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by Bassam El Baroni

Whither the Exhibition in the Age of Finance?

Those of us who came of age in the 1990s, early 2000s, or the decades preceding them are likely to be sensitive to the gradual rise of a whole list of terms and vocabularies that have now firmly entered our daily lexicon from the world of finance. Language is always in a state of continuous give and take with its societal conditions of possibility, so the elevation of financial lingo and demotion of terms that might not make a lot of sense in a financialized world simply reflects linguistic transformation in living languages. When we speak of the speculative in the field of art, artistic research and curating we are not only alluding to a range of influential philosophies that have had strong impact on the field, but we also have in mind a particular mode of thinking and doing that is marked by a “cognitive provisionality” that “draws its specific energy from the premodern world of irrational reckoning and risk-taking, origins that we can still discern today.”[1]

We can still recognize this ancient speculative energy because while it may have evolved past the unearthly and the paranormal, its general characteristics are still potent ingredients of financial speculation. As cultural workers, artists, curators, and art academicians we operate within an entrepreneurial economy that is designed to reward entrepreneurial alertness. This form of alertness manifests itself in speed (to be faster than others, to put one’s ideas out there quickly) and in the spontaneous and nimble learning prized above the methodical within the entrepreneurial mindset.[2] As observed by sociologist Ulrich Bröckling, “[e]ntrepreneurial activity begins precisely where cost-benefit calculation stops and new possibilities for profit are discovered and exploited for the first time.”[3]

This is precisely the point of inception for both literal financial speculation and for the type of speculative practices that the expanded field of art is preoccupied with irrelevant of whether an immediate profit is turned or not. This is because - as philosopher Michel Feher has pointed out - contemporary subjects shaped by the logic of financialization ought to be primarily understood as project-bearers whose profit is tied to a rationale of appreciation (the increase in the value of an asset over time) and more pressingly, the constant need to avoid the depreciation of their resources.[4] And in the case of art and curation, these resources are the subject’s creativity, artistic competencies, networks, flexibility, and connections. Successful speculation is the generator of returns whether these take the form of immediate monetary profit or an increase in the value of a cultural operator’s assets and thus their own appreciation as actors in the field. The structural isomorphism between forms of labour and subjectivity on the one hand and formulae of speculation have made the speculative synonymous with production and what it means to be productive.[5] It could be argued that over the years speculation has slowly populated the space once given to terms and concepts significant to the field, such as ‘agency’ and ‘critique’, in the end eclipsing them in contemporary discourse. Yet, as artist Jonas Staal rightly suggests this presents an affordance to art workers, since speculation is as much part of the answer to the manifold crises impacting the world as it is a contributor to them, speculation already occupies a spot in “what we can term the radical imaginary of both politics and art.”[6]

As emphasized in the editorial statement of this publication, the proliferation of other worlds, fabulatory futures, and a renewed emphasis on worldmaking all somewhat attest to a shift in perspective within the field towards such an imaginary. What they underline is a newfound embrace of fictioning as central to the construction of transformative programmes. But how and why did this recent adoption of the power of the fictive emerge? One may point to an array of possibilities including the persuasiveness of speculative materialist philosophy or, the apparent diminishing gap between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ driven by computation. But while these may indeed be factors, an equally convincing argument is that – since the 2008 financial crash and its subsequent bailouts – we have bore witness to what we might call the denaturalization of capitalism. In simplified terms, this is the idea that contra neoclassic and Marxist economic theories, capital is not wedded to some ecologically inspired idea of equilibrium whereby imbalances between ‘fictitious capital’ and the real material processes that produce it can eventually come to rest before once again being disrupted. Quite the opposite, as Colin Drumm aptly explains, we need:

[T]o see monetary systems as characterized by a strategic disequilibrium rather than by a hydraulic equilibrium, as in the traditional theories. Most theories of money conceive of the monetary system as something like a bathtub, with various tubes connecting different parts of it. If you add water into one part, the water level will settle until it reaches equilibrium. Similarly, according to this way of thinking, if you create more money while the amount of goods and services which this money presumably represents remains constant, then the value of the money must settle through a process of inflation until it returns to an equilibrium. There is a relation of equilibrium between the real and the fictitious, which becomes upset by the overproduction of the fictitious, and which therefore rectifies itself again through inflation. The impression produced by this way of thinking is that money is, ultimately, a sterile medium, which exerts no causal effects of its own on what it signifies […].[7]

