Choose life. Choose economy

A major group show at Stills and CCA explores how the economy impacts on every aspect of life. We stepped off the treadmill briefly to chat to curators Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd

Feature by Jac Mantle | 03 Jan 2013

Google it, and the images that come up are of notes and dollar signs, a map with currency symbols moving over Europe, the US and China, and a line graph mapping a downward trend. Ask people what it looks like, and a common answer would probably describe a scene like Andreas Gursky’s Chicago, Board of Trade. The monumental photograph shows a cacophonous trading pit from above, a frenzy of brokers clustered around monitors.

According to curators Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd, the economy could be just as well described by Tanja Ostojic’s confrontational photograph of herself naked and shaved, which the Serbian artist placed in an online personal ad with the words: ‘Looking for a husband with a EU passport.’

Both of these images appear in Economy, a show which will be staged across Glasgow’s CCA and Edinburgh’s Stills. Curators Dimitrikaki and Lloyd propose that the economy is connected to everything – to your education, the climate, where you live, and even the way you have sex. Showing the work of 30 international artists alongside public forums, films and a website, the show aims to provoke public discussion on how the economy impacts on our lives.

“We had identified a change in contemporary art produced after the Cold War,” explains Dimitrakaki, “and so we asked ourselves what artists had been doing differently. A lot of art from 1990 on tried to address how we’re made in terms of economic relations. There was an increase in exhibitions and discourse on labour and sex. We asked, what does this mean for contemporary art? And we concluded that there was an economic turn in art. There were all sorts of reasons for this, and we didn’t think it had happened before.”

Dimitrakaki is animated, pouring more coffee. She mock-sighs about having to delve into the history of contemporary art (her research background) in order to explain the exhibition’s gestation, before enthusing over the work, which is “very controversial and very strong. There is this newness about Tanja’s work and also about other works that we’re presenting.”

Choose a husband

Ostojic’s project will be shown at CCA in the form of documentation of the performance, which spanned five years of her life. It includes the ad she placed and the shocking self-portrait that presented her in the starkest way possible, along with her wedding photos, visa applications, and a video of her first meeting with the German citizen who became her husband. It also includes her divorce papers, filed after – incredibly – the project failed and the passport did not enable her to get a visa.

“She’s not actually an EU citizen so we’re having to go through the process of getting her a visa so she can travel here,” says Lloyd.

“Are we allowed to say that?” cautions Dimitrakaki.

The project’s failure gives it a whole new dimension, both poignant and farcical.

“She always felt she was in control throughout the project,” says Lloyd, “but this doesn’t mean that she could actually foresee what was going to happen with it.”

Travel as a condition of everyday life is also represented in the show, under a strand called Exodus. “With the economic turn, we find that as part of your work, or to find work, you have to travel,” says Dimitrakaki. “Artists are sometimes very privileged in having access to travel, but it’s absolutely exhausting and is embedded in the work you’re expected to do.”

Choose a career

The show at Stills will include Martha Rosler’s series of airport photographs, shot in the 1980s before reality TV shows brought the grey interstitial spaces to our living rooms and before airport high security put a clamp on the freedom of photography. Instead of the airport being a non-place or a purely functional space, her photos document a site ripe with the theatre of social relationships.

Work spilling over into life and becoming a social relation is another symptom of the economic turn that the curators have identified, as is a more pervasive accepted sexualisation of work. “Of course, it is often women who work in this industry, and female artists who have a certain kind of conditioning that permits investigation of this, which takes place in their own lives,” says Lloyd. “And this is happening everywhere – it’s not a matter of locating it in a particular geographical context.”

Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are

One work that exemplifies this trend is a video called Normal Work, by German duo Boudry and Lorenz, showing at CCA. While looking through an archive, the artists found photos of a 19th century domestic servant who was in a sado-masochistic relationship with her boss. “She would undertake her daily work and then perform it again in the evenings for pleasure,” says Lloyd. “He had a particular interest in really well-built, muscular women and she enjoyed playing to that passion. So she would pose for photos – and in those days, hiring a photographer was a big deal. She always wore a black arm band which signified her slavery to her master.”

Re-staging the photographs, Boudry and Lorenz consider sexuality and how we appear in our work. The scenario is extended in a film in which a model re-creates the poses. After demonstrating the laborious rehearsals required to create the still images, the model addresses the camera, speaking of the other work he is doing to finance his participation in Boudry and Lorenz’s film. The actor’s uncertain identity and unspecified status as a drag performer further complicate and queer the character.

Although they have disclosed all the works in Economy, the curators envisage that the show’s content will continue to grow through discussion within and beyond the creative community. Each month they will invite a writer to contribute a text to the website, which anyone can comment on. The site also has an Image Archive, where people can upload pictures of what the economy means to them.

Choose your future

In February, Austrian collective WochenKlausur (‘Weeks of closure’) will undertake a residency, working with residents in Drumchapel to encourage and support the foundation of a worker-managed cooperative, a project the residents have initiated. Very much in line with the curators’ press release statement that “Economy seeks to refute the idea that contemporary art is cut off from the concerns and material conditions that motivate ‘real struggles’ and bring about ‘real change,’" the project nevertheless has all the potential for criticism that goes along with socially engaged art. I ask the curators what ‘real change’ would constitute in this context.

“It’s not just about bringing people to the website! It’s about involving them in whatever capacity. We’re trying to build in as many ways as possible for other voices to come in, so it’s not just us talking at people. We’re not naïve – we don’t think that everything can translate into concrete progress, but our aim is to at least start addressing the situation. If we make one person look at their own situation and think about it, we’ve done a lot already.”

In terms of concrete change, there are the public forums and WochenKlausur, says Dimitrakaki. “Beyond that, how do you define the concrete? We hope that the policy makers will join the forum – they are invited!” 


Economy is showing at Stills 19 Jan-21 Apr and at CCA 26 Jan-23 Mar