University of Connecticut, 2014
“Money to Burn”
— Ricardo Piglia
In his 1997 novel, Plata quemada, Argentine novelist Ricardo Piglia reconstructs an infamous real-life bank robbery that took place in Buenos Aires in 1965. Cornered and about to be shot by the police, the robbers “began tossing burning 1,000-peso bills out of the window” of their besieged hideout as they proceed to destroy the entire stash of half a million dollars – a spectacular “act of pure terrorism” lasting “for fifteen interminable minutes, which is exactly how long it takes to burn such an astronomical quantity of money.” Refusing the role of Robin Hood champions of the poor, the criminals instead attack money itself – a transgressive gesture against capitalism’s foundational agglutinator which the astounded “citizen” bystanders condemn as a “murderous insanity” worse than the thieves’ original robbery and killings, “a declaration of all-out war, […] waged on society as a whole.”
Although set in the mid-1960s, an era of high political polarization between rightist military repression and leftist armed struggles, Piglia’s story seems more suited to today’s neoliberalism-dominated world in which the militant Marxist-Leninism of 1960s and 70s Latin America appears an anachronism, no longer able to identify a specific class enemy against which to target the rage of the dispossessed. The bank robbers’ absurd destruction of their pile of cash seems a farcical extremism more appropriate to today’s transnational deterritorialization of wealth transfer and institutionalized practices of primitive accumulation that blur the lines between “legal” and “illegal,” “just” and “unjust,” “ethical” and “unethical,” to the point where they are nigh-impossible to separate. In Colombia, the leftist FARC, the drug cartels and the right-wing paramilitaries are indistinguishable. In Mexico, presidents are linked to drugs, extortion and murder. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez rants against El Norte’s devil imperialism while selling oil to US corporations. In the US, multinational insurance giant AIG hands out $218 million in bonuses after having received a $170 billion US taxpayer bailout. Globally, drug money laundered through Europe’s biggest bank, HSBC, turns up in SAC hedge fund investments in the art market. (“After all,” Piglia quotes Bertolt Brecht, “what is robbing a bank compared to founding one?”)
Since 2007, Santiago Montoya has adopted this fraught terrain of opaque monetary ethics as his aesthetic arena, delving straight into what Piglia calls “the fiction of money” to provide a sophisticated critique of neoliberal financialization in relation to the art market and aesthetic production. Folding, cutting and twisting the paper currency of a host of different countries ranging from the US, China, Iraq and Peru to Eritrea, Israel, North Korea and his home state of Colombia, his works tackle such issues as contemporary world finance structures and their recurrent crises, the commodification of labor, and the question of value in a society ruled by the spectacle of money. And by situating themselves within the high-priced world of the art market, Montoya’s cash images confront – literally and symbolically – the perennial question of the “umbilical cord of gold” tying even the most recalcitrant art production to the market. In Montoya’s hands, the art market emblematizes in miniature the global interconnectedness of modern finance with the corporatized culture industry and the consequent ethical conundrums. He raises the specter of the social and cognitive costs of commodification not by claiming a space of exception from capitalism’s rapaciousness, but by placing us directly into that ethical dilemma ourselves through the formal morphologies of an aesthetic practice in which we mimetically trace the confrontation between an unremitting impoverishment of experience, and a utopian effort to reinstill in the aesthetic object a use-value based on a sensuousness material engagement.
Montoya exhibits no nostalgia for a past era of heroic revolutionary struggle against capitalism. Che’s foquismo, he knows, was long ago traded out for Castro’s entrenched authoritarianism, while Mao’s “people’s war” has joined the global market system. Montoya’s work takes a skeptical distance from that depleted political model, drained of critical power even as it continues to be ritually invoked on banknotes from China and Cuba to Venezuela, North Korea and Poland. At issue, however, is not simply the demise of the Leninist dream of revolutionary change precipitated through violent confrontation with hegemonic powers. Montoya is more deeply concerned with a broader general collapse of categories of political resistance, in which older models of clearly-defined class oppositions no longer hold under the relentless logic of the commodity in its money-form. Cold war rhetoric pitting “us” against “them” reveals itself, in images such as Money Talks, to be mere ideological posturing fatally undercut by contemporary commoditized reality (figure).
Yet given that it is no longer possible to define a secure political position, is it still feasible to mount an effective critique of the increasingly troubled ability of artworks to stake out an ethical stance within this maelstrom of commodification? Or are we merely witnessing, in Montoya’s works, the comprehensive permeation of artistic production by the economic workings of finance capital along with its associated value system and social organization? Are all spaces of contestation immediately rendered obsolete by the market? Or is Montoya’s positioning of one register of experience, that of aesthetic perception, against another – the spectacle of the money-commodity– able to capture something of the distinctive structure of historical experience under capitalism via the structure of aesthetic production?
“I like money on the wall. Say you were going to buy a $200,000 painting. I think you should take that money, tie it up and hang it on the wall. Then when someone visited you, the first thing they would see is the money on the wall.”
