If you were to apply the principles of quantum physics to banking, could you generate billions of dollars and fix the world’s economy? That’s the premise of a new project by artist Jonathon Keats called the Quantum Bank. It opened by way of a prototype quantum ATM installed at the Engineer’s Office Gallery, a 24-by-72-by-24.5-inch cubby in the basement of Rockefeller Center, where it will remain there through Friday.
If you don’t get the project or think it sounds gimmicky — well, you’re not alone. Keats tends to take conceptual art to supremely nerdy extremes, like the time he sat in chair in a San Francisco gallery for 24 hours with a nude female model in front of him and thought, afterwards selling those thoughts to collectors as artworks, or the time he “remixed” John Cage’s famous silent composition 4’33” and turned it into a ring tone. The least interesting of Keats’s projects lack any applications or effects beyond the initial “huh” moment, but the best ones showcase some welcome creative and deviationist thinking, and inspire others to do the same.
So, back to that quantum ATM and bank. Keats begins with the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat, which problematizes the idea that a quantum event has only really resolved if it’s been observed. What Schrödinger says is that if there’s a cat in a box with some poison, and the poison may or may not be released depending on some quantum event, then the cat is simultaneously dead and alive until the box is opened and the outcome observed. Until that moment, the system is in what’s called a superposition, which means it embodies all of it possible states — hence dead and alive.
Keats applies this idea to money, and here I’ll let him take over, since he no doubt grasps the concepts much better than I. From his explanation at Science and Religion Today:
At 20 Rockefeller Plaza, I’m establishing the world’s first quantum bank. The Quantum Bank will have 7 billion accounts — enough to serve the world population — and 7 billion quantum dollars will be generated for each dollar deposited. Cash is deposited by a quantum event: the action of an alpha particle emitted by a uranium glass sphere. The sphere is surrounded by a microscopic grid of 7 billion boxes. The coordinates of each box correspond to one of the 7 billion accounts. The box that the alpha particle exits determines which account gets the cash.
If you were to measure the system, you’d find that the particle would pass through just one box, putting the dollar in just one account, providing the bank with just one dollar in total assets. However, the quantum banking apparatus is metallically shielded so that no external measurements can be made. As in the case of Schrödinger’s cat, quantum uncertainty will prevail. As a quantum particle, the alpha won’t pass through just one box. It will pass through them all. That means all 7 billion accounts get credited. The quantum cash is everywhere at once.
Of course, that’s not particularly useful if you can’t access the cash. But Keats will be issuing currency, in which one quantum equates to one US dollar. “These banknotes can be used wherever they are accepted, or can be redeposited at the bank to generate even more quantum cash,” the press release says. No word yet as to whether the quantum cash is being accepted at the Starbucks or ‘Wichcraft outposts nearby in the Rockefeller Center basement.
In light of Keats’s project, other recent art forays into economics — and specifically ATMs — come to mind. One is the Free ATM project, an example of which was exhibited recently at the Storefront for Art and Architecture. Free ATM actually isn’t an art project — it’s a real, live entrepreneurial one started by a man named Clinton Townsend, and it delivers exactly what it says: free, aka no fee, ATMs, which work by showing ads between transactions and thus having advertisers make up the money.
Another is Andrew Ohanesian’s “ATM 2011” (2011), a fully functioning ATM built by the artist that charges the user a pricey $4.99 fee. After completing a transaction, though, you receive a receipt with a title and an edition number on it — and realize you’ve just purchased a work of art. According to an article by Hrag in the Brooklyn Rail in 2011, 15 cents of the fee goes to the bank, 3 cents to the ATM owner, and $4.81 to the artist. Given that “ATM 2011” is now installed in a museum in Florida, Ohanesian is probably making some decent money, making it kind of brilliant.
Keats’s project is far more theoretical, without any tangible benefits for the user or the artist himself. Nor is Keats the first person to delve into alternate currencies, and it seems unlikely that he’ll be the one to succeed where others haven’t, especially given the heady nature of his project. But quantum banking is somehow satisfying in the way it both lampoons and challenges the elaborate belief systems that underpin our current economic system. If bankers can gamble away other people’s mortgages and foreign countries can own US debt, why can’t quantum currency be real?
The Quantum Bank is operating out of the Engineer’s Office Gallery (1230 Avenue of the Americas, basement level, Midtown, Manhattan) through Friday, June 14.