Out Of The Pits: A Gursky Photograph and How to Represent Capital

December 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

Chicago Board of Trade II (1999) by Andreas Gursky

Chicago Board of Trade II (1999) by Andreas Gursky

A photograph of a frantic trading pit on an epic scale is installed on a gallery wall, its origins are the largest and oldest commodity exchange in the world. The photograph is titled Chicago Board of Trade II (1999) by German-born photographer, Andreas Gursky. Traversing the globe, Gursky makes images that reflect upon the human condition, as he sees it, manifest in urban, rural, cultural and industrial spaces. Although a former student of Bernd Becher (who worked professionally as an artist with his wife, Hilla Becher) at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Düsseldorf Art Academy), Gursky has not completely subscribed to the dogma of strict objectivity, having always cropped and manipulated negatives when necessary and more recently, incorporated digital manipulation into his practice.

The Chicago Board of Trade is an exemplary site of modernity…in this location, everyday relationships to the potential of money and the necessity of trade become extreme. Financial professionals bring together flow, speed and technology in the pursuit of profits, and when thousands of them gather everyday, they help create something larger – the market.

Installed in a central passageway of London’s Tate Modern, the cultural anthropologist, Caitlin Zaloom, first encountered the image while in the city as part of her long-term ethnographic research on traders. The words quoted above form part of her response to the abstraction of capital that the image invokes, she continues:

a clear message about the velocity of money and its disordering effects in the global economy. The market takes in vast waves of capital and spews them out again in a logic all of its own. Yet the for the crowd of spectators around the photogaph, the commotion and dissarray are entrancing. It is unsettling to examine the picture closely, especially because a literal understanding of the physical space, or of the traders’ labor, is impossible. Instead it is easier to step back from the photograph and absorb the overall impression of the global financial beehive (2010: 2).

Her encounter with Gursky’s photograph forms the introduction to her book, Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London (2010) and pivotally defines her methodological approach. While, understanding the functioning of such an aesthetic, Zaloom advocates as a priority to move beyond the abstraction of capital, as visually embodied in Gursky’s photograph – a function capital embraces also in the context of technological evolution regarding the labour  of the traders themselves and their possible future abstraction – and a necessity, therefore, to look closer and in great detail at the apparatus of the global market:

Markets are objects of inquiry into the culture and economy of contemporary capitalism…today, the world’s powerful financial centers are the ones that need explanation. The mysteries of markets touch our lives, but few outside the financial profession understand them (2010: 11).

‘capital remains invisible’: L’Argent/Money (1928)

December 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

C’est proces est, peut-on dire…le proces de l’argent (You might say what is on trial…is money) proclaims the judge in the trial scene from the film L’Argent (Money). Directed by the French-born, Marcel L’Herbier and released in December, 1928, the film was an adaption of a story by the writer, Emile Zola. While Zola intended his story to be a ‘scathing representation of the French banking system of the Second Empire’, LHerbier sought in his ‘modernising’ version to ‘express, in all its modern virulence, his own contempt for money and capitalist speculation’. Centered on two duelling Bankers, the tale recounts their speculatory struggles against one another.


If somewhat ironically, the film cost almost 4 million French Francs at the time to produce, a fortune in today’s terms. L’Herbier had secured three full days access to the Paris Bourse (Paris Stock Exchange), where seeking to exploit the limited time,  ‘there were fifteen hundred extras, about fifteen technicians, scaffolding that went up to almost the summit of the cupola, forty metres from the floor…and cameras everywhere’ (L’Herbier). Such scale is reflected throughout the film and, could be argued, evokes the privileged context it seeks to critically address.

'Traders on the Trading Floor' (still from L'Argent, 1928)

‘Traders on the Trading Floor’ (still from L’Argent, 1928)

Prior to the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the central narrative is framed by the structures of world financial spheres, through images of the application of communications technology, named world city exchanges repeatedly referenced to locating the viewer in the midst of the Open Outcry of the traders on the Parisian Trading Floor. One of the innovative dimensions to the film is the ‘absolutely unprecedented mobile camera strategy’ (Noel Burch), exemplified in one key sequence. The film’s focus of speculation is the cross-channel flight of a pioneer pilot and the possible riches to be exploited from the site of his destination and at the time of his departure, the propellors of his plane mimic the frenzied activity of the Trading Pit of the Paris Bourse, ‘recorded by an automatic camera descending on a cable from the dome toward the central stock exchange ring’ (Richard Abel). The activities are visually bound, synergies heightened, the speculative process and those involved, implicated.

Trading Pit of the Paris Bourse (still from L'Argent, 1928)

Trading Pit of the Paris Bourse (still from L’Argent, 1928)

The film critically acknowledges the interconnectedness of a then world economy, and while the scales of precarity and scope of speculation could be argued to have broadened, the resonance regarding the defining function of the market for the global neoliberal present are significant. The film studies and cultural historian, Richard Abel, writes:

L’Argent’s achievement in the end, rests on the correlation it makes between discourse, narrative and the subject of capital. Capital is both everywhere and nowhere, as Pierre Jouvet argues, echoing Marx; it motivates nearly every character in the film and is talked about incessantly, but it is never seen or – as the ‘dung on which life thrives’ – even scented. Capital remains invisible, and yet, its ideological manifestation, produces a surplus of effects…the film reflects on and critiques that which it cannot represent directly – the crucial reference point of a crisis in capitalist exploitation or, more specifically, the condition of western capitalist society on the brink of the Great Depression. 

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