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.
Sumugan Sivanesan : With your series Contribution of Labour Free of Charge to… 2005–2007 you subvert assumptions about work, value and exchange by voluntarily cleaning the windows, displays and tables of multinational corporations. How did these businesses react to your gifts of labour — were there confrontations with management or security?
Karmelo Bermejo : Yes, there were always confrontations with management, security and with the police too.
SS : Were you ever physically removed?
KB : Yes, every time.
SS : Is it a crime to volunteer unrequested labour to a profit-making enterprise?
KB : I did not volunteer my labour, I just executed it.
SS : When you contribute free labour to Burger King, the Deutsche Bank and Gucci, you do the work of a cheap, exploitable workforce, consistent with the profitable functioning of business, but for Contribution of Fuel to the Costa da Morte 2005 you re-perform a major oil spill, a costly accident that was the result of incompetence. Was this a parody or a memorial to the ecological disaster?
KB : Neither.
SS : Or something of both, like a memorial to incompetence?
KB : I do not run my own pedagogy department. The answer is no to all of the above. Since it is the spectator who finishes the work, no work of art in this world is ever finished.
SS : The pre-modern practice of ‘potlatch’ — a lavish expenditure offered ‘with the goal of humiliating, defying and obligating the rival’ — has been posed as the precursor to contemporary forms of economic exchange.1 Do your gifts of labour seek to humiliate these corporations?
KB : A potlatch happens without compromising or revealing its objectives; this is to say, without considering itself a ‘potlatch’. Revealing the objective of a work of art compromises the objective of the work.
SS : To me this series suggests an excess of labour that in advanced economies flows into the (anti-) production of art as an indicator of cultural prestige.
KB : Exactly.
The Readymade Artist
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
A Bruit Secret
SS : 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 redirects public funds into the private sphere. This publically funded artwork becomes the property of the director, which he can then sell for personal profit. You also refuse your artist fee, effectively gifting him the work. With the Contribution… series you are also gifting power, but as a series of disruptions in business-as-usual, enabling a critical re-evaluation of ‘work’. With Internal Component… only the director/owner of this work can access the gold component, enriching him not only in material wealth, but also with a ‘secret knowledge’, in an arrangement that seems to distill the wealth, class and social inequalities inherent in global capitalism. How is it that you now come to be effectively gifting power without recourse?
KB : In chess, there is a move called ‘pawn for pawn’, it takes place a priori since both parts agree it will be beneficial for them. Certain moves are good for both, even if adversaries are irreconcilable in the game. The commonly agreed aim is to go forth until the end of the game, towards the defeat of one of the adversaries. Waiving the fees was an insistence on the gift — a bruit secret — that is why my activity as an artist mustn’t be remunerated.6 If I were to reveal that the gift had a defined goal, it would deactivate the notion of the gift. So, I offered my service of deviating institutional funds to the director for free. The director becomes the proprietor of exclusive information he alone knows. If anyone should believe this to be a lie, they can demand their money back. Public money, that is, or are public art institutions mechanisms for lying?
SS : Where is the vacuum cleaner now? Is it for sale on the secondary market? If so, for what price?
KB : I don’t know. Ask the owner: Ferran Barenblit.
The Use-value of Life
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.
The Anti-production of Art
SS : The piece < 2012 is a solid gold nugget coated in imitation gold. The Spanish Conquistadors melted down much of the gold artefacts they pillaged into bullion, reducing the cultural or occult worth of these objects to that of their base material.
KB : Exactly. However, gold painted in fake gold is more expensive than gold itself.
SS : 0 2011 is the documentation of a grant you received for €2000 to produce an artwork that you then refused to make, which you later reimburse. Can you reveal what you refused to make?
KB : No.
SS : + 0 2011 is the documentation of the interest accrued on this grant after you delayed the repayment for a year. Was this amount also gifted back to the funding body?
KB : Yes, hence the + 0, which is the symbolic value I granted to that money, the legal credit of the money intended to keep the amount from devaluating in the process of delinquency. The internal logic of this piece answered exclusively to a one-sided decision: my own. Not counting the museum, it was I who developed the piece, gave back the money and paid the interest. I weighed the possibility of the Museum financing the additional expense entailed in the payment of the interest of the money, so that the completed piece would remain enclosed in an algorithm equal to 0, however this idea was discarded so that the activity of the Museum on the piece went exclusively in another direction. This is because the Museum was unconsciously turning into a more elegant accomplice by financing the framing of the piece and giving it the status of a trophy according to my instructions. The Ministry of Culture, co-author due to financing, is also one of the members of the board of the Museum. The Ministry in its display of labyrinthine finance, framed and hung the piece in a context far more important than paying for it. However, the piece was also funded by them. Not only does Spain pay traitors, it also erects their statues.
SS : −10,000 2011 consists of €10,000 from the Fundación Botín, buried in the grounds of the museum and marked by a bronze plaque. The money, taken out of circulation and hermetically sealed, is unable to be put to work or even generate interest. What is the purpose of removing this money from circulation and production?
KB : I am not yet in a position to talk about this piece on those terms. I’ll give you another example: in the piece Tip 2007, a fine was paid with public money that came from a State grant; furthermore, the fine-collector was given a 10% tip over the price of the sanction. A year later, the application requirements for that grant featured a new clause specifying the existence of a new infraction — paying fines with grant money. Tip would have made room for prohibition, which is great, but it would have also contributed to positive case law, not only in a merely legal sense, but also regarding art. The valuable aspect is art.
Matters of Life and Debt
‘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?
The Secret Value of Art Work
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.