– Andy Warhol
In 2007, Montoya left behind his earlier painterly practice to begin working with paper currency as his medium of choice. Approaching currency as a series of “ready-made painted surfaces, as snapshots of time, theatres in which political propaganda and historic events play out,” he began mining the iconic images printed on these mass circulated bits of paper for what they could be made to reveal about the ideological conditions of contemporary finance capitalism’s global spread, and about the collusion of the culture industry in them. In The Great Swindle series (2007-2012), Montoya deployed two trenchant axes of attack. One axis painstakingly reproduced individual national leaders, lifted off widely-circulating currency bills, at heroic scale on monumental canvases. Che Guevara and George Washington face off in Revolution Reloaded, a huge tongue-in-cheek post-Pop revamping of El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with a Red Wedge that drives home equally the collapse of Cuba’s Soviet-backed socialism and the demise of pre-industrial America’s democratic utopianism under capitalism’s relentless post-1989 global expansion (figure). Simón Bolívar, painted literally with the very petroleum whose oil derricks are reflected in his eyes, emblematizes the discrepancy between knee-jerk references to the Great Liberator’s vision of a Latin America freed from its colonial chains, and the “labyrinth” of Venezuela’s oil-based economic modernization which, García Márquez-like, exhausts rather than rejuvenates, imprisons rather than emancipates, leading to madness and debasement (figure). Elsewhere, Montoya forsakes images of people altogether, cutting directly to the chase by zeroing in on capitalism’s dreamworld icons of technologized transport and circulation – the airplane, the automobile, and the cargo container ship (figure). That these “portraits” of commodities were lifted, not off banknotes from Western democracies, but off food coupons from the People’s Republic of China only adds to the irony.
The second axis reverses the first one. Rather than singular banknote motifs copied in paint, Montoya wields the notes themselves, gridded off in a mechanistic repetition immediately reminiscent of Warhol’s postwar commodity aesthetic. Serial reiterations of the same bill across the entirety of the picture surface eradicate any expressivity of gesture or conventional compositional differentials, even as the latter are partially reintroduced through the painted imposition of stock clichés. Following in Warhol’s footsteps, Montoya identifies the demise, under the pressure of the culture industry, of modernism’s contradictory dialectic between high art’s autonomy, with its arrogant pretensions of isolation, utopian purity, and critical resistance to the encroachments of mass culture, and the democratic pretensions of mass consumption’s incessant proliferation. In Europe, those pretensions long ago revealed their hollowness in the face of the horror of World War II; in the US, they succumbed to the massive restructuring of society under postwar conditions of mass production and consumption that produced the soporific techno-industrial monotony which Warhol mimed so viciously. Yet Montoya’s return to the culture industry purgatory glaringly exposed by Warhol reformulates its terms in light of the new conditions of global financial and mass media integration as they contrast with the heightened social asymmetries of experience induced by these burgeoning conditions. Wall Street, the City and Tokyo might trade capital in post-human computerized nanoseconds, but other parts of the world continue to live out a jagged confrontation between the dream potentials they see on the internet —from mega-mansions and super-sized lifestyles, to pristine natural landscapes far from urban pollution and industrial ravages, to rebellious acts of popular democracy— and the ever more circumscribed conditions they actually inhabit. Montoya updates Pop Art’s technocratic commodity aesthetics (lodged as the latter were in a postwar commercial aesthetic of advertisement design stripped of any avant-garde aspirations toward collective social change) according to new technologies — the precision of computer-generated laser cutting; new inks, printing and paper processing techniques; new banknote security technologies such as polymer inserts and digital optics — that increasingly filter out direct human intervention in the service of streamlining production and “secure” circulation. The deliberate imperfections and off-kilter registers of Warhol’s silkscreen process, which now seem an almost quaint reminder of mid-twentieth century mass imaging techniques, give way in Montoya’s work to the slickness of automated production under twenty-first century conditions – a streamlined mechanization of production that immerses us in an equally glossy mechanization of vision. Unrelievedly uniform sections of pristine unused currency are cut and folded by hand with an unyielding precision, to be fixed into laser-cut slots on a brushed steel backing, producing an aesthetic that nigh obscures the intensive manual labor involved under a cloak of post-human automation.
Montoya, like Warhol, seizes upon the spectacle of exorbitant wealth and its conflation with US capitalism’s political equation of affluence with freedom and individualism. Works such as Go West and Lucky * overlay their banknotes grids with hackneyed commercial advertising and pop culture slogans, sardonically highlighting the disjunction between the reality of corporate-controlled mass culture, and linguistic clichés of easy money and easy escape. Other works such as Gravitation and Show Me the Money materialize the visual semiotics of money-as-commodity fetish out of the gridded structure of the banknotes themselves (figure). Still others, such as Dream a Little Dream of Me, ironize mass-culture forms as fetishized expressions of desire now expanded well beyond Europe and the US to encompass all world territories (figure). Montoya tracks not only the ease with which the cult of Mao aligns with the cult of consumer objects, slipping effortlessly from its projection of a socialist utopia of production to a Western utopia of capitalist consumption. He also tracks the anachronism of those images of desire in the face of new global patterns of production and consumption. The serial repetition of Mao’s portrait surrounded by ad infinitum repetitions of the US-designed/Soviet-built/Chinese-purchased Lisunov Li-2 propeller plane, now obsolete in a global age of supersonic transport and drone warfare, conjures up simultaneously the collective utopian promise of those industrial commodities and China’s catastrophic failure to realize that promise. That this simultaneous promise and failure of mass emancipation through consumption has heavy political consequences is further evident in The Great Swindle, which touches upon the violent history of Montoya’s home country of Colombia in the wake of the 1948 assassination of the populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.
