Somewhere embedded within the 500 pages of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber—a leading thinker behind Occupy Wall Street—almost proposes that debt is good. After all, he writes, debt is unlike barter in that debt extends a relationship rather than ending it. In that sense, all relationships are made up of an exchange of debts and credits.
It's a provocative idea because we don't want to think of relationships quantitatively. And yet if there is not a certain amount of equality in a relationship, it cannot be healthy. We are making quantitative calculations all the time, just not actually verbalizing them.
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What happens when we make public the economies that exist between people? For instance, two photographs by Endia Beal on the walls at the Alice Gallery in Georgetown are corporate-style head shots of white women wearing their hair done in cornrows, finger waves, or braids—Black hairdos.
Those are displayed next to Beal's video 9 to 5, in which several white-collar Black women describe experiences when they've been enraged and ignored at work but had to restrain themselves. In office environments, the women are visual figments quantified into salary figures. White and Black women are separated in the economy of norms, but also uneasily intertwined.
The exhibition at the Alice, curated by Susan Surface with nine participants from across the country, is called Legal Tender, and it's an engrossing, rich, and relevant set of works related to the overlapping languages of finance and romance.
At either end of the gallery there's a video of a man and a woman. The videos relate. One is a close-up of two mouths, the teeth trying to bite each other. The other, even more disturbingly somehow, is a close-up of two sets of eyes coming so close that eyeballs touch. The videos compound each other—men and women trying to eat each other and trying to see each other. Carlos Vela-Prado made Teeth in 2012, and Catherine Telford-Keogh made See Inside in 2014.
Given that romance is sufficiently intimate to create shared privacy but distant enough to fetishize mystery, did financial giant TD Ameritrade break up with artist Sarah Meyohas because she took their relationship public or because she didn't bother with lingerie and just got naked?
Two breakup letters are framed on the wall, one from Ameritrade and the other from Charles Schwab. The brokerages, in a classic relationship power move, tell Meyohas that they're not going to explain why they're terminating her accounts, reminding her that she signed up for that arrangement in the first place.
What miffed them so? According to several accounts in the news earlier this year, Meyohas was seen to be manipulating markets. Sitting in 303 Gallery in New York in a project she called Stock Performance, she bought stocks in small companies so that she could make a difference in the value of the stocks, and then reflected their spikes and dips in paintings of black lines on white canvas. By demonstrating how easily a market can be controlled, and turning those demonstrations into her own commodities, Meyohas had crossed over into cheating.
By being so small-scale, Meyohas's experiment is a reminder that actual people are always on the other side of a risk, however abstracted the market of exchange. How do we measure not just the risk, but the people? There's a ruler mounted on the wall. Rather than numbers, it bears words at various intervals, each one containing a private meaning for the artist who made the ruler, Matthew Hilger. The objectivity of measurements is a helpful abstraction, but it feels liberating to remember also that measurements were first based on human body parts. And human bodies are very much not all the same size. If for expediency we all agree on certain measurements, there are more we don't agree on, based in the honest experiences of our bodies.
R. Lyon's body is not part of his portrait The Artist's Bank Account and Pin Code Embedded in a Magic Square. He digitally manipulated a photograph of green vines so that their fruit is a grid of numbers in the recognizable font from the bottom of a personal check.
With art historian Lucy Hunter, Lyon created the project Where, an ongoing place and production center that enjoys the double meaning of "ware." Where is a shipping container in an undisclosed location in Brooklyn. Inside, artists create events that are broadcast online. Where also publishes.
A written statement at the Alice explains that Where's founding was based on unforgetting the fact that virtual, digital, and ephemeral commerce and exchange—including art—has physical life, not only in the form of wares but wheres, warehouses full of servers, gallery backs-of-houses.
A neat stack of postconsumer recycled office paper by Where sits on a pedestal, titled Open Source Outline for an Interesting Essay on the National Security Agency. The printed outline enumerates the National Security Agency's recycling program, in which it takes masses of printed data, turns it all into pulp, then re-forms it into blank paper bags, officer paper, and postconsumer packaging.
But the secret marriage between environmental preservation and paranoid surveillance is printed on the side of the stack, so that when the paper is used, the stack will fly apart and the information disappear again.
Surface included a publication in Legal Tender, a new and occasional broadsheet and online magazine called Art Handler, published by Clynton Lowry out of New York (but available at the Alice). Paid art handlers are the invisible, anonymous labor that powers galleries and museums. Handlers touch art. They know its intimate dimensions and care for it directly, in the manner of the nanny who is not invited to Christmas dinner. The magazine's photographs, interviews, and reviews consider the backstage labor of art, which is occasionally the subject of art but mostly is concealed. This is the anti art magazine. Its papery thin presence is heftier in its way than the fat establishment glossies.
Ellie Dicola's installation Processing, in the project space adjacent to the Alice and also curated by Surface, is not part of Legal Tender, but it could be. Dicola painstakingly hand-makes digital imagery so that it's packed with glittery hearts and cats and sad-girl phrases, and she also performs in her own surrealist, suggestive but non-porn videos on PornHub. Like Art Handler, she uses and confuses a site of production in order to reveal unexpected human dimensions.
The artist who made the personalized ruler, Hilger, also created the largest work in the show, a piece of architecture you might crouch underneath. It's a tall Alice-in-Wonderland table made of steel sawhorses topped with wood flooring, and the tablecloth is a carpet licensed by the corporation of the late Christian "Painter of Light," Thomas Kinkade. The piece is called Industry Standard. Like art handling, it is a space under the table. All you can see of the Kinkade carpet are its corners hanging over, woven with the artist's signature.
Hilger has a third work in the gallery, very quiet. It's a clear Plexiglas sheet on the white wall. The only marks are words formed out of nearly invisible glue. "Even clarity needs room," they read. Each work in Legal Tender clears a little space to reconsider the axiom "Just business, nothing personal," as well as its reverse.
Just as "free" market economies rely on swaths of laborers swept under corporate carpets, personal relationships are related to larger economies in ways we find hard to talk about and often would rather avoid altogether.
So Surface opens the floor. On the final day of Legal Tender, May 21, she's scheduled a public conversation about the management and financial structures of artist-run spaces, including the Alice. "Is it rude if I ask how you pay the rent?" is the title of the talk. Uncomfortable is not the same as rude.