As appeared in Art Monthly November 2008
Artangel Interaction, launched in 2006, commissions emerging artists to develop projects that can be realised outside of institutional spaces, and that can foster collaborative and participatory exchanges. Commissioned and produced by Rehana Zaman as part of this programme, Melanie Gilligan’s Crisis in the Credit System addresses these criteria in a number of ways. It is available to view online and, as a 40-minute video work, the video’s production is necessarily and ambitiously collaborative. Perhaps more significant is the fact it has developed complex ideas through discussions with experts in the field that it addresses, and evidences a substantial engagement with the economic tribulations that have dominated headlines in the past year or so. Crisis in the Credit System is structured in four parts to facilitate viewing online, also evoking both the idea of separate episodes, and the division of a single programme by advert breaks.
The first of these episodes opens in an ornate garden, introducing five employees of an investment bank taking part in a role-playing exercise. The tranquil setting and casual dress code implies that perhaps this is a residential workshop, the protagonists taken out of their workplace in a cynical attempt to further tweak creative efficiency. This at first seems to be similar territory to that occupied by Carey Young, who is known for her intersections of the world of corporate business with strategic recoveries of recognisable moments in the history of conceptual art. However, as the protagonists are assigned their roles, we are taken into their narrative reality, a heightened and stylised rendition of the world of bankers and hedge fund managers. The garden serves as a framing narrative for the story within a story, but the two realities slip into one another, emphasising a paranoiac dimension that ultimately brings the arrogant certainties of these players to a point of subjective crisis as Marxist critique enters into their thinking, and their realistic fantasies become more grotesque.
Like Mark Wallinger’s State Britain, this is a work that offers an extraordinary encounter that might be described, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, as a striking and exemplary act of the politicisation of aesthetics. It also shares with State Britain the ability to appear convincing. Just as State Britain was flawless in its obsessive attention to detail and meticulous rendering, Crisis demonstrates an impressively thoughtful and attentive process of construction. In particular, Gilligan’s script, the core of the work, is an extraordinary piece of writing. It is well researched, tight, funny, threatening, engaging and manages to fuse elements of fiction and theory, narrative and politics with the vertiginously arcane language of international finance.
The current financial situation has thrown into sharp relief another more general crisis of both politics and media representation. It seems that, no matter how the ongoing turmoil is depicted, there is within broadcast media and mainstream print no allowance for any questioning of our dependence on the precarious, irrational and destructive mechanisms that constitute global finance. This finds its ultimate manifestation in both the UK and US, where a choice of two variations of the same party continue to perpetuate and exacerbate these conditions. It has become anathema in mainstream politics to doubt the fundamental apparatus of capitalism, to see liberal democracy as something that may be flawed and that could benefit from some radical transformations. Instead, such ideas retreat into safe enclaves, such as academia and art. As Fredric Jameson puts it: ‘It seems easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; and perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.’ With this in mind, Gilligan’s Crisis in the Credit System may not offer much hope for imagining the breakdown of late capitalism, but does offer late capitalism as breakdown. This is a rare and astonishingly insightful reflection on current economic conditions. It is critical and engaging, and is able to re-introduce Marx stealthily into an accessible form for a potentially large, even perhaps mainstream, audience. However, this work also deserves to be seen properly. The free availability of Crisis in the Credit System is commendable, but tiny windows on small screens, interrupted by bandwidth problems, fail to do this work justice. Yet to rely upon the gallery to view the work adequately is perhaps just another retreat back into the protective enclave.