Public Seminar: Artist-as-debtor, Debt-as-Creator The unseen debt sustaining the art market

This article is part of a series of texts published on Public Seminar in the lead-up to the Digital/Debt/Empire symposium in Vancouver in late April 2019, convened by Benjamin Anderson, Enda Brophy and Max Haiven.

Is there a better place to glimpse the logic of capitalism than at art fairs, those ultra luxury trade shows where art galleries show their wares? Contemporary art, as seen among the stalls of a sprawling art fair, might seem like a collection of styles, subjectivities, and strategies more or less randomly valued by an opaque corrupt global market (the art market is often considered the largest unregulated market). But there is a logic to its valuation and to understand this logic, it’s helpful to think about art as political narratives boiled down into object form, and offered for sale.

Think, for example, of the David Hammons piece Fur Coat, a collection of fire-singed luxury fur coats, part of the artist’s long history of working irreverently and minimally with symbols of race and class. The artist once stated: “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”

Hammons is represented by, and his work is prominently displayed at the Mnuchin gallery in New York’s wealthy Upper West Side. This gallery is run by class warriors: Mnuchin is a former partner at notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs who is credited for developing the “block trade” in the 1970s, allowing banks to sell large sums of bonds leading to the rapid growth of the financial sphere of the economy. Robert Mnuchin is also father of Trump’s current Secretary of the Treasury, the man primarily responsible for writing the 2017 tax bill that further shifted tax obligations away from the ultra rich. Why would Hammons want to show at such a gallery, and why would Mnuchin want to show “Fur Coat?”

For the last few years, I’ve been focusing my work as an activist and an artist on understanding how art functions under capitalism, regardless of the intention or politics of the artist. This question has led me to studying and seeking to intervene in both the financial and the emotional markets that prop up empire.


Since at least the early 1970’s, any form of expression, whether visual or invisible, permanent or ephemeral, has been accepted as art. At the same time, the cultural scope of art has been widening in parallel with the internationalization of art shown in museums, and sold on the art market. As a result, contemporary art is like a vacuum cleaner that can suck any kind of cultural expression anywhere in the world into its capitalist core. From this ability, art has taken on an important social function within capitalism: it transforms potent political capital into impotent aesthetic currency. The magic ingredient is abstraction.

I was born in 1977, and have therefore lived through the period marking the rise of the current neoliberal empire. Throughout my life I have witnessed the empire’s accumulation of literal and metaphorical territories: different spheres of existence have been pulled into the private market, from utility companies to schools, from friendships to attention to emotions. Throughout my life, I have felt a shift in democratic agency, but it had always been difficult to name .

In the financial crisis of 2008 it became clear that, just like contemporary art, the magic ingredient of the neoliberal empire was abstraction. We learned about credit default swaps and the other abstract financial instruments that triggered the economic crash, thanks to decades of government deregulation. Because these structures of at the heart of an empire of inequality were so abstract, understanding them (let alone organizing against them) was extremely difficult.

Existing left social movements in the US seemed incapable of contesting these new abstract forms of power until 2011, when new movements emerged who mirrored their complexity and network formation. Occupiers organized against austerity in Greece and Spain, against the capture of public space in Egypt and Turkey, against student debt in Canada, and against the overruling of democracy by the banks in the US. The movements were not only protesting against the status quo, they were also creating a pre-figurative culture of mutual aid.

Debt and The Occupy Movement

I joined Occupy Wall Street early on as an artist because I felt that art institutions would be a particularly important stone for the movement to overturn in its quest to demystify the tools of capitalist empire. I co-facilitated a group called Occupy Museums, which brought direct democracy tactics from the main protest encampment at Zuccotti Park to New York’s preeminent arts institutions, like MoMA. The assemblies we held outside museums invited the public to join in and give shape to the struggles and demands of the 99%. The collective and creative body we formed together contrasted with the tightly branded, narrowly curated voice of the museums, which are basically run as corporations. For the next few years we focused on direct actions meant to reposition museums as contested democratic spaces and political stages. We took aim at the philanthropic collector class (most of them the direct or indirect beneficiaries of an empire of debt) that govern museums, rebranding them as takers rather than givers.


In 2013 Occupy Museums shifted our approach toward a project called Debtfair, which focused less on politically shaming the 1% and instead on radicalizing the 99% of artists who struggle in relative silence and invisibility. We asked: how does your economic reality affect your art?

When we began Debtfair we thought of ourselves as an anti-startup seeking to set up an art fair whose economic activity would alleviate artist debt, rather than making collectors — and debt market-beneficiaries — richer. This idea was inspired by the campaign of another Occupy-affiliated movement: Strike Debt’s 2012 Rolling Jubilee that managed to “hack” the secondary debt market and crowd fund money to buy people out of medical and other debts. However, after a few experiments we realized that attempting to deploy this tactic in the interests of artists would rely on gaining the goodwill of those holding capital and asking them to shift their financial behavior. We didn’t want to re-empower this class with a new feel-good option but rather to build stronger bonds among those who are struggling at the grassroots.

The Morality Trap

The neoliberal debt empire is not only a system where many of us make endless interest payments without ever paying off the principal. It’s not only about how this payment regime demands we perform extra labor, taking time and energy away from our creative work and transforming us into precarious corporate workers. Debt is deeply connected to a whole system of western morality: a moral person is one who gives back what they have borrowed. American law builds on this by enshrining the rights to private property, rather than collective good.

This means that the system encourages amorality because today, going into debt is almost unavoidable for working people, but escaping debt is also almost impossible. Citizens of capitalism, reconfigured as debtors, therefore carry a burden of structurally encoded shame. Artists laboring under this shame are especially vulnerable to the art world institutions and the collector class who can seem to offer a balm for their lack of value and self-value with money or institutional acceptance.