The hopes raised by Gaitán for true mass representation – figured in the image of the collective masses which Montoya extracts from the Colombian 1000-peso bill on which Gaitán appears – are revealed as mass deception, a radical failure of all political parties and power groups to nurture civil society and inclusionary participatory democracy.
“No traigo cash”
— President Ernesto Zedillo
What types of monetary transactions rely on cash? What on credit cards, wire transfers, bitcoins? What on equity investments or financial derivatives contracts? On marketized securities, mortgages, and overleveraging debt? On macro trading bets on currencies, commodities and interest rates? Credit default swaps, futures, hedge funds? Money market funds and offshore structured investment vehicles? On governments’ “nationalizing” billions of dollars of private debt onto the backs of taxpayers while rentier incomes rise exponentially?
Montoya’s aesthetic concentration on paper currency rather than other monetary forms conjures up simultaneously the acute social inequalities embedded in today’s cash economies and their deep imbrication in global networks of power. Those whose economic lives occur principally in cash are often either from the lowest economic bracket, such as the indigenous street vendor brushed off by Mexico’s President Zedillo with the infamous remark “I don’t carry cash,” or among the highest, such as billionaire drug lords Pablo Escobar or Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman who ran the Sinaloa drug cartel “just like a global corporation.” Certainly, Montoya comes from a region of the world that knows something about cash economies, their peculiar functionalities and tribulations, and the manner in which they are enmeshed in genealogies of control that normalize hegemonic power relations within and across national boundaries on a world scale. Since the 1980s, the drug trade has ensnared all aspects of life in Colombia. Operating out of Colombia’s Cauca Valley, the powerful Norte del Valle cartel has exported billions of dollars in cocaine through Mexico to the US. This same period has seen right-wing paramilitaries and leftist FARC militants involved in similar heights of drug trafficking and production as a means of funding Colombia’s horrendous ongoing civil war. While the FARC traded cocaine for military-grade weapons to subvent political terror, and AUC paramilitaries relied on narco money to institutionalize widespread land seizures, kidnappings, torture and massacres (“paramilitary modernization” as one scholar put it), President Alvaro Uribe leveraged the situation to codify a new order of state-sponsored armed counterinsurgency and civil society containment under the label of “democratic security.” In concert with the US-backed Plan Colombia, this has resulted in a “multi-decade, bipartisan, trillion-dollars-and-counting ‘war on drugs’” that melds neoliberal economics with counterinsurgent diplomacy.
All of this generates enormous amounts of cash, since narcotrafficking is necessarily a cash enterprise. In consequence, the cartels face a serious problem laundering their dirty money, a kind of reverse materialization of “the fiction of money” in which the materiality of paper currency is simultaneously a necessity and a liability – the only way the business can be transacted, but an impediment to transforming its wealth into a more abstract, flexible form. This problem has global consequences, some of which would be hilarious if the stakes were any less lethal. “One famous Colombian trafficker died with so many US dollars buried on his property,” cites one report, “that the locals claimed the rivers downstream would occasionally become clogged with US dollars that rain or floods had unleashed from their hiding places.” In 2013 Europe’s largest bank, HSBC, agreed to a $1.9 billion settlement to avoid charges that it had knowingly allowed Colombian and Mexican drug cartels to launder money through its HSBC-Mexico branch. The sums involved reached almost $680 billion in shady wire transfers and currency purchases. For Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel (whose multinational business hauls in an estimated $18-$39 billion in cash per year and for whom the HSBC became the “preferred financial institution”), the volume of cash was so great, reported the US Justice Department, that “drug traffickers designed specially shaped boxes,” stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard currency, “that fit the precise dimensions of the teller windows” of HSBC’s Mexico branches so as to streamline the process of deposit. In one 2007 incident, Mexican police found more than $207 million in cash stacked up in the house of a Shanghai-born businessman with suspected ties to the Sinaloa cartel (“the piles of notes were so large they spilled out of the lounge, down the corridors and into the kitchen” remarked one awestruck observer). “Money became an obstacle,” says a former cartel money launderer; the complications of processing it “started to take the fun out of the whole thing, believe it or not.”
Astronomical surpluses circulate, generating even more astronomical surpluses as cash is lodged in high-priced commodities. “Art world soaking up excess cash” headlines one HSBC.com article (as HSBC mulls over whether to advise its clients to continue investing in SAC hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen’s sketchy penchant for using artworks as versatile commodity assets). The mass spectacle of high art-as-marketable commodity is, to say the least, nothing new, despite the ever more incredible sums involved. Yet what Montoya places before us is not simply another miming of the incorporation of high art into the culture industry (and still less a claim to resisting that incorporation), but a renewed opportunity to scrutinize the role of the fetishized concept of high art in consolidating the ideological and social structures of a now-globalized finance capitalism and its stringent organization of cultural value solely around the tenets of surplus value and exchange value.
“Money [turns] image into reality and reality into a mere image, [and] transforms the real essential powers of man and nature into what are merely abstract notions.”
