Apart from spectacle, auctions serve also as demonstration of power. From the über wealthy Sotheby’s clients bidding on iconic Russian artworks to Ethereal Summit investors spending thousands of dollars on blockchain-based digital art, the stage of the auction demonstrates their financial power, but also philanthropy – investing on and supporting culture, and in the case of the Codex auction, benefiting a charity.
In discussing the financialisation of art, Max Haiven draws an interesting link between cryptocurrencies, encryption and freeports or ‘Palaces of Encypted Culture’, “a kind of architecture of global financialized capitalism that encrypts art within its walls” and “encrypt art as a kind of money: the art exists in the world as a kind of financial code, a digitally manipulated asset to be transferred and parlayed. Like an encoded word transmitted in a public broadcast, financialized art still transmits meaning and value, but only to those who bear the keys of decryption, in this case those with enough wealth to buy the work, ship it to elsewhere and uncrate it again as art.”(5)
Similarly, Rachel O’Dwyer mentions how “much of the art collections of High net worth individuals (HNWIs) now reside in freeports, liminal tax-free spaces that bypass National sovereignty.”(6)
Trickle Down includes two more auctions, which couldn’t be more contrasting than the Sotheby’s and Ethereal Summit auction. One, involves Mancunians bidding on bric-a-brac and basic everyday commodities at Openshaw Market in North Manchester. In stark contrast to the previous ones, the setting here is basic with most of the bidding carried out of the back of vans bringing the goods into the market. The second auction was staged by the artist with prisoners at HMP Altcourse in Liverpool, during an artist residency there in association with FACT. During conversations with the inmates, it was decided to stage the auction as a performance to try and explore the prison economy and ideas of value. In one of her talks at the Whitworth, Helen mentioned that the inmates wanted to bid for plants to keep and look after in their cells. However, since this request was overridden as a security risk, it was agreed they could bid for plants to send to their relatives as Christmas presents instead. It was also the inmates’ decision to bid with their labour. Here, as in previously mentioned auctions, the artist documents the people’s attire rather than revealing their identities.
As an artist traversing across different economic spaces and communities, moving between the fashionable art openings and art gallery world of west end London, and the neglected streets around her art studio in Gorton in the north west of England, Helen Knowles is well aware of the great disparities between the capital and the provinces. The auctions she is depicting in Trickle Down are portraying staggeringly different communities showing a gap in wealth and equality, and how financial power structures govern value and distribution of wealth. In Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty claims that reduced inequality in the 20th century due to public policies following the two world wars, the Great Depression, organised labour and taxation, was an anomaly rather than a lasting change, and the past few years this is being reversed.(7)
There are systems, within systems, within systems… the chorus of the inmates participating in the auction have been recorded singing for Trickle Down. Other auction participants, such as ConsenSys employees – the company behind the Ethereal Summit, sellers at the Openshaw Market and a Sotheby’s client, have also contributed to the art installation with their singing. These recordings along with sounds from the environments of all auctions make part of the installation soundscape. Sensors across the gallery space pick up the proximity of visitors to the screens in the room and the data generated effects the sound diffusion within the gallery, so the soundscape is always different.