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Recap: Artist as Debtor Conference


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Image from debtfair.org

Last Friday, January 23, Cooper Union in New York hosted “The Artist as Debtor: A Conference about the Work of Artists in the Age of Speculative Capitalism.” Our stalwart Conversations correspondent Karen Archey was there to provide live coverage of the many interesting talks and presentations, including Andrew Ross on debt resistance, Coco Fusco on where all that art school tuition money goes, and W.A.G.E. on the way art nonprofits sometimes adopt the exploitative labor practices of corporations. One of the more creative presentations of the day came from Brian Kuan Wood and Juleta Aranda, who staged a collections call between a loan company and a lowly art school graduate. Here’s the full transcript of the presentation:

ON A DARK STAGE, WE HEAR A DIAL TONE, AND SOMEONE DIALING ON THE PHONE. THE PHONE RINGS A FEW TIMES, AS THE LIGHTS SLOWLY START TO FADE IN. WE SEE BRIAN, WHO IS ON THE PHONE. AN AUTOMATED SWITCHBOARD PICKS UP

ANSWERING MACHINE:
(a robotic, Siri-like voice)
Hi, you have reached the School of the Arts office at Coslumbia University. For Head of the department, press 1; for registration information press 2; for the computer lab press 3; all other inquiries, press 4.

BRIAN PRESSES A KEY. THE NUMBER 1 FLASHES ON THE SCREEN BEHIND HIM.

JULIETA:
Hello?

BRIAN:
Hello? Julieta?

JULIETA:
(in a nice tone that is patently fake)
Hi Brian, how are you? Let me guess… It is January 25th… so, you must be calling about getting another deferment on your student loan, right?

BRIAN:
(slightly defensive)
Ok look, I just want to tell you I can pay no problem, but I just can’t pay right now.

JULIETA:
(mock patience)
Thanks for letting me know what I already knew, Brian. You know this has been going on for too long, and we have to start thinking of other options. Let’s be creative, let’s think outside the box… there are other ways you can pay

BRIAN:
I’m not taking off my clothes, if that’s what you mean. Even though I look pretty good without my clothes on.

JULIETA:
(laughing)
No, of course i don’t mean that

BRIAN:
What do you mean, then?

JULIETA:
Look Brian. You’re a good artist

BRIAN:
Thanks, I guess. I learned a lot in the MFA program. You’re a very good department head, Julieta.

JULIETA:
(slightly exasperated)
Oh dear, we are not getting anywhere, are we? What i am trying to say is that it doesn’t really matter for us whether you’re a good artist or not. Here at Coslumbia, we aren’t in the business of making good artists, but we want to make sure we produce successful artists. It’s naive to think that being a good artist will do anything meaningful for you. Yes, of course that you might get the respect of other artists, and with some luck you may even become an “artist’s artist” over time….but you also would get all uppity with your standards about production, and that wouldn’t do. The main reason why we charge tuition is because we are trying to teach you something. You see, we expect artists to learn how to survive.

BRIAN:
But i’m surviving! My work gets positive reviews, haven’t you noticed? Actually my career is going pretty well. And you’re saying that it’s not because my work is any good, but because of something else?

JULIETA:
Who cares about that!? What matters here is something else. You should ask yourself why you’re calling me. And for that one, the answer is easy, you are calling me because of not being able to pay your loan.

BRIAN:
I told you I can pay, just not now. I’ve got a few things going, I’ve got some shows coming up, some galleries are interested in my upcoming projects. It should pay off eventually, but funds aren’t coming through just yet.

JULIETA:
Yes, exactly…. I know what you are talking about. And you know why I know? Because that is what I hear all the time. And because of this, it’s not a secret that our program has been broke for decades.

BRIAN:
The art program is broke? But it’s one of the most prestigious art programs in the world!

JULIETA:
But that kind of recognition doesn’t cover our expenses, the same as your “positive reviews” can’t pay your student loan. You see, the school needs the tuition money generated by our department, and by the other humanities departments as well, to buy hookers for the board of trustees. Metaphorically speaking, kind of. But that’s how we stay alive, I mean, metaphorically speaking, you are one of the hookers

BRIAN:
That’s, like, so misogynistic.

JULIETA:
As you like, but if you want to launch into a tirade about misogyny, you’re talking to the wrong person. I’m just explaining to you how it works. This program is not about making people better, not even the ones with money. That’s just not the way it works. Being a better person is not going to help you make the payments you’re not making on your own loan, is it?

BRIAN:
so what’s your offer then?

JULIETA:
Well, I am glad you ask. You see, myself and a few of the university’s trustees are getting into futures trading. we started to collect art around the time of the market crash a few years ago, because we think it’s a good investment.

