Reproducing or spending? A problem of general economy (and a proposed solution)
Money (let us look at its most traditional definition here) constitutes the capital. This is perhaps the most common error concerning political economy. Those who own the capital always have money, but are all money holders, capital holders too? Clearly not. An “economic” accumulation can only potentially be converted into capital. Theoretically, this accumulation can remain, let’s say, idle, never becoming capital. But what turns accumulation into capital? Precisely, a specific way of managing the (let’s say primary) accumulation, which leads, through the appropriate actions (let’s say through productive investments and profit), to new accumulation. Marx highlighted this in every possible way: it is only through such a process that the capital is born (and reproduced).
But what is such a discussion doing here, as a prelude for the presentation of an art exhibition? The answer is simple. As strange as it seems at first (in the “world” of contemporary art, however, it is not), Dimitris Halatsis’s exhibition proposes, on its own terms, a small scale model for the management of economic accumulation, molding before our eyes a bipolar (ie structural) schema. Here, we will focus our attention solely on the works that document in the most characteristic way that schema.
On the one hand, a cemented honeycomb “freezes” its accumulated stock forever, an animal stomach traps consumed food inside it, the trash-picker tools refer directly to the trash collected, the metal vessels accumulate the red wine, the electronic equipment, still inactive, potentially encompasses the terrific energy of tone colors. They are all hanging on the wall or standing on the floor as metonymical traces of the accumulated stock, as “traditional” exhibits within a symbolic (timeless) time. And on the other hand, to the other end of the spectrum, the management of this stock unfolds as an active process in real time. The artist himself realizes sudden actions, acts, performances. These acts relate to the management of the accumulated share (of the artworks – capacitors of the stock) we have just described. But what kind of management is this? The answer is more than clear. It is a process of reversing the movement that converts the accumulating stock into capital: the stock here, instead of being reproduced, is spent, aimlessly at first glance. The activation of a pump leads the wine to the near-by sewer, through a pipe that the artist is holding. Shortly thereafter, his “hyperlexist” cries consume the electronic energy of the microphone, by turning it into “useless,” senseless sounds and vibrations, that come and go without being recorded, without being accumulated (the fragmented word that seems to be articulated gradually with some clarity, might be here a narrative redundancy within a conceptually elliptic piece of art). What’s that? Is there another way to manage the stock? Isn’t the reproduction and conversion of the stock into capital a natural law?
Here Bataille comes into the picture,willingly or not, having published in 1949 the first, and probably most important, part (The accursed share) of his trilogy on general economy – an ambivalent book, largely problematic, yet intelligent. This stock or share is accursed for Bataille because by definition it poses this very anxious problem: should it be reproduced (converted into catastrophic capital) or consumed (threatening to ruin those who accumulated it)? Even if it arrives to quite debatable conclusions, particularly in regards to the Stalinist USSR or the Marshall Plan (the book cannot be understood outside the historical context of the early Cold War era), the author’s retrospect of different systems for the organization of human life (the Aztecs, the Arabs, the Tibetans), achieves its goal. Bataille makes clear the fact that the conversion of the stock into capital is nothing but a historical choice.
Could someone argue that Dimitris Halatsis’s exhibition (who disarmingly stated somewhere that he knows Bataille’s book, but not in depth – a stance that, to my opinion, isn’t only entirely honest but also absolutely correct: if he knew the book in depth, and I’m formulating a personal opinion here, the exhibition might have been shallow, and it is not), so could it be argued that the exhibition is not only a visual documentation of the problem of the accursed share but also an affirmation of support for its “non-reproductive” management, for its waste and consumption? And couldn’t we argue, in addition, that such consumption symbolically implements the overthrowing of relations bred by the capital, proposing the establishment of another equilibrium where the spending, not the reproduction of the accumulation, is the solidary force of life (what Bataille calls a situation of complete contrast to the concept of thing)?
Perhaps one asks a lot from an art show (but, probably, also from a book) and that isn’t fair, not because potentially the scope of a particular artistic endeavor is limited, but for another, more fundamental reason: it is the very management of symbolic forms (and an exhibition or a book is nothing else), which has, de facto, a limited scope despite the triumphalism of those who parasitically feed on the inflated value of art within the globalized stock-market of the cultural capital (which of course is merely the financial capital, “disguised”). However, to raise, to insinuate a problem in a fertile way and to propose its solution through an exhibition is already, within its own scope, a major achievement, especially when what is proposed as a description (a title, let’s say) reflects the content of the project, in a consistent and authentic way. The exhibition of Dimitris Halatsis is such a case.
Nikos Daskalothanassis is a professor of Art History at the Athens School of Fine Arts.