Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mind the gap

SUPERFLEX: Today we don’t use the word dollars
ANZ Bank, 312 Karangahape Road
One Day Sculpture Project, commissioned by ARTSPACE
27 May 2009

Georges Perec, the great French writer of the seventies and co-founder of OULIPO (an influential experimental society of European scientists, mathematicians and artists) once wrote a detective novel entirely without using the letter ‘e’. He was an innovative intellectual who loved to work within restrictions. Another of his novels (Life: a User’s Manual) has a chapter sequence organised like a knight making L-shaped leaps around a chessboard, where each square is a room in a boarding-house. Such artists adore prohibitions. They relish creating difficulties for themselves, and for others.

So what if a group of artists specifically forbade bank tellers to say the word ‘dollars’ during their daily transactions with customers or other banks?

It sounds sadistic doesn’t it? Except the ANZ Bank staff I spoke to in Newton, on the receiving end of this particularly mischievous behaviour modification, were totally non-phased. Didn’t worry them a bit. Loved to have a diverting and entertaining challenge over what turned out to be a pretty quiet day anyhow. They even put balloons up. Made it a party game.

In a contract drawn up with the Danish art trio, SUPERFLEX, the bank staff agreed to use other words instead. If they forgot, they were fined $1 for each infringement. This embargo affected four tellers, the manager and a few other admin staff, plus the receptionist.

The funny thing, in my view, is that the contract was a bit vague. The staff could if they wished, have said ‘bucks’, or ‘greenbacks’. Even had a drawn $ sign on a pad, as one person did. I would have expected them to use words like ‘cash’, ‘revenue’, ‘monies’, or ‘funds’.

In fact most managed happily to count out notes without saying the dreaded D-word, or paused seemingly absent-mindedly in mid sentence leaving an aural gap. One even just said ‘beep’ if it were a swear word. Wonderful! (Ever heard that 1965 Bob Dylan line: Money doesn’t talk, it swears?).

That is exactly SUPERFLEX’s point: they are showcasing an all pervading fiscal obsession that corrupts our global culture, an acquisitive drive that goes beyond the commonsense necessities for survival or human contentment. Some people and organisations are forever greedy – no matter how damaging the cost is to others or the planet. This artwork makes a game out of mocking a mindset so ubiquitous it has become invisible. It throws out the challenge that maybe there are other ways of looking at things.

In the morning business was subdued, but in the afternoon things got livelier. Curious artists called in partially because of the bank’s location – very close to ARTSPACE, MIC, Ivan Anthony and Room. Some tellers attracted very few art buffs while others were like lamps attracting moths – who just zeroed in to try and trip them.

In my visit I was amazed how gracious everybody was and how undisruptive the prohibition turned out to be. I’m starting to wonder if even banning all synonyms would have had any impact. It is a bit like strangers who have no common language meeting for the first time. Because humans are innately inventive, if there are predetermined assumptions of purpose, communication is effortless.

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