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<nettime> Richard Grayson: Well here we are...the end of Planet Finance
Geert Lovink on Mon, 16 Feb 2009 11:08:55 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Richard Grayson: Well here we are...the end of Planet Finance


Richard Grayson: Well here we are...the end of Planet Finance
Essay published in Broadsheet, Australia, 2009

Chanel is pulling its flagship sponsorship project for contemporary  
art. A newspaper story (the Guardian 29 Dec 2008) describes how in the  
face of fears that the 'supposedly recession proof luxury market' is  
falling victim to the credit crisis, the perfume and handbag company  
is not only shedding 200 jobs but bringing its highly publicized  
global art installation 'Mobile Art' to an early end for fears that  
this 'quirky marketing operation' has become a luxury that the brand  
could no longer support.

Architect of choice for the Art World, Zaha Hadid teamed up with Karl  
Lagerfield and Chanel to create a futuristic pavilion designed to  
travel for two years throughout Asia, the United States and Europe.  
The legendary Mademoiselle Chanel herself, publicity reminded us, had  
in the past supported the likes of Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Serge  
Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky and Jacques Lipchitz, and now twenty  
contemporary artists including Daniel Buren, Blue Noses - (the  
'rascals of Russian contemporary arts' apparently) Sylvie Fleury,  
Sophie Calle, Yang Fudong, Subdoh Gupta, Yoko Ono and Wim Delvoy, had  
been commissioned to collaborate with the fashion house to make work  
where 'all of the pieces will be conceived in relation to one of  
Chanel's most emblematic accessories - the quilted handbag.' The  
intention was that 'resulting from their singular points of view -  
poetic, audacious and as yet unseen - the multiple facets of this  
mythical bag and its universe are revealed.' An intention that would  
make it 'a revolutionary event, uniting one of the greatest architects  
of our time, some of our most innovative artists, and an icon of the  
fashion world - the quilted bag.' The Project 'reaffirms once more our  
(Chanel's) devotion to creativity and to the avant-garde' and  
exemplifies how the company is 'a modern brand' that is 'constantly  
moving forward, cultivating the extraordinary and its innate sense of  
the moment, CHANEL is resolutely open to the world and turning towards  
the future. It is this propulsion that incites CHANEL to perpetually  
create surprise, from one continent to the next, and to so deeply  
impact on our collective imaginary consciousness.'

The plug was pulled two stops into the global tour. It had been  
launched in Hong Kong and took up residence in Central Park New York,  
but never made it to London and the other global cultural - and  
financial - capitals of its tour. 'Considering the current economic  
crisis,' a spokesman said, 'we decided it was best to stop the  
project.' Instead, 'we will be concentrating on strategic growth  
investments.' (Vogue Magazine 22 Dec 2008).

'The producers of the abysmal 1998 movie Lost In Space should sue for  
copyright against the spacecraft, Jupiter II,' wrote Rob Dawg on  
zahahadidblog after his first sight of the plans for the Chanel  
building, and Hadid's design does closely echo the weird organic  
shapes of futuristic alien technologies and flying saucers as imagined  
by Hollywood. And vice-versa, which is probably a convergence of  
computer software. And the ship's sudden return to earth makes it an  
early manifestation of the vast quantities of space-debris that we can  
expect to crash down around our ears as a result of the spectacular  
break up 'Planet Finance'. It is a Roswell moment, when Hadid's sci-fi  
pavilion, its 'propulsion to create surprise' suddenly exhausted,  
becomes the junk of an alien civilization, stranded, earthbound. Its  
corpses and culture are laid out in front of us. Inanimate. Dead. And  
looking sort of weird and fake.

'Planet Finance' is the name given by groovy rightwing academic, Neil  
Ferguson, to the vast financial sphere that has overshadowed our  
universe for the last few decades. He describes how in 2006, the  
measured economic output of the entire world was some $48.6 trillion,  
but the total market capitalisation of the world's stock markets was  
$50.6 trillion, 4 percent larger than the stuff of the world and the  
total value of domestic and international bonds was $67.9 trillion, 40  
percent larger ('Wall Street lays another egg' Vanity Fair December  
2008). Planet Finance was not only bigger than Planet Earth, it was  
faster. Every day $3.1 trillion changed hands on foreign-exchange  
markets and very month $5.8 trillions traded on global stock markets.  
In its swampy atmosphere (made up, it might be hypothesised, of  
gaseous testosterone, cocaine, Porsche exhaust and swirly-eyed lip- 
smacking greed) new financial life-forms evolved. The total annual  
issuance of mortgage-backed securities, including the seductive new  
'collateralised debt obligations' (C.D.O.'s), rose to more than $1  
trillion. The volume of 'derivatives' - contracts such as options and  
swaps - grew even faster and by the end of 2006 their notional value  
was just over $400 trillion. With its growth the structures and logics  
of this new planet increasingly became the dominant ones here on  
earth. 'The Market' became the paradigm that shaped every activity and  
undertaking. Planet Finance's masters of the Universe became the  
masters of our world and we lesser beings subservient to their  
appetite and needs.