There exists a link between the seemingly unopposed power of the fictitious in present-day capital and recent practices of fictioning and futuring within the expanded field of art. With this, art implicitly acknowledges that money is a potent medium and embraces its destabilizing speculative spirit and potential for the creative reordering of the social fabric. Once the burden of equilibrium between fiction and real has been dropped, the arena of speculations and counter-speculations emerges as the space where various social injustices and inequalities can be challenged by constructing and interjecting worlds that reveal prejudices and enact society otherwise, all through the creative processes, artistic competencies and interdisciplinarian ethos many of us are already accustomed to as practitioners in the 21st century. If this sounds too good to be true, that is because it most likely is. The reasons for this are primarily twofold.

Firstly, although fictioning and speculation in recent practices might draw some of their energy and desire to impact from the non-essentialist world of financialized capital, where money may have no or little material essence or foundation, art practices and their pedagogies are still “very much coded by the unchecked relation contemporary art has with the autonomy attributed to the modern space of art.”[8] The form and site of the exhibition whether online, in a white cube or in a run-down former factory – to name a few likely venues - do not seem to be a key factor, what is important is that this ‘autonomy’ registers as ontological to the field of art. Which is to say that even when this autonomy is challenged, its robustness dictates that it bounces right back and remains a constant. Its familiarity is like a home, reassuring in one sense, but at the same time stifling and claustrophobic as when one is quarantined for too long inside an apartment. Curator and writer Anselm Franke calls this peculiar condition the ontological quarantine of the exhibition, and for him it describes a restriction, a limit which takes the form of:

[…] a secret contract, a magic circle still inscribed today into institutions of art—the very contract that granted art its relative autonomy, acquired at the price of its worldly consequentiality. Everything that enters into the magic circle has to be removed from the world, removed from direct effect, entering a realm of the merely symbolic, the merely fictional. All objects in the magic circle are given a special ontological status and undergo a process of neutralization through a paradoxical fictionalization.[9]

According to Franke, it is this secret contract that has endowed art with partial freedom but at the price of its own inconsequentiality.[10] The issue at hand is that while the speculative dimension of recent art and curating may be attributed similar actualizing properties to the non-essentialist fictions of finance capitalism, it is still predominately tethered to what may be considered an essentialist ‘magic circle’ or ‘secret contract’. This contract appears to be highly resolute and so engraved into the institution of art that it is hard to imagine such hyperstitional fictions having causal effects and constituting themselves as realities in a wider social framework. Some questions we may consider then are: how can we rethink the exhibition considering this contract’s persistence with the view to optimizing the exhibition’s speculative potency? What kind of critical thinking can exhibitions that address our financialized world help materialize, and how can these manifestations extend to multiple networks?

Secondly, whilst artistic practices that embrace future oriented approaches to worldmaking are actively speculating, what is often overlooked is that for speculations ‘to come true’ there is a necessary condition that needs to be satisfied. Simply stated, this is the other half of speculation, it is called leveraging. Speculation is an approximately 2500-year-old term that has existed long before financial speculation, leverage on the other hand is so intertwined with finance capitalism that it is an intrinsic part of contemporary subjectivity, as Leigh Claire La Berge puts it “[t]o be a creature of modernity, one is forced to leverage what one has. One can’t recuse oneself from leveraging. One cannot get outside of a leveraged world.”[11] Leveraging is a form of strategizing around the limits of our knowledge in a world where uncertainty and contingency are constants, it augments speculation by engineering a change of perspective in those around us “from one that would predict the future to one that aims to make investments that will bend the production of the future around one’s own position.”[12] Leveraging entails that an effort is made to position oneself or one’s project as some sort of hub around which speculations can revolve and evolve. It is the art of inducing social, cultural, political, emotional, and economic investment by making one’s conditions of possibility in effect double as the conditions of possibility for others.[13] The most succinct formulation of leveraging appears in the writing of political economist Martijn Konings when he describes it as:

[T]he way we aim to give our fictitious projections a self-fulfilling, performative quality, how we seek to provoke the world into affirmatively responding to our speculative claims, to recruit the labor that will ensure their validation.[14]

Usage of the word ‘leveraging’ has skyrocketed over the past 50 years mirroring the rise of financialization. Source: Google

The speculative paradox in the field of art is the appealing and persuasive idea that we can simply speculate fictions into becoming factual by imagining them, picturing them, and modelling them but without ever having to do the equally creative work of leveraging, strategic planning, setting up, convincing, and provoking that will eventually grant these speculations the quality of a prophecy. This paradox is almost too convenient for exhibitionary practices that seek to capitalize on the themes of other worlds and/or alternative futures while remaining within the safe confines of the non-causal magic circle. It can no longer be claimed that art lacks the socio-political impetus, technologies, and methodologies to imagine the future, even futures wildly alien to our current sensibilities. The question regarding art’s political imagination is not whether it lacks creativity but whether it is willing to consider leveraging as an integral part of its speculative agency.

Revisiting the work of anthropologist Alfred Gell (1945 – 1997) may provide some primary cues that can bring us closer to a curatorial practice of leveraging in which exhibitions, art objects, and images have a significant role to play. This is to reconsider and recontextualize his so-called ‘action-centred approach’ to art for a post-financialized world. Gell’s core idea is that art – for this argument’s purpose let us say this art comes in the form of a curated exhibition – should not be discussed as a scheme of symbols and meanings. He calls this scheme ‘the semiotic approach’, exhibitions based on this approach would be engaged with “the interpretation of objects 'as if' they were texts.”[15] Contra the emphasis on symbolic communication – which is also the exact same restriction imposed on the exhibition in the magic circle – Gell places “all the emphasis on agency, intention, causation, result and transformation.”[16] For Gell, art is “a system of action, intended to change the world rather than encode symbolic propositions about it.”[17]

This means that action-centred exhibitions are concerned with the effective role ‘art objects’ can play in social processes instead of reifying their symbolisms. Gell’s essay Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps (1996) is an articulate defence of why animal traps - developed for hunting - ought to be considered artworks; overcoming the distinction artefact/artwork that some of his contemporaries used to set boundaries for what artworks can and cannot be.[18] Gell articulates the significance of exhibiting traps and approaching them as artworks when he observes that these sophisticated devices embody ideas and transmit meanings precisely because they are “transformed representations” of the “mutual relationship” between the trap-makers and the captured animals. For Gell, traps use “material forms and mechanisms” to convey “the idea of a nexus of intentionalities” between the trap-makers and the animals caught. With this Gell delivers the crux of his argument when he states that:

[T]his evocation of complex intentionalities is in fact what serves to define art­works, and that suitably framed, animal traps could be made to evoke complex intuitions of being, otherness, relatedness.[19]

Mariana Castillo Deball, Vogel’s Net, 2013. This work is a replica of the Zande hunting net that was the starting point of Alfred Gell’s essay on art and traps. The original was displayed in a similar style at the exhibition Art/artifact curated by Susan Vogel at the Center of African Art, New York, 1988. Dimensions: 90 × 45 × 30 cm. Courtesy: Gallery Wien Lukatsch, Berlin Photo: Andy Keate.


Taking into consideration the clear differences between human-human and human-more-than-human relationships, the trap can be understood as a crystallization of intentionalities, an object that anticipates probability to give rise to actions, and a relational model that analyses and concretizes the abstract relations between beings. Thus, we find in traps speculation and leveraging combined into one form. Traps move from the speculative state of cognitive provisionality towards an end, they are not fantasies about other worlds or fabulative futures, they are rooted in knowledge of the processes, interactivity between things, and conditions that furnish their context. If the trap is a type of action-centred art object, then in today’s digitized and financialized context, traps and the cognitive patterns that produce them exist as digital objects[20] and financial objects[21], which is to say that in traps we can trace a particular type of creativity that for better or worse permeates human action. If we accept the hypothesis that behind the upsurge in the multiple artistic and curatorial practices of fictioning and worldmaking is an underexplored relation to the over-production of the fictitious in financialized capitalism, and an embrace of fiction as a direct route to the transformation of the social sphere. Then for these fictions and speculative imaginaries to be considered action-centred, as opposed to semiotic assemblages, a shift must occur from positing an agenda by imagining the world otherwise, to actioning that agenda by capturing a world and translating it into a set of organisational processes that can exist outside of the inconsequentiality of the exhibition space.[22] The 21st century action-centred exhibition is the proposition that for exhibitions to play an active role in ‘acts of political imagination’ they must exceed imagination by embedding concrete knowledge of leveraging into representation. In this manner, exhibitions can be the representational vehicles within a larger constellation of interconnected practices and formats that may include assemblies, working groups, online platforms and community organizing.

