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This work began in Hong Kong, as well it might. The ‘financial capital’ is poised between east and west, with a ringside seat on the spectacle of the global markets. Hong Kong becomes a unique vantage point on the dramatic spectacle of the Global Financial Crisis, convulsions we are still living through.
Helen Grace is herself a singular vantage point, making ‘generative art’ from long observation of aesthetics and economics and how they come together. In Speculation: The October Series, Sydney audiences recently got to see a selection of the works that she has made and exhibited in Hong Kong, making ‘market sentiments’ into art.
The frightening paradox of the market is that, for all it is presented as a blind force of indefeasible calculation—even of rationalism—it is dominated by the notion of its moods. ‘Investor sentiment’, ‘business confidence’, the twin antimonies of fear and greed: while economics is a science for pessimists, the market is a place of pragmatists betting on other people’s feelings. Or so it seems. Sometimes, in the inimitable words of business journalist Alan Kohler, the market just behaves ‘like kids on red cordial’.
Some of Grace’s works bring out this mad empiricism of the global markets, where ‘market sentiment’ collects together the fugitive and irrational moments of investor behaviour, and spins it into objective fact. For example, in Sleep Per Night – April - December 2008, minutes of sleep are plotted against days of the month, overlaid on a sepia photograph of the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. The ‘bio-data’ is generated from the artist’s own diaries from the time, which was a time of sleepless nights for investors.
The bar graph becomes a simple and forceful presentation of the difficulty of living the GFC, where everyone has something on the (bottom) line. Thus, a series of ‘bio-data sets’ chart not only sleep per night, but ‘general anxiety’, ‘state of happiness’, ‘sense of security and belonging’ and ‘filial sentiment’ for the period, generating a self-portrait with cerebral intent.
In presenting her own emotional life as a kind of data the market could use, Grace performs a significant condensation: the impossible vagaries of individual mood are transposed onto the attempt of the market to leverage collectivised mood in its movement. It is of course a feedback loop; the more consumer sentiment lags, the more economic performance drags.
In Chicago Board of Trade Rough Rice Futures Contracts April - December 2008 Grace highlights another action of the market, in its speculation on the future of necessary commodities. The graphs for the period are suspended over photographs of Asian workers in the paddy fields, introducing the Marxian insight that production is built on (someone else’s) labour.
These charts call to mind the Asiatic mode of production and the tsunami of late industrial capitalism wreaking havoc on third world staples. Speculation on the future of this crop is also betting for or against starvation, a real anxiety given drought and loss of land for edible crop planting to bio-fuels harvest. Grace punctuates this musing on Marx with the Index of Creative Thought April – December 2008, visualising the value of the artist’s work as a commodity.
Many of Grace’s graphs make changing moods and emotional states into empirical realities via the logic of the ‘candlestick’ chart, a stock in trade of ‘technical analysis’. Traders use technical analysis to decide whether to buy, sell or hold. In the candlestick chart, the movement of the price, not merely its position, can be seen on inspection, highlighting trends. The candlestick method of charting was developed in the eighteenth century by Japanese rice traders, but is now widely used to depict securities, derivatives and currency movements, all elements largely determined by sentiment.
The trend is of course a trajectory across time. It can create the illusion of seeing the future. It may promise to alleviate risk. Yet the direction is a mirage, never quite capturing the moment at which the traders run to the other side of the ship.
Everywhere you turn and on every surface and screen, there are images of beautiful figures, lines ever rising skyward and cloudless blue skies promising infinite growth, security and high return. It seems that economics itself is a sublime landscape, while at the same time, art is merely another asset class.
(Helen Grace, IPO catalogue)
In her ‘day job’ as a cultural studies academic, Grace says that the task of the humanities is pattern recognition. In this exhibition, she shows pattern recognition to be an aesthetic form. She gestures toward the creative power of ‘facts and figures’, which through being visualised, are producing value as much as recording it.
Strangely, ‘the greater visualisation of the markets coincides with the disappearance of visual drama from stock market trading floors’. In the same way, we ourselves are ‘dematerialised’ from physical forms to data flows, in the speculation on our wants and needs. This speculation is a form of abstraction that has become lethal in the global tumult. ‘Why should land speculation and the stock market come to the fore as dominant sectors in both advanced and developing societies? … Is human labour merely expendable raw material—like coal or iron ore?’
In contrary motion, the whimsy of charts like Volatile body, tired and aching and Everyday Dread and Dark Clouds Gathering portray the inescapably physical basis for sentiment. If the market historically has a gender, it is feminine—its hysteria and fickleness apparently tell us that. And if the market had a body, it would thereby be premenstrual, or worse, peri-menopausal; labile, unreasonable, over-heated, upset. These series of graphs, compiled from diary entries, evoke the abjection of unruly aspects of life beyond economics, the moods and sentiments of the lived body.
In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, from which I have been quoting, we are told the charts represent an IPO (Initial Public Offering). Grace asks us to speculate on ‘What happens when the private individual goes public, floating himself or herself into the stream of risky capital flows?’
Is this fantasy—or is it Facebook? Social media, the sites where people perform themselves ‘for fun and profit’, make Grace’s question urgent. ‘How do we survive in a market-dominated world, which devalues and discounts life and labour? What prospects currently exist for maximising returns on a public offering of the individual body and its emotional states?’
That remains to be seen.
Helen Grace, Sleep Per Night - October. Courtesy the artist.
Helen Grace, Everyday Dread and Dark Clouds Gathering - April. Courtesy the artist.
Helen Grace, Chicago Board of Trade Rough Rice Futures Contract - November. Courtesy the artist.