While artists are generally known to be progressives there are strong libertarian strains. Perhaps this is because many artists are oriented toward the goal of participating in unregulated markets as entrepreneurs, rather than assuming the identity (and tactics) of workers. In this context, debt is seen as a necessary part of the risk-taking, instead of a trap. As long as the aspirational dream has a hold over someone’s life, it’s nearly impossible for them to achieve a structural view of power.

As in previous Debtfair projects, this time we issued an open call in which artists were invited to show their work collectively at Art League Houston. In return, we asked for them to provide extensive data about their debts, (most of which we kept private). We ended up displaying their artworks in the gallery in collective “bundles” based on to what institutions they owed their debts. Their artworks were accompanied by their testimonial narratives of their economic reality. These results were also posted on our website, The narratives made class position and other experiences and privileges visible.

In this way, Debtfair is a tool to map the intersectional overlap between economic and social/racial conditions of oppression and marginalization. For example, we created a Debtfair iteration focused on Puerto Rican debt that made visible the connection between colonial debt and student loans, as experienced by the artists themselves.


As we accumulated data and relationships in the Houston show as well as other iterations of the project, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial, we wondered if it could be used to map empire. The artists were indebted to so many different institutions that our original goal of organizing a robust group of artist-debtors from one particular bank proved elusive. However, further research led up the finanical food chain, from the banks issuing the retail loans to the wholesale markets where these loans are traded. Huge financial players have developed Robert Mnuchin’s block trading of the 1970’s exponentially, combining these debts with thousands of other assets in highly complex bundles, sometimes called EFTs (exchange traded funds). We sought out a firm that was dealing in and profiting from all the various forms of debts our artist-participants were experiencing and found one: BlackRock Inc.

BlackRock is the world’s largest asset management firm and deals primarily in bonds (debts). BlackRock is currently managing 6.44 trillion worth of assets, a figure larger than the GDP of Germany and England combined. This scale makes it more than “too big to fail” and it wields an incredible amount of political power.

Before 2008, BlackRock’s assets were relatively modest for the industry. , It’s founder and director Larry Fink was called in to “clean up” the wreckage of the crash by valuing the “toxic” assets that the U.S. government bought from private banks as part of the bailout of the 1%. In this way, Fink gained access to the highest levels of financial governance, which BlackRock mobilized to corner the market and develop lucrative positions on the debt markets. BlackRock’s rise represents the post-democratic triumph of capitalism: it offers a good view of empire today.

Larry Fink is also connected to the world of contemporary art, including as a board member of New York’s trend-setting MoMA. He is quoted as saying that “The two greatest stores of wealth internationally today is contemporary art… and apartments in Manhattan, apartments in Vancouver, in London,” unintentionally exposing the fanfare of high dollar art sales as simply the flip-side of the much larger debt market.

For artists, the ultimate success is considered to be one’s work becoming a stable asset while in fact, the real source of capital propping up the 1%’s success is not the success of the few, but the failure of the many in the form of debt. BlackRock’s 6.44 trillion “fixed income” (debt) assets under management create the wealth that is able to buy luxury art and real estate. In the current era of capitalism, failure is like the raw material that fuels the production of wealth.

Noah Fischer’s drawings, installations writings, and performances bridge intuition and political struggle while his organizing practice engages it head on. Fischer is a founding member of Occupy Museums, a group that formed in Zuccotti Park and brought horizontal assemblies to MoMA, Lincoln Center and other cultural institutions. Fischer’s work has been seen with and without invitation at Guggenheim, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM and in the 56th Venice Biennale, 7th Berlin Biennale and the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He currently teaches studio art at Kenyon College in Ohio and Parsons School of Design in NYC.

Debtfair at 516 Arts, Albuquerque

Debtfair New Mexico is a project of Occupy Museums. Debfair is our platform for organizing artists based on economic realities, asking what if debts and the institutions that profit off art students and the creative community in so many ways could become visible and  used as an organizing strategy. You can learn more about the overall project at Debtfair is part of an exhibition called “Currency” that also includes Mel Chin and Jennifer Dalton, curated by Josie Lopez and Manuel Montoya.

516 Arts, Albuquerque
November 17-January 26, 2019

Debtfair in the Whitney Biennial


Debtfair was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. In 2012, Occupy Museums launched Debtfair, an exhibition and organizing platform that groups artists and artworks by their debts and other financial realities. The system reveals the relationships binding individuals to the banks holding their loans as a hidden but highly consequential layer underneath the surface of American art. For the Whitney Biennial iteration of Debtfair, Occupy Museums announced a national call for American artists to answer questions relative to their economic realities for inclusion on debtfair. org. The open call, available in both English and Spanish, received over 500 respondents, providing a detailed glimpse of the reality of the American artist-as-debtor. One artwork from each of thirty indebted artists has been literally embedded into the interior of a wall at the museum and arranged into three “bundles” of ten artists each per bundle. All artists within a given bundle owe money to the same financial institutions. The bundles are: Puerto Rico Bundle (First Bank of Puerto Rico and/or Banco Popular and/or affected by the Puerto Rican debt crisis), Navient Bundle (student loan debt to Navient Corporation) and JPMorgan Chase Bundle (credit card, loan, and mortgage debt to JPMorgan Chase & Co.). Expanded questions relative to each bundle were asked of each artist and have been included here. All 500+ individuals who responded to the Debtfair questionnaire appear in the Whitney Museum via a digital slideshow with a work sample and text response to the question: “How does your economic reality affect your art?” Each bundle is available for sale as a collective unit and priced to provide bundled artists with $2,296.14 each (the per capita share of the $700 trillion 2008 bailout if the people of this country––rather than the banks–– had been considered as “too big to fail”) along with a dollar amount for collective action toward debt justice.



