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Pacific Northwest College of Art  Online Magazine  Portland, OR

In Print

Total Money Makeover

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Chas Bowie on the re-materialization of the art object in Michael Mandiberg's The Great Recession.

The Great Recession is an exhibition of new work by Michael Mandiberg exploring the psychic implications of this most recent burp by the American economy, late Capitalism, gold hoarding, and the end of an empire. He says of his work: “I am an appropriationist at heart. I derive visual inspiration from the internet, conceptual art, design, the end of print, and the dying American empire. My work is both formal and poetic. I use words and symbols as tools to provoke reflection on our society and its effluvia.”

Writer, critic and PNCA faculty member Chas Bowie penned this essay to accompany Mandiberg’s recent exhibition, April 1 – May 27, 2010, in PNCA’s Feldman Gallery.

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Squirreling money away in the mattress—or better yet, burying it in the backyard, as if to turn cabbage into sauerkraut—remains a popular fancy in the first-world imagination. The financial plan of the foolhardy, the free checking of the unsophisticated lower class, to stash one’s cash is to declare that, while others might be fine with having money on paper, nothing beats paper money. Exchanging actual, tangible capital for the mere idea of capital on a bank teller’s computer screen requires not only a tremendous faith in institutions and bureaucracies, but also a willingness to see your life savings completely dematerialized.

In Michael Mandiberg’s recent video, Under the Floorboards, a diverse cast of unassuming Brooklynites hide their valuables in personal safes, darn cash into their undergarments and inter a gold brick in Prospect Park. Instead of a paranoid, ill-fated gesture, their collective safekeeping is rendered a universal, if secretive, act. This paperless economy has run its course, their furtive actions suggest; our faith lies in the concrete.

Lucy Lippard may have chronicled the dematerialization of the art object since the mid-1960s, but even the avant-garde have a long way to go in catching up with the increasingly vaporous dollar. An article from Wired magazine last year points to Hasbro’s Electronic Banking Edition of the Monopoly board game, in which players eschew funny money while scooping up real estate bargains on plastic debit cards. The article, entitled “Time to Cash Out,” calls for the discontinuation of hard currency, which the author pegs as expensive to produce and increasingly obsolete, deeming it “germ-smeared,” and “irritatingly analog.” Cooler heads have identified the dematerialization of capital as the necessary final ingredient of a truly global economy, as well as the digital lubricant that has facilitated incalculable transactions of nefarious and illicit natures.

Mandiberg’s early projects bear the unmistakable stamp of dematerialization in the vein of late ‘60s Conceptual Art. In AfterSherrieLevine.com (2001), the artist re-appropriated Sherrie Levine’s infamous copies of Walker Evans, posting high resolution digital scans online, complete with downloadable certificates of authenticity. In 2001, he liquidated all his possessions in a web-based project he dubbed Shop Mandiberg, and the following year he published The Essential Guide to Performing Michael Mandiberg, a set of detailed instructions for appropriating his character. In each of these early works, Mandiberg endeavors to extricate content from form, and to exorcise the ghost from the machine of materiality.

Under The Floorboards from Michael Mandiberg on Vimeo.

Emerging from the noxious implosions of Lehman Brothers and Fannie Mae, The Great Recession is more than a little concerned with its own physicality. Like the Brooklynites who bury treasure in Under the Floorboards, its artworks are motivated by the consequences of trafficking in imaginary capital, and are increasingly reliant on the familiar comforts of objecthood.

The gold nugget jewelry that comprises Raw Bling (Unrefined Commodity Fetishism) points to its own mineral form, just as modern painting took pains to emphasize its own flatness. Raw Bling collapses the distinction between materials, value and form, as it yields pure exchange capital, prêt-à-porter.

The link between objects and value proves more tenuous in Mandiberg’s laser-cut dollar bill that reads “90 Cents by Surface Area.” The missing ten cents refer less to the deflated worth of the American dollar than to the tiny scraps of paper currency removed to form the block letters. The piece’s assertion that money is inextricably tied to value – as if a decimated $10 bill could be used to make 10 separate $1 purchases – initially strikes us as ludicrous, but demands that we reevaluate our faith in its symbology.

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Monuments invariably testify to their own physicality as much as they do to the memory of the subjects they commemorate. Mandiberg’s installation of investment guides emblazoned with the logos of fallen banks is no different. The get-rich-quick volumes that comprise FDIC Insured were purchased from the dollar bins of Manhattan’s Strand bookstore, where they served as pitiful markers of their own failure. For every bank that the government bailed out or brokered into sale, Mandiberg laser-cut the fallen institution’s logo on the covers of tomes such as Nothing Down, The Business Bible, and Dress Like a Million. At more than 220 titles and counting, Mandiberg’s library of financial failure is built upon the promise of buying even when you have no money, trading when you have nothing to trade and profiting when you have nothing to provide.

During the same period that Lippard chronicles in Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, the United States replaced the gold standard with the fiat system, in which the dollar is assigned value by government officials. No longer tethered to real-world commodities, the federal economy had taken a page from Sol LeWitt’s book, adopting his credo that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

Like many artists of his generation, Michael Mandiberg similarly assumes the guiding critical stances of Conceptual Art, but in The Great Recession, we find him reinvesting his creative capital in gold flake pendants, bound volumes of financial advice and a Halliburton briefcase filled with Iraqi Dinars. This paperless economy has run its course, his objects suggest; our faith lies in the concrete.

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Michael Mandiberg is an artist, programmer, designer and educator. His work varies from web applications about environmental impact to conceptual performances about subjectivity, to sculptures made from laser cut reference books. His recent projects include Security Patterns, a series of laser burned drawings and found reference books laser cut with poetic epigrams, HowMuchItCosts.us, a car direction site that incorporates the financial and carbon cost of driving, and the groundbreaking textbook Digital Foundations: an Intro to Media Design that teaches formal principles through design software. Recent projects include “The Real Costs,” a browser plug-in that inserts carbon footprints into airplane travel & car directions websites, and Oil Standard, a browser plug-in that converts all prices on any web page in their equivalent value in barrels of oil. 
He is well known for his year long performance and e-commerce website Shop Mandiberg, which marketed and sold all of his possessions, complete with certificates of authenticity to be signed by the user themselves. The Essential Guide to Performing Michael Mandiberg, an extensive DIY guide prepared for a life art performance was included by the Electronic Literature Organization as one of the foundational works of electronic literature to be included in the Library of Congress.

by Chas Bowie

Portrait of Michael Mandiberg and installation view at the Feldman Gallery by Chloe Dietz ’13. All other photos courtesy of the artist.

— Posted on 04/26 at 05:38 PM

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