ABSTRACTION, STUDYING UP AND
RE-REPRESENTING FINANCIAL CAPITAL
Institute of Art, Design and technology, Dublin, Ireland
A photograph of a frantic trading pit in the oldest commodity exchange in the world is installed on a wall of London’s Tate Modern. Titled, Chicago Board of Trade II (1999), it is by the German-born photographer, Andreas Gursky. While in the city as part of her ethnographic research on financial traders, the cultural anthropologist, Caitlin Zaloom, encountered the photograph: ‘the commotion and disarray are entrancing…but a literal understanding of the physical space, or the traders’ labor, is impossible’ (2010: 2). Zaloom argues to move beyond the abstraction of capital, as visually embodied in the Gursky photograph, a strategy which impinges transparency and the urgent need to critically investigate the apparatus of the global markets:
Markets are objects of inquiry into the culture and economy of contemporary capitalism…today, the world’s powerful financial centers are the ones that need explanation. The mysteries of markets touch our lives, but few outside the financial profession understand them. (2010: 11)
Centrally informed by visual anthropology and building upon a cycle of long-term transnational multimedia projects, beginning in the 1990s, addressing the predatory impact of global capital and with particular reference to my most recent practice-led research, this article positions a methodology of ‘Studying Up’, as an activist research strategy and methodological template in the study of financial power. Positioning such a methodology, pivoting on anthropology, to offer a description of the cultural system of financial capital, central to the construction of our financialised present and climate catastrophe, I advocate that this cultural description is an urgent prerequisite for understanding the continued maintenance of this sphere and simultaneously, to critically inform the establishment of a beyond/post-capital inclusive and sustainable future.
Fig. 1 Void Visitors Pass, Deutsche Börse AG March 2012, Eschborn (Frankfurt), Germany (Access Denied)
In 1972, the US anthropologist, Laura Nader appealed for a critically repatriated anthropology, through what she described as, ‘Studying Up’:
What if, in reinventing anthropology, anthropologists were to study the colonizers rather than the colonized, the culture of power rather than the culture of the powerless, the culture of affluence rather than the culture of poverty? Principally studying the most powerful strata of urban society…and instead of asking why some people are poor, we would ask why other people are so affluent. (1972: 289)
Nader’s appeal has implications, namely, how to access power: ‘the powerful are out of reach…don’t want to be studied; it can be dangerous to study the powerful’ (ibid.: 302). In such a context, the possibility for engagement is severely limited, however, Nader argues that limitations should not define the subject of research and advocates a multivariate approach, including, personal documents, memoirs, chance encounters, discussion, interviews and public relations documents. Over 20 years later, in the mid-1990s, Hugh Gusterson, researching US Military Research Laboratories, asserted:
The ethnography of the powerful needs to consist of interacting with informants across dispersed sites, not just local communities, and sometimes in virtual form…collecting data eclectically from an array of sources…such as...formal interviews...extensive reading of newspapers and official documents...careful attention to popular culture, as well as informal social events outside of the corporate office or laboratory. (ibid.: 116)
Gusterson’s inclusion of virtual and dispersed sites is significant, evidencing foresight in terms of the timing of his writing and future potentialities. Similarly, Karen Ho, incorporated such an approach in her ethnographic study of Wall Street (Ho 2009). Elaborating on her previous career in Investment Banking, Ho drew on her professional network, including encounters at business events, conferences, college reunions, interviews to ‘anecdotes from chatting’ (2009: 21). Ho outlines operating structures, the role of fear in this ‘culture of liquidity’ (ibid.) and argues that Wall Street reshapes corporate America in its own image, and through the construction of the market, results in the manufacture of crises while simultaneously, ‘assuring its rescue’ (2009: 323).
Fig 2 JP Morgan (formerly Lehman Brothers), Canary Wharf, February 2013, London, England
(Negotiation 1.5 Years, Access denied)
In the aftermath of the global economic collapse and absence of sustained audio-visual engagement with the central locus of this catastrophic event, my research project THE MARKET addresses the functioning and condition of the global markets and the role of financial capital. The assertions of Zaloom, concerning a prioritising focus of research and the limitations of the photograph to represent such circumstances, have been an impetus in the formulation of this project.
This short article does not afford an in-depth description of the process of negotiation, and to unpack the rationale for each location and outcomes. However, in his description of a ‘Global Ethnography’, Michael Burowoy describes its ability to:
Link the large-scale processes and the fine-grained observation of everyday life...allowing us to see what is happening in the local settings but never losing sight of the fall and rise of empires, or shifts in the organisations and reach of capitalism. Global Ethnography presents the local and the global as mutually constitutive. (2000: 29)
Therefore, having undertaken an extensive process of negotiation, averaging 1.5 to 2 years, to secure access to strategic sites (exchanges) and individuals (including traders, bankers and financial analysts) in Dublin, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Addis Ababa, the research I outline was completed between 2010 and 2017. As a critical motivation for the project has been to take this sphere out of abstraction and position it as a pervasive material force central to our lives, research themes have included:
Algorithmic machinery of financial capital.