New Yorker


Counter-Commencement Debtor’s Ceremony


What does commencement mean for artists in the billionaire feeding frenzy of the Trump era? Commencement symbolizes the entry of studied, curious individuals into a world that they have been prepared to influence and impact. But what is this world into which graduates are entering today, and what impact can they have amid a reactionary crackdown on art and cultural difference, saddled with backbreaking amounts of debt? These are the questions that tens of thousands of new art school graduates and hundreds of thousands of American artists are asking this spring. We cannot accept what appears to be offered: A mass competition for the few available court painter positions as democracy unravels and less privileged citizens come under threat…

Hyperallergic reports

Debtfair at Whitney Biennial: An Open Call



Occupy Museums invites artists across the US and Puerto Rico to participate in Debtfair, a project that will be shown at the Whitney Biennial in spring 2017. Debtfair is a means of exposing the hidden layer of debt within the art market and its institutions, making the relationship between art practice and American financial reality visible. All artists who apply through this open call will be featured on a revamped and their work will be shown on digital screens in the museum; 30 artists who are indebted to the same institutions will have their work exhibited inside of the Debtfair installation in the Whitney Museum.

We believe that the practices of painting, sculpture, performance, video, music, and conceptual practice lie at the core of a progressive democratic society. Yet artists and culture workers face evermore extractive economic burdens as economic inequality widens. In this project we want to highlight inspiring artwork and communities of artists to push back on the feelings of shame and alienation that debt often elicits.

We ask our fellow artists to complete a questionnaire linked in this email to begin the process of joining Debtfair. Sharing data about your debts allow us to paint an accurate picture of art and debt today. Only images of your artwork and select written answers are shown publicly with ability to edit your public profile at any point. All information is kept in confidence.

apply:  // FAQ: //

ARTISTAS EN DUEDA: Convocatoria abierta para unirse a la Plataforma de Debt-organizing (Organización por las Deudas), de la Bienal de Whitney. Plazo límite para entregar la propuesta: jueves, 9 de diciembre, 2016, 11:59 PM EST. Ocupar Museos invita a los artistas de los Estados Unidos a unirse por una Debtfair (deuda justa), un proyecto que será presentado en la Whitney Biennial (Bienal de Whitney), en marzo del 2017. Debtfair tiene el sentido de exponer las capas ocultas de las deudas, dentro del Mercado de Arte y sus instituciones. Los 92 artistas en el tienen $5.2 millones de deuda. Expandiremos esa comunidad en el 2017. Todos los artistas, que apliquen a través de esta convocatoria abierta, estarán presentados en la renovada y su trabajo será expuesto digitalmente en el museo; 30 artistas que están en deuda, en esa misma institución, exhibirán su trabajo físico. Creemos que la práctica de pintar, esculpir, actuar, hacer videos, música y la práctica conceptual, se inclina al núcleo de una sociedad democrática progresista. Sin embargo, artistas y trabajadores de la cultura enfrentan cargas económicas extractivas, en paralelo a la creciente riqueza y al boom financiero del mercado del arte. Con frecuencia, la deuda provoca sentimientos de vergüenza y alienación; es una pieza escondida de la división racial, económica y social. Pero, mostrando como estamos interconectados a través de él, el Debtfair nos moviliza alrededor de relaciones financieras que nos une los unos a los otros, localizando posibilidades de solidaridad en la lucha global; y también aprovechando nuestro poder colectivo como deudores.

Pedimos a nuestros artistas completar el siguiente cuestionario, para comenzar el proceso de sumarse al Debtfair. Compartiendo datos sobre sus deudas, nos permite tener una mejor idea sobre el arte y la deuda de hoy. Sólo imágenes de su obra y respuestas escritas seleccionadas son mostradas en la publicidad, con la habilidad de editar su perfil público en todos los puntos. Toda la información será mantenida de modo confidencial.

Plazo límite para entregar la propuesta: jueves, 9 de diciembre, 2016, 11:59 PM EST.

Aplique aquí:

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Bank of No: Leipzig


Like art markets and financial markets, Bank of NO isn’t confined by national borders. It conducts business in austerity-bound Cyprus and now the city of Leipzig. Bank of NO crosses over the waters of the Mediterranean and it also crosses the waters of history. In Leipzig it will now re-open Bankhaus Meyer & Co, the last private bank in the GDR whose owners became refugees from Nazi Germany in an earlier chapter of history. This makes a circular migration through time with people now crossing the Mediterranean in hopes of reaching Germany.

Austerity Dance

Leipzig is a strategic location for a Bank due to richness in artistic assets, especially old factory space and painting. In Leipzig, art is known to have a transformative effect on citizenship itself, helping to put the city on the map. The new Bank of No branch taps into this unique market by issuing free art currency. It reflects the richness of painting in Leipzig by rolling large paintings through public space. The coins of Bank of NO spin like the circular movement of refugees to and from Germany. Artistic surplus transformed into long-term political investments.

Project by: Noah Fischer (US), Joulia Strauss (RU), Csaba Nemes (HU), Raúl Hott (CL) and Nurtane Karagil (CY)

Halle 14, Leipzig


Duration: September 17 until November 20, 2016

Debtors of the World, Unite!

Google-translated from Polish. Original is here

Debt has always been an effective policy tool directed against the potentially politically and socially engaged citizens. Widespread indebtedness among artists affects the stability and long-term nature of collective projects, each one focused on the repayment of the borrowing – explains Noah Fischer, an artist involved in the Occupy movement Museums, initiator of the art fairs to support the artists in the repayment of their debt.

Act in several movements such as Occupy Museums, Debtfair the Gulf Labor Coalition. I would like to start our conversation from the event, which in a sense was the beginning for all of them, because launched in an environment of artists need to engage in social movements across America – that is, from Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Tell us about the beginnings of this movement and why it has become so important for the self-organization of artists?