– Karl Marx
In 2012, Montoya began to move beyond the Swindle series’ focus on ironized iconography to consider more carefully the question of the artworks themselves – how they were produced, what sort of aesthetic attention to the materiality of the bills was involved, and how the viewer interacted with the works. With these issues in mind, Montoya set about integrating a more fully phenomenological attention to the material character of paper currency into a complex conceptual address to the underlying conundrum of money as a fetishized mode of representation. Works such as One Thousand and One and [Lincoln] dropped the conspicuous ideological explicitness of the Swindle platitudes for a more subtle balance between symbolic and material critique (figures). Fabricated out of repeated rows of bills folded into small concave hemispherical columns pushing outward from their metal support, these works treated the banknotes as simultaneously ground and figure, rather than merely as a flat background. In One Thousand and One, this three-dimensional surge of folded currency into our space asserts a tension between repetition as a symbolic embodiment of mass collectivity (Gaitán’s famous declaration, “I am not a man, I am a people,” is printed on the bill itself) and repetition as a semiotic symptom of what Thomas Crow has called the “peculiarly twentieth-century estrangement between the event and its representation” effected by mass imaging tactics. This spatialization further advances a conscious friction between presence and absence, between embodiment and a violent death that exceeds the capacity for figuration.
Yet these artworks still seem to acquiesce too easily to the conflation of an individual’s full selfhood with the emptiness of a commodity fetish, risking complicity in the very spectacularization which Montoya seeks to refute – a problem that appears to have pushed him towards yet another series in his quest for a critical dialectic between materiality and abstraction. This new series, Horizons, foregrounded an address to abstraction both as an aesthetic concept central to modernism and as a core function of capitalism’s reliance on commodity fetishism. In apparently contradictory fashion, however, Montoya turned to abstraction through a close attention to its seeming opposite: materiality. Now the rows of convex paper columns not only expand and multiply to occupy much larger surfaces, they also forsake the overt symbolism evident in [Lincoln] and One Thousand and One for a concentrated focus on the physical thingness of the bills themselves. Formal material properties of color, shape, texture, and a quasi-sculptural facticity acquire a renewed importance, as Montoya approaches the abstraction-materiality dialectic by reassessing two significant paradigms of modernist abstract painting – the monochrome and gestural abstraction – through (rather than against) a continued critical refusal to relinquish his Duchampian readymade object – money – and its historical trajectories. In turn, these reassessments open up a comparison of the use-value of money as a material object against its fetish character as abstract exchange-value.
Marx famously argued that the commodity attains its most unadulterated form when drained of material particularity and transformed into pure exchange. Capitalism, as the universalization of commodities measured in terms not of use-value but of exchange-value, therefore signals an unprecedented conceptual abstraction of human labor and social relations. In the commodity, the material basis of an object’s use-value is eliminated; evacuated of any useful purpose, its physical character becomes “phantom-like”: “If we make abstraction from [the commodity’s] use-value,” writes Marx, we abstract also from the material constituents and forms which make it a use-value. It is no longer a table, a house, a piece of yarn or any other useful thing. All its sensuous characteristics are extinguished.
Yet, paradoxically, this process results in the commodity assuming an aura of singular objecthood. Things no longer appear as the overt outcome of socially productive activity, but as “sovereign objects” whose value appears – but only appears — to reside in their material uniqueness, their “auratic singularity” divorced from the labor embedded in them. Thus the material appearance of the commodity hides a fundamental abstraction: as objects of exchange, any register of the concrete forms and conditions of human labor is erased and social relations between people acquire the “fantastic form of a relation between things.” In seeming to rupture any bond between labor and value, the commodity assumes the form of a fetish, appearing as though “endowed with a life of [its] own.” “[Human] movement within society,” continues Marx, takes on “the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under [human] control, in fact control them.”
Money, as the general equivalent through which all commodities circulate, takes this fetishism to its extreme. Its ability seemingly to act autonomously, abstracted from any concrete relationship to human activity, is never more apparent than in interest-bearing capital, where, magically severed from any basis in human labor, “money begets money,” such that the “automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valorizing value, money breeding money, and in this form it no longer bears any marks of its origins.”
It is towards this foundational paradox by means of which that most abstract of concepts – money – attains the material character of an autonomous “thing” that Montoya directs our attention in the Horizon series. Now, formal attention to the artwork’s internal procedures simultaneously summons up the specter of aesthetic autonomy with its full power to enchant and subtly interrogates our fetishization of it. The series launches into the abstract-material dialectic through three interrelated formal axes: color; figuration versus abstraction; and a planar versus spatio-temporal dynamic. These are mixed with a fourth, that of the labor of production, which I detail further below.
Color, in the Horizon series, evokes a modernist dialectics of perception that alternates between the visual and physical, between the optic and the haptic, between the organic and the mechanical. The expanded modular grid of banknotes oscillates between treating color as a dematerialized Greenbergian “optical space” and treating color as a non-transcendental material fact. On the one hand, Montoya mobilizes the ability of color to construct “its own authoritative space” in contradistinction to the material world. Bridging first off the gestural abstraction of Rothko, then off that of Colombian painter Carlos Rojas, he constructs large zones of abstract color out of meticulously matched sections of banknotes, within which horizontal substrata of multiple hues and chromatic saturations cause the picture surface to pulsate with an undulating energy (figures). This non-mimetic use of color returns a painterly sensuousness to the artwork that consciously teeters between a avowedly doomed effort to revitalize the failed utopian promise of Abstract Expressionism, and a critical “sensuousness abstracted from the objects of the world, a framing of sensuousness as such” which, argues Claudia Brodsky, has the capacity to “[make] visible in at once immediate and modern allegorical form our own ability to abstract not (an abstract) meaning from (sensuous) pictures but the purely sensuous from the nonpictorial, the abstract.”
