Tag Archives: value

Figuring Exchange: Art and Money

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How is money more than mere container and conveyor of value?
What happens to money we destroy, alter, or simply stop using?
How do the materials and the making of money matter?

Artists and craftspeople are highly attuned to these questions of money, aesthetics, and exchange. Political cartoonists offer direct commentary on the dramas of money; conceptual artists play with money’s materials and meanings through theory and technique; non-Western valuables make apparent the close connection between the making of objects and the making of value. This exhibition includes installations made of out of circulation Mexican bills by Argentine artist Máximo González; the art of trompe l’oeil painter G.B. Tate and others; as well as a variety of money and non-Western valuables. Figuring Exchange presents this assemblage of objects to explore the diverse perspectives they offer on questions of materiality, value, and exchange, and to reflect on money’s making, meanings, and artful transformation.

The Claire Trevor School of the Arts, and the Institute for Money, Technology & Financial Inclusion in the School of Social Sciences proudly feature Argentine artist Máximo González during an opening reception.

Date: October 14, 2013
Time: 6:00-8:00pm
Location: Outreach Gallery, Rm 3100A, Contemporary Arts Center, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, University of California Irvine

CFP: Australian Anthropological Society Conference 2013

Australian Anthropological Society Annual Conference 2013 

Theme: The Human in the World, the World in the Human

Australian National University
6-8 November 2013

The theme of this conference embraces anthropology’s enduring commitments to grappling with the human condition in the widest terms. Yet it also directs attention to the ways in which the interrelated concepts, ‘human’ and ‘world’, receive critical disciplinary attention in the present. While anthropologists have always been interested in how particular environmental, social or political worlds shape and are shaped by human existence, the theme attends to the urgency that such questions take at a time when the limits and potentialities of what ‘human’ and ‘world’ mean are subject to searching re-examination. Climate change, developments in bio-technology, securitization and supply-chain capitalism, and processes of forced and voluntary migration are among an array of issues that challenge and stimulate the conceptual and ethnographic work of anthropologists in the present.

The theme also draws attention to how particularly located humans engage in projects of “worlding”, attempting to stake claims for the relevance of their own understandings, practices and commitments in contexts shaped by both human and non-human agents. How do humans get drawn into, adapt to and adopt in their own way worldly projects that originate from afar? What kinds of oppressions and freedoms are involved in these processes? Shifting global circumstances usher these questions into the anthropological domain, where they are dealt with from a multitude of perspectives, including anthropologies of globalization, media, religion and the environment, existential anthropology and economic anthropology, theories of network and meshwork and theories of political economy. We invite participation from any and all concerned with imagining the shape of the world and the place of the human in relation to it.

Instructions for the submission of individual paper abstracts: If you are interested in presenting a paper on any of the panel themes below, please contact the individual listed panel convenors directly. Send the panel convenor your paper title and abstract (maximum 250 words), along with your email address and institutional affiliation. Do NOT submit your paper abstracts to the conference organisers. The deadline for submission of paper proposals is 1 August 2013.

Conference panels of interest to readers of the Material World Blog may include the following:

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No Longer Art

Broken Jeff Koons Balloon Dog [credit: John Reed, Slate.com]

Broken Jeff Koons Balloon Dog [credit: John Reed, Slate.com]

The Salvage Art Institute, a New York based project started by artist Elka Krajewska, surveys, catalogues, and investigates the status and value of art objects once they succumb to the effects of decay, damage or destruction. Its mission statement reads:

Salvage Art Institute works to confront and articulate the condition of no-longer-art-material claimed as “total loss”, resulting from art damaged beyond repair, removed from art market circulation due to its total loss of value in the marketplace yet stored in art-insurance claim inventory.

A recent exhibition and roundtable assembled artworks and people to explore

a group of objects related primarily through their “total loss” status. Developed by Krajewska and GSAPP Exhibitions with the participation of AXA Art Insurance Corporation, “No Longer Art: Salvage Art Institute” engages an actuarial logic that delivers a series of curious reversals. Foremost among these is the annulment of the value of total loss objects. Once a work has been declared a total loss and indemnification has been paid, insured objects are officially considered devoid of value. Left in the limbo of warehouse storage, these objects belong to an odd nether world, no longer alive in terms of the market, gallery or museum system, but often still relatively intact. The survival of salvage art even past its total devaluation confronts our common understanding of where art ends, disturbing the distinction, organization, and separation of art from non-art.