Contemporary Art had a particular and precious place in this new  
intergalactic culture, and its artifacts have provided a bridge  
between the previous values and narratives of the older, smaller,  
planet and the ideals and aspirations of this new stellar  
civilization. Art has always had an intimate relationship with the  
rich and the rulers of the world, both temporal and spiritual, and its  
attraction to our new extra-terrestial masters was precisely its  
occult intimacy with power that has stretched across different  
civilizations and periods of human activity. Contemporary art helped  
validate and sanctify these new electric structures. Art was the  
symbol that spoke of the mystical power of the über-commodity: a  
special sort of object - or action - that transcended the mundane to  
translate us into glorious heavenly vortexes of Platonic value. Which  
is why artists - possibly after having been kidnapped, anally probed,  
and their brains scrubbed clean by space technology to remove  
primitive ideas of worth and value, not to mention a sense of the  
ridiculous and the unseemly - found themselves happily making work  
about a padded handbag in a pavilion designed for space travel.

By some happy numerological quirk of fate, on the same day that Lehman  
Brothers was collapsing, Sotheby's in London was half-way through a  
two day event, one of the most notorious contemporary art auctions  
seen in this (or the last) century. Damien Hirst was selling off 223  
new works made by his numerous assistants over the last two years to  
eager buyers. Shockingly, for the commercial art world, the sale was  
not through his dealers, which is the normal way of flogging art, with  
carefully vetted collectors and where contacts are nurtured and  
developed. Instead it was through an Auction House, where there are  
far fewer boundaries between the artifact and punters with the desire  
to 'invest'. When the auction was first planned it seemed a very good  
time for such an event. From October 2004 onwards, according to  
ArtTactic research, the 'Hirst market had seen an average increase in  
prices of 207%, or a 39% annual compound return', and under the gavel,  
if you have the cash - or credit - you're a player and then it's just  
a matter of bulking up to have a wad big enough to beat any other  
person who is also after what you want. The simple logics of the  
Market prevail to determine 'value' rather than it being arrived at  
through arcane alchemies by secretive cabals of dealers, museums  
critics and collectors. Hirst has a manager called Frank Dunphy whose  
previous experience was in the world of circuses rather than the art  
world so he doesn't give a hoot for its structures. He was at one  
time, gloriously, Coco the Clown's accountant - a job not without  
honour - and also represented all of the world's jugglers. He and  
Damien met over a pool table in a London private members' club and he  
likes auctions because they are so democratic. 'You bring your money  
along,' he said to Waldemar Januszczak (Times Sept 7 2007), 'you put  
your hand up and you've got it.' His passion was conceived a few years  
ago when he decided to auction the contents of Hirst's restaurant, the  
Pharmacy, which was going out of business, and watched with  
astonishment as people 'started bidding hundreds of pounds for a used  
restaurant glass.'

 From the artist's point of view, an auction also has a strong  
attraction, as it considerably reduces the cut of the middleman: a  
commercial gallery selling a work will normally take between 40 - 50%  
of the sale price in commission, not so with auction houses. Until  
brave Damien came along and proved that they weren't worth the paper  
they were written on, there was an unspoken agreement between the  
auction houses and the commercial galleries where the galleries would  
handle the recent work, and the auction houses take care of the older  
stuff. The demarcation line between 'old' and 'new' was traditionally  
defined as being some five years back, but as the markets speeded up  
it closed to a two year gap. But Damien has abolished even this. It is  
a sign of how perfectly of his time Hirst is that much of the  
journalism about the auction focused not on the art but precisely on  
how he had innovated new financial and commercial structures. 'But  
like all modern visionaries, Hirst saved his greatest innovations for  
the marketplace itself,' wrote bloggingstocks.com. He took risks, cut  
out middle men, maximised returns and presented examples of the best  
of his signature lines - the animals in formaldehyde, the spotty  
paintings, the spin paintings, shiny shelves of drugs etc - so  
maximising opportunity for those wanting to buy into Brand Damien. The  
auction was widely described in newspaper finance pages in the  
aspirational, thrusting, frontier poetry of the share prospectus, and  
it is significant for Brand Hirst that Damien is a boysy stubbly  
unaffected down-to-earth-guy, a bit wild, a bit of a chancer, a jack  
the lad, not a snob or stuck up.