The viewer’s optical interaction with the works, animated by the thrumming surfaces of each Horizon, gives this sensorial funambulism a further critical charge. Viewer movement in front of each picture looses a mimesis-abstraction dialectic in which the abstract sensations derived from distance dissolve, the closer we come to the work, into concrete recognition of flora, fauna, human forms, urban and natural landscapes, etc. Yet these figures serve less to evoke symbolic meanings than to generate a set of cognitive procedures – something that is especially the case when the bills used are not ones with which we are immediately familiar. Figuration and its attendant realism are now lodged neither in allegorical discourses of mass society, nor in a Warholian treatment of money as an evacuated allegory of subjective agency. Instead, they become one pole of a spatio-optical dynamic whose other is abstraction. And unlike the earlier Swindle series, whose flat surfaces emphasized the repetitive mechanistic sameness of the banknotes, the Horizons’ curved bits of paper money effect an almost cinematic movement engendered by the viewer’s own active perusal. This cognitive endeavor puts two distinct axes of perceptual engagement into confrontation. On the one hand, it reinserts overt signs of materiality into our experience of banknotes, returning a sense of their thingness that stresses their use-value as aesthetic materials over their exchange-value function within capitalism’s commodity circuits. On the other hand, our to-ing and fro-ing alternately reveals and obscures segments of material form with a kineticism that draws us further into the enthralling presence of the banknotes as a miming of capitalism’s structures of alienation – an ahistorical “succession of moments of presentness” which Georg Simmel associated with the peculiarly modern experience of money-as-thing.
Crucially, however, these optical experiences remain anchored in the physical materiality of the gridded banknotes as these tangibly obtrude into our physical space – at once a reintroduction of the reductivist strategies of chromatic modular abstraction harking back to avant-garde experiments in the materiality of color, now reconstituted in post-industrial terms, and a remediating against the tendency of the visual encounter to regress to its fetishized state of unmediated auratic purity/autonomy. This remediation occurs, as I describe below, through a renewed emphasis on the procedural and technical aspects of the work’s production, which reintroduce a powerful mnemonic experience of aesthetic labor voided of authorial gesture.
“The Devil and Commodity Fetishism”
– Michael Taussig
In Colombia’s Cauca Valley, sugarcane cutters who wish to become rich enter into contracts with the devil, bartering their souls in exchange for increased productivity and higher wages. But the money they earn is barren; it cannot be used to buy fertile land, nor can it be invested. It can only be used to buy luxury commodities. Such devil-pact wage laborers are rumored to die untimely and painful deaths; while they live, the devil controls them. Anthropologist Michael Taussig has analyzed the devil pact as an allegory of the transition from a precapitalist peasant society based on use-value to a capitalist economy based on exchange-value. Unlike us, Taussig argues, the cane cutters have not yet been socialized into regarding the capitalist market system as “natural.” As a consequence, they ascribe to paper currency a magical animism in an effort to explain its bizarre tendency to create nothing but more money. One belief, el bautizo del billete (baptism of the bill) recounts how banknotes unknowingly “baptized” in place of children by Catholic priests are put into circulation by the child’s devious godparents. When called three times by their “Christian” baptismal name, the bills mysteriously return to their “owners,” bringing with them accumulations of other bills kidnapped along the way. Through such beliefs, notes Taussig, the Cauca Valley peasants have produced a critical illustration of one of Marx’s most memorable phrases, the “fetishism of commodities” — the transformation of the products of human hands into apparently independent things, self-empowered and with a life of their own.
In his 2003 book, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia, Taussig transfers this analysis to Colombia’s long history of the production of social violence through economic violence. Chronicling a month in the life of a Cauca Valley town caught under the capricious tyranny of a paramilitary death squad and narcotraffickers, he traces the use of extreme violence in crushing any hint of social organizing, peasant or labor unions, and in enforcing blind subservience to neoliberal socio-economic strictures.
Underlying Taussig’s insights into contemporary life in Colombia’s Cauca Valley is a prescient analysis of the question of human wage-labor, its systemic obfuscation under capitalism’s commodity logic, and the nightmarish costs of this economic structure in social and perceptual terms. Montoya’s artwork takes up Taussig’s argument, relocating it to the flashy world of high art and high finance where the cash-labor nexus – and the social violence perpetrated under such wage-labor structures – is considerably more opaque but no less deleterious. Certain works critique the widespread invocation of industrial labor as a nationalist ethos on currency from countries whose economies are caught in uneven stages of development that mix preindustrial agrarianism, industrial factories and raw material extraction, and post-industrial technologies.
Other works examine labor as a principle factor in imperial and neo-imperial economic aggression. ”Costa Rica” undermines the nostalgic costumbrismo image of labor propagated on Costa Rican banknotes through a deadpan insertion of a George Washington-faced dollar sign that recalls Costa Rica’s banana-republic history of slavery and US imperialism, while ”Fisherman” subtly undoes the image of Israeli workers’ peaceable mastery of the nation’s territory by emphasizing the growing role of US dollars in sustaining Israel’s post-Suez militarized strategies of Arab containment.
