It has been said that it is impossible to make an anti-war movie because war, for all its horrors, is exciting to watch on screen. You identify with the soldier under fire; you hold your breath as he darts across an open field, huddles behind a sandbag, trembles as the artillery barrage inches closer and closer. As objectively anti-war as a film may be, it subjectively shows war to be a thrilling thing. A thrilling roller-coaster ride is poor propaganda for the abolition of roller coasters.
This same paradox undermines Euphoria, the video installation by Julian Rosefeldt that was on view at the Park Avenue Armory in New York until early this January. Intended to expose the evils of capitalism, consumption, and greed, the installation inadvertently celebrates them. We see what must be the most ecstatic dance performance by bank tellers ever captured on film while the critics of capitalism come across as humorless scolds. Even more paradoxically, the Armory and its installation are underwritten by a veritable rogue’s gallery of capitalists, including Michael Bloomberg, one of the richest men in the world.
To appreciate these paradoxes, a brief summary of Euphoria is helpful. A multimedia presentation on 24 different screens, it runs on a continuous loop, so that viewers can come and go at will. The main action, which consists of six loosely connected narrative scenes, takes place on the central screen. Additional screens depict drummers and singers, who provide mu-sical support as needed. Equally spaced around the hall are five large screens, each of which shows a prominent jazz drummer. Beneath them, at ground level, is a cyclorama of 140 singers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. They are projected life-size and at such remarkably high resolution that your first reaction upon entering is to think you have stumbled into a middle-school assembly. Both they and the drummers remain preternaturally still until the action on the main screen approaches its climax, at which point they join in, making the whole hall quiver with sound and movement. Here the experience becomes spatially “immersive,” which is what distinguishes the sensory experience of the multiple-channel video from that of single-channel video (a retronym for what you and I might call a movie).
This is Euphoria at its best, and at such times it does rise to the euphoric. But what does this have to do with capitalism? And why are the heated debates on the main screen so tedious and long-winded? In other words, why is such an extravagant visual jubilee so boring?
And it is a visual jubilee. Rosefeldt, who was born in Munich in 1965 and trained as an architect, has an uncanny eye. He certainly knows how to photograph architecture. His drone camera glides over the skyscrapers of Wall Street so lovingly it’s as if we were peering down into the fjords of Norway. And he is especially good with ruins. One sequence is set in a gloomy depot for abandoned buses, whose shadowy interior gives it a kind of tragic dignity. Another drone-filmed sequence shows a vast graveyard of rusting ships, a necropolis of mass consumption.
That sequence, like much of Euphoria, was filmed in Ukraine. Even a critique of capitalism, Rosefeldt noted ruefully, had to face capitalist reality, and production costs in Ukraine were significantly cheaper. With the Russian invasion last February, filming was abruptly suspended and the project rushed to completion. A good many of its effects were inserted digitally, such as the odd animals that stray casually into view from time to time: a moose, a flock of sheep descending the steps of a bank, a tiger who languidly prowls the aisles of a supermarket and unexpectedly begins to speak (in the voice of Cate Blanchett, of all people).
Each of Euphoria’s narrative sequences focuses on some aspect of the capitalist economy, or those who have refused to participate in it. One sequence, filmed in that bus depot, features a group of young skateboarding slackers who earnestly debate economic reform as they pass around a joint. A basic income was necessary, one declares, so that workers could turn down “demeaning or boring work”; economic policy should have as its goal “full unemployment.” Another sequence takes place in what is obviously meant to be an Amazon distribution center where three women toil over a conveyer belt, sorting packages and musing over the plight of women in a capitalist economy. Their neglect, one insists, reaches back all the way to the Stone Age, which glorified the mighty mammoth hunter but not the women “who gathered seeds, nuts, roots, and berries.”
If the women and the skateboarders spar pleasantly, a scene set in a homeless shantytown turns nasty. Here a circle of grizzled derelicts pass around a bottle and warm their hands over a trash-can fire, speaking about greed. One of them, a fellow in a yellow hat named Randy, emerges as the spokesman for capitalism, mouthing platitudes about “the invisible hand” and how “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” only to be rebuked by the others, who have platitudes of their own. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody,” he is told. “You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for.”
This of course comes from a celebrated Elizabeth Warren speech, delivered here with great gusto and at considerable length. It was only at this point that it dawned on me what everyone else must have known about the script of Euphoria. Wanting to experience it without preconceived notions, I had deliberately avoided reading the reviews or press release, and so I did not know that every single line of dialogue was taken verbatim from a text, selected by Rosefeldt and artfully arranged in the form of a dialogue. And the sources cut a surprising swath through Western literature and economic thought: Plato’s Republic, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Keynes’s General Theory, but also Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the Marquis de Swade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and other strange bedfellows. I had seen these books arrayed in the installation’s companion exhibit in the Armory’s library but had mistakenly assumed them to be background reading.
