Kelly Doley, George Egerton-Warburton, Agatha Gothe-Snape, Juliet Rowe & Christopher Sciuto. Co-curated with Patrice Sharkey. 2012
Yap, a small island in Micronesia, is notable for its curious use of stone money.1 Although the US dollar now serves as the currency for everyday transactions in Yap, the stone discs are stillused for more traditional or ceremonial exchanges. Known as Rai, this unusual currency consists of solid, doughnut-shaped, carved disks that range in diameter from four centimetres to four metres, with each stone’s value based on both its size and its history. Despite the obdurate materiality of this stone money, it is not necessary for its owners to reduce it to possession: upon the conclusion of a transaction that involves a Rai too large to be conveniently moved, its new owner is quite content to accept the bare acknowledgement of ownership so that the coin remains undisturbed on the former owner’s premises. Writing in 1910 after spending several months on the island, American anthropologist William Henry Furness III amusingly noted:
There was a [Yap] family whose wealth was unquestioned – acknowledged by everyone – and yet no one, not even the family itself, had ever laid eye or hand on this wealth; it consisted of an enormous Rai, whereof the size is known only by tradition; for the past two or three generations it had been, and at that very time it was lying on the bottom of the sea!2 William Henry Furness III in Milton Friedman, ‘The Island of Stone Money’, Working Papers in Economics , Stanford University, CA, February 1991.
Given the lack of any tangible signifier in the Yap currency system, this example broadly demonstrates the importance of ‘myth’ and unquestioned belief in monetary matters3 Friedman, ‘The Island of Stone Money’, February 1991 . Indeed, how many of us have literal, direct assurance of the existence of the items we regard as constituting our wealth? For example, although numerical entries in a bank account and pieces of paper certifying the ownership of property do not provide hard physical evidence of personal capital, they appear entirely ‘real’ and ‘rational’ to us, and are, somehow, highly reassuring. Thus, while No Reasonable Offer Refused considers the ways in which contemporary art engages with acts of commerce, we also recognise a key predicament: if the laws of economics and its frequently quantitative, less-than-human insights are removed from everyday life, how can artists visualise a system whose core dynamics are generously abstracted beyond our personal levels of understanding? In fact, in our debt-ridden era, when the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis lingers and the world economy’s momentum remains downward,4 ‘Vicious cycle in the Eurozone is dragging world economies down’, The Age, 15 August 2012. current social conditions pose an even greater problem to navigating the rules and structures of market economics. Both the triggers and
lasting impacts of the recent crisis are complex and multifaceted, and remain hard to understand; so much so that, not only did economists fail to foresee the crisis, even in hindsight their models have had trouble understanding or accepting that something went wrong.5 Ibid. Bringing such abstractions into focus, Canadian artist Melanie Gilligan takes on the subject of the recent recession in her Artangel-commissioned film Crisis in the Credit System 2008. The film is a four-part dramatisation of a role-playing and brainstorming session held by an unnamed investment bank, in which employees must find solutions to the financial crisis. The scenarios that the employees develop begin with the mundane, but soon balloon out into ridiculous propositions. For example, a hedge fund manager predicts that, with food prices surely on the increase, there could be new financial gains to be made from the expected consumer weight loss. The brainstorming team then hatch a short-term plan to invest in companies that make smaller-sized clothing, with their long-term investment plan forecasting that, as staple foods become a luxury, obesity will become the newly desired body type. The scene ends with employees gleefully speculating when will be the right time to invest. Crisis in the Credit System does not attempt to explain the financial crisis in any great depth; the strength in this work lies in Gilligan’s grappling with the abstractions that underpin the finance world. This is exemplified in one employee’s discussion of price as the only certainty. She posits that the identity of an asset is irrelevant, likening share trading to a new language in which words can have multiple meanings:6 Dan Fox, ‘Crisis in the Credit System’: http://blog.frieze.com/crisis_in_the_credit_system/ , accessed 3 August 2012.
I could say ‘tree’ but it doesn’t have to mean ‘tree’, it could mean ‘jet’, and suddenly we have expanded our word-generating profit margin exponentially, and we can take profit from more meanings and numerous positions on it.
In its over-the-top style, Crisis in the Credit System utilises the confusing language of economics, whereby figures of speech become literal. For example, in the film a financial analyst becomes a mystical oracle, making market predictions whilst in a trance. In attempting to capture the mystical aspect to our understanding of market dynamics, Gilligan ultimately falls back on stereotypes and clichés of scheming hedge fund managers and boisterous business men all trying to make a buck. However, she stretches these tired tropes beyond their customary dimensions, playing with such abstractions to reveal the kinds of gaps that exist in our knowledge of the free market. The artists in No Reasonable Offer Refused approach economics in a similar manner: inquisitive and light-hearted, each project plays with and re-shapes the well-worn systems of commerce. Whether dealing with the dematerialisation of the art object in the form of a conversation between artist and audience, manipulating the tools of exhibition marketing or parodying the commodification one’s own artistic practice, the art object remains central. It is this negotiation – between artist and the abstracted systems of value – that ties together No Reasonable Offer Refused.
Liang Luscombe and Patrice Sharkey