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Positively Representation of Banking Revisited


A text in a magazine is never alone, but always within a context and a dialogue that is both internal and external to the magazine that publishes it: it relates to other texts within the magazine, both past and present, and to other texts on the topic elsewhere (as well as to text production in general). This is part of the rationale behind my own “Positively Revisited” series of texts about texts in e-flux journal. But a text’s relation to the publication in which it appears, as well as to a broader discourse, determines the way in which it enters into discourse and its surrounding discipline, and any magazine—the one you are presently reading being no exception—both produces, and is produced by, its own discourse and discipline. A magazine circulates discourse, but in a reflexive manner, since its publication date is a punctuation of time, while its seriality assures continuation. It can thus be instructive to look not only at texts as sites of knowledge that produce and circulate discourse, but also to the publications in which they are found. The present text being revisited, John Strauss’s “Transparency: The Highest Stage of Bank Architecture,” is a case in point—in terms of both time and place, it is difficult to imagine it being published anywhere other than in a specific magazine culture.

Although short-lived, the NYC journal Wedge, from the early 1980s, was exemplary of the above-mentioned reflexive circulation of discourse, but also exemplary of a magazine culture that was interdisciplinary in its scope and political in its critique. It may have stemmed from the art world, but it was not limited to it or defined by it. Wedge did not deal with art criticism, but with what we can call the art of critique. Today one might characterize its methodology as cultural studies (before it became a derogatory term for art history). If so, it is different from the dominant strands—the consumer studies–inspired sociological version, or the one fostering a postmodern sublime by aestheticizing so-called outside and low cultural forms—now comprising a field of cultural studies that has become a discipline rather than an interdisciplinary or even anti-disciplinary mode of inquiry. Instead, Wedge called itself “an aesthetic inquiry” at its inception in 1982, and dealt with such issues as “The Imperialism of Representation, The Representation of Imperialism,” which was the thematic for Wedge 7/8, the double issue in which John Strauss’s article on the architecture of banks first appeared.[footnote John Strauss, “Transparency: The Highest Stage of Bank Architecture,” Wedge 7/8 (Winter/Spring 1985): 110–117.]

Strauss’s essay traces the change in bank architecture from the grandiose imperial style to its near disappearance as it came to favor modernist transparency, seeing this as ideological, and as representational. In short: banks represent. In this way, Strauss, as an artist-writer, uses art criticism (or architectural criticism, if you must) as an aesthetic inquiry into the politics of representation. It is an artistic critique that uses aesthetics on the offensive, rather than as a retreat into disciplinary entrenchment, as an analysis of other forms of representation than art, but as equally expressive of discourse. It is an art criticism that does not take art as its object, but representation itself—in this case the aesthetics of banking, and how the façade represents the value inside. Whereas banks in the nineteenth and early twentieth century tried to lure customers in through solidity and monumentality, literally securing the deposits, modern, international banking requires transparency: functionalist architecture with glass façades and atriums masquerading as public spaces. Modern bank architecture, then, attempts to represent efficiency, accessibility, and interactivity—well, trans-activity, really. However, with the advent of computing, virtual transactions necessitated another form of representation. This was answered partly by the falseness of postmodern architecture—with no correspondence between façade and interior, Strauss outright calls it “cynicism”—and partly by the disappearance of the bank as a physical site altogether, replaced with omnipresent ATMs, located on literally every street corner and supermarket. “Money must never rest,” as Strauss writes, “for circulating money is what ‘makes’ money.”

Indeed, the second half of Strauss’s text goes beyond representation in any tangible sense, focusing on the invisibility of the circulation of capital, as well as the instability of money and credit in the so-called “debt crisis” of the 1980s. The text shifts from discussing ideology in representation to the political economy of the much-fabled Reaganomics era, with its severing of the credit system from the system of production that turned the credit market into a speculative industry—which became, of course, the root of our current debt crisis. This is not to say that Strauss’s essay is prophetic, but rather that it is instructive of how cultural critique can engage with economics and neoliberal ideology. The fact that the editors of Wedge found it appropriate for an art magazine to discuss the economy and criticize the IMF, as well as US interventionism in general (which is thoroughly documented within the pages of issue 7/8), is exemplary of an attitude sorely missing from our present time.

Read the full article here.