In September 2011, New York’s Zuccotti Park began occupied by people who felt the need to manifest their opposition to what happened on Wall Street. Many of those responsible for the infrastructure and the organization of the protest they were artists or creators of culture. Their collective work in the park to undermine one of the basic mechanisms governing the world of art, which promotes primarily the individual and it is based on marketing strategies. The protest in Zuccotti Park initiated the formation of the many artistic groups, whose members saw an analogy between the present financial system, promoting extreme inequality in access to wealth, and the rules governing the art world, with its beating records auctions and museums operating as close corporations. Self-organizing artists saw that both of these systems, in fact, describe the same moment of late capitalism.

The collective form of work has become for us just as important as its content. Politically, we wanted to look for links between the different social risks and create complex structural analyzes, which have a completely different kind of pressure than a political strategy moving a problematic topic. The group formed as a result of the Occupy movement analyzed the relationship between issues such as police violence, gentrification and environmental degradation. Occupy movement also managed to cross the borders, escalate into a global network, where problems specific to a country suddenly in a different location are entered into a new context.

The action release in the museum 10 000 specially-designed banknotes, Global Ultra Luxury Faction project: Noah Fischer, fot. Nitasha Dhillon.

It seems to me that the flagship slogan Occupy movement, confronting 99 percent of the indigent population of the globe with a 1 percentage rich, very easy to relate to the situation of artists. In the art world 99 percent of artists are prekariusze, only 1 percent are elite scraper for themselves all the prestige and financial gratification.

The movement Occupy Wall Street gave artists the chance to find a new identity: the allocation by artists that belong to the 99 percent, is for them a much bigger step than for other professions. Although the artist usually earns less than a worker on a construction site as a creator is closer to 1 percent than others. The life of the artist is directly related to the decisions of billionaires – a situation such as the art market there is probably no other profession with a comparatively low average wages.

This new identity is particularly important, when we think of disappearing today in the US middle class, where artists are part of the …

The middle class is being destroyed in a very concrete way, this process is associated with the current economic rules, as a result of which we have to deal with growing debt, the increase in real estate prices, high rents. In the present situation virtually impossible to save any money.Of course, the artists always biedowali, but now not only they do not have the money, but yet they began to have huge debts that have contracted to pay for college. They are usually more than the sum of 100 000 dollars.

We, the artists are perceived as the vanguard of gentrification. In the past, we had a certain cultural capital, so that we could exist on special conditions. Today, however, both in the US and Europe this vision of a privileged class cultural no longer raison d’être of the reasons that I mentioned above. Currently we are one of the many groups destroyed by 1 percent elite. To go one step further, we need to better understand how to sympathize with those 99 percent.

Explain, please, what is the problem of the default of the debts incurred during the study and what is the ground because it also contributes to the deterioration of the living standards of the middle class. Artists are experiencing not only the increase in rents, but also multiply debts.What is a project initiated by you Debtfair?

One of the changes that affect the art world, there is an increase in professionalization. To obtain a certain degree of recognition in the art market, artists must possess some degree – a master’s degree, and more often the doctor. In addition, these diplomas give artists the opportunity to maintain the teaching in schools, although art schools offer less and less stable job full-time. In the environment there is a monstrous rivalry and to get out of it unscathed, not enough to have a high school diploma artistic – it must be a certificate issued by a particular university, usually the one with the high tuition … Among the ten most expensive institutions of higher education in the United States until seven this art schools ! Actually, you can say that this is the most expensive way of education.

Noah Fischer: drawing used in the rebranding campaign launched by Global Ultra Luxury Faction, courtesy of the artist.

On the other hand, the practice of art is marked by a high rate of prekarności. It seems that in the United States to be an artist, you have a lot to invest, and the entire project is a huge risk, because the chance that you will go to the 1 percent artistic stars, is negligible …

Yes, getting a master’s degree will cost around 50 to 75 $ 000 two years of study, to reach even the cost of living, which in practice means that people have to take out the big banks larger loans. My research shows that many artists often have as many as 100 – 150 $ 000 debt.Having impossible to pay off the debt becomes normal today, because it is the consequence of making a completely rational choices, such as the desire to study at a good university, not a result of excess.

High tuition at art schools due to lack of financial support, which in the case of other universities comes from their alumni, artists, however, are usually poor. Moreover, a significant part of the art school students is a very wealthy newcomers from abroad, so that these centers can keep up with the tuition fees and do not have to provide students with scholarships or other forms of financial support. The educational system is based on a model developed in the business. Sold at these universities product – artistic education – is advertised as fashionable, hipsterskie and expanding the horizons of cultural experience combined with lifestyle. In this very simple business payment for exclusive merchandise is tuition.

Yes, on the other hand, to make this model work, you need to carefully hide the economic conditions necessary for its smooth functioning. In other words, future graduates who pay such high tuition fees, must constantly affirm the belief that it is their awaits a bright future, that is, belonging to 1 percent, the artistic elite. Therefore, in the environment of the American art world does not have the habit of making the topic of economic condition of artists, because it could lead to a crash of the whole circulation system of art …

That is why an initiative Debtfair, which clearly say that the fact of being in debt affects the quality of art practiced by artists. Completely de-politicize it. If you have to pay 100 – 150 $ 000 debt, and monthly payment of the loan is high, really greatly limits the possibilities of your creative forces to pursue art marketable and safe or to devote a considerable part of the time to take the following additional orders. Debt has always been an effective policy tool directed against the potentially politically and socially engaged citizens. Widespread indebtedness among artists also affects the stability and long-term nature of collective projects, because everyone focuses on the repayment of the loan taken.