Sadly (if appropriately) enough, the discussion event had to be rescheduled due to Hurricane Sandy, which deluged the Chelsea gallery district of Manhattan resulting in the potential creation of many new candidates for the Salvage Art Institute’s registry.

For more press on the project see the Huffington Post, Slate, and ArtWirth.


By Eugenia Kisin, Anthropology, NYU

 “Assemblage has been something that has been part of our fabric, the art historical fabric, since the beginning of time. If you think about the notion of hunters and gatherers, until we became an agricultural society 10,000 years ago, that is how we found our food, we scavenged, we foraged, we hunted, we gathered. And I always felt that impulse embedded in our genes, and that artists themselves are a particular kind of hunter-gatherer.”[1]

Assemblage is an ordering of the world. Both act and creation, it encompasses production and collection; in its finished form, assemblage prefigures its consumption through the deliberate juxtaposition of materials. In art historical terms, assemblage is a medium, albeit one that is sometimes too capacious—materials are all technically “assembled” to produce artworks, and all can be traced back through a political-economic circuitry. Yet in the realm of art, both the innateness and consciousness of the act seem to be significant. In the words of Sotheby’s Chairman Lisa Dennison, quoted above, the capacity for assemblage is an impulse “embedded in our genes,” and, as an act, characterizes the work of an artist as “hunter-gatherer” – assembling in order to produce meaning and value; in other words, the stuff of art world survival.

Such ideas about assemblage—its impulses, capacities, and routes—inform my discussion of a ‘selling exhibition’ held last year at Sotheby’s gallery space in New York called “Hunters and Gatherers: The Art of Assemblage” (on view November 18th to December 16th, 2011). Showcasing a massive range of Western and non-Western objects that embody, in the words of its curators, the “accumulative tendency” in art, “Hunters and Gatherers” intended to show (and sell) nothing less than a new narrative of twentieth-century art history, a narrative grounded in material. Surrealist objet, neo-Dada collage, Songye power figure, Haida headdress, modernist Combine – major movements and diverse media were brought together under the rubric of their fabric, their status as assemblage. It produced a compelling, unifying story of art, looking forward as well as back: Nick Cave’s soundsuits appropriating (assembling?) tribal spiritualities, Dan Colen’s surface-obsessed painted sculpture a kind of fresh, contemporary Happening.

Based on catalogue descriptions—the “polychromed” Haida headdress, Western materials “ingeniously incorporated” into Native American material culture, the exclusively ceremonial contexts of the non-Western art, and the dubious universalism of the geneticized and apolitical urge to “assemble”—it would be warranted to dis-assemble this exhibition on the basis of its familiar primitivist tropes. Indeed, having not seen the exhibition in person, I can only imagine the visual force that such a juxtaposition of works would have as an assemblage. Together, the works might have comprised a perfect balance of on-the-wall and in-the-round, the wooden angles and planes of the African sculptures and Northwest Coast masks complementing the colors and textures of mid-century paintings and collages. There is a reason that modernist interiors are often decorated with tribal art, instantiating a visceral-yet-contained chromophilia, or “tiptoeing around the perimeter of the color danger zone,” that Michael Taussig argues is an effect of colonial and post-colonial encounters[2]– the inimitable effect of a contained, colorful, polyglot assemblage in a white cube, and an exhibition designed to sell.

But the questions I want to consider through “Hunters and Gatherers” are more general, given my limited experience of the exhibition via its catalogue and media. There is also something perversely imprecise about saying anything ‘contemporary’ of an exhibition held over a year ago—time moves fast in art, and assemblages are often ephemeral. Still, one year later, the questions this particular cluster raises are, to use that value-laden term of the contemporary, ‘fresh.’[3] Why this story, and why in 2011? My suggestion is that this exhibition tells us something lasting about contemporary art, and its relation to theories of assemblage. It also tells us about the perils of making materiality too capacious a frame for theorizing the contemporary as an instantiation of, as the catalogue puts it, the “impulse to scavenge.”


