One of the most interesting things about the global economic crash of recent years, I think, was the utter scale of the thing: how could something of this magnitude ever happen, and consequently how could it be rectified, when the figures being bandied about were incomprehensible, unimaginable. The amounts of money, along with some truly bizarre, almost fantastical, financial shorthand, failed to make any sense to me: it was as though the un-reality of the situation, which had preceded the crash, had just been made scarily apparent. A collective sense of scale was blown out of the water, as the sense in numbers seemed to break down and dissipate. Of course, these events – even as they unfolded – were understood to be of great significance, though that is not to say that much has changed in their wake. However the events undoubtedly held a certain self-awareness as they played out; one was acutely conscious of their importance.
Fiona Marron’s exhibition, Last and First Men, displays a fascination not with the events that make manifest their own significance at the time of their happening, but rather the events in time that hold no self-awareness, that slip under the radar until years later, when their consequence is eventually perceived. The show takes its
title from the British writer Olaf Stapledon’s 1930 science fiction novel of the same name, which tells the history of the human race, from the present until some two billion years hence. The narrative is written from a dual perspective: the present author who writes the future as fiction, and the future author who looks back on this fiction as fact of a collective history. Like the future commentator in Stapledon’s novel, Marron reflects on moments in history from the position of their respective
futures: they are considered only in the wake of an incident that has had the result of crediting them with significance.
Such incidences, though seemingly innocuous, only gain credence with the passing of time. The Nixon – Kennedy presidential debates, which took place in 1960, form one of Marron’s points of departure for the work. In the gallery, black and white stills from the TV broadcast are re-iterated to the point of absurdity, like stills from a scene that’s been disassembled and put back together, wrongly and with gaps. In short, no sense can be gleaned from these visual fragments – meaning has broken down. Now, consider your reaction to these debates as they took place in 1960: of course, their importance would have been implicit – this was a presidential election after all – and yet in truth they did not become truly significant until Kennedy was elected, the Cold War ensued and finally came to an end. On consideration of both candidates’ policies and tendencies, it would not be at all presumptuous to assume that events might have played out quite differently, had Nixon been elected. Thus this important but simultaneously trivial event becomes an altogether different event with the passing of time – it
gains a historicity not present at the moment of its incarnation. At the time of its happening the viewer was ignorant: it us only us, the ‘last’ men, who can understand the weight of this particular event.
By chance, I met the artist on my second visit to the exhibition. Although I was able to make sense of the vast majority of the work, certain aspects eluded me, and so I was glad to discuss these with her. One such aspect
pertained to the Nixon-Kennedy work: for although I was able to glean the resonance of the occasion presented to me, the particularities of it slipped from my initial response. Marron explained to me the aesthetic qualities of the debate – the respective appearance of both participants – was held in great importance to the eventual outcome. This was one of the first, if not the first, occasion on which television played a role outside of the realm of simple entertainment; up to this point, radio would have played a part in social and political life, but not yet television. The event formed one of the first occasions on which the public could form an opinion on politics, and political figures, as they watched them, live, on television. However, a peculiar discrepancy came into play here, in which those who listened only on radio felt Nixon to have won, whilst those who watched the debate on television were more enamoured with Kennedy. Thus it was essentially reduced to the way in which the public reacted to both characters on the basis of their appearance, and so it is no surprise that Nixon, without make-up, ill and showing signs of a limp, was deemed aesthetically less pleasing than Kennedy. However what is interesting about the event is not that Kennedy won, but rather that he may have won – and subsequently
garnered early and accumulative support – on the basis of a willingness to wear make-up. More than this, the events shaped by Kennedy’s becoming president might also rest on this decision. One would hope that the course of history could not be altered by such a decision, but reluctantly Marron understands that they might.