As Victoria Ivanova has recently argued the “rejectionist critique of financial logics at the front-end [of the art sphere]” i.e., the public face of the institution of art (museums, art academia, biennials etc.) “has only helped con­solidate financial integration of the contemporary art sphere into the larger operational financial status quo at the back-end” i.e., (markets, tax free offshore art storage facilities, the rise of so called hedge-fund collectors and the ascendency of art as an alternative asset class).[23] Therefore, the action-centred proposition and its curatorial practice of leveraging rebuts the implicit idea that art practice is necessarily corrupted by entering the space of economics and finance, since we have already established the complex nexus that knots speculative worldmaking with speculative finance. Financial objects and their mechanisms are an emerging field of research for a growing number of artists, curators, collectives, and artistic researchers.[24] The key question underpinning this relatively new direction is how to enter the socio-psychological arena of finance to gain leverage over and through their own assets? Which is to say, the purpose is to establish new norms from within an extended sphere of finance.

Vermeir & Heiremans, A Modest Proposal (in a Black Box), 2018, is a work - originally developed for the Pump House Gallery, London - that investigates how the financialization of public art collections, museum real estate, and symbolic capital could be used to generate a more equitable arts ecology. The image here is of the work as installed in the group exhibition Infrahauntologies curated by Bassam El Baroni, July 8–October 3, 2021, at Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art, Oldenburg, Germany. Courtesy: the artists.

This is because as Koning’s reminds us “[n]orms work not by governing actors from the outside but through the ways actors enlist others in operations that create a new system-level dynamic.”[25] The exhibition still has a part to play in this approach since it is a space for crystallizing intentionalities, a site in which the speculative and imaginative competencies of art can fuse with its newfound interest in leveraging, and an interval in which leverage is ingrained into the tactical propositions, prototyping approaches, and speculative fictions of art objects.

First published in Cătălin Gheorghe and Mick Wilson (eds.), Exhibitionary Acts of Political Imagination, series 'Vector - critical research in context', a collaboration between Vector (George Enescu National University of the Arts in Iași) and PARSE (Platform for Artistic Research in Sweden, Gothenburg University), Iași and Gothenburg: Artes and ArtMonitor, 2021.

Bassam El Baroni is associate professor in curating and mediating art at the Department of Art and Media, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Aalto University. He holds a PhD in Curatorial Knowledge, department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to working at Aalto University, he was lecturer in art theory at ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. His research lies at the intersection of curatorial practice/studies, theory, technology, and economics. Through exhibitions, publications and other media, he has most recently been preoccupied with financialization in relation to artistic practices and artists’ engagement with infrastructural futures and histories. Bassam is an internationally recognised curator who has curated and co-curated biennials of contemporary art in Spain (Manifesta 8, Murcia, 2010 - 2011), Norway (LIAF, Lofoten Islands, 2013), Ireland (Eva International – Ireland’s Biennial, Limerick, 2014), and Lebanon (HOME WORKS 7, Beirut, 2015). Most recently he curated the exhibition Infrahauntologies at the Edith-Russ-Haus for Media Art, Oldenburg, Germany, and La Box, ENSA Bourges, France (2021 and 2022).


[1] Rogers, Gayle. Speculation: a cultural history from Aristotle to AI. Irvington: Columbia University Press. 2021. p 3.

[2] Bröckling, Ulrich. The Entrepreneurial Self: Fabricating a New Type of Subject. London: SAGE. 2016. p 70.

[3] Ibid. p. 67.