First, a note on ancestors. “The Art of Assemblage,” the subtitle of “Hunters and Gatherers,” was likely a deliberate reference to the famous 1961 exhibition of the same name held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – and one of the ways in which “Hunters and Gatherers” is bound to an art world lineage of modernism. For William Seitz, the curator of the 1961 show, assemblage was a modern notion, and thus had a history; both the creation of new art from fragments and the self-conscious execution could be traced back through all of the major modernist movements of the twentieth century, including Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstract-Expressionism, and even further, to avant-garde nineteenth-century figures like Manet. Such a media-and-sentiment based narrative could include a spectacular range of work, encompassing, as Seitz put it in the catalogue, “The Art, Non-Art, and Anti-Art of Assemblage”– and, it should be remembered, providing a unifying narrative for MoMA’s collection, re-assembling the assemblage into a story of art.[4]

This reference to the 1961 show was, and is, extraordinarily generative. By including recent works, the “Hunters and Gatherers” established a connection between “the contemporary”—that ever-emergent, always-becoming, impossible category—and art history’s past, containing the unknown, un-categorizable contemporary within a stable framework of value and judgment. It produces a modernism for the contemporary, or a contemporary that can be fit back into the story of modernism. This is, as art historian Terry Smith has recently argued, a very contemporary thing to do. Smith suggests that both the tired return to an older avant-gardism – a process he names “remodernism”— and the self-conscious embrace of neo-liberal spectacular consumption—“retro-sensationalism”— are returns to modernist aesthetics that characterize much of contemporary art, naming many of the artists included in the Sotheby’s show as exemplars of such returns.[5] Moreover, as returns, they repress what is, at least for mainstream art histories, really new, and really now: other art histories that are global, decolonial, and deeply unsettling.[6]

Unlike its modern predecessor, “Hunters and Gatherers” explicitly addresses these other art histories. The incorporation of other cultures into Western art has, after all, had a long history in relation to modernism, and the catalogue recognizes the production of “hybrid compositions” throughout time a result of these encounters. Yet such recognition contains them within this modernist vision, a vision that is made contemporary by virtue of our shared genetic assemblage—no longer the “spirit” of Seitz’s bricoleur, but the genetic drive of the hunter-gatherer provides the compulsion to create. In such encounters, as in primitivist formulations, only the Western artist emerges as bricoleur-scavenger, Baudelaire’s ragpicker meets Indiana Jones as a disaffected, nomadic archaeologist of modern and contemporary civilization. What makes a difference in this new formulation of assemblage is how it submerges even as it incorporates. By acknowledging other art histories, “Hunters and Gatherers” enables a one-way tracking of routes between the West and non-West through a universalizing concept of assemblage, a concept that becomes a contemporary rubric under which non-Western objects—and only historical, ceremonial ones from the classic periods of collecting—can be recognized as “art.”

It is a familiar narrative, well-rehearsed in stories about the tribal and the modern. Yet this tracking is a particularly problematic framing in relation to the concept of assemblage. As Julia Kelly has argued, the 1961 “Art of Assemblage” exhibition, which did not explicitly include non-Western art as a form of assemblage, missed the extent to which non-Western ontologies of objects had conditioned many of the artists’ approach to materials.  Specifically, Kelly suggests that “assemblage” as conceived here is as much about magical efficacy as components – hence Seitz’s emphasis on spirit and transformative potential – and thus draws much more upon anthropological translations of non-Western practices than on some essential tendency of the modern towards bricolage.[7] In other words, assemblage happens as art because of the capacity of objects to do things.

This idea of efficacy continues to inform contemporary approaches to assemblage. In the video that accompanies the online component of “Hunters and Gatherers,” curator Elizabeth Gorayeb seamlessly connects early-twentieth century art as a mode of action – “representing the world as it could be, or how we can transform it in our mind” – to the contemporary desire to assemble as “universal force among all of us.” Such a framing is highly connective: it draws lineages between the past and the present, artist and collector, West and non-West, a connectivity and encompassment that justify the broad scope of the exhibition. As such, “Hunters and Gatherers” proposes that assemblage may itself be a theoretical tool, which is a position that uncannily resonates with much contemporary social theory.