The project Debtfair loudly talking about the problem of educational debt, try to describe the reality of the creative work in the context of economic realities rather than economic aspirations, as it previously did. From the beginning, we wanted to organize art fair, where artists could the money from the sale of their work to spend on debt repayment. Asking artists to execute and issue work at such fairs always aroused a sense of solidarity between them, united them in a kind of protozwiązku debtors.

The exhibition under the initiative Debtfair at the Art League Houston organized by Occupy Museums, in November 2015.

But it’s not only about you focus on the economic condition of artists. The project Debtfair not opposed policy aesthetics – rather through artistic and curatorial strategies shows that every aesthetics has political connotations. And in this sense, your goal would be to change the policy functioning in the field of aesthetics.

Before I deal with politics, I focused mainly on the issuance of their work and the conduct of discussion on this topic with other painters. Then, when I started to have engaged art, I noticed that this environment is reflected deep distrust of the art object. Politically engaged artists undermine the sense of focusing on aesthetics. I always thought that this is their weakness, because in this way create around himself a kind of bubble, and in fact also use a specific kind of aesthetics. Only this is much less understandable to the general public. Let’s face it: for most people it is the visual aspect of art is the most inspiring. Me on the other hand are interested in strategies for good communication – one that has a chance to engage viewers.

Yes, but during your exhibition in Houston not only you wanted to show the nice-looking objects. On the contrary – you made a conceptual intervention mechanism to produce the exhibition.

Let’s explain something: I do not think that the power of art lies in making pretty objects. On the contrary – the capacity is revealed in a unique, individual and common visual expression.Therefore, I think that art has always been a kind of political representation, because it is based on the appreciation of one’s specific vision.

The works shown during editing Debtfair in Houston operate on two parallel levels: firstly, in the political sense, it represented exhibiting artists, and secondly their presentation took the form of specific topic. Rather than hang work on the walls, we grouped them and placed in a specially designed simple common framework in the shape of circles, triangles or rectangles.And these shapes, within which there were several works created if a new work of art, so we presented not so much the individual artists as collectives.

The first action Occupy Museums, MoMA, New York, October 2011, fot. Jerry Saltz.

These shapes were the representation of the results of sociological surveys, which przeprowadziliście among the artists participating in the project …

In Houston, the project collaborated with the Art League Houston – a local arts center whose mission is to support the community of artists; they are also one of the first organizations certified WAGE [1] Thanks to them we reached a large part of the artistic community in Houston. Our survey contained 25 questions, for example: How much credit you have? Which bank? Unless you have odd jobs? Where do you work? What type of training? Do you consider yourself a professional artist? How high fees paid during the studies? What is the interest rate on your loan? Then we asked a series of more reflective questions, including about how economic conditions, which was the artist affect cultivated his art. All these responses analyzed, and on this basis grupowaliśmy work in different shapes, each of which showed a little credit issues from a different perspective: statistical, political or cultural. In this sense, this initiative has no end, because you can always propose a new perspective to talk about credit.

Your exhibition was also a form of economic intervention. Not based on the denial of the logic of buying and selling works rather undermined our idea of ​​how the market works of art.

Exactly. Our intervention was aimed at a specific exchange model, which works on the art market. During the fair, you could not buy a single job, you could buy only collection of works grouped in one form, say 7-10 work, which combines the fact that their creators share some characteristics of the debt. During the exhibition at the Art League Houston price of each of the sets increased depending on the amount of loan interest rates. Money from sold works roamed not artists, but directly to the banks. Therefore, although it’s been profitable for them, did not provide compensation. In this sense Debtfair acted as a tool for showing how credit formats lives.

Let’s move on to another initiative in which you are currently involved: Gulf Labor Coalition. It is proof that the group involved artists not only focus on the economic condition of their environment, but also they are talking about it, that art be considered as part of the policy – both national, where the theme becomes the problem of debt, as well as global, which concerns use of cheap labor.

That’s right, all the time I’m trying to find a balance between being absorbed in their own problems and dedication to fully help others. In other words, I mean to transcend the difference – understanding what may rely on the solidarity of workers at different positions and in different situations. Gulf Labor Coalition was formed in 2010, when it was revealed that the workers spilling the foundations for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, mainly from South Asian countries are exploited and experience violence from their employers. Then part of the New York artists came out with an initiative zsolidaryzowania and support workers on the other side of the globe.

The construction boom in the Gulf has created new jobs for construction workers, and housekeepers. System monitoring of immigrants taking up employment in the United Arab Emirates is called kafalah. It consists in the fact that unskilled laborers working in the UAE, who are not citizens of this country must have a so-called sponsor (usually it is the employer), which is in the form of wages gives them money to maintain, and also takes responsibility for the legal status of these people, in practice, this means confiscation of their passports. These workers have become completely dependent on their bosses. Although they are promised high wages, in fact, they fall into the trap: earn pennies, can not leave the country, and also the authorities there is no favor to any form of workers’ organization. When we realized that many local museums – for example outpost of the Louvre, London’s National Gallery and the Guggenheim – were built based on this system, we deemed it necessary to zsolidaryzowanie of oppressed workers.

The paradox lies in the fact that all these galleries and museums present themselves as institutions working for the common good by providing the audience aesthetic …

It’s not just that between what is happening in Abu Dhabi, and the mission of these institutions in Western countries there is a contradiction, but the fact violations of fundamental social contract. Take the example of the Louvre, which was in the midst of the French Revolution as a symbol of the fall of the monarchy. The Louvre opened the anniversary of the beheading of Louis XVI’s head, so he was a symbol of devotion wealth of the monarchy in the hands of the people. In Abu Dhabi there is something exactly the opposite: The Louvre is again in the hands of the monarchy, and is in addition its very oppressive version …

It is also a return to the model of operation known from feudalism …

The racist interpretation of this situation, it would sound like this: people living in the Persian Gulf are backward and can not appreciate the values ​​of liberal democracy. But the truth is that the global financial system is based on close relationships between oppressive regimes and the systems of power that seem transparent, and it is very difficult to carry out a clear division here. Between Western art institutions and the authorities of Abu Dhabi was concluded peculiar Transaction: museums and galleries have sold your brand in exchange for money, which will allow them to maintain their western outpost.