The helped me understand the curious tedium of Euphoria. There is a static quality to all the dialogues, whether between young slackers or elderly derelicts, which never rise to the status of conversation. Genuine conversation may meander or double back, but it advances. The exchange of epigrams means there is no rising or falling action, only a constant unvarying density. It has the odd effect of making everyone sound the same, like a smug wiseass, in fact. What was meant to be a probing examination about the phenomenon of consumption turns into a sad display of talented actors earnestly declaiming snippets of Bartlett’s Quotations at one another. It is during these vehement but ultimately tiresome exchanges that you find your attention wandering to the microscopic fidgeting of the young singers in the chorus.
Nor is the exchange of platitudes a fair fight. Randy, the derelict who speaks out for the free market, is made to be a straw figure. He is given the lines of capitalism’s most obnoxious champion, Ayn Rand, while his sparring partners are given what are clearly meant to be game-ending zingers, such as George Carlin’s quip “Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank, give a man a bank and he can rob the world.” In contrast, Randy—the only character in the installation who has a name, which surely derives from Rand—is forced to utter one bit of Randian nonsense after another (“a self-sufficient ego. Nothing else matters;” “the sacred word is ego,” etc.) When Randy runs amok, lights a torch, burns a shed, and runs off into the distance, raving about money, we are not surprised.
In contrast to this is Euphoria’s most stirring sequence, the frenzied dance that erupts between staid bank tellers. This was also filmed in Ukraine, in Kyiv’s palatial main train station, which was converted to a banking hall for the shoot, and in remarkably convincing fashion. Here Rosefeldt’s architectural training stood him in good stead. The camera moves freely among the customers, all of whom but for an obviously deranged older woman are well-heeled, while a narrator recites the virtues of money, such as “Money is like blood. It gives life if it flows.” To our surprise, the deranged woman turns to us and speaks the last line of the narration, and we realize with a jolt that it is her voice we have been hearing.
At first glance, the bank seems to be going about its business with quiet efficiency, the tellers counting out cash or signing documents. But as we get closer, we see that each of the tellers is performing a surreal parody of a normal job-related task. One shuffles credit cards as if dealing out a hand of poker; another juggles with currency; and a third snaps his fingers and the bill before him disappears into flames. But they perform their acts with proper bankerly decorum, like the nimble young woman who twists her legs behind her head to sign an application with a pen clutched between her toes.
As the camera moves faster, one by one the drummers in the surrounding screens pick up their drumsticks and begin to tap out a rhythm, each of the five playing a different part. The singers below start swaying from side to side, their voices rising until the bankers break forth in rousing acrobatic dance, with back flips from the mezzanine level and blooming “human flowers” photographed from above, in the Busby Berkeley manner (Rosefeldt’s script explicitly refers to him). As it reaches its rapturous climax, a marching band joins the dancers, and we notice the contrast between the delirious dance and the regimented athleticism of the tightly uniformed dancers and get a sense of what urgent political purposefulness feels like in dance, not so much Busby Berkeley as a hip-hop Leni Riefenstahl.
Of course, Rosefeldt’s bank tellers are cardboard cutouts, but no more so than the stock figures in the delivery center or homeless encampment. For all its sensational effects and outstanding music (composed by Samy Moussa), Euphoria has no richer understanding of the human condition than Waiting for Lefty, Clifford Odets’s 1935 agitprop play that reduced every character to a caricature of either a capitalist exploiter or exploited worker. Rosefeldt’s capitalists may no longer sport monocles and top hats, but they are essentially the same Depression-era tycoons we know from the Monopoly game board—which were already a humorous anachronism in the 1930s, based as they were on a quarter-century-old clichéd depiction of J.P. Morgan.
And so it is that J.P. Morgan’s latter-day heirs have now underwritten Euphoria, particularly Jill and Peter Kraus, well-known philanthropists and collectors of contemporary art (among other things, Peter is the chairman of the board of the California Institute of the Arts while Jill is a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art). They are hardly the first philanthropists to bankroll artists who would mock them and their class, an inexplicable but common phenomenon whose definitive study has yet to be written. The motives of such philanthropists remain obscure: a guilt offering perhaps, or, more cynically, protection money.
In the end, it is difficult to imagine someone who better represents the world that Euphoria criticizes than Peter Kraus. In 2009, he was subpoenaed by Attorney General Andrew Cuomo after receiving over $50 million in salary and severance pay for his term as executive vice president of Merrill Lynch—a term that lasted all of three months. This coincided with the company’s loss of $15 billion in the last quarter of 2008. Having emerged from that crisis unscathed, he can hardly fear Rosefeldt’s assault by means of quotations set to catchy music and arresting visuals. This is perhaps the attraction that artists like him hold for capitalists of the ilk of Kraus and Morgan: to flail at the existing system of order like one of Shakespeare’s impertinent fools, to reassure him just how invincible and indestructible that system is. This is the real performance of Euphoria, its self-congratulatory show of virtue.
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