Construction of crises.
Role of fear/precariousness.
Instrumentalisation/dependency of the nationstate
Long-range mapping/consequences of financial activity.
It is important to note, in the context of the technological evolution of algorithmic infrastructures, pioneered by financial capital, how to document and re-represent such structures, whether visible/invisible, material/immaterial. Practically, extended stays occurred in Addis Ababa, Dublin and Amsterdam, while shorter, more numerous visits took place to London and Frankfurt and the research methods included:
Maintenance of field-notes.
Photography including portraits/landscapes.
Moving image including short film/long-takes.
Collation/analysis of print/online media/archival/artefactual material.
Online documentation of trader chatrooms/feeds.
Maintenance of a research blog.
Construction of spectrograms/3D data visualisation.
Fig 3 Installation THE MARKET (detail). Gallery of Photography, Dublin, Ireland 2013
The length of time became significant, not only regarding perseverance, but as an indicator of the process of accessing power. Thus, in the context of the denial of access at the Deutsche Börse AG in Frankfurt/Eschborn, the complete process of negotiation was documented and incorporated as part of the installation. Access is a state of relation and such limitations, whether successful or not, embody meaning and description regarding the focus of study, including issues of transparency, abstraction, visibility and invisibility. As the project evolved, it became apparent that each site and encounter with individuals working in this sphere brought particular descriptive understandings to the economic functioning of this globalised system. With this in mind, I wish to briefly focus on one location.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Mark…you are making me sound like a liberal…I am a capitalist…but yes, we did write the word ‘fairness’ into our mission statement…it is different here to Wall Street and what is motivating us…as a model, yes, it can be successful, however, would my former colleagues on Wall Street accept it…no…they’d think we’re nuts.
Sitting behind a coffee warehouse storage facility in the middle of the Ethiopian Rift Valley, these words belong to Bemnet. Years spent monitoring trading screens in the United States, Bemnet had returned home to assist in the establishment of a commodity exchange. In August, 2012, I travelled to Addis Ababa, the site of the youngest exchange in the world, the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). With the support of the Embassy of Ireland, following over 1.5 years of negotiation, I arrived and was offered 2 days of access.
Established in 2008, as the global economic collapse began, ECX is unique on the continent of Africa as a ‘not for profit’ framework and one of a small number of such exchanges globally. The exchange, trading primarily in coffee, sesame and peabeans, was founded by Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, a member of the diaspora. Dr. Eleni studied in the United States, completing her doctorate in economics at Stanford University, and stated her desire to use the traditional role of the market in Ethiopian society as the ‘fair’ means to end hunger. State-owned, the prices and membership are regulated and profits accumulated by the ECX are reinvested into the organisation. To encourage transparency, from a stated responsibility to the small farmers and farming collectives, the process is closely supervised. The exchange has grown from a permanent staff of 34 at the beginning to over 600 and is quoted daily on exchanges including New York, Mumbai and Dubai.
Fig. 4 Trading Pit, Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX)
Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, September 2012 (Negotiation 1.5 Years)
During my initial meeting with my contact from ECX, I proposed to visit for one week without audio-visual equipment, to observe. This was accepted and during this time, I gained insight into the structures and rituals regarding the functioning of the trading floor. In addition, as the only non-Ethiopian present and coming from a postcolonial country, Ireland, individuals gravitated towards me, initially enquiring as to why I was there. The resulting conversations helped to establish an understanding of my presence and to build relationships. Subsequently, I was given wider access and for one month, I spent the majority of my time in the Ethiopian capital on one floor of one building, the trading floor ofECX. While immersed in this working atmosphere, I encountered a large number of people who generously collaborated inoffering their testimony, making portraits and even facilitating my presence in the trading pit, to digitally film the trading sessions.
Fig. 5 Bethlehem, Trader, Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX)
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, September 2012 (Negotiation 1.5 Years)
Trading in coffee, Bethlehem (Fig.5) holds an MA in Economics and was then the youngest trader at the youngest exchange in the world. Following the making of her portrait, a few days later, she spoke passionately about the potential of ECX, to transform the economic context of her country:
If ECX were working for profit, situation would be different…the risk would be different…ECX wouldn’t be taking the risks it takes…it is good that this ethos continues. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be part of some revolutionary moment or movement.