Tracing the theoretical appeal of assemblage as a Deleuzian concept for analyzing such contemporary social formations, George Marcus and Erkan Saka suggest that the concept itself belies a particular kind of re-modernism, a desire for structure amidst the upsets of contemporary social theory. For Marcus and Saka, assemblage can provide an “evocation of emergence and heterogeneity amid the data of inquiry, in relation to other concepts and constructs without rigidifying into the thingness of final or stable states that besets the working terms of classic social theory.”[8] In other words, assemblage, as a theoretical tool, allows for an explanation of social action, of doing things, that is sufficiently ephemeral and processual. Analysis in such a frame consists of tracing the contingent connections that constitute emergent social worlds, and many of these social science approaches to social assemblage run parallel to certain art historical theories of relational aesthetics, which emphasize the emergence of social action via engagements with the material world.[9]

I wonder about the extent to which both kinds of approaches to assemblage are constituted by notions of thing-ness that did not emerge from a hermetically-sealed modernism’s encounter with globalization, but from particular entanglements of the Western and the non-Western—indeed, the recognition of objects’ efficacies owes much to the messy entanglements of art worlds and artifacts. Such entanglements also include long histories of critical indigenous activism and scholarship that uses, usurps, and transcends modernist historiographies to inscribe what Steven Loft calls a cultural aesthetic, nuanced ways of knowing that presume different relations between subjects, objects, meaning and time.[10] Yet these routes between indigenous aesthetics and notions of contemporary effect remain largely unexplored.

So we have a partial answer to “why assemblage” – it is a capacious category with ties to modernism, efficacy, and emergence. But what does invoking these ties mean now?



© 2011, Tim Noble & Sue Webster The New Barbarians, 1997–99 Translucent resin, fibreglass Dimensions: Figures: 79 x 69 x 137 cm Infinity cove: Painted medium-ply board Dimensions: variable Photo: Robert Fairer Source

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s The New Barbarians is a work that embodies the themes of “Hunters and Gatherers.” Formed out of fiberglass and resin, it is a sculptural self-portrait of the artists as early hominids, their hairless, sunken figures captured mid-stride in a foraging love story. The New Barbarians is deliberately evocative of an anthropological diorama in the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, which imagines the early hominids, figured according to gendered expectations as a man and a woman, who might have left footprints in volcanic ash at Laetoli 3.5 million years ago. The exhibition catalogue for “Hunters and Gatherers” notes the pathos that this reference to the diorama enables, as the New Barbarians are “installed in isolation and presented naked to the world, [evoking] a sort of exit-from-Eden melancholia.” It is also an uncanny evocation: the New Barbarians maintain the contemporary facial features of the artists, bringing “this seemingly primitive pair into the present.” Simultaneously monstrous and innocent, the work is a hybrid assemblage, depicting the artists as literal hunter-gatherers, and it riffs on evolutionary science with all of its innocent hopes and explanations of the hetero-normative family of man.

Yet it also embodies the naturalness of these hybrid materialities, which, I argue, is an integral subtext of “Hunters and Gatherers.” The image of artist-as-bricoleur has always carried a certain innocence, an apolitical inscription of the encounters between modern and primitive. In such a story, we are all New Barbarians, our melancholic exodus a result of modernity. Like Baudelaire’s ragpicker, we assemble ourselves from the detritus of civilization – Julian Schnabel’s broken plate collage, Johnny Swing’s coin couch, Jaehyo Lee’s nail bed, routes, materials, and labor assembled to produce the contemporary and what Johanna Drucker has named its “complicit formalism”: a focus on materiality that transcends both anti-modernism and critical post-modernism’s political avant-gardism.[11] What is new about these New Barbarians is that their accumulative tendency, the innocent appropriation of materials, is figured as evolution: inevitable genetic destiny, an “impulse,” a “tendency.”


