Some points about the PONZI'S project -- fragments of a conversation with Antje Weitzel

Antje Weitzel: Your project "Ponzi's" could be mistaken, at least in its first installations, for a business office or merchandising presentation. Can you explain the concept behind the project and its relationship to the idea of social utopias?

Société Réaliste: We started with the title’s question “How to do things?” and transformed it into “How can something be created, be produced?” Our starting point was the “economic” question: how does one produce an economy for art? Economy must be understood here in its two definitions: financial necessity and, in general, production relations in a specific context. If we are talking about an art economy, it means: schools and universities to produce art professionals; social discourse and symbolism about art and a collective need for art to produce audiences; the processes that constitute an artistic environment in order to index an object as an artwork; intellectual production that is constantly redefining the field of art and its links to other fields; the ways to produce this social activity called “art”; public or private money and platforms to impulse cultural policies, commonly referred to as art venues; markets to convert cultural into financial value; all the fellowship and grant programs from all over the First World that aim to support art professionals, artists, curators, and critics. All of these components outline a field of activity that is the art institution in a broader sense. Asking the economic question “How to do things” was our way of interrogating the production relations inherent in all economic activities. If art has to be “done,” what kinds of relationships does it infer between the actors of this institution - critics, theoreticians, audiences, art consumers, financial supporters, teachers, students, public administrators, merchants, curators, civil servants in the field of culture, collectors, emerging, mid-career, recognized, or star artists, and creative businesses using art producers. We decided to go back to basics. Perhaps because we did not want our analysis to be too brutal, but also because we wanted to create a supple form that would be relevant in various artistic contexts. So we reduced our questions. “How to do things?” became “how to produce an artistic ‘thing.’” How does one make money to produce, on one hand, artworks or exhibitions and, on the other, an artistic context or public interest for such productions? Since our question was based on the economic production of art, we decided to display a basic concept of art production, to design a minimal art economy. The PONZI’S project is a production tool. This tool is a pyramidal scheme applied to the context of contemporary art. Its title refers Charles Ponzi, who invented one of the most successful pyramidal schemes. A pyramidal scheme is a fake investment with high rates of interest, which mainly works by paying the first investors with money from the second. Our first action was to translate this scheme into a game.

Antje Weitzel: How does this tool, this game work? Can you describe the process?

Société Réaliste: To participate in this game, you have to buy vouchers. The basic principle is to convince your friends, relatives, or acquaintances to visit the exhibition that is showing PONZI’S. You give him/her one of your vouchers with your name written on it. When they visit the show, they return your voucher to the PONZI’S office. The winner is the person who has sent the greatest number of people to see this exhibition. This game is the first activity of PONZI’S. The second is the selling of franchises. Selling a franchise means selling the right to use this game, its rules, its visual identity, its logo, its color chart, etc. To create this game, we followed the example of economic activities like multi-level marketing (a specific type of legal swindle that has made brands like Amway or Avon), and chain letters as well as more official businesses such as banking and casinos. Various objects produced for this project linked these activities to the principles of Charles Ponzi’s scheme, which remained our initial reference. Paying the first investors with the money of the second ones, who will in turn recruit third ones, was a brilliant idea. What Charles Ponzi invented was nothing less than a construction made for collapse. He used an ideological context, the American 1920s when speculation and the will for fast moneymaking were incredibly high, persuasive speech, collective desires, and operative models to produce a disaster. In the end, Charles Ponzi created an economy under its own control with a lot of money, a lot of actors, a lot a specific relationships between them, and a lot of “tools for visualization” (fake company, corporate documents, branding equipment). Charles Ponzi produced a business, a market, without producing anything. Our desire was to translate this scheme into a problem for art. This attraction for art, this boiling activity, the complex organization of this field, the supply and demand, the need for financial support – are these things related to concrete production, or is it just a pyramidal scheme?

Antje Weitzel: That's a good question! You are basically trying to point out structural similarities between a snowball or pyramid scheme and the art system or the mechanisms of the art market. I would like to return to my first question regarding the concrete appearance of PONZI’S in context of the exhibition. Why did you decide to give the project different presentation forms for the various exhibition sites? Is there a connection between the formal appearance and the game or the local contexts?

Société Réaliste: In fact, after producing the first installation in Budapest, which was in essence a PONZI’S office installed to produce the game, we wanted to add reflection on the pyramidal structure to our project. So after designing this game and all the tools to make it work, we exhibited the whole fictional PONZI’S company, and the economic operator that would have invented it, and produced it in various contexts. In Kiev, we added an information room to our PONZI’S office to accommodate those who interested in buying a franchise. In Bucharest, we only exhibited a PONZI’S franchisees training room concerned with the topic of economic conditioning (sometimes called “marketing”). In Copenhagen, the first exhibition in Western Europe, we exhibited PONZI’S board of directors, which allowed us to work on global economic strategies, macro-economical statistics, and the reconfiguration of PONZI’S brand to “attack” the Western market. In Berlin, PONZI’S disappeared – as an economic principle, as a game, as a swindle – and became corporate support for the “How to do things?” project. All we did in the exhibition was advertise as if we were a normal company sponsoring a cultural event with our logo on the material and an information board. Beside the exhibition, we proposed to organize a party as virtual sponsors to celebrate the end of the “How to do things?” project. This party has been named after our new motto, “360° Parasite.” The idea was to hike up our own pyramid. It was an experimental move from the PONZI’S basics (the factual swindle) to its infrastructure, or the processes serving its economy – its training program, administration, and decision makers. As a final step, we arrived at its suprastructure, its pure marketing strategy. We have increasingly separated the project from its original idea. We have produced a growing unintelligibility of product relations. By the end, nobody will know exactly what this business is. But PONZI’S is more present due to its own dissemination, like a casual actor of the market economy that constantly generates its own laundering through its never-ending public relations policy.

Antje Weitzel: So what you are prototypically exhibiting are marketing or branding strategies, on the one hand, and production methods and the economic logic of globalized network capitalism, on the other. Was this the reason you decided not to play the game, to prevent any interaction on the part of the public?

Société Réaliste: You’re right. There is no human operator to activate this game. In fact, we did not want to display a participative work of art. We are showing an economic structure that could work: all the components to make it work are here. We are exhibiting an extreme commercialization of art. If we refuse to play with this tool, it is in order to link the public experience of this work with several questions: if art wants to do something in the middle of nowhere, shouldn’t it first examine its own ways of being produced? Are there production rules for art? What is the border or the degree of transition between what is legal and what is illegal in the art world? Can a work of art only be a structure devoid of intentions? What is a work that only aims to attract? Are there illegal ways to attract an audience? Does every production imply pyramidal power relations? What kind of pyramid exists within the context of art between the production forces, the institutions, the sellers, the buyers, the curators, the artists, and the audience? What does corruption in such a constellation mean? Shouldn’t art consider its political task to be a critic who is self-conscious of its economical limits? More than eventually producing “social utopias,” shouldn’t art produce a general criticism of the production structures of utopias, of social concepts, of "political art"?

(source: How to do things? In the middle of (no)where…, catalogue of the project, Revolver Publishing, Frankfurt/Main, 2006)