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The vault at the Bank of Manhattan in Long Island City becomes a screening room (All photos by author unless otherwise noted)

After the Gomorrah-like deal-a-minute-a-thon of Art Basel Miami Beach, an exhibition arrives examining the artworld’s underbelly: money, lucre, filthy-stinking-rich moolah, big bucks, hated, denounced, but vital nonetheless. The show asks the question, what, exactly is a transaction? How does money come to dominate industrial production, banking, the housing market, nature, and the social realm? What do we owe, and to whom?

Inside the vault of Bankers Trust , still from “Vive Le Capital” (2010-2012), Orit Ben Shitrit

This terse, site-specific exhibit curated by No Longer Empty, an organization founded in 2009 as a “response to vacancies created by the financial crisis,” repurposes vacant locations into dynamic artist showcases. The emptied Bank of Manhattan building in Long Island City, most prominently its vaults and clock tower, showcased 26 artists from 15 countries. The featured artists use sound installations, projections, films, paintings, and sculptures to explore issues pertaining to the culture of value, exchange, debt, and job insecurity.

“Vivre Le Capital” by Orit-Ben Shitrit, a Moroccan-Israeli visual artist, filmmaker, and choreographer, presents the most exquisite corpse: an HD film installation shot inside another vault, that of Bankers Trust at 14 Wall Street. It’s a chilling double entendre to watch the screening inside the Bank of Manhattan’s vault, akin to viewing a film about the Killing Fields of Tuol Sleng  prison in Cambodia from within the dormant gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Voiced in French, this film noir follows the musing of Pascal, a Wall Street banker who tries to become a philanthropist. Along with two rather skanky dancers with black stained hands, he travels back to the time of Cosimo De Medici to locate the origins of the banking system. A visual stunner, the interactions between the three characters is a gripping reminder of the power of both dance and dialogue to evoke centuries of abuse — “because capital is a form of domination,” the artist explains. Another crypt-driven work, “Dark Treasure” by Sol Aramendi, examines the underground economy of illegal immigrants, albeit in a circuitous way. There are plants incubated in the space alluding to the labor of the immigrants who keep the food chain flowing. The plants are lit by hanging oxygen masks, whose blue diaphanous glow contradicts the seriousness of the abuses it attempts to expose.

Hanging Oxygen Masks from Dark Treasure” by Sol Aramendi (2012)

Chris Jordan’s “Locost Queue LIC, Queens, New York” is a light projection emanating from the building’s 1927 clocktower, projecting shadow silhouettes of neighborhood residents moving past the four 11-foot diameter clock, whose face imitates a continuously looping reel. Artist collective Guerra de La Paz’s acerbic “Sealing the Deal,” part of the series Power Ties, shows two faceless entities making an underhanded financial pact. Their ties resemble two quacking ducks vying for dominance, with both seriousness and mockery laced throughout their interaction.

Guerra de la Paz’s “Sealing the Deal”

Sal Randolph’s deceptively simple “Give and Take” is composed of money and plates. The audience is invited to place cash on the plates, take it from the plates, or do nothing, bringing the social dimension of the gallery space into focus. Paulette Phillip’s “As Could Be” is a stinging 3D-animated retro rebuke to the promise and failure of the Bolshevik Revolution from the never built monument by Vladmir Tatlin to the Comintern, or Third International. As the reimagined version spins around projecting on a suspended screen, a 10-minute dirge of  the voices of Canadian workers plays, lamenting  the narrowing of their horizons.

Throughout the exhibition, artists use their work to confront the hidden truths of the financial world and the exploitative transactions that make debt such a significant part of our culture and politics. That How Much Do I Owe You takes place in the site of the very actions it critiques only enhances its impact and strengthens its message — always follow the money.

How Much Do I Owe You? continues at The Clock Tower (29-27 41st Avenue, Long Island City, Queens) until March 13, 2013. 

Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.

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