You certainly can’t fault its ambition. The Whitworth’s new exhibition, Economics the Blockbuster, mounted as part of Manchester International Festival, sets out its stall with the admirable aim of ‘radically rethinking economic systems’.  

Since it is laid out like the kind of artisan market designed to draw town centre pedestrian footfall away from the purgatorial expanses of destination shopping centres, perusing its constituent pitches feels agreeably familiar. In fact, it’s not at all unlike browsing in a gallery gift shop, deliberating over mementoes of one’s cultural tourism, passively patronising the arts and crafts.  

Members and regular pickers of Company Drinks. Photo courtesy of Company Drinks.

Many of the retailers have much to recommend them, offering localised, community-led alternatives to the tax-evading multinationals. Company Drinks, for instance, a community interest company founded in Barking and Dagenham, follows in the rich tradition of hop-picking in Kent, a harvest that at its peak required an additional 80,000 labourers, the majority of them from working-class London. Adapting those principles on a smaller scale, their produce is now stocked in the bar at that city’s annual Frieze Art Fair. Aiming to leave a more lasting legacy behind them, once their displays have been dismantled, they have been working with The Whitworth’s own community garden to co-produce an elderflower cordial, with the aim of establishing a Mancunian equivalent of their enterprise, thereby extending the beverage’s shelf life far beyond the exhibition’s limited run.  

A still more substantial achievement is that of Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs Congolese, who coordinate their activities from what was once a palm oil plantation owned by British conglomerate, Unilever. Making use of its remaining raw materials, they produce sculptures and ink drawings, selling these in order to raise the funds required to buy back the land depleted through monoculture, so they can reintroduce biodiversity and thereby ensure longer term food security. It’s a wonderful example of self-decolonisation.  

In the circumstances, it’s perhaps a little churlish to observe that the scaled-back enterprise of many of the other exhibits is hardly a ‘radical’ response to the orthodoxies of neoliberal capitalism, themselves so pervasive that they convey the illusion of being the natural order of things.  

Image courtesy of MIF

Of course, many of its constituent parts work perfectly well as art. It’s difficult to take exception to the earnest charm of The Alternative School of Economics’ installation, for example. Utilising the starting point of science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven, whose protagonist’s dreams bend reality, it takes the form of a cabin adorned with artist Jenny Holzer-like slogans, arising, however, from conversations with striking workers. By giving their voices permanence in this way, the work shift the scales of unbalanced power just a little in their favour.
Likewise, there’s an intelligent playfulness in Goldin & Senneby‘s Quantitative Melancolia, which makes subversive use of a print from the exhibition in the neighbouring galleries, Albrecht Dürer’s Material World. The Stockholm-based partners have recreated the lost printing plate for Dürer’s proto-Gothic masterwork, Melancolia, in order to manufacture fresh reproductions of the piece. They compare this process of introducing ‘new’ originals to the market to that of quantitative easing, in which the supply of money in an economy is increased through a central bank’s purchase of government assets. Conceptually neat, it also draws attention to the sleights of hand by which economies are managed, and the paradoxical insubstantiality of capital itself.  

In the end, while Economics falls short on its vaunting ambitions, it does so very much in the spirit of situationism, and the graffitied exhortation of the always-splintering school of thought to ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible!’. More ironically, in its failure to deliver on the extravagance of its promises, it holds up a mirror to capitalism’s own vanities. 

By Desmond Bullen

Main image courtesy of MIF


Economics the Blockbuster is at The Whitworth, Manchester until October 2022. For more information, click here.