Last year the Cambridge Judge Business School analysed the  
demographics of City Traders to discover that the person handling  
billions and billions of funds and making millions in fees was most  
likely to be a 26 year old white male. These last decades have been  
built on the actions of young men taking hazy testosterony risks for  
shed loads of money and Damien is the sort of guy a city culture can  
understand and identify with. As these 26 year olds get to be a little  
older they become his market. He makes work about money, and he makes  
money, and is therefore value embodied. His career has bracketed the  
period - now ending - that has seen more of these millionaires buy and  
sell more art than at any other time in history. It is difficult to  
have a proper contemporary art collection without a Damien, as  
collections are no longer about individual interest or taste but  
operate as symbols that prove that you are a possessor of taste, that  
you like what other people like, are part of a group - a group that  
shapes and is shaped by the market. So you start off with a little  
formaldehyde, a dot painting perhaps, and then another, or perhaps get  
a drug cabinet thingy, then maybe add a Richard Prince Nurse or car, a  
Koons, a Nauman maybe and yes we'll have a Gursky.....et voi bloody  
la ...something to add to the yacht, the blonde and the Bugatti and  
harbourside waterview apartment.

And buy in they did. There was much sucking of teeth before the days  
of sale as to how the downturn was going to bugger this up, how Damien  
was going to become a schadenfreude cropper, but no, the stubble  
cheeky-chappy shark-pickler pulled through, making even more than had  
been projected from his sales to secretive Russian Oligarchs, precious  
plutocrats, shy hedge-fund managers, and no doubt galleries and  
dealers with a stake in Damien, desperately eager to prevent a slip in  
the auction value.of his work. The sale made the artist some £98  
million pounds, a world record for an artist (but a small profit in  
the financial trader worlds of his buyers).

Slavoj Zizek in his paperback 'Violence', talks of the 'phatic'  
function of language, which is its use to maintain and describe social  
relations though ritualised formulae such as greetings, chit chat  
about the weather. Roman Jakobson, who developed the idea liked to  
quote this dialogue from Dorothy Parker:

'Well, here we are' he said.
'Here we are' she said. Aren't we?'
'I should say we are' he said."

'The emptiness of contact thus has a propitious technical function as  
a test of the system itself: a 'Hello do you hear me?' writes Zizek  
'The phatic function is therefore close to the meta-linguistic  
function: it checks whether the channel is working. Simultaneously,  
the addresser and addressee check whether they are using the same code.

' Hirst's work shares this emptiness of the 'here we are': each  
product in the auction represents a line of manufacture in his  
practice and each line of manufacture serves to sketch out, in the  
simplest and most general terms comprehensible even to a young dazed  
dealer, burnt out hedge-funder or Oligarch's partner, what 'art' (in  
general) might be 'about': beit 'Death and mortality (pickled thing)'  
or 'Spinning Colour and Abstract Painting', 'beauty and butterflies'  
or 'Big shiny expensive attractive object of no other function'. These  
prove and test the channels of Value and Exchange, the poetics of  
marketisation and commodification that are the new code for the  
machine, the mechanisms that run this new planet. All the diverse  
operations of the art world over the decades of Planet Finance have  
ultimately had one end; the glorification of the ideal of Private  
Property.

That this art in the end represents only itself and the functions of  
value rather than any complex alternative religious, moral, immoral or  
political sphere (as art used to claim to) supports perhaps Alain  
Badiou's proposal that we live in a social space in late capitalism  
that is progressively 'worldless'. Planet Finance, is without a  
worldview of its own, and there is not a 'global capitalist  
civilisation', rather it operates in and across all civilisations:  
Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, East or West. Its global dimension can  
only be expressed through the 'Real' of the global market mechanism.  
Certainly the Contemporary Art now being produced by and exchanged in  
the new markets of China and India is largely undifferentiated from  
the global forms of 'Contemporary Art Fair Art.'

