Can You Fix Capitalism From The Inside? A New Art Exhibition Asks.
"Weird Capitalism" is an art show where all jobs are odd, and capitalism is on trial.
Photo courtesy of TRANSFER Gallery.
If you live in a place like New York, one of the most ubiquitous items accompanying a person biking or walking is an insulated delivery bag. It’s carried by an ever-growing horde of non-employee contractors for places like Postmates and Seamless, running various items to people all over the city. These bags and their metallic interiors are central to Weird Capitalism, a joint exhibition by Alan Warburton and Alan Butler, curated by Nora O Murchú, currently on view through November 3 at Brooklyn’s TRANSFER Gallery.
While many speak of capitalism with a more straightforward pessimism, Weird Capitalism unsettlingly reminds us of the absurd hoops this economic system makes its participants jump through to achieve financial stability. Its surreal three-dimensional animation, bright colors, and distorted imagery recalls work by artists like Ryan Trecartin mixed with those bizarre YouTube Kids videos appealing to the algorithm at all costs, resulting in mass-produced, poorly-rendered content that’s childlike but in a creepy, uncanny valley kind of way.
A peek into the excessively animated future lies in Warburton’s large wall mural Gammon, an ensemble of cartoon cringe: minions, Pepe, the “dat boi” frog, Doge, Shrek, Kim Jong-un, and, of course, President Donald Trump unceremoniously peeing. The internet has given birth to these creations and all their legally dubious replicas, and now we must face them not just in weird corners of the web but even when not looking at a screen.
Warburton and Butler collectively take aim at work under capitalism but choose different targets. Butler casts a wider net, with his hanging delivery bags that reference everything from our obsession with avocado to Elon Musk (we’ll get to that in a minute), while Warburton’s Homo Economicus video series zeroes in on the plight of the businessman. Together, these works interrogate the frequently-debated universal job guarantee: mandating work for work’s sake may only lead to increasingly odd or all-consuming jobs.
Viewing video art can be passive, but Warburton subverts this, positioning screens low to or on the ground, with headphone cables just short enough to make you sit on the floor. You must work to experience the work. Each video depicts three-dimensional animations of businessmen, clad in blazers and nice shoes, in a room of gray grids and computer screen blues. Through voiceover adapted from interviews with London businessmen found on “on the street, through friends, and gay apps,” they discuss their work-centric routines: wake up at 5 am, go to the gym, teach others to “maximize profits out of their assets.”
As they speak, their bodies grotesquely inflate and deflate, and their voices become cartoonishly deep or high-pitched. “I’ve never ever felt being a man is an advantage or disadvantage,” Michael says before commenting on toxic masculinity in the workplace, his face floppily collapsing. “I’d like to be a foot taller,” says Ray as his body becomes a flat pile and his face continues smiling. In addition to reflecting the innate pressure of such rigorous schedules, Warburton also reckons with homosexuality’s place in the business elite, implying many must conceal any so-called non-normative desires (for the sake of international clients, of course) while simultaneously existing in a world where one must stay fit and well-groomed in order to earn respect.
Butler’s installations are dystopian dioramas, delivery bags and backpacks hanging open to reveal shining silver insulation and otherworldly scenarios. In one, a laptop plays an animated film called The Enthusiasts, depicting three-dimensional animated people fixated on laptops and iPads, playing digital employment simulators (landlord, police, shopkeep), oblivious as the room steadily floods. In another, boutique gym Mark Fisher Fitness, frequented by Broadway stars and offering memberships that promise “maximum unicorn magic,” serves as a backdrop for a spinning globe and endless loop of Elon Musk’s face rendered in ominous red.
A third stages a drinking bird toy reaching endlessly and unsuccessfully for a miniature plate of avocados while a motorized disembodied hand, finger outstretched, eternally swipes through an Tinder-like app called “BrunchBurglar.” Candidates include “Reggie Refill, hype whisperer,” “AvocadoParasite420lol,” and a “tweet choreographer.” It’s millennial buzzword soup.
Hanging below Butler’s bags are transparent copies of socialist realism paintings, an art movement known for prioritizing optimism regardless of circumstance, illuminated by color-changing LEDs. Look at our workers, they seem to say; look how happy they were and continue to be.
Weird Capitalism, per the press release, is “presented not as an attempt to develop alternatives to our current modes of employment, but explores the part of capitalist structure that is only open for negotiation through its own language.” This echoes an age-old debate: is it possible to reform a system from the inside by exposing its flaws or must one scrap everything and start anew?
The same inquiry could be applied to the art world itself, which is known for barely or unpaid internships, insular social scenes, and a reputation for benefitting those with some kind of cushy financial assistance. In working within capitalism’s system, the artists must also work within the art world’s. With so many systems within systems, it can be hard to subvert much of anything. But the fact that Warburton found help recording and transcribing his businessmen interviews on Fiverr, where gigs are sold for a mere $5 a pop, feels a bit like enabling capitalism’s devaluing of labor even while simultaneously critiquing it.
Of course, no one is obligated to dream up new ways of living outside of a broken system, especially one that can leave people too worn out or poor to do anything beyond, well, work within it. But as time goes on, and the rich scheme up ways to colonize Mars once they’ve depleted all of Earth’s natural resources, and the gig economy becomes even more precarious, and life-saving drugs more expensive, and so on, it’s worth wondering how much longer we can keep merely commenting on the world’s problems and hoping someone else does something about it.
Weird Capitalism is on view through November 3 at TRANSFER Gallery in East Williamsburg.