BRIAN:
I see. so basically you guys see this program a bit differently than I thought. For you it’s a way of producing successful artists that in the future, will produce valuable artworks that you can collect?

JULIETA:
Not quite, but what is true, is that we do want your future. So from the moment that you enter the program, you are already valuable to us. We started working on a way of accessing your possible future production, to use it as collateral for relieving your real past debt. What we are asking from you essentially is this: what are you dreams? What are your unrealized projects? We want you to share them with us.

BRIAN:
You mean you want my hopes and dreams, this is how you want me to pay?

JULIETA:
Yes and no. We want you to dream, absolutely, but we want to guide your dreams, we want to make sure your dreams will turn a profit. And of course, we want to record and store them. You see, your future artworks are contained in the dreams, so your dreams are valuable for us.

BRIAN:
I don’t understand….exactly what use are my dreams to the trustees?

JULIETA:
At first we thought that we were going to store them, so that they could be algorithmically sorted and recombined to produce artworks autonomously, without artists. But that was just a simple idea. Let me explain better. As you know, we don’t have any more space for expansion now, therefore the only way we can move forward is by gentrifying time, by occupying the future through a new kind of finance made out of artistic creativity. Think of it as a new currency, not pegged to gold but rather pegged to dreams. Unfortunately Silicon Valley is too predictable, and here is where the likes of you come into play.

BRIAN:
So, you still need an individual person to peg the dreams to, otherwise they won’t make sense, right? You can take my dreams but you still need my person and my reputation for them to make sense as mine.

JULIETA:
Exactly. And we want you alive, and thriving. Much more than where you are now; there is no appeal for us in tales of bare survival. What you’ve done and what you’re doing isn’t enough. We want more. We want to make sure that the works that of yours that don’t exist yet will hit the mark. And for this, we need access to the consciousness that will make them.

BRIAN:
So you want to be a kind of precognitive NSA interception my thoughts and dreams? Great…

JULIETA:
Nononono it’s not like that. Think of us as guides. We have been around for long enough to see how the market ebbs and flows…. let us put that to your advantage, we want to be your guide.

BRIAN:
Ok… so you will remember my future for me… like a kind of preemptive dropbox archiving service…

JULIETA:
No my dear, this is not about remembering for you. We want to work with you. For this we have to have a bit more of a participatory role in the architecture of the your dreams; you can consider that part of your education too. We need to make sure you are dreaming the right dreams.

BRIAN:
You will be able to tell me the projects I can’t remember I eventually wanted to work on someday? Maybe this could actually be handy for me. And in exchange you’ll write off my debt. But… what if i don’t like the projects I’ll make? What if i learn that I’m a crap artist and don’t stand by my dreams, especially when I can’t choose which ones are recorded by you?

JULIETA:
There are no good or bad artists. Not in this scheme. You dream the right dreams for us, and if they are bad for you, you will be the only one to know.

BRIAN:
So if this is the case, at least I’ll know in advance, and I can just quit while I’m ahead and change my career, do something else while I still have the chance, right?

JULIETA:
Actually no, that is the only catch. You can’t do that. Once an artist, always an artist. You can’t walk out on us.

BRIAN:
You mean that, according to this algorithm thing you’re using, I’d have to stay an artist, even if I don’t like the work I’ll be making?

JULIETA:
(exasperated)
Brian, this is not an algorithm, this is common sense! You see, if you quit, those future works will no longer have a backup, and therefore no value…. so if your “high standards” make you quit, you would only get more letters in the mail asking you to settle your debts -with a huge interest, because we would then consider the years invested in your future dreams as part of your education, and as you know, tuition isn’t cheap.

BRIAN:
But what if I die? What if i get hit by a car and can no longer contribute to this sweatshop of artist dreams you’re running? What happens to our arrangement then?

JULIETA:
This is a different scenario altogether. It would be a tragedy, of course, but then your legacy would be in our safe keeping. You see, when you go into debt in Coslumbia, you become a part of art history.

BRIAN:
It sounds a bit like a ponzi scheme to me…

JULIETA:
That would be true if you could withdraw your investment. But when your production becomes part of our database—not to mention the art market and art history simultaneously—you are already so well-distributed in the network, that no one could possibly cancel your investment.

BRIAN:
It’s interesting, because i always wanted to become an artist. So if I agree to this, I wouldn’t be allowed to become anything else?

JULIETA:
Not just an artist. Remember, what you want is to be a successful artist. You see, over time, we have realized that artists know something about the future, and that bit of knowledge, is worth a lot.

BRIAN:
But it’s still a gamble and a risk, isn’t it?

JULIETA:
For us my dear, not so much. But maybe for you, I guess. You have until February 2nd to get back to me, before your loan goes to collections.

(lights out)

(lights on)