Monday, April 25, 2011
Positively Representation of Banking Revisited
A text in a magazine is never alone, but always within a context and a dialogue that is both internal and external to the magazine that publishes it: it relates to other texts within the magazine, both past and present, and to other texts on the topic elsewhere (as well as to text production in general). This is part of the rationale behind my own “Positively Revisited” series of texts about texts in e-flux journal. But a text’s relation to the publication in which it appears, as well as to a broader discourse, determines the way in which it enters into discourse and its surrounding discipline, and any magazine—the one you are presently reading being no exception—both produces, and is produced by, its own discourse and discipline. A magazine circulates discourse, but in a reflexive manner, since its publication date is a punctuation of time, while its seriality assures continuation. It can thus be instructive to look not only at texts as sites of knowledge that produce and circulate discourse, but also to the publications in which they are found. The present text being revisited, John Strauss’s “Transparency: The Highest Stage of Bank Architecture,” is a case in point—in terms of both time and place, it is difficult to imagine it being published anywhere other than in a specific magazine culture.
Although short-lived, the NYC journal Wedge, from the early 1980s, was exemplary of the above-mentioned reflexive circulation of discourse, but also exemplary of a magazine culture that was interdisciplinary in its scope and political in its critique. It may have stemmed from the art world, but it was not limited to it or defined by it. Wedge did not deal with art criticism, but with what we can call the art of critique. Today one might characterize its methodology as cultural studies (before it became a derogatory term for art history). If so, it is different from the dominant strands—the consumer studies–inspired sociological version, or the one fostering a postmodern sublime by aestheticizing so-called outside and low cultural forms—now comprising a field of cultural studies that has become a discipline rather than an interdisciplinary or even anti-disciplinary mode of inquiry. Instead, Wedge called itself “an aesthetic inquiry” at its inception in 1982, and dealt with such issues as “The Imperialism of Representation, The Representation of Imperialism,” which was the thematic for Wedge 7/8, the double issue in which John Strauss’s article on the architecture of banks first appeared.1
Strauss’s essay traces the change in bank architecture from the grandiose imperial style to its near disappearance as it came to favor modernist transparency, seeing this as ideological, and as representational. In short: banks represent. In this way, Strauss, as an artist-writer, uses art criticism (or architectural criticism, if you must) as an aesthetic inquiry into the politics of representation. It is an artistic critique that uses aesthetics on the offensive, rather than as a retreat into disciplinary entrenchment, as an analysis of other forms of representation than art, but as equally expressive of discourse. It is an art criticism that does not take art as its object, but representation itself—in this case the aesthetics of banking, and how the façade represents the value inside. Whereas banks in the nineteenth and early twentieth century tried to lure customers in through solidity and monumentality, literally securing the deposits, modern, international banking requires transparency: functionalist architecture with glass façades and atriums masquerading as public spaces.
Modern bank architecture, then, attempts to represent efficiency, accessibility, and interactivity—well, trans-activity, really. However, with the advent of computing, virtual transactions necessitated another form of representation. This was answered partly by the falseness of postmodern architecture—with no correspondence between façade and interior, Strauss outright calls it “cynicism”—and partly by the disappearance of the bank as a physical site altogether, replaced with omnipresent ATMs, located on literally every street corner and supermarket. “Money must never rest,” as Strauss writes, “for circulating money is what ‘makes’ money.”2
Indeed, the second half of Strauss’s text goes beyond representation in any tangible sense, focusing on the invisibility of the circulation of capital, as well as the instability of money and credit in the so-called “debt crisis” of the 1980s.
The text shifts from discussing ideology in representation to the political economy of the much-fabled Reaganomics era, with its severing of the credit system from the system of production that turned the credit market into a speculative industry—which became, of course, the root of our current debt crisis. This is not to say that Strauss’s essay is prophetic, but rather that it is instructive of how cultural critique can engage with economics and neoliberal ideology. The fact that the editors of Wedge found it appropriate for an art magazine to discuss the economy and criticize the IMF, as well as US interventionism in general (which is thoroughly documented within the pages of issue 7/8), is exemplary of an attitude sorely missing from our present time.
This present revisitation not only invokes an erstwhile magazine culture, but also rests upon an actualization of it, namely Jason Simon’s revisitation of Strauss’s piece in the pages of Printed Project, in the form of a photo essay visualizing the apparently seamless transfer of bank spaces into other commercial spaces—shops that accept credit cards, indeed often offering credit plans—accompanied by Strauss’s article in facsimile (as an artistic readymade).3
New questions can then be formed: What happens to representation and politics now that the credit system itself has been discredited? What does the transformation of stolid old bank offices into boutiques—that Simon’s series of photographs offers testament to—tell us about the drive to transform economies of production into zones of consumption in the former West? And what does it tell us about the failure of this project, this failure residing within capital?
At the time Strauss wrote his text, which effectively criticized Reagonomics and neoliberalism, Reagan’s close ideological ally, Margaret Thatcher (in)famously said that “there is no alternative” to her way of governing, to neoliberalism, and to capital, which has sadly proved prophetic in terms of our political imaginaries. And today it seems that there is no answer to the credit crisis, no alternative political project making itself visible, and, if you will, credible. The crisis is generally seen as having to do merely with banks, and as being integral to the capitalist world system from which it obviously sprang. So perhaps the real failure, the real crime, does not lie with the banks—which, after all, only did what banks always do by trying to maximize profit—but with the lack of visibility for alternative visions, with the existing political and artistic critiques that have been effectively de-presented in the ruins of the public sphere and nominal forms of democracy and political representation.
For Jason Simon
1 John Strauss, “Transparency: The Highest Stage of Bank Architecture,” Wedge 7/8 (Winter/Spring 1985): 110–117.
2 Ibid., 112.
3 See →.
Text by Simon Sheikh
e-flux Journal #24, 04/2011