It’s impossible to say what made this past winter in New York colder; the particularly bone-chilling temperatures, or the particularly depressed economy. Each day the news seemed bleaker, leading investors and news writers to ask, ‘Where is our money safe?’. In what seemed like a response, Peter Simensky opened Consulting Mediums. Finding meaning(s) in uncertain times, at SculptureCenter in New York’s Long Island City, as part of the In Practice series. Investigating the use of divining rods (a collection of tools made in shapes ranging from a three-pronged ‘Y’ structure to the ‘L’ and ‘U’ shaped rods, historically used for the practice of dowsing, mystically guiding searchers to water, oil or mineral-resources in the soil through energy), Simensky used one corridor of the SculptureCenter’s downstairs labyrinth to stage his own search for mineral deposits, ideally precious metals, beneath the thick concrete floor.
In addition to searching for solid material wealth in ‘uncertain times’, Simensky’s depiction of the practice also conjured a familiar American archetype—the pioneering prospector of the Old West. To some, the image of the lone adventurer in the mythically constructed landscape is not so very different from the investment banker gambling with market capital from a high-rise office in one of the world’s financial capitals. Different scene, same scenario.
However, while the investment banker looks to make his or her fortune on capital, money generated by larger holdings or even more money, the mythical prospector looks for tangible wealth: gold, oil, minerals. Basic economic theory holds that when the value of capital makes a plunge, the wise investor turns to tangible commodities like water, oil or precious metals such as gold and silver as their value remains intact, even increases. It is this tension between capital-driven investment and the more local, more personal narrative of the prospector and commodity markets that Peter Simensky examines, persistently mining the multiple definitions of the word economy.
One alternative investment choice that has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years is the art market. With the increase in surplus during the economic bubble’s expansion came an increase in enthusiasm for art both as an investment and as a luxury to be enjoyed for aesthetic and cultural reasons. Corporations who had long held art collections, devoted even more surplus capital to contemporary art purchases, exhibiting new artworks at strategic economic summits, for private clients, or as marketing schemes during international art fairs. Peter Simensky mimicked this practice in 2005, creating the Neutral Capital Collection I .
Armed with his own corporate entity, Neutral Capital, he set out to establish a unique currency for buying the collection’s artworks. Using images from failed economies, he printed collages of apparent economic failure onto the bills of a monetary system with burgeoning value. He then displayed and traded the currency among collectors and dealers as a project produced by New York’s Swiss Institute at The Armory Show, 2005, thus establishing a value for the Neutral Capital currency.
According to Simensky, Neutral Capital is fiat money, a form of currency strengthened by the perceived faith in the monetary system’s abilities without being wholly backed by commodities such as gold or silver. The US dollar is fiat money. The trading value of Neutral Capital, as currency, depends on the value each bill holds as an artwork, a critical move by Simensky that intersects the realm of luxury commodities with unbacked fiat currency. At The Armory, 2000 Neutral Capital bills of the 100 denomination edition sold for $4000, thus establishing the exchange rate of 50 Neutral Capital for $1.
With this newly-recognised system of monetary value, Simensky then gave Neutral Capital bills to fellow artists in exchange for artworks that now comprise the expanding Neutral Capital Collection. First exhibited at the aptly titled New Labor exhibition at Columbia University in 2005, the collection was displayed within an ingenious crate that served as both transport and exhibition space. Simensky amassed a collection of artworks by a large group of artists including Patty Chang, Peter Coffin, Jules Debalincourt, Jonah Freeman, Harrell Fletcher and Nari Ward. Each artist was paid in Neutral Capital against their selling price in US dollars, thereby placing the Neutral Capital currency in a double role as both a system of exchange, and as artworks in their own right. Through this double gesture, Simensky created a completely self-sustainable economic relationship between Neutral Capital—the collecting entity and monetary system—and the artworks in its holdings. In 2007 Simensky created another incarnation of the crate-collection in the form of Neutral Capital II displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.
In a separate series also exhibited at the 2007 San Diego show and coyly titled Went Corporate, Simensky converged the invented world of Neutral Capital with large-scale artworks on sidewalks outside New York’s financial and corporate institutions. He used photos of recognisable and iconic large-scale sculptures by David Smith, Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Isamu Noguchi and Jean Dubuffet, and silk-screened the images onto uncut spreadsheets of Neutral Capital currency. From a playful perspective, the works hint at the ambitions of Neutral Capital; after all, the Noguchi and Dubuffet sculptures sit outside the Chase building complex near Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. However, the images of these indicators of corporate wealth and power, in the hands of Simensky, are solemn and dignified. Enjoyed by corporate staff and tourists alike, they remind us of the value of cultural monuments—integral to civic identity but originally bankrolled by private capital.
In addition to the Neutral Capital Collection II and Went Corporate, Simensky also used his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego to re-position his investigation from the multi-national to the local with the film and installation Tenderfoot.
Initiated during an artist residency in Tijuana, Mexico, Simensky collaborated with filmmaker Mike Parry to create a narrative video that follows the ancient path of the prospector or, as Simensky calls it, ‘the seeker’, of the Old West and Mexico. Combining images of piggy banks, wishing wells and horse-track betting alongside day-to-day trading between crafts-people in the chaotic US/Mexico border towns, the film, within an installation of plaster-cast ham hocks and boxes, begins the solemn task of unpacking the imagery of fortune-seekers that defines American frontier history.
This year, Simensky created another marketplace, this time at the New York outpost of Museum 52 as part of the group show Another 24 Hours . Entitled A Day Trading, Simensky set up two markets on separate floors; a ‘swap-exchange’ on one level, and the tried-and-tested exchange of artwork for Neutral Capital on the other. At the ‘swap’, participants were invited to bring in goods and services such as artworks, art supplies, performances or collectables to trade among each other, creating a localised, goods-based economy, a useful concept at a time of shrinking capital. At the Neutral Capital selling point, artists hoping to earn Neutral Capital could bring their work to trade for Neutral Capital currency, but Simensky himself decided whether or not to buy the pieces on offer for the Neutral Capital Collection. Some pieces were rejected. In making these value judgements, Simensky authentically performs the role of ‘corporate collector’, while also characterising his currency as limited in supply, therefore higher in demand and as a result, more valuable.
Viewed as the story of an economy, Simensky’s body of work attempts to understand and retell the American mythical relationship with wealth as a pursuit. For the seeker, or prospector, what began as a quest into the wilderness for gold, oil, or as a conquering of land with impositions like the railroads, transformed into a desire to invest in capital. But today, it seems, in this economic down-turn, that modern seekers are forced to return to the starting point, and, like Simensky, carry their divining rods back into the wilderness to search out new fortunes to replace the lost ones.
Re-enacting the unrelenting idealism of the prospector through his own dowsing experiments at SculptureCenter, Simensky found an area that repeatedly yielded a reaction in the hand-held rods. By the artist’s own admission, he was a novice, however, he taught himself the process of divining, which includes visualising the hoped-for material, in his case, mineral wealth.
From this visualisation Simensky created a rug called ‘Morning Glory’, placing it over the area that had caused reaction in the mineral rods he used. Without digging into the thick stone floor of SculptureCenter, Simensky used the rug as a symbol of the riches that could lie beneath, rendering the rug itself a commodity both as a work of art and of cultural importance, and perhaps as something that could someday be purchased at auction with Neutral Capital.
Mary Rinebold is a writer and curator based in New York