Wukchumne Yokuts Pictorial basket attributed to Mary Dick Topino. Source


Much of the non-Western art in the exhibition is also claimed by this narrative. For example, Northwest Coast art, we are told, is the result of “natural abundance” in the region, the success of hunting and gathering. Similarly functionalist language describes a late-nineteenth century basket attributed to Mary Dick Topino (Wukchumni Yokuts) as an object of beauty enabled by the “adaptability” and “high level of skill” of “hunter-gatherers.” None of this is untrue; certainly, art, environment, and the valuing of well-made objects are inextricably linked. Indeed, Surrealist Hans Bellmer, in his assemblage of doll parts for his puppes, could be considered similarly “adaptable” or “resourceful” in his recycling of his society’s material playthings. This cycle of accumulation and re-purposing is, in fact, the link drawn between West and non-West throughout “Hunters and Gatherers.” But the “adaptability” of Bellmer and his fellow artists is never named as such; instead, it is of a different, more active, sort, called “creativity” or “genius,” or, in Bellmer’s case, “obsession”: a conscious rather than an environmentally-enabled act.

Nothing is particularly new about these primitivist art world tropes, but they are worth highlighting here, because they reveal something about the kinds of connectivity that constitute assemblage. Coupled with the scientific romance of the “impulse to scavenge,” stories of adaptability obscure other networks and connections. For instance, the cross motifs on Topino’s basket, documented elsewhere in relation to her work as Christian imagery associated with two specific mission schools,[12] are not even mentioned in the basket’s relatively extensive catalogue note – indeed, certain kinds of “adaptability” are not considered part of the assemblage. Likewise, a marionette (“polychromed,” again) attributed to a Kwakuitl maker is noted as belonging to the Surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen, who travelled to the Northwest Coast, where he assembled a collection whose “aesthetic exerted a profound influence upon his work” – a glossed mention of the complex encounters enabled by the process of creating assemblages. In effect, the real entanglements generated in the process of assemblage are forgotten, as the genetic impulse removes the very real stakes behind the question of who is assembling whom.


* * *

In archaeological terms, when an assemblage with similar contents is repeated, it is referred to as a culture. If there is a lack of context for the recurrent assemblage, it is not quite a culture; it is an industry. “Hunters and Gatherers” assembled many of the tropes and strategies of containment that we have come to associate with the culture of art world primitivism, and did so in a way that I have been connecting to particular tendencies and narratives of “the contemporary” and its hybrid of scientific romance and willful forgetting, its particular engagement with materiality. Like good archaeologists, we would do well to not take every assemblage as an industry, and assume that “assemblage” is always-already complete. For it is precisely the unexplored potentialities of this mix, of the entanglement, that make assemblage a powerful metaphor for describing social and material worlds.



[1] From Hunters and Gatherers promotional video, available here . The catalogue of the exhibition may be found here .

[2] Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 11.

 [3] This usage of “fresh” is emphasized by the critic Johanna Drucker, who calls for fresh forms of theorizing that are complicit with the pace and materials of contemporary art. See Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2005), xv.

 [4] William Seitz, The Art of Assemblage (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961): 6.

 [5]  Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 7-10.

[6] Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, 169.

[7] Julia Kelly, “The Anthropology of Assemblage,” Art Journal 67, 1(2008): 30.

 [8] George Marcus and Erkan Saka, “Assemblage,” Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2006): 106.

 [9] On relational aesthetics, see Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. S. Pleasance et al. (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2004). On the connections between anthropological bricolage and assemblage, see Anna Dezeuze, “Assemblage, Bricolage, and the Practice of Everyday Life,” Art Journal 67, 1 (2008).

[10] Steven Loft, “Aboriginal Media Art and the Postmodern Conundrum: A Coyote Perspective,” Transference, Tradition, Technology, ed. D. Claxton, S. Loft, and M. Townsend (Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 2005), 90.

 [11] Drucker, Sweet Dreams, xv.

 [12] Record 760/826, Fenimore Art Museum (n.d.), , accessed December 5th, 2012.