[4] "Movements of Counter-Speculation: A Conversation with Michel Feher," Interview by William Callison. Los Angeles Review of Books. July 12, 2019. Available at: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/movements-of-counter-speculation-a-conversation-with-michel-feher (accessed 2021-10-14).

[5] For more on this see: Vishmidt, Marina. Speculation as a Mode of Production – Forms of Value Subjectivity in Art and Capital. Leiden: Brill. 2018.

[6] Staal, Jonas. The Speculative Art of Assemblism. Parse Journal Issue 7 – Autumn 2017. Available at: https://parsejournal.com/article/the-speculative-art-of-assemblism/ (accessed 2021-10-15).

[7] Drumm, Colin. The Difference That Money Makes: A History of Monetary Sovereignty. Forthcoming Doctoral Dissertation. University of California, Santa Cruz. December 2021. p.15 – 16.

[8] Vincent Normand in ‘Theater, Garden, Bestiary - Vincent Normand and Tristan Garcia in conversation with Filipa Ramos’ Mousse Magazine 01.10.2016. Available at: https://www.moussemagazine.it/magazine/filipa-ramos-vincent-normand-tristan-garcia-2016/ (accessed 2021-10-25).

[9] Franke. Anselm. The Third House. Glass Bead Journal, Site 0: Castalia, The Game of Ends and Means. 2016. Available at: https://www.glass-bead.org/article/the-third-house/?lang=enview (accessed 2021-10-26).

[10] Ibid.

[11] La Berge, Leigh Claire. Money is time: On the possibility of critique after neoliberalism. Finance and Society, 2018, 4(2): 199-204.

[12] Konings, Martijn. Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason. Stanford University Press. 2018. p. 16.

[13] Konings, Martijn. The logic of leverage: Reflections on post-foundational political economy. Finance and Society, 2018, 4(2): 205-13.

[14] Konings, Martijn. Capital and Time. p. 14.

[15] Gell, Alfred. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford University Press. 1998. p.6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] A significant segment of the text is dedicated to critiquing Arthur C. Danto who makes a distinction between artefacts and “true works of art.” Gell, Alfred. Vogel’s Net: Traps as Artworks and Artworks as Traps. Journal of Material Culture, 1(1): 15–38. 1996.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Yuk Hui defines digital objects as “objects that take shape on a screen or hide in the back end of a computer program, composed of data and metadata regulated by structures or schemas.” Hui, Yuk. On the Existence of Digital Objects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2016. p. 1.

[21] F. Muniesa et al. tackle the difficulty of describing financial objects since such objects are “complex, multisided, and often ambiguous.” However, ‘financial objects’ are defined by M. Kear as objects directly related to finance the have a role in “making possible the performance of particular financial subject positions – pathological or otherwise.” The terminology is general and can stretch to include objects such as trades and marketplaces to the ubiquitous credit-score to financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, shares, futures, and options contracts. References: F. Muniesa, D. Chabert, M. Ducrocq-Grondin and SV. Scott. Back-office intricacy: the description of financial objects in an investment bank. Industrial and Corporate Change, Volume 20, Number 4, pp. 1189–1213. Kear, Mark. Playing the credit score game: algorithms, ‘positive’ data and the personification of financial objects. Economy and Society. 2018.

[22] This formulation although different is partially due to Victoria Ivanova. Ivanova, Victoria. Please Mind the Switch: Organisational Small Print in a Financialised (Art) World. A Modest Proposal, artist book by Vermeir & Heiremans (eds.). Jubilee vzw, 2018.

[23] Ibid.

[24] To mention just a few among many others: artist duos Vermeir & Heiremans and, João Enxuto and Erica Love; artist and researcher Emily Rosamond; curator, philosopher, and cultural theorist Erik Bordeleau; artist and researcher Bahar Noorizadeh; artist and researcher Gerald Nestler; theorist Suhail Malik; platforms such as Weird Economies (WE) and the older Economic Space Agency.

[25] Konings, Martijn. Capital and Time: For a New Critique of Neoliberal Reason. Stanford University Press. 2018. p. 14.

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Issue 58

Speculations: Funding and Financing Non-Profit Art

by Ronald Kolb, Dorothee Richter, Shwetal Patel