Framing Finance

Date: May 18, 2014 Category:

Framing Finance

The idea of ‘the image of finance’ implies a frame, a set of borders within which the image is contained. But how do you construct a frame large enough to contain something as sprawling and diffuse as ‘finance’ or ‘the market’? And how do you ensure that the intangible assets that are central to financial exchange are made visible within that frame? Illustrators and artists have been confronting these questions since at least as long ago as the eighteenth century. As the scale and complexity of finance have grown over the last three centuries or more, so the image of finance has been captured from a more remote, panoramic vantage point, in an attempt to enframe as much content as possible. In the process, the direct or literal representation of people or things has given way to mounting abstraction. At the same time, in an effort to register those aspects of finance that are most imaginary and ineffable, image-makers have repeatedly incorporated elements of allegory, caricature, fantasy or folklore into their works, supplementing more objective and rational – but often less revealing – forms of visualisation.

Exhibit 243, Pujo Committee Report (1913). Courtesy of FRASER. Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
William Powhida, Griftopia (2011). Graphite, watercolour, acrylic ink, and coloured pencil on paper, 152 x 305 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

In 1912-13, Arsène Pujo, a Democratic Representative from Louisiana, chaired a congressional subcommittee tasked with investigating the so-called ‘money trust’. The Pujo Committee concluded that substantial portions of American industry, transport, telecommunications and finance were controlled by a cabal of Wall Street bankers and financiers that exercised its power via a system of interlocking directorships. The extent of the cartel’s influence is indicated by of this diagram, produced by the Committee, which shows lines of command radiating out from J.P. Morgan and Company. The plan calls to mind a spider’s web (with the Morgan Company as the malignant arachnid at the centre) or a monstrous octopus – both common images in satirical cartoons depicting the robber barons of the Gilded Age. At the same time, the diagram shows how abstract visualisations can be used to reveal the structural realities of financial and economic power.

This illustration, by the American artist William Powhida, takes its title and much of its content from a work of latter-day muckraking by the Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi. Like Taibbi’s book, Powhida’s drawing implicates bankers, regulators, broadcasters, libertarian ideologues and successive presidents and secretaries of the Treasury in a concerted effort to install free market economic doctrine in Washington and beyond. At the centre resides Alan Greenspan, the former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose celebrated maintenance of a ‘Great Moderation’ in American markets in the 1990s and 2000s turned out merely to be preparing the way for the Great Recession of the past few years. Criss-crossed by meandering lines of text so densely packed as to be barely legible, ‘Griftopia’ is, as Powhida acknowledges, less about conveying information than about triggering in viewers a recognition of just ‘how confusing’ the financial world really is.

Jonathan’s Coffee House or An Analysis of Change Alley With a Group of Characters from the Life (1763). Engraving. (British Cartoon Prints Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-22422.)
Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, High-Frequency Trading Work Space 9, Willis Tower, Chicago (2010). Inkjet-print, 100 x 145 cm. (Image courtesy the artists and Taubert Contemporary, Berlin.)

In the eighteenth century, much financial trade was transacted in coffee houses near the Royal Exchange in the City of London, most famously Jonathan’s Coffee House on Exchange (or Change) Alley. This print, whose attribution is uncertain, offers a cynical view of the activities conducted at Jonathan’s. The caricatured depictions of the dealers and merchants are accompanied by emblematic and allegorical elements: on the wall are a bull and bear (totems of those who gamble, respectively, on rising and falling markets) and a bewigged ‘lame duck’ or ruined investor; in the bottom left hand corner, a swooning Britannia is exsanguinated by three snakes; and in the upper right portion of the scene the devil’s leering visage intrudes into view. The mythic and symbolic elements of the image suggest the desire for a visual language to evoke the intangible, in many ways imaginary, assets, rights and obligations being bought and sold in this site of financial exchange, units of value that for many eighteenth-century commentators occupied the realm of fantasy, magic and make believe.

In recent years, somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of all stock trading in the United States has taken the form of ‘high frequency trading’, in which computers running complex trading algorithms automatically issue orders in split-second response to shifting market conditions. This image, drawn from the ‘Volatile Smile’ series by the German-born, US-based photographers Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, shows a trading desk in the office of a high frequency trading firm in the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago. Save for a few sheaves of paper, Geissler and Sann’s image is devoid of traces of human presence. The photograph presents financial exchange as the province of dark, impenetrable and inscrutable devices, which offer no humanly-intelligible sign of their operations.

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