The Lives of Property

Amy Hinterberger, Research Fellow, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS), School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford
Convened by the BioProperty Research Programme, Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, 20 & 21 September 2012

Objects of property have many lives. This international conference explored the paths that scientific and technological objects travel as they acquire or lose their status as property. Researchers from Europe, North American and Australia gathered at the Ship Street Centre in Oxford to discuss the many lives or property, from art and artefacts to the material travels of waste. The eclectic group of papers were grouped around four central themes: ‘Value, waste and material transitions’, ‘Advocacy and collective ownership’, ‘Artefacts in action’, and ‘Traveling property and the politics of place’. Together the panels addressed what is involved in turning a tool or product of science into an alienable or inalienable possession. The papers also illuminated how competing understandings of ‘property’ affect the circulation of scientific knowledge and artefacts, as well as expounding on how legal categories of appropriability shape research and regulatory practices. You can see the full program and abstracts here: www.bioproperty.ox.ac.uk/events/the-lives-of-property/?archive=true

The event featured two keynote addresses. On Thursday Hannah Landecker (UCLA) spoke to the title ‘Extracts of evolution applied to injuries of knowledge economies: from food as fuel to nutrition as regulation‘ where she discussed transformations to the metabolic sciences wrought by the rise of epigenetics, microbiomics, cell signaling and hormone biology. Given the long-standing role of metabolism as a font for philosophy and political theory, Landecker argued that these changes in the metabolic sciences have broad implications for the understanding both the life of value, and the value of life. On Friday, Mario Biagoli (UC Davis), closed the conference with his keynote address: ‘Parenthood, slavery and kidnapping: the strange genealogy of plagiarism’. In this talk, Biagoli looked at the ‘lives of property’ from what he called the other end, that is, not the lives of objects as they become or cease to be property, but at some of the ways in which figures of the production and reduction of life (human reproduction, abduction, and enslavement) framed and continue to frame the notion of the plagiarist, the author, and intangible property.

The conference was organised by the BioProperty Research Project, an ERC funded project that explores evolving property rights in life sciences research.
Check out more events and our current research on BioProperty here

Culture Works

Reflections on Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas (NYU Press 2012),

Arlene Davila, NYU Anthropology

Each book has an ethos, and a lot of my work has been led by a critical angst on the mainstreaming of Latino culture, which is also reflected in Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas just published by NYU Press.  Yet in hindsight, Culture Works is mostly informed by the love, admiration and appreciation for creative workers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with for years, especially the locally-based, community-identified and informally generated creative work and workers I encountered in Puerto Rico, Latin@ New York and Buenos Aires, who are working with great difficulty in challenging times.   This a context where, more and more, culture is only appreciated as an economic engine, or as a development tool, or for the profit it can generate, and where artists are valued in terms of their entrepreneurial skills more than the work they do within communities.

Indeed, the last decades has seen a growing and uncritical boosterism around creative economies and the role of creative classes within urban policy circles, developers, and even critical scholars.  The focus, however, is mainly on creative workers in high scale industries, advertising or design, rather than on the plight of the many grassroots “barrio creatives” I encountered in New York City, Puerto Rico and Buenos Aires. These creatives are just as important to the health of global creative cities, but are regularly bypassed from most national and global considerations on urban cultural policies.  As a consequence, are quick to extend tax break and incentives to any development that comes packaged with a “cultural” component, while local community institutions linger.   Culture Works asks why this is the case and challenges us to expand definitions of what should be regarded as most centrally valuable.

Recreation of Old San Juan architecture inside Puerto Rico's largest shopping mall, while street use ordinances restrict public space of space in Old San Juan highlight the sanitization of space at play in many cities across the Americas. These restrictions are affecting the celebration of the island's most important festivals which provide some of the few outlets left for artists and vendors to make a living.


Foremost, Culture Works challenges the elitization of creative work and its use as an added-on ornament to “soften”, veil or ameliorate the social inequalities brought about by neoliberal policies, and projects.  One example discussed in the book is the inclusion of old San Juan architecture and the celebration of Puerto Rican crafts airs inside shopping malls that are intended to “puertorriquenize” these malls veiling the rapid privatization of space spurred by a bonanza in shopping mall constructions.  Another is the promotion of tango tourism as part of the neoliberal transformations behind the construction of a new Buenos Aires that has resulted in the up scaling of the city primarily for tourists and expats.

In particular, the book highlights similar dynamics around the ways in which how culture is being used across the Americas, if not globally, despite the many differences at play.  Yes, there are different philosophies of government between Argentina’s more socialist government and the overtly neoliberal administration at play in New York City, while the colonial island state of Puerto Rico may seem to have little in common with the dynamics apace in New York city, the global arts capital of the world. There are also considerable differences between the primarily Puerto Rican and minority Latino artists in New York and the artists I met in Puerto Rico and Argentina who face hardships but not around the existence of a “culture” that deserves promotion and showcasing, as Latino artists working in the United States regularly face.

