A Year in Revenue
Note: This essay was written for Felix Kalmenson’s exhibition A Year In Revenue, which took place at Pari Nadimi Gallery in Toronto, Canada, from 5 February to 28 March, 2015. Although a catalogue was printed, I considered publishing this essay in art journals, in order to offer access to the writing I produced as a result of Kalmenson’s exhibition, but the essay seemed either too specific to the exhibition, and thus would not sit well outside of the context for which it was originally written. The essay remains unchanged from its original version.
Under the cover of night on December 15, 1989, Italian-American sculptor Arturo Di Modica and his team of artist’s assistants sat in the cab of a truck, en route to Lower Manhattan. One world-famous wall had fallen only months before in Berlin, and Di Modica’s goal was to supply 3.5 tons of bronze reinforcements for another Wall right there in Manhattan. By jingoistically demonstrating the “strength and power of the American people,” he wanted to ensure it too didn’t collapse, as it had sixty-three million, seventy-two thousand seconds ago in 1987. Without permission, pretense, or precedent, Di Modica unloaded his Charging Bull onto Wall Street, directly in front of the New York Stock Exchange. While now universally recognized as the symbol of the virility of American finance, this $360,000 piece of capitalist fan-art initially went unappreciated by those that ran the exchange — the Bull was seized by police and carted away on a flatbed truck to an impound lot the morning after, before public outcry led to it being installed in its permanent location in Bowling Green Park at the base of the Financial District.
Seven hundred and eighty-eight million, four hundred thousand seconds later, after being surrounded by barricades during a period in which a bear would have been a more appropriate symbol for the economy, the bull is uncaged once more. Its brazen beginnings as an act of guerrilla art still seem incongruous to the motivations behind the piece (although flagrantly and regularly breaking the law is indeed an integral part of finance capital), but it is only now, with the Bull under constant surveillance; viewable from anywhere, at any time — on a tablet in the back room of a gallery in Toronto, for example — that it truly fulfills its conceptual potential. Its materiality dissolved, the Bull actively corresponds to the current state of the market that it originally sought to represent. In 2004, Di Modica announced that the sculpture was for sale, provided the buyer does not remove it from its current location — it is only a price tag, without an obtainable object attached. Not only does its perpetual for-sale status contribute to its complete dematerialization — the insane material weight of the Bull is further made immaterial by its projection across an inconceivable number of networks and protocols. It is one of the most photographed monuments in a city of most-photographed monuments, and its financial value as an artwork defies the hands of thousands of tourists who fondle it every day.
Di Modica could have never anticipated a 24/7 livestream of the sculpture — the distance from which we may now view it was unfathomable at the time. He built it for people to touch and hold. Likewise, the environments that the stock market occupies were specifically built and optimized for human interaction: The floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) — the trading floor this exhibition replicates and dissects aspects of — was specifically engineered for open outcry, the mode of communication that was once the primary mode of trading stocks. Now, more than 80 percent of the total volume of trades at the CME occur through Globex, an electronic trading system. The daily frenzy of traders signalling frantically, yelling at the top of their lungs, has been outsourced to machines moving at speeds beyond our capacity to perceive them. Money begets money without any human intervention; language, once an integral mode of deciphering and interpreting our environment, has been replaced by numbers. The micro- and nanoseconds that the stock market now operates at are only perceptible to anthropogenic artificial intelligence — algorithms labeled with cryptic monikers like Ambush, Nighthawk, Raider, Dagger, or Guerrilla — unleashed by proletarianized programmers deep in the bowels of Goldman Sachs’ Manhattan headquarters. Even the CEOs of Wall Street’s largest banks cannot imagine the impossible temporality that these machines operate at — but not being able to imagine that scale does not make it unfeasible to spend billions to gain fractions of milliseconds in trading speed. Numeric logic has superseded human imagination.