Bethlehem’s inclusion of the word, ‘revolutionary’ was striking in the context of an apparatus of capital, when I pressed her on the application of this word, she simply replied, ‘but it is’. Such an encounter in relation to the ethos of this framework appears to allude to the complexities embodied in the term, ‘The Market’. Central to the functioning of capital, the term inspires media descriptions, ‘of fear’ and/or ‘to be at the mercy of’. Significantly, the framework at ECX appears to offer other possibilities. However, the revolutionary optimism offered in Addis Ababa seems rare, as the narrative of momentum, exclusion, extraction, growth and abstraction pervades.
From research and subsequent encounters at all the locations, I became aware of the central role of technology and the infrastructure of algorithmic machinery, pioneered by financial capital. When the project began, 30-40% of trading was completed through its application, globally and currently, almost 85%. A UK Government report in 2012 forecast that within a decade there would be no human traders. The same report observed that algorithms would self-evolve as ‘genetic algorithms’, through their ability to experience – building upon their previous market experiences and requiring no human intervention. Starkly, they warned, within this framework, existed the potential for, what they define, as the ‘Normalisation of Deviance’, when ‘unexpected and risky events come to be seen as ever more normal, until a disaster occurs’.
It is important to stress that the application of algorithmic technology was innovated with increasing significance in the 1980s. Too often this relationship is overlooked and under-represented, creating a binary of capital and technology rather than the more appropriate evolutionary framework in terms of capital. My central thesis is that, Financial capital seeks everything to be recreated in its image and the context of abstraction, not only to abstract our relationships but to transform, including, to automate, virtualize or even to make disappear.
Therefore, a critical component of the installation that I wish to highlight is the soundscape titled The Normalisation of Deviance, which is immersive and envelopes the complete space. Algorithms emit pulses as they travel through fibre-optic cables (shifting now to light), functioning ceaselessly 24 hours a day. Beyond our visual and aural realm, the challenge is how to represent this infrastructure that centrally enables the speculation and financialisation of our collective futures and the planet we share.
Fig. 6 Algorithm (detail) & Sound Design Ken Curran
Collaborating with my brother, Ken, a programmer and composer, through the application of an algorithm which he coded to identify the words ‘market’ and/or ‘markets’ from public speeches spoken by Ministers of Finance, this data was then plotted and transformed to create the installation soundscape. To date, ‘localised’ algorithmic translations by relevant ministers from Ireland, United Kingdom, France, Netherlands/Eurozone Group have been included in exhibitions in those countries. The intention conceptually is to re-represent the functioning of contemporary financial capital through the conduit of the financialised nation-state. This creates, in turn, a tension between all the material objects of the installation – photographs, transcripts, film, artifacts etc – and the possibility of their abstraction through the functioning of the infrastructure which the soundscape represents.
Disrupting the popular graphic representation of the markets, the soundscape has further been visualised through the incorporation of spectrograms and more recently, 3D data visualisation, titled, The Economy of Appearances.
Fig. 7; THE MARKET (Installation Image) Limerick City Gallery of Art (LCGA), Ireland, 2015
(Photographs, Algorithmic Surrealism (Film), Transcripts, Artifacts/TV Reports (Deutsche Börse AG, Germany), Systemic Risk (A4 Colour Readymades/Image/Research), The Economy of Appearances (3D Data Visualisation of algorithmically-generated soundscape))
Some brief observations on the installation. Assembled according to the principle of ‘montage’ or ‘multivocality’ (Pink, 2001), the installation is constructed to be open-ended, a topographical evocation, for the audience to navigate how they choose, empowered to supplement meaning and their own reading as ‘co performer’ (Van Assche, 2003: 94). In addition, there is a programme of public events to activate wider public engagement with the themes, alongside dissemination including resource lists, ready-mades and incorporating QR codes to access material online.
In 1945, the average US stock was held for 4 years. In 2000, 8 months, in 2008, 2 months and by 2011, 22 seconds. I do not have the data for 2021 but this staggering compression of time and space evidences the invisible and relentless rationalisation of return and associated costs, centrally innovated by and embodied in the algorithmic machinery of the contemporary financial markets. This evolution is in the context that since the global financial crash of 2007/2008, central and state banks across the world have maintained the appearance of economic well-being, primarily through the fiscal policies of quantitative-easing, resulting in austerity, low-wage recovery and a scale of inequality the world has never experienced. When Gursky made his photograph in 1999 in Chicago,10,000 traders were working the pits, by 2017, between 250-300 people worked there, primarily inmedia. Abstraction is designed to encompass all aspects of our lives and the potential of this global techno-financial automation and virtualisation to create a parasitic pervasiveness that simultaneously frames our present and speculates upon our future is observable. The project evidences how the continuing hegemony of global finance aligned with technological innovation and the extinction of human reason – including empathy and ethics – will only perpetuate the unsustainable power relations of minority wealth in our globalised capitalist system. The methodology and methods outlined are an activist strategy, a template to give a cultural description in the re-representation of financial capital and ultimately, to empower the imagining, visualisation and construction of an inclusive sustainable future. Another world is possible.