the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in September 2008 the financial markets basically suffered a lethal stroke. In this extreme crisis of trust the banks are restricting their function as providers of credit and so have become barriers within their own ecosystem. To avert a collapse in the circulation of money accompanied by an uncontrollable series of bankruptcies, the central banks bought up loans at everybody's expense, so injecting new money (by increasing the quantity of money) into the already ailing banking system. This is to be seen, for example, in the total assets of the FED, the US American central bank: having risen from 900 billion dollars (2008) at the outset of the financial crisis to 2,200 billion now. This economic-political strategy is known in its most extreme form as "quantitive easing" (QE). This is the pharmakon – the toxic potion administered as cure-all – that is supposed to bring the market back to life. Following the collapse that put the credit-fed politics of growth into an induced coma, QE maintains and oversees the vital functions of the financial marketplace, which has switched into a kind of neutral gear as the beneficiaries park most of the money shot their way right back into the central bank system instead of reintroducing funds into the economy, for instance by providing loans. The question that QE raises, then, — and in a complex, interconnected derivative system the question means no less than a gamble — is whether the trust in the ideology of the free-market is strong enough as an economical and political project to resuscitate it from its induced coma. QE opens the monetary as well as ideological floodgates of a sheer inexhaustible — one is tempted to say transcendental — source of trust. Instead of channelling money, support and encouragement to the victims of the crisis and allowing the least privileged sectors of society to participate in civic life, however, an enormous effort is made to invest in the same people who caused the collapse while they wield control over vast inactive fortunes. There are not only verbal assurances of unlimited liquidity for the financial sector, but it is also made available in the form of money — with the paradox effect that the markets are flooded with cash to prevent them from going under, from drowning.
Quantitative Easing (for the street)
Stockburger brings quantitative easing from the stock exchange to the street — and so into the terrain of common interest, whose social climate is reflected in the absolutization of its debts. The coins that Stockburger throws into the casino of the economised public space are not much more than drops falling at random onto the hot stone of a social reality where the basis for ascertaining value relies increasingly upon automated algorithmic transactions and prices calculated on the basis of probabilistic models. However, his artistic gesture goes beyond being a symbolic one to the extent that it supplies that most obvious and yet simultaneously obscure object of desire without insisting on its being earned, or, more akin to financial lingo, on performative evaluations of individual achievement. Disregarding local mindsets, this implies that a social contract based on limited liability has replaced one based on social integration. This is a gamble that constructs a future in order to dominate the present (and not the other way around). There, the potential meaning of wealth, or, in recollection to the first sentence of Marx’ Capital, the “’richess’ of […] societies”. is subjugated by the economy. However, where the future has already been marginalised, the present thins out too, and thus wealth indeed erodes across its entire spectrum of meanings. The sparce sound of the coins dropping leaves space for a thought: What would a social contract look like whose constitution precedes quantified liability and implicit issues of trust? While the financial system serves only the banks, in Quantitative Easing (for the street) anyone can grab a coin and become active in the mechanism of distribution. Accordingly, Stockburger's source of money and its perhaps marginal but nevertheless practical value alludes to a social body with the intrinsic potential not only for economic transactions but also, among other things, the potential to trigger political action. In this way, Quantitative Easing (for the street) is positioned on the horizon of quality experience, where wealth can be understood as a capacity for solidarity in action, which essentially forms the highly developed foundation of communities. Stockburger's speculation contrasts with speculations on the financial markets insofar as it uses coins to bet on the wealth of possible contingent events and narratives in public space, instead of profit scenarios based on probability theory and the Ultima Ratio after default of “hedging risk” among the general population. Stockburger is interested in that which seems to be overlooked in the debates about the future, even though it is the core of the social transformation that we are experiencing today: the present as shared experience. It, rather than money, is the true medium for a potential to develop — depending on personal orientation — the capacity to act and reach agreements. Stockburger's intervention in public space poses the burning question of what money, the creation and accumulation of value, and equal distribution mean to us. What are their social, economic and artistic fictions based on, what desires do they fulfil, what is the significance of participation? After all, it is precisely the street where the coins land that opens up the political horizon: Representative democracies, degenerated into derivatives of fiscal-economic "necessity", create the climate for what are now political and legal manifestations of quantitative easing to the extent that they conjure up a democratic liquidity that is at once gambled away and liquidated.
Quantitative Easing (for the street) provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the vertigo that has engulfed us and our social reality, pulling us into its wake. Furthermore, the artist reminds us that the street is the space of possibility, of "social transactions" (Stockburger), where not only financial capital counts: it is ultimately a place where aesthetic, social and political capital manifest themselves, generate space.
Texts referencing Quantitative Easing (for the streets):
"Europe's lost Art of money-making" by Alan Shipman, Open University
"Infrastructures of Money" by Joe Deville, Centre for the Study of Innovation and Social Process, Goldsmiths, University of London