These differences notwithstanding, each location evidenced an emphasis on more entrepreneurial artists, the upscalling of space and a narrowing of what counts as culturally valuable and worthy of investments. Similarly, in all three cases the use of culture for tourism, or for economic development, was accompanied by disparities that limited which cultural workers and artists could most legitimately claim the status of “creative worker”. Namely, the artists, whose merchandise looks good in the mall and ‘professional’ dancers from the better barrios in the capital who speak English and can fit comfortably with tourists.

Culture Works exposes these dynamics in order to 1) reevaluate the work, the value, and the many cultural and economic contributions of local based cultural workers. And 2) in order expands dominant definitions of who counts as creative worker and what counts as creative work. My hope is that we can finally put an end to all the boosterism surrounding discussions of creative work in most discussions of urban development and consequently be more equipped to address key questions of cultural equity.

I do this by focusing on the rubrics of space, value and mobility as three sites were tensions of creative work are especially apparent. In terms of space, I highlight the linkage between the privatization of space and the fate of growing numbers of peoples who seek their livelihoods through culture.  These dynamics are especially evident in Puerto Rico where thousands have turned to the selling of artesania after massive government layoffs, even though few people can access the rapidly diminished public space to make a living.

Issues of value are at the heart of all case studies and Culture Works shows how value is directly tied to policies and investments, in other words, I show how value is never a naturally determined but rather structured and created by urban and cultural policies and economic incentives favoring one or another cultural initiative, or one cultural product or representation over other.  Take for instance, the cultural policies that lock most of New York City’s government funding for the arts to a few institutions in the city, (primarily the largest and most tourist known) leaving most cultural organizations to compete for the remaining minimal budget.

In particular I argue that we should indeed begin to talk openly about political economy of the arts without fear that mixing art and economic realms would “pollute” the ‘sacredness’ of art.  Specifically, I suggest that delving into the economy is not only central for exposing how value is created through investments, but also for imagining alternative criteria for defining what’s valuable and worthy of investments. In particular, Culture Works exposes the racial politics of creative economies, particularly evident around the debates over whether Latinos merit the construction of a national museum in the nation’s capital, racial dynamics that inform what’s worthy of showcasing.  In other words, Culture Works argues that engage with questions of value is to engage with politics.  It demands that we expose the premises and biases in which decisions about what is valuable and worthy of promotion and preservation are regularly made.

Finally, I address matters of mobility, or the movements of peoples and things that accompany all these neoliberal restructuring of space.

These dynamics have local manifestations; for instance, in the segregation, surveillance and policing of space; but also global ones, in terms of who can travel and can access the necessary paperwork to become “global” versus others destined to remain undocumented or “alien,” because of their race, class, citizenship or nationality.

My concern is a simple one:  to expose that creative industries favor certain type of mobile bodies while circumventing the social and physical mobility of others.  For instance, I examine the mobility of North American and European creative expats: the kid who wants to finish his novel or the laid off designer who wants to make a severance check last, who can easily move and settle in Buenos Aires, and even set up to sell jewelry in the street on an impromptu basis, versus the immigrants from “pueblos limitrofes,” such as Bolivia, Peru, who are banned from accessing the city’s key centers. For expats from Europe and North America, moving to Buenos Aires on a semi permanent basis becomes one of the strategies through which creative workers maneuver economic uncertainty and achieve social mobility, but not without affecting possibilities for local artists.

In sum, Culture Works asks who benefits from the growing emphasis on creative economies, how have these industries affected the lives of the growing number of people who gain live hoods through culture.  My hope is that the book can bring attention to Issues of equity and creative economies are concerned and make us more sensitized to the plight of some many people who make a living of creative work and should be at the center of any discussion of contemporary urban and creative economies.


Arlene Davila is Professor of Anthropology and American Studies at NYU.  Her previous books include Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race and Barrio Dreams:  Puerto Ricans, Latinos and the Neoliberal City. Website: anthropology.as.nyu.edu/object/arlenedavila.html