Unlike the machine, we like to think that our bodies are comparatively reliable tools — autonomous; resistant to ideological tyranny. We are free to move and communicate as inefficiently as we wish. We may prefer to walk slowly, or refuse to applaud at a celebration. But From Sunrise to Sunset demonstrates otherwise, as does attempting to walk slowly down a crowded sidewalk during rush hour. The numeric logic of capital directs us toward optimizing our capacity for “participation in digital milieus and speeds” — paradoxically pressuring us to imitate the inanimate as we strive to achieve the inhuman speed and decisiveness of automation. Despite this impetus to extend our physical abilities beyond their limitations by mechanical means, humans will always exist at the anthropological position between dogs and gods; the beast and the machine. Boris Groys writes,
The position of humans does not lie between the animal and the God, as was once the case, but rather between the animal and the machine. The authors of older utopias tended to affirm what is mechanical in humans in order to differentiate humans more sharply from animals, for they perceived the greatest danger for humanity to lie in animality. By contrast, the authors of more modern anti-utopias have affirmed what is animal, passionate and instinctive in humans in order to differentiate them more sharply from machines, for they perceive a greater danger for humans in machinery than in animality.
The messiness and inefficiencies of nature, both human and environmental, resist the rigidity of an automated control society. Our ability to imagine is what makes us human: It is what allows us to narrativize and historicize experience so that we may communicate with each other. As Nietzsche observed, “an essentially mechanical world is an essentially meaningless world.” Affirming this is vital to mitigating the effects of the society of control, out of control in which we now live. We must learn from the past, in order to think of the future, so that we may act in the present, lest we extirpate the now-mineable cognitive landscape just as we have exhausted the Earth’s.
With the rise of the Industrial Revolution of the 20th century, we entered the era of the Anthropocene. The crux of the Anthropocene is not that we humans are the centre of it — capital is — but that we may treat the Earth as if we are. But as the spectre of the post-Anthropocene emerges, so does the paradoxicality of our situation: Although we started using technology to shield ourselves from Nature — to protect ourselves from the death, catastrophe, and entropy that Nature entails — we are now using it to shield ourselves from the effects of that very technology. In desperately seeking ways to slow or mitigate the onset of global warming, “resistance” to climate change has quickly shifted toward “adaptation.” In the process of this adaptation, humans themselves have become repositories of extractable resources — personal data is the “new oil of the Internet and the new currency of the digital world.” We are at the mercy of a nature that we have created.
The blurring of the boundary between the human and technological is evident in much of the built world — a concrete park bench is a direct result of global-scale resource extraction — but its dominance is especially evident in mobile applications that are built to decipher the black box that is today’s financial market for interfaces designed specifically for human interaction. They paradoxically decipher an anthropogenic phenomenon that has grown in automated complexity to the degree that we are no longer able to understand or even see it happening, and contorts it into an interface. The Forex Blackbox app, displayed on an Android phone, paradoxically deciphers an anthropogenic phenomenon that has grown in automated complexity to the degree that we are no longer able to understand or even see it happening, and contorts it into an interface — reducing the infinite chaos of global finance into a single bevelled-and-embossed “trade” button. Our memory and comprehension has been externalized to the digital, accelerating us one step further away from owning the technological means of production.
We are relentlessly marching towards the post-Anthropocene, at which point humans become ultimately irrelevant to capitalism’s functioning. This shift is materially evident in the ongoing evolution and dispersion of the stock markets at the very core of capital. Karl Marx was the first to observe that the primary requirement of capitalism is the dissolution of its relation to the earth. “Capital by its very nature drives beyond every spatial barrier,” he wrote, making “the annihilation of space by time” not only achievable, but inevitable. Prior to electronic trading’s takeover of the stock market, traders converged in centralized locations. Until the the hyper-industrial era of the late 1990s took hold, you could almost count the number of major North American stock exchanges on one hand — the NSX, the NYSE, NASDAQ (and its Boston and Philadelphia iterations), the CHX, and the TSX in Toronto and MX in Montreal. Eight, on this continent. Now these spaces have been hollowed out into façades of the processes they were built to house. Since the turn of the millennium, the number of stock exchanges in North America has skyrocketed to over twenty. Many of the newer exchanges do not even have trading floors. The real action takes place elsewhere — for Wall Street, in massive server farms in the tiny New Jersey townships of Mahwah, Secaucus, and Weehawken; and for the CME, in a huge warehouse in sleepy Aurora, Illinois.
