On an Artist
I came across Karmelo Bermejo’s work through an offhand photograph of a scuffed Nilfisk vacuum cleaner in an otherwise slick art magazine, captioned: Internal Component of the Vacuum Cleaner of an Art Centre Director Replaced by a Solid Gold Replica with the Funds of the Centre He Directs 2010.
Intrigued, I sent Karmelo an email that led to correspondence and eventually a meeting at Documenta 13, where in suitably cosmopolitan surrounds, we mapped common friends and divulged plans. After some time, Karmelo announced he would like to present me with a gift, flipping open his wallet, producing a crisp, green €100 bill.
According to curator Lorenzo Fusi, the Contribution… series ‘empowers those who normally perform these duties for little money and reveals the truth of their exploitation’.2 What then do these gifts of labour reveal about the exploitation of artists?
The vanguard assertion of an autonomous sphere of art, from which one may consider and critique the conditions of life, is currently manifest as the art world — a globalised constellation of galleries, museums, schools, studios, publications, fairs and international events animated by a circulation of curators, collectors, critics, theorists, historians, educators, administrators, installers, production assistants, personal assistants and other skilled and unskilled labour forces — the expanded field of art. Across this rarefied terrain, artists undertake paid and unpaid work to compete for grants, residencies, institutional endorsements, gallery representation, critical favour and recognition, in a contest synced with an art market intent on commodifying the experiences of an intensified cultural existence.
In this late-capitalist mise-en-scéne, artists have evolved into a semi-professional ‘creative class’ who exploit their networks, skills, work and leisure time to facilitate an art scene — a giddy social-political milieu, the financialisation of which benefits corporate-civic brands and private investors.3 Artists conditioned in the thin air of social competition no longer critique the status quo, but instead aspire to become it, a deeply conformist twist on the vanguardist demand to collapse art into life.4 Are artists themselves now the ultimate readymade?5
Chicago School economist Gary S Becker proposes that people as commodified agents can add use-value to their ‘human capital’ by improving their competitiveness in the market according to its desires: undertaking education and training, caring for their health and so on.
In a neoliberal scenario an artist’s value is determined less by the commodities they produce than how they are perceived by the market and their ability to generate a satisfying return on investment. This profile might be determined by factors such as museum and private collection holdings, the receipt of prizes and awards, one’s exhibition history, the opinions of critics and speculators and an artist’s notoriety, all of which contribute to their cultural capital.
‘Are you satisfied it is real?’
I snap the note between my fingers to test its tensility, holding it up to the light to inspect its watermark and signs of integrity.
‘Do you want to go to a bank and have them prove it?’
I am surprised by his unexpected gift, but cautious. What’s the catch? Karmelo reaches into his pocket and retrieves a cheap plastic lighter.
‘Now burn it.’
Cash and coins are fetish items of fortunes-yet-to-come and triggers for misplaced desires. So what is it to burn money — or, more precisely, to be gifted the opportunity to burn money, free from any notion of guilt or personal financial consequence? What is money’s use-value in this occult form of expenditure? Does desire itself mutate as such uncommonsensical gifts erupt from market-determined life? What is the force of debt that such a gift bestows?
In June 2012, Karmelo produced a work at Casa Del Lago, Mexico City entitled −x. It follows a mathematical logic to rationalise the financialised personal relations between the artist, museum director and collector and their deliberately misleading acts in the service of art. The institution’s funds were used to acquire an undisclosed amount of ‘false’ counterfeit bank notes — real bills which were glued together with the same face on either side. The director hand-moulded these ‘false false’ bills into a very tight ball, which was then auctioned off to the highest bidder for an undisclosed sum, ‘x’. Framed within the functions of an esteemed cultural institution, such actions produce weird oscillations that disturb the worth of the raw material bank notes, their ability as counterfeits to devalue a currency, and their indeterminate value as symbolic objects, both as money and as art. When we met, Karmelo revealed to me documentation, from behind the closed doors of the director’s office, of the collector burning the actual money he had paid, hence its title −x and the secret function of the work.
With these acts Bermejo appears to alter assumptions about professionalised artmaking as ‘selling out’ into a series of strangely emancipatory tasks that subvert the commodification of relations between people — the market capture of life. The irrational desires that produce such art unveil a systemic error inherent in the logic of capitalism at work in both public and private spheres, effecting an apocalyptic recouping of life from the market.
‘Next I will send you a certificate of authenticity.’7
Sumugan Sivanesan is an anti-disciplinary artist.
Translations by Andrea Quiñones Armería and invaluable editing assistance from Tessa Zettel. ↩
Georges Bataille, ‘The Notions of Expenditure’, 1933, in Allan Stoekl (ed., trans.) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927–1939, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008, p. 121. ↩
Lorenzo Fusi, ‘2010. Re:thinking Trade’ in Lewis Biggs, Paul Domela, Sacha Waldron, Andrew Kirk (eds.) Touched – The Book, Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art Ltd, 2010, p. 30. ↩
Pascal Gielen, ‘The Art Scene. A Clever Working Model for Economic Exploitation?’, Open 17: A Precarious Existence, Vulnerability in the Public Domain, SKOR, 2009, http://classic.skor.nl/article-4176-en.html, accessed 29 September 2012. ↩
Nicholas Brown, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Real Subsumption under Capitalism’, nonesite.org, Emory College of Art and Sciences, http://nonsite.org/editorial/the-work-of-art-in-the-age-of-its-real-subsumption-under-capital, accessed 25 September 2012. ↩
Claire Fontaine, Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A few Clarifications, 2005, http://www.clairefontaine.ws/pdf/readymade_eng.pdf, accessed 25 September 2012. ↩
Marcel Duchamp, À bruit secret 1916, a ball of twine between two brass plates joined by four long screws that contains a small unknown object added by the art collector Walter Arensberg. ↩