Montoya interweaves such iconographical attentions to labor with a larger structural aesthetic critique concerning work and its relationship to contemporary finance capitalism in order to address what Benjamin Buchloh calls the “(im)possibility of an iconography of labor in a self-declared post-industrial and post-working class society” in the context of global finance capitalism. Indeed, we must ask what kinds of “work” are at issue in Montoya’s images. Manual labor? Intellectual labor? The forced labor of slavery or colonial subjugation? Industrial labor under conditions of exploitation that are not only economic but also cognitive – labor “sealed off from experience” and turned into mind-numbing repetition? The absurdly tedious labor of counting and bundling stacks of drug money? Montoya’s own wage-labor exertions to produce artworks he himself cannot afford? And above all, what role does productive labor play, if any, in determining an object’s value?
Key to these questions is Montoya’s double reflection on the issue of labor that posits his own meticulous material work in constructing his pieces against an economic system whose power depends precisely upon eradicating all traces of human labor. Each of his images functions as a visual evocation of the social divisions between production and consumption, in that each maintains a precarious balance between an optical insistence on the highly labor-intensive nature of its construction and the subjective desire congealed in the money-commodity itself. This hazardous venture is nowhere more evident than in [the large Horizon]. Composed of over 3000 currency notes painstakingly hand-trimmed, curved into tiny hemispheric arcs, and mounted in [how many feet long?] rows of reiterated image vignettes, Horizon registers the historical experience of labor in the very structure of the work’s aesthetic production. The folding procedures that methodically animate the artwork’s surface visually encode Montoya’s labor through a heightened contradictory tension between the skilled artisanal (and its concomitant faith in the artistic medium to convey the possibility of both subjective and social coherence) and the deskilled mechanistic (with its rejection the authorial in favor of the systematized and the homogenous). Yet Montoya’s is no orthodox concept of work as a function of class or the industrial division of labor; nor is it an idealistic attempt to rescue use-value (embodied in labor) from exchange-value. Rather, it serves as an effort to analyze the representation of labor in relation to the question of value in order to foreground the structural operation recognized by Simmel and elaborated by Walter Benjamin – that an object’s value under capitalism is derived not from productive labor but from the subject’s desire for it.
“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image”
– Guy Debord
In many ways, Montoya’s turn toward what he calls “painting” with paper currency would appear to be simply a reaffirmation of the complete subsumption of high art into the culture of the spectacle. Rather than staking out even the most minute spaces of resistance or critique, Montoya’s work might be taken simply to exemplify our full identification with money as the Ur-form of commodity abundance which, for Guy Debord, constituted the diffuse form of the spectacle. In arguing that claim, we might voice what would most likely be the judgment of both Debord and Peter Bürger: that Montoya’s rehearsal of the aesthetic problematics of the historical avant-garde and postwar neo-avantgarde simply reruns a rerun, reenacting the same lamentable repetitive failures which both Debord and Bürger attributed to the neo-avantgarde.
Yet such a totalizing judgment, it seems to me, fails to account fully for the perceptual sophistication with which Montoya interrogates the high modernist myth of self-referential aesthetic autonomy as it rubs up against the capitalist myth of money’s self-referential value. What I have tried to do here, therefore, is delve deeply into the complexities of the aesthetic procedures Montoya puts before us, tracking their development, their cognitive purchase, and their social, historical and institutional contextualization, in order to trace his close grappling with what has been termed one of the most pressing problems in modern art — the “dialectic between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value.” If, as Debord argues, the “becoming-image” of capital registers the total victory of exchange-value over use-value and “its establishment as an autonomous power,” then Montoya’s work runs an enormous risk in taking that money-image as his site of cross-examination. Yet it is precisely the placing of exchange-value in confrontation with use-value that his works require us to do. Or to put it another way, Montoya’s works charge us with the task of mimetically tracking the conflict between the abstraction of human experience enforced by the logic of the commodity in its money-form, and the critical attempt to recover an aesthetic use-value based on material engagement. At issue is not to side with one view over the other (and even less to place any utopian faith in those critical efforts). Rather, Montoya aims to apprehend some measure of capitalism’s configuration of experience through the structures of aesthetic perception and production. In so doing, he raises fundamental ethical questions, and allows us no easy answers.
1 Ricardo Piglia, Money to Burn, trans. Amanda Hopkinson (London: Granta, 2003), 156-8.
2 See Bruno Bosteels, Marx and Freud in Latin America. Politics, Psychoanalysis, and Religion in Times of Terror (London: Verso, 2012), 285.
3 Alfredo Molano, “Colombia’s largest rebel organization is deeply rooted in a legacy of class conflict,” NACLA 34, 2 (September/October 2000):23-31; Jasmin Hristov, “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Columbia,” NACLA 42, 4 (July/August 2009): 12-19; Simon Romero, “Columbian Paramilitaries’ Successors Called a Threat,” The New York Times (4 February 2010): A11.; Michael Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land. Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia; “World Report 2009: Colombia,” Human Rights Watch (2009) http://www.hrw.org/world-report-2009/colombia .
4 “Murder, Money and Mexico. The rise and fall of the Salinas brothers,” Frontline PBS (April 8, 1997) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/mexico/ .
5 Jesse Westbrook and Katherine Burton ”HSBC said to advise wealthy against more SAC investments”, Bloomberg News, January 11, 2013.
6 Piglia, Money to Burn, epigraph, n.p. Piglia takes the quotation from Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera (1928).
7 Ricardo Piglia, “Roberto Arlt and the Fiction of Money” , Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 8, 1 (1999): 13-16.
8 Montoya notes that, for Colombians, the 2008 global meltdown and its concomitant social upheavals was nothing new. “Living in a country like Colombia where we’ve had this problem for half a century,” he asserts, “the crisis was there before .” “El artista Santiago Montoya cuestiona en Londres el papel de dinero,” ABC España (15 November 2012) http://www.abc.es/agencias/noticia.asp?noticia=1294807 .