Microprocessors are not built with the visual grandeur of yesterday’s financial institutions in mind. Instead, they are exclusively designed for functional purposes, and their technical aesthetic expresses that. The data centers of global finance are similarly banal — a look inside will not yield much more than sights of rows upon rows of server stacks and water-cooled pipes filled with cable runs hanging over top of polished concrete floors. Many of these massive server farms employ less than 200 people — there aren’t even any humans for scale in the stock photographs of these massive warehouses. With the gargantuan scale of these structures comes the sole concerns of energy efficiency and cost effectiveness, and the main requirements of these structures are equally few: thick masonry walls, and few or no openings to any sources of heat outside them. These unassuming suburban server farms could not be further from the hallowed financial institutions that symbolize global capital — but they are the new heart of Wall Street.
Now that the market has become pure abstraction, its speed constrained only by available energy resources, the formerly chaotic and paper-strewn trading floors are well on their way to resembling Kalmenson’s reconstruction of them. It is now impossible to imagine what the market at heart of capitalism looks like, never mind how it actually works. In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis explains:
For a market expert truly to get inside the New York Stock Exchange, he’d need to climb inside a tall black stack of computer servers locked inside a cage locked inside a fortress guarded by a small army of heavily armed men and touchy German shepherds in Mahwah, New Jersey. If he wanted an overview of the entire stock market — or even the trading in a single company like Intel — he’d need to inspect the computer printouts from twelve other public exchanges scattered across northern New Jersey, plus records of the private dealings that occurred inside the growing number of dark pools. If he tried to do this, he’d soon learn that there actually was no computer printout. At least no reliable one. No mental picture existed of the new financial market. There was only this yellowing photograph of a market now dead that served as a stand-in for the living.
This exhibition is an expression of the yellowing photograph Lewis describes: A historical reconstruction of something that isn’t yet historical; a fossil of the present from and for the future. Buildings are abandoned when they become too slow and inefficient for the purposes they are used for — ruins of a past paradigm. Brian Dillon describes the ruin as embodying a set of historical and temporal paradoxes, reminiscent of the algorithms that have superseded humans in running the globalized economy. Simultaneously, the ruin is a fragment of the past; a portal backwards in time, as well as a reference point for moving forward, prompting us to imagine a time in which our present is reduced to the ruin that sits before us. The actors have left the stage long ago, yet the audience is still applauding.
The essential elements of the formerly frenzied trading floor replicated by Kalmenson are modelled on the layout of an amphitheatre. Historically, the theatre has been an important place for collective experience — Hannah Arendt writes that “the theater is the political art par excellence; only there is the political sphere of human life transposed into art.” Indeed, politics is also a stage on which dramas are played out — and all technologies involve scripts. The forms that these dramas take — social, biological, juridical, financial, military, and so on — are endless. Dramas are a specific type of fiction, predicated by the fact that they are collaboratively performed and collectively received in public. Accordingly, the word drama itself, from the Classical Greek δρᾶμα, means action. As Jacques Rancière says, on the political stage, actors are “surrounded by the performance, drawn into the circle of action.” At a point where the richest one percent of the world’s population owns more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth, being able to stage these dramas to re-frame and re-imagine even a modest change in wealth distribution is crucial. But the dramas that occur in the realm of finance are no longer either performed or received by humans — they are invisible, technological dramas performed on temporal and spatial scales imperceptible to human actors. Another world may be possible, but its very possibility has been erased from human imagination.
By anatomizing this reality, Kalmenson projects another world that is “recognized as a reality which is suppressed and distorted” in our current one, encouraging the viewer to become a voyeur of our present from the perspective of the future, allowing us to perceive “the emergence of another reason, another sensibility, which [defies] the rationality and sensibility incorporated in the dominant social institutions.”
When the market at the centre of the capitalist economy is run by inhuman algorithms that are premised on predicting the future, it is only by projecting further — “on the bleeding edge of strangeness, fifteen minutes into everyone else’s future”—that we may construct a parallel world in which the possibility exists of contesting the stranglehold market logic has over our lived reality.
After all, even the word “impossibility” has possibility embedded into it.