A grim concrete wall greets visitors to the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. It fills the full height of the space, hemmed in by a corrugated steel fence. You might think you’d walked into a room still under construction – until you notice the street lamp. It casts an eerie glow across the facades of stained render and broken windows that line the alleyway running through the middle of the space.
This is what US artist Doug Fishbone found when he travelled to Carrigtwohill, a small town to the east of Cork. Standing on the corner of a roundabout, sprouting from the unlikely context of green fields, was a half-finished apartment building, left derelict for a decade. Naked breeze block walls were punctuated with boarded-up windows, while a row of street lamps illuminated an empty road that led nowhere, petering out into nothing. It was a fragment of one of the few surviving “ghost estates”, the hundreds of unfinished housing projects that were left strewn across Ireland after the 2008 crash, when the property bubble burst.
“It absolutely blew me away,” says Fishbone. “It looked so menacing and panopticon-like, with this curved blank wall on the corner topped with windows, but completely empty behind. It was just an abandoned facade, symbolising everything that is wrong with our property-fuelled banking system.”
Fishbone recreated fragments of Carrigtwohill’s Castlelake complex inside the gallery for his show, fittingly titled Please Gamble Responsibly. Fabricated by stage-set builders, this dystopian collage serves as a metaphor for the flimsy nature of the financial system, mirroring the great mirage that fed the Celtic Tiger years of Ireland’s economic growth. “Something can seem so permanent, solid and lasting, the very foundation of society,” he says. “Then you look around the back and it’s all smoke and mirrors.”
Following the corrugated fence that arcs around the gallery, visitors come to a momentous grey portal that leads to a dark room, where Fishbone presents a short film on the iniquities of the financial-property-industrial complex, told with the light-hearted surrealism of a comedy routine. Like a standup version of an Adam Curtis documentary, substituting archive footage for stock images scraped from the internet, it takes a sweeping overview of how we ended up in this mess.
Beginning with the very origins of money, it moves from financial deregulation to the bonfire of mortgage-backed securities, to the gushing petrol pump of quantitative easing, and relentless house price inflation – noting that it would now cost £63 to buy a chicken if groceries had increased at the same rate as homes. With Fishbone’s smooth American accent providing a slow, measured monologue, calmly explaining the intricacies of the global banking system over the top of his Powerpoint slides, it’s as if The Big Short has been remade as a soothing meditation video.
“There’s an intentional whimsy to it,” he says. “So often with video art, people walk in and walk straight out, but I hope that the humour makes this topic more accessible to a wider audience. And it pokes holes in any kind of pretension that I’m the one to come and solve the world’s ills.” Fishbone worked briefly as a financial adviser before becoming an artist, and was once licensed to sell life insurance, “which is probably reason enough to overhaul the system”, he jokes.
The film is certainly an entertaining 15 minutes. It charts how “money became postmodern” after Nixon removed the US dollar from the gold standard in 1971, giving central banks a free licence to print cash. “Money has always been a fictional thing,” Fishbone says, and all systems of valuation are “just social contracts based on mutual agreement and backed by some kind of institutional violence”.
Along the way, we meet steroid-pumped chickens, Chinese rainbow trout disguised as salmon, money laundering in Vancouver’s luxury towers, and Henry Ford, who wisely tells us: “It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
The pandemic, which delayed the show’s opening, has made its message all the more powerful, particularly the film’s concluding suggestion of a universal basic income – a pilot of which is set to start in Ireland next year for arts workers. “The notion that this neoliberal economic order that we’ve had for 50 years is inevitable is ludicrous,” he says. “The last year and a half has seen so much money created and distributed to keep everything from collapsing. It’s just a shame that it takes a pandemic to make us realise that an alternative is possible.”
Please Gamble Responsibly is at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, until 29 August.