9 Foquismo, theorized by French intellectual Régis Debray based on the revolutionary tactics of Che Guevara in Cuba, argues that vanguard groups of guerrilla fighters can ignite the latent revolutionary potential of peasants and workers, thereby instigating a full revolution. Foquismo rejected the orthodox Communist party model of the period, which argued that revolution could only occur under “objective conditions” (industrialization and the existence of a massive working class). Widely adapted in the 1960s by guerrilla movements in Latin America, Africa and Asia, foquismo came under intense criticism after disastrous defeats in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala. See Greg Grandin and Gilbert Joseph, eds., A Century of Revolution. Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
10 Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 133-134.
11 Montoya, quoted in “Santiago Montoya at Halcyon Gallery,” John Jones London (12 November 2012) http:// www.johnjones.co.uk/news/2012/11/santiago-montoya-halcyon-gallery/ .
12 On the peculiar nature of Venezuela’s oil economy, see Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
13 In Fly Away, for example, Montoya uses the 1953 Chinese 1 Fen food coupon, exchangeable for rice, which pictured the Lisunov Li-2—the Soviet version of the American Douglas DC-3. In the early 1950s, China purchased a number of these aircraft for military purposes.
14 Citing the following article, Montoya has noted the similarities between his production aesthetic and that of the high-tech computerized production of currency notes in Colombia: Mauricio Moreno, “Así se imprimen los billetes en Colombia,” El Tiempo (10 March 2014) http://www.eltiempo.com/Multimedia/galeria_fotos/curiosidades8/impresion-de-los-billetes-en-colombia_13614121-5 .
15 Thomas Crow, “Saturday Disasters: Trace and Reference in Early Warhol,” in Andy Warhol, ed. Annette Michelson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 51.
16 Montoya’s use of the image of Mao brings together the two types of spectacle culture identified by Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995): concentrated spectacle, emblematized by Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, with diffuse spectacle, emblematized by the US consumerism. See Jonathan Crary, Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory, in Guy Debord and the Situationist International, ed. Tom McDonough (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 461-62.
17 “I don’t carry cash.” Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to an indigenous woman attempting to sell him a craft embroidered image of Mexico’s patron saint, the Guadalupe Virgin. The phrase, which Zedillo uttered in October 1998, has come to symbolize how out of touch Zedillo was with the lives of everyday Mexicans. Pedro Miguel, “Recuerdo de Zedillo,” La Jornada (6 March 2012) http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2012/03/06/opinion/022a1mun .
18 Erin Carlyle, “Billionaire Druglords: El Chapo Guzman, Pablo Escobar, The Ochoa Brothers,” Forbes (13 March 2012) http://www.forbes.com/sites/erincarlyle/2012/03/13/billionaire-druglords-el-chapo-guzman-pablo-escobar-the-ochoa-brothers/ ; Ginger Thompson and Randal Archibold, “El Chapo’s Arrest Unlikely to Break Mexican Cartel,” The New York Times (26 February 2014): A11. British journalist Ed Vulliamy goes further: “Narco-cartels are not pastiches of global corporations, nor are they errant bastards of the global economy—they are pioneers of it,” quoted in Alan Knight, “Headless corpses? Acid baths? This is a distorted picture of Mexico’s drug wars,” The Guardian (6 July 2011) http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jul/06/distorted-picture-mexico-drug-wars .
19 In the 1990s alone, the Norte del Valle cartel exported over $10 billion in cocaine to the US. Office of Foreign Assets Control. See “Impact Report. Economic Sanctions Against Colombian Drug Cartels,” US Department of the Treasury (March 2007): 12. http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Documents/narco_impact_report_05042007.pdf . In the following decade, a period of just four years (2006-2010) saw the Colombian cartel and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel laundering more than $881 million through HSBC’s Mexico branch. See Christie Smythe, “HSBC Judge Approves $1.9B Drug-Money Laundering Accord,” Bloomberg News (3 July 2013) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-02/hsbc-judge-approves-1-9b-drug-money-laundering-accord.html .
20 Forrest Hylton, “The Cold War That Didn’t End: Paramilitary Modernization in Medellín, Colombia,” in A Century of Revolution: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Violence During Latin America’s Long Cold War, eds. Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 338-370.
21 Greg Grandin, “Muscling Latin America,” The Nation (8 February, 2010).
22 Damien Cave, “Inside the Homes of Mexico’s Rich and Infamous,” The New York Times (18 January 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/19/garden/inside-the-homes-of-mexicos-alleged-drug-lords.html?pagewanted=all .
23 Oriana Zill and Lowell Bergman, “The Black Peso Money Laundering System,” Frontline PBS (no date) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/special/blackpeso.html .
24 Christie Smythe notes that “HSBC was accused of failing to monitor more than $670 billion in wire transfers and more than $9.4 billion in purchases of US currency from HSBC Mexico, allowing for money laundering,” Lack of proper controls allowed the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico and the Norte del Valle cartel in Colombia to move more than $881 million through HSBC’s US unit from 2006 to 2010. Smythe, “HSBC Judge Approves $1.9B Drug-Money Laundering Accord.”