And all this in the name of aesthetics priceless …

Pay attention to the concept of dark matter art, framed by Gregory Sholette’a – in fact it is it is invaluable, because brand value is based on distributing the work between very different people who make up this dark matter. Although the Warsaw Centre for Contemporary Art or the New York MoMA and Guggenheim have valuable brand, does not automatically mean having the financial perks are two different things.

I think we will start to sell the brand …

This happened in Abu Dhabi. However, remember that having a reputation, which is always closely associated with the ownership of the brand, there has never been synonymous with owning property. Unfortunately, there are these two issues overlap. Our coalition has captured this practice at the crucial moment, pointing to the true nature of the transaction.

Relationship reputation, brand and assets?

When the people and the values ​​that they generate, are beginning to be translated into wealth – and this was based modern economy – then a lot of the democratic principles simply disappear from the public sphere. Our initiative Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF) has to defend what remains of democratic values ​​- we want to emphasize the fact that the public sphere is still common. Although the claim that it is, seems to be an expression of a sizeable optimism.

Noah Fischer – co-founder of the initiative Occupy Museums, which grew out of the movement Occupy Wall Street in 2011. Shares of collective appeared at the 7th Berlin Biennale, the 56th Venice Biennale, the art center ZKM in Karlsruhe, Art League Houston, as well as in Warsaw CCA. Working with initiatives such as Sotheby’s Art Handlers Union and the Gulf Labor Coalition, the artist has participated and organized their shares in the New York MoMA, during the Frieze Art Fair, at the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum. With Coco Fusco founded the platform of The Artist as Debtor, focusing on the economic situation of artists.The creator of sculptures and installations of moving the current political problems. He lives and works in New York.


[1] Working Artists for Greater Economy – an organization based in New York, strives to improve the economic condition of artists, eg. By demanding remuneration for artists for exhibiting their work and participation in projects. One of the flagship initiatives is to issue certificates confirming that the institution pays artists a salary for their work.

Glasstire: Debtfair Is All About Art and Here’s Why

Debtfair is All About Art and Here’s Why

We couldn’t help but respond to Rainey Knudson’s recent op ed about Debtfair because she describes a project that we would not want to participate in. We see a different Debtfair—one in which art and artists play a powerful role in articulating the scope of the debt crisis, and illuminating possible ways out of it.


“Sea of Oil”by Laura Napier, a Houston artist participating in Debtfair

Let’s be clear that Debtfair is an experiment and not a proven solution. It would be absurd for us to make claims on solutions to a crisis as out of control as indebtedness in the U.S. Within this picture, artists occupy a particularly precarious position due to low earnings and high tuition. There are exceptions, but by the numbers, this is fact. Rainey agrees on this point—it’s the search for answers in which we don’t seem to agree. Rainey offers the advice to basically not go into debt. The reality is that many are already in debt—not always for bad reasons, and many cannot avoid it. It’s a structural reality that has to do with the economy we live in. There’s also a complexity of this issue tied into issues of privilege, class, and race. Read through the artist narratives on and you can see how it plays out in artist’s lives in great detail. One artist describes a typical conundrum:

“I always had a part-time job as a food server at a restaurant, so I have been working extra shifts. But soon I must consider whether I should go back to college and pursue something different and incur new debt, but maybe I’d find a better earning salary and position. No guarantees, except a debt to pay. Or just keep working in the way I can and save, save and save. I would have more time to create art this way and maybe sell a little more of it. It’s a gamble either way.”

debtfair ramirez

“Townhouse” by Fernando Ramirez, a Houston artist participating in Debtfair

We believe that respecting the specific complexities outlined here must be central to an organizing effort. This is where art comes in. Art is unique in that it thrives on complexity. It can express the spaces between, the becomings and the desires for what has yet to come. It’s natural territory is one of experiment.

Key to our experiment is whether artworks can help lay out the true scope of the debt crisis. We aren’t organizing the work aesthetically or by theme—the normal way that curating is done. We are issuing an open call within a specific conceptual framework in order to allow aesthetics that represent all artists and their economic realities—a view that is beyond the normalized gatekeeping conditions. Debtfair is and will remain open to any artist who wishes to share their work and their story.

debtfair James Scheuren

Untitled by James Scheuren, a Houston artist participating in Debtfair

But make no mistake, Debtfair is all about art. The project is inspired by a profound belief in art and the drive to make it. It’s a visual framework to harness the power, complexity, and range of artistic visions in order to open a dialog about the current debt crisis with the most powerful tool that artists possess, and that is the art itself.

Fernando Ramirez is one of the many Houston artists who recently joined Debtfair. His graphic pieces portray fascinating apocalyptic hallucinations that tie back to William Blake and medieval altarpieces. A subdued palette and scratchy cartoony linework pull them into another world. He writes, “I got into debt by funding my education with student loans in order to be the first in my family to complete a college education.” This reality points to the social complexity of the issue that we face. His work represents one node in a collective “bundle” of visions by artists who are managing economic realities not in isolation, but in solidarity.

We hope you will join us.