Another such incidence under consideration in the work is that of ‘rogue trader’ Nick Leeson, infamous for being
solely responsible for breaking Baring’s Bank in 1995. Here he is represented in an audio piece comprising a mixture of news footage following the bank’s collapse, along with interviews and speeches, following his becoming a celebrity. This is coupled with an electronic banner mounted amongst the Kennedy-Nixon stills, infinitely alternating the combination of numbers: 162,000,000, 862,000,000, 1,000,000,000, 420,000,000 and 1,300,000,000. As Marron explained to me, 862,000,000 is the figure which is claimed to have caused the bank to fall as a result of Leeson’s bad trades, but there has always been a sense of ambiguity around the actual sum in contrast to the certainty regarding the root cause i.e. the reckless actions of one man, Leeson. This dichotomy, seen particularly in the context of recent fiscal collapse, appears contentious: how could one man ever be solely responsible for such an event, when the environment fully supported such actions when they paid off? The fact that the bank, one of the oldest financial institutions in the world, could be brought to its knees through the actions of one man is surely a damning indictment of said bank. However this appeared to have been ignored, and further, re-iterated contemporarily: 862,000,000 is utterly dwarfed in the wake of recent
bailouts; the like of which, as stated earlier, seem to evade numerical comprehension. Leeson’s example might have been seen as an early signifier of the dangers of banking deregulation; instead, he is drafted in the wake of a further, much more catastrophic explication, as a celebrity commentator.
The exhibition seems to focus on incidences that throw light onto a future not yet anticipated; in short, harbingers
of a future in which the event’s seemingly trivial or random particularities have come to bear significance. This view is also present in the case of Leo Melamed, another protagonist in the exhibition. Widely acknowledged as the man behind automated financial trading, Melamed is less celebrated as the author of various science fiction works, most notably a work called The Tenth Planet (1984). This work tells the story of a master computer that has the ability to control five alien planets, and was not, as you might guess, particularly acclaimed. Within the exhibition, Melamed is present in a video piece that couples stills of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with an oddly robotic-sounding narration describing strange particularities of his life and career. The effect is to foster a distinct sense of incredulity in the viewer; the strangeness in the story’s details, partnered with its peculiar delivery, has the effect of presenting it as science fiction. On learning that it is all in fact true, the synchronicity of Melamed’s authorial output – both in terms of finance and science fiction – comes to the fore. The bizarre financial shorthand that I described earlier, which Melamed helped to formulate, comes to resemble the vocabulary of science fiction, and suddenly both outputs appear strikingly similar. The super-computer of
his novel does in fact come to fruition, but in the form of the market’s invisible hand.
This text is not really supposed to be a review though, and yet it should already be apparent that Marron’s work contains an intelligence and attentiveness not often witnessed. Rather, this text’s aim is to provide some thoughts on the work in the context of the Selected Stories programme, which has focused on artistic interpretation
or interrogation of the ‘Real’, or ‘Reality’. So let’s look back: initially, I wrote a text for a discussion that took place in conjunction with Suzanne Van Der Lingen’s Ark, an event which focused on the work as a site of obfuscation, nostalgia and appropriation: not a site of ‘literal’ truth, but rather one of artistic or aesthetic truth. The work acted almost like a thematic precursor to the current series. This in turn was followed by the recent exhibition Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance, alongside which another discussion took place. This talk centred on the photographic debt in contemporary art, and the prevailing power of the image in a collective interpretation or understanding of ‘Reality’. Marron’s work explicates many of the previous events’ particular points of reference: the enduring hold of the image, the unreality of reality and the tactics of appropriation are all present to varying degrees. Through the language of various systems of thought – whether they be economic or political, or both – Marron highlights the ways in which such systems render strange the world, isolating it from collective perception and understanding. The world becomes imperceptible and incomprehensible, moving exponentially into the realm of science fiction. The notion that history moves rationally, that cause and effect
is of an accumulative, immediately comprehensible nature, is questioned as minor events or aspects of events come to shape the events that follow, giving them shading and comprehensibility. Their relevance is not understood in real time, but only years hence. In explicating such a thought, Marron presents us with an alternative sense of ‘Reality’, one in which the comfort of perceptibility has been negated. This is a scary proposition: if events in time might be shaped not by the events that we strive to carry out, consciously, but rather by the inconsequential minutiae over which we hold no conscious control, then history and ‘Reality’ in turn become the random and uncontrollable results of such details. A breakdown occurs with regard to the perceived weight of events, and as such no detail can be deemed irrelevant – tomorrow’s war might be waged not only on account of an action, but also an act of inaction, or even more scarily – an event that holds the criteria for neither, an un-action, if you will. As mentioned previously, the recent banking crash might take such a form, put into motion not by one particular action per se, but by a combination of perceptible and imperceptible precursors, the events of historical significance coupled with those that slip by, unnoticed. It is perhaps by analysing these events in time, or at least
being open to their significance with its passing, that we might yet gain some purchase on the present, and consequently ‘Reality’ – the fiscal crash becomes as much a result of banking deregulation as it is the eventual conclusion of a science fiction novel.