25 Julia Zinberg and Jack Kelly, “Why SAC and not HSBC?,” The Wall Street Job Report (29 July 2013) http://wallstreetjobreport.com/why-sac-and-not-hsbc/ ; Patrick Radden Keefe, “Cocaine Incorporated: How a Mexican Drug Cartel Makes Its Billions,” The New York Times (15 June 2012); US Justice Department quoted in Richard Mills, “Laundromat Banks Too Big To Fail,” Financial Sense (31 January 2014) http://www.financialsense.com/contributors/richard-mills/laundromat-banks-too-big-to-fail . Mills notes that “On 4 March 2013 HSBC announced profits of $20.6 billion in 2012 while it paid out a $3 million bonus to its CEO.”
26 John Paul Rathbone, “Money laundering: Taken to the cleaners,” Financial Times (20 July 2012) http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/702a64a6-d25e-11e1-ac21-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2v0q95691 . The Mexican-Chinese businessman, Zhenli Ye Gon, was also a prominent client of HSBC.
27 Zill and Bergman, “The Black Peso Money Laundering System.” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/drugs/special/blackpeso.html .
28 Brian Milner, “Art world soaking up excess cash,” HSBC Global Connectionshttps://globalconnections.hsbc.com/canada/en/articles/art-world-soaking-excess-cash; Kris Devasabai, “Hedge fund investors divided on SAC probe,” Hedge Funds Review (2 April 2013) http://www.risk.net/hedge-funds-review/analysis/2258393/hedge-fund-investors-divided-on-sac-probe .
29 Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 105.
30 Thomas Crow develops these ideas with regard to Warhol’s Disaster series and his use of newspaper images. Crow, “Saturday Disasters,” 57. On the Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy series, Crow writes (p. 51) in terms that seem equally applicable to Montoya’s series of martyrs: “Where does one put the curiously intimate knowledge one possesses of an unknown figure, and how does one come to terms with the sense of loss—the absence of a richly imagined presence that was never really there?”
31 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1976), 128.
32 Bill Brown, “The Secret Life of Things (Virginia Woolf and the Matter of Modernism),” Modernism/Modernity 6, 2 (1999): 1.
33 Marx, Capital I, 165.
34 Marx, Capital I, 165. David McNally, Bodies of Meaning: Studies on Language, Labor, and Liberation, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 54.
35 Marx, Capital I, 167-8.
36 Marx, Capital I, 256; Marx, Capital vol. III, intro Ernest Mandel, trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin/New Left Books, 1981), 516.
37 On the latter as a foundational dialectic of modernism, see Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: Painting After the Subject of History, (Ph.D. dissertation, City University of New York, 1994), 161.
38 Curt Barnes quoted in Claudia Brodsky, “Framing the Sensuous: Objecthood and ‘Objectivity’ in Art After Adorno,” in Art and Aesthetics After Adorno, ed. Jay Bernstein (Berkeley: Townsend Papers in the Humanities, University of California Berkeley, 2010), 96.
39 Montoya recalls having been deeply impressed by an exhibition of Carlos Rojas’s abstract paintings held at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá when he was studying art at the Universidad de los Andes. Email communication, 10 March 2014.
40 Brodsky, “Framing the Sensuous,” 96-97. This “framing of sensuousness as such” is even more evident in the large-scale tapestries that Montoya has begun producing, especially at close viewing range.
41 Montoya has observed differing reactions among viewers to specific artworks, depending upon which banknotes they are familiar with through daily use. Author interview, November 2012. Lack of familiarity seems to open a space of cognition often closed down when the viewer recognizes a currency bill too quickly. In contrast, a note’s familiarity has the potential to open a series of memories that work against historical amnesia. Montoya is very aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each of these two axes of viewer engagement.
42 D avid Frisby, “Preface to the Third Edition,” in Georg Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, trans. by Tom Bottomore and David Frisby; ed. David Frisby (London: Routledge, 2004), xxvi.
43 Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980).
44 Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism, 37; 126-127.
45 Michael Taussig, Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia (New York: The New Press, 2003).
46 The Israeli shekel used by Montoya was produced in 1958—two years after the 1956 Suez War, and the year that saw a rising tide of Arab nationalism, resulting among other things in the merger of Syria and Egypt under Nasser to form the United Arab Republic, a military coup in Iraq that threatened Western access to its oil, and the eruption of a civil war in Lebanon. These events marked the rise of the United States replacing Britain as a power in the Middle East, and a turning point in US-Israeli relations. See Avi Shlaim, “Israel, the Great Powers, and the Middle East Crisis of 1958,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 27, 2 (May 1999): 177-192.
47 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Allan Sekula: Photography Between Discourse and Document” in Allan Sekula, Fish Story, (Düsseldorf: Richter Verlag, 1995), 191. I am indebted to Talia Shabtay for bringing this phrase and its implications to my attention.
48 Susan Buck-Morss quoting Walter Benjamin, in Buck-Morss, “The City as Dreamworld and Catastrophe,” October 73 (Summer 1995): 8.
49 This contradictory operation is also fundamentally apparent in Montoya’s large-scale tapestries.
50 Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 24.
51 Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
1984). Claire Gilman notes that “the Situationist scorn for neo-avant-garde ‘repetitions’ recalls Peter Bürger’s condemnation of postwar movements as pathetic, repetitive failures.” Gilman, “Asger Jorn’s Avant-Garde Archives,” in McDonough, ed., Guy Debord and the Situationist International, 208.
52 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry. Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 126.
53 Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, 31.