– Noah Fischer and Kenneth Pietrobono, Debtfair

Debtfair at Art League Houston

Debtfair is an ongoing artistic campaign dedicated to exploring the relationship between economic inequality in the art market and artists’ increasing debt burdens. Debtfair at Art League Houston is organized by Noah Fischer and Kenneth Pietrobono with Tal Beery, Imani Jacqueline Brown and Arthur Polendo: Occupy Museums members. Occupy Museums is a direct action art group that grew out of the Occupy Wall Street Movement in

In collaboration with artists from Occupy Museums, Art League Houston is excited to present Debtfair, an exhibition which aims to expose the relationship between economic inequality in the culture industry and artists’ growing debt burdens. The exhibition features work from sixty Texas-based artists who responded to an open call inviting artists to submit artworks that are of equal relative value to their monthly debt payment. The works in this exhibition represent a collective debt of over $3 million dollars, with interest rates ranging from zero using income-based repayment plans to as high as 19%.

By focusing on a monthly debt payment as a position of value, artists and viewers are asked to consider the fluctuating relationships of artists’ time, development, creative production, exploration, community, and sustainability under increasing financial burdens. Answering questions on their economic realities as part of the open call process, participatingDebtfair artists reveal the enormity of the often speculative loan industry with debts to over 30 financial institutions represented amongst the 60 participants. Displayed directly inside wall openings between studs in Art League Houston’s Main Gallery, the work of exhibiting artists will invoke the layers of extraction that exist in most spaces and those particularly present in the rarified value system of the culture industry.

Growing out of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, conceptualization for Debtfair began in 2012 by asking artists to share their economic realities in alignment with their art work. Discovering the complexity of decisions that inform not only an artist’s work but also their economic conditions, collects profiles presenting artist’s imagery and their statements on the ways “economic reality affects your art.”

With 99 profiles to date and $5.1 million in debt represented, continues to align artists’ work with their economic realities as a new prism in which to consider cultural production in the growing debt crisis. Asked to create profiles in tandem with physical installation, each Texas-based artist’s online statements provide a narrative window to the feelings and experiences of being an artist while navigating economic conditions.

While many feel isolated by their economic reality, Debtfair works to build solidarity and community around our shared economic conditions. Art League Houston will host the first fully-realized project using the Debtfair model. Artwork in the exhibition will be organized in collective groupings (“bundles”) based on commonalities between each artist’s economic realities, presenting artworks and artists in shared rather than individual terms. Total debts amongst the artists are tabulated in a running tally while identifying the institutions in which these debts are rooted, the feelings they elicit and the choices they represent.

Each collective grouping will be available for sale at a starting value of the totaled monthly debt payments of the participating artists. This number will then be given the same interest rates and financial metrics applied to the debts of participating artists, increasing bundle price at the same rate of artists’ debts. In the event of sales, funds will be distributed to artists at their declared value, further profits evenly split and all payments made directly to the artists’ lending institution for a minimum of one month’s debt relief.

“The Artist as Debtor” in Exploit/Milan


Translated into Italian and Included as “The Artist as Debtor” in EXPLOIT,edited by Giorgio de Finis, Fabio Benincasa, and Andrea Facchi.

From The Artist as Debtor website:

I’ll start by sharing how I came to organize this platform with Coco Fusco. I actually first met Coco while undergoing my own transformation into artist-debtor at Columbia University where she was a professor and I was getting an MFA. This is not to say that I regret the experience or feel cheated by it. However, it is remarkable to me how little I comprehended the intimate and long relationship with a financial institution I was entering into and how little this common reality was acknowledged among my peers at the time. I think most of us saw the loan as a good investment—letting our minds wander toward contemplating mechanisms of financial disempowerment were out of step with the gung-ho market-positive spirit of the early 2000s. Soon after graduating, I realized that the core political culture of the program (and probably many other MFA programs at the time) was basically Free Market Libertarianism. The assumed thinking was that we had all made an investment in our futures; the game was on, and it was natural to compete tooth and nail for success. We could not have foreseen the impending sweep of financial history, which would soon change the nature of the investment.

In 2004 I graduated into a red hot art market, a year after graduation had a solo show in Chelsea and work for sale in art fairs internationally as did many of my peers. Young artists- especially those in the circles of Columbia, Yale, and UCLA seemed to be regularly selling out their shows (I wasn’t one of them). Some were instantly able to pay off school debts while others got sucked into expensive lifestyles. Even though in reality most of us were not making much money, the increasing private infrastructure of the art world-more art fairs, websites measuring market value, and the like, seemed somehow reassuring. It felt that we were entering into a growing economy, which would support a middle class life or better for a lot of people. Soon after having that thought, I watched the economy screech to a halt, at least for me, and almost everyone I knew. After just a pause, while the extent of the damage to Middle Class America was still revealing itself—even before people’s unemployment support had run out, the blue-chip art world steamed on ahead: the top of the art market began setting auction records (and still is today). As I watched painters and installation artists enjoy shorts stints of selling followed by dry periods of head scratching about how the rent was going to be paid, the notion of one big tent-art-market was quickly exposed as more or less a pyramid scheme. Up until the crash I really wanted to believe in an art market that was democratic and accessible; a mechanism of support for the creative life. What didn’t cross my mind was that this free-market aspiration was no longer optional after signing the loan agreement. My $70,000 of debt needed to believe in it. This platform is about looking at this basic relationship artists have to banks in the financialized era, and brainstorming how we are going to get out of it.

The first step is pulling that ideology away from the eyes—a picture of market based success which deems everything else artistically uninteresting. Around 2009, after Obama’s cabinet choices meant that his hope and change campaign moment was exposed as status quo, and the wreckage of the economy and powerlessness against a 1% public resource grab was laid bare, I felt in my bones that a social contract had been broken at the highest level. Corruption-cases similar to those of Wall Street began to come to light and people began caring. The 2009 exhibition Skin Fruit  was a Jeff-Koons curated selection of Trustee and Greek mega-shipping magnate Dakis Jannou’s personal collection at the New Museum. Meanwhile, the worst-offending Hedge Fund managers like Steven Cohen were also busy cornering the art world markets, and I saw the art economy was not separate from derivative-era Capitalism in its conflicts of interest and speculative nature. The art economy was dominated by the very people involved in breaking the social contract nationally: the post-democracy billionaires who sit on museum boards and make up the collector class. I knew that this could culture not be confined to financial deals, that reified individuality, and assumed inequality was infecting the aesthetics, and social desires of the whole art world. This meant that my artistic aspirations could not then remain the same.