Contemporary Art didn't have a good boom and its going to be  
interesting to see how its going to cope with the bust. When I write  
that it didn't have a good boom I also need to write that it had an  
extraordinary and orgasmically brilliant boom, the best boom that it  
has ever had (But it's still a question as to how its going to cope  
with the bust). Its boom as bad and good because it got sucked up into  
this glorious new planet and bathed in a golden shower of cash. It was  
feted and lauded and has perhaps never been so desired and valued  
(even if they didn't quite know why). Art became a locus of aspiration  
for so many people. And it has sort of lost its head, its sense of its  
direction, was seduced by the big end of town, the big end of history.  
After all, before, if you were a member of what was called the avant- 
garde, it was all going to be cold dank warehouses and the respect of  
your probably hirsute peers: but in this new world art slowly came to  
represent models of innovation (models which could not be applied  
elsewhere but what the heck, that helped keep the damn thing pure) and  
glamour, and ineffable value. It was housed in American Express Halls,  
Chanel Pavilions and Oligarchs' hallways. Far nicer places than before  
with far better food: and let's face it, frequented by a better class  
of person. And Art has become very comfortable there.

The only 'avant-gardist' movement that the visual arts has generated  
since the deregulation of the banks has been 'relational aesthetics'  
with its weedily modest exploration of how 'art' might echo - and  
aestheticise - operations of capital and consumption in the new  
electronic economies. Museums and Public Galleries have been the  
matrix for such undertakings, and have helped validate new product  
(and movements) through their aura of being disinterested and  
magisterial arbiters of culture and value which operate in a sphere  
that lies outside the vulgar material world. Simultaniously - (and in  
tandem with practically all that which used to be considered the  
'public sphere) hey have been frantically privatising all their  
functions and operations, either willingly or through the pressure  
from government - through the embrace of private sponsorship and  
donation, the presence of financiers, fund managers, fund raisers,  
private collectors and dealers on boards of management and collection  
committees. Their curatorial expertise has haemorrhaged to the private  
sector to work for private galleries or advise the new non-knowing  
collectors on how to build and invest in their contemporary art- 
portfolio.

Thus curators and critics from the public sector have ended up shaping  
the collections of shipping magnates and Greek socialites and they  
have bought works that have been validated and given provenance and  
value through being shown in museum and public exhibitions curated by  
(the same) curators and critics. If Hirst's work has echoed the  
operations of value and commodity on Planet Finance, the complex  
incestuous imbroglio of the museums and non-commercial galleries with  
the commercial world has replicated the labyrinthine complexities and  
failures of financial regulation that has allowed the extraordinary  
boom and the unbelievable bust of the financial market model. Like the  
regulatory finance company Standard and Poors, museums and curators  
around the world have been issuing the equivalent of top AAA ratings  
for products that no-one really any longer properly understands. As  
with the regulators, the valuations have been of direct financial  
benefit to the people who support and pay the evaluating body. It is a  
situation where, as one of Standard and Poors' employees wrote,  
something 'could be structured by cows and we would rate it.' ...Or it  
would be shown.

For a while, around the time of the Hirst auction (without cows) there  
were voices claiming an art world exceptionalism, based on the  
arguments that a) it was 'Art' and therefore above 'all that sort of  
thing' and/or b) that as 'Art' it was really only of interest to a  
group of people who were so mega-mega-mega-rich that the fluctuations  
of salerooms and banks wouldn't effect them. Even though Damien Hirst  
as the mascot spirit of that age now passing, slipped through, which  
seems fitting, this doesn't seem to be generally holding true.  
Sotheby's has just let 120 people go in the USA. In May they sold a  
Bacon painting for $86 million American to Russian billionaire Roman  
Abramovich, their most recent sale failed to shift a similar one at  
under half the price. Galleries are shutting their doors. It is, as a  
friend just back from Art Basel Miami said, 'Like someone just turned  
a tap off.' Things are falling back to earth.

It's early days in what promises to be the long death of a galactic  
civilization so it is going to be hard to discern how things might  
reshape themselves under this bombardment, how a re-ordering might be  
imagined, how art and the art-world might re-articulate new models of  
value. The developments of the last few decades suddenly seem to make  
it redundant. As James Buchan writes, 'In societies governed by  
fashion and luxury, the public finds that there is almost nothing that  
it cannot do without.' ('Frozen Desire, an enquiry into the meaning of  
money.') Looking over the wreckage of the 'Mobile Art' tour, Karl  
Lagerfield was visited by a strange moment of lucidity, 'Today,' he  
mused to the interviewer 'everyone can say that something is for  
financial reasons when they want...for me, artistic reasons are more  
important. I always thought the building was a sculpture. I prefer it  
empty.'

See also: http://ensemble.va.com.au/Grayson/texts/WellHereWeAre2009.html
© Richard Grayson 2009  <richard_grayson {AT} va.com.au>
Fwd. by Janos Sugar




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