Reflecting back on my graduate school education, I began to see that market positivism had infected pedagogy: discourse and aesthetic preferences had intermingled sloppily with projections of success in the market. Though Coco had us read radical French thinkers from the 1960’s, Ethical frameworks as might be applied in our times were never discussed. Class was never discussed. The unstated peak artistic aspiration, supposedly based on merit, was an ability to command high prices. The unstated ethics was that anything necessary to get there was valid.

The crash short-circuited this way of thinking for me. As the damage from the foreclosure crisis gradually emerged, the picture of a country ravaged for decades by an elite power grab through deregulation, debt, rising tuitions and lower taxes and loopholes came to light. That the crisis fell disproportionately on the shoulders of black and poor communities long shut out of the American Dream helped wake up in me the value of social justice and solidarity which had been completely missing from my art education. This class solidarity made me highly skeptical of the position of artists in relation to collectors. An alliance with the 1% –a coupling of fates—started to seem like teaming up with the wrong side. Having dropped out of the gallery world, around 2010 I began to experiment with ways to challenge the ideological-financial context in public. Soon I was not alone in this wondering, but allied with a world-wide movement. I was heavily involved in Occupy Museums actions to highlight how financial inequality is structured into arts institutions. The actions such as uninvited assemblies outside and inside of MoMA, Lincoln Center, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were aimed at cutting through normative ideology where museums are considered benign houses of beauty and relevance. We wanted people to understand that as neoliberal institutions controlled by the wealthiest elites, museums have a role in disempowering artists and the public as they turn art into a new asset class whose value builds up and is harvested through public exposure.

The Artist as Debtor platform is a continuation of this work. It’s about shedding light on a withering pressure on our private and public lives as artists and citizens. Debt is so much part of American life that we have learned not to see it and taught ourselves to detach it from its historical connections to slavery and indenture. When it does make the news, large numbers pop out and grab headlines—like the trillion dollar plus debt load now riding on the backs of students and past students. But numbers mystify the situation as much as help it, because part of the danger of debt is thinking about it abstractly. It’s important to understand what is really at stake within a culture of growing financial extraction. The debt crisis is about stolen time and conquered dreams on one hand, and the build up of an ultra-luxury culture on the other. For artists who work in an industry that is already precarious, the specter of a personal debt crisis, along with rising costs of urban living are impacting on the core values of the field. Not only does the lifelong yoke of debt pave the way to permanent social inequality, homogenoization of race and class, but also ends up guiding aesthetic and political decision-making in the minds of artists. If artists need to keep two or three jobs to afford treading water in New York, they likely don’t have time to get involved in political organizing. Knowing that a political turn in the work is not likely to ingratiate them with collectors, these paths are simply avoided. Debt erases political agency.

Debt impacts visibility. Along with market success, minor celebrity status is a common goal of today’s artist. In a way contemporary art is more visible today than ever–for example, museums are getting good at drawing crowds with blockbuster shows and starchitect buildings situated in the new center of up and coming cities from Shanghai to Dubai to Dallas. Art has taken on a role as Globalism’s high-brow public relations. But along with visibility comes invisibility.

Greg Sholette’s Book Dark Matter helped me to think structurally about the part of the art world that doesn’t make the news media, not often seen in galleries, not found in art history textbooks, museums, not invited to the party at all, but invisibly generates value—this is the Dark Matter, a group of which I am a member. It represents a huge mass of labor; the labor of art workers from artist assistants and installers to museum guards to adjunct professors which craft valuable objects and exhibitions, and give the arts relevance and the intellectual legitimacy. All of this labor is extracted from the bottom of the pyramid by the ecosystem of tiered art world institutions such galleries, art fairs, art centers, and auctions, and congeals at the top ultimately as financial assets which are programmed to bring in windfalls for the capitalized and connected.

How does artist debt relate to Dark Matter? To the well capitalized, its another equivalent asset: stuff called SLABS which can be bundled repackaged and short-sold to the tune of big profits. However, the giant mass of art school debt is the darkest kind of dark matter because debt is future time, and it will therefore continue to keep people in the dark for years to come. It is enormously dangerous for the fragile future ecosystem of art.

A major challenge in the conversation about debt is that personal debt is tied into shame. Debt looks exactly like failure in a culture which idolizes and even requires success. In my experience, its a taboo in the art world to talk frankly about economic reality, class, and debts. So this platform is about dissolving shame in the acid of clear thinking, and letting some fresh air in. It’s about supporting a growing struggle in the most powerful way.


Sometimes it feels like turning one’s energy toward  the debt crisis, racial justice or the fight for climate stability is just too big,  just too depressing to talk about. We can wallow in this space of critical negativity and frame debt as narratives of victimhood which is maybe not so helpful. But there is something I find hopeful about debt: So many of us are in it. It seems at first to be about me and my own economic bad-decisions, as if my economic existence exists within a vacuum. But this debt was never really personal, our future money was immediately packaged into bundles by the banks when we signed the papers. And from our side, the fact that we are bound together by the same banks creates the best reason to embrace solidarity. Now what’s needed is to discover powerful tactics that will work the best in this age of the derivative. We need to reclaim our dignity from indenture. In my view, this road to empowerment also includes a new artistic direction in which we’ll need to reformulate aesthetics, authorship, institutions. I hope that this platform will be a place to deepen understanding about the relationship of debt to the arts, and to think aloud about what kind of art movements might arise when the shackles are thrown off.