Dialogue is the moment when humans meet to reflect on their reality as they make it and remake it.
(Shor and Freire in A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education)
At the bottom of the steps leading to the Clore Ballroom at London’s Southbank Centre, collaborative practice They Are Here (Helen Walker & Harun Morrison) welcome you to ‘The People Behind the Financial System’ (2016). Like many of the duo’s other creations, this work can be read as a game – one for those curious about how the world of finance operates.
You are provided with a map of the room with details of the speakers and the rules of the game: choose a person to talk to, join their table and start a conversation. The timer counts down from ten minutes. When this period is over, the timekeeper will announce that it is time to move and start your next conversation. Use the map to orientate yourself.
The people from the financial system – yes, real ones – are each sitting at one of the 24 tables around the room in a giant dollar shaped sign: accountants, academics, economists, entrepreneurs, porters, campaigners, market strategists, writers, investors, managers, traders and a former member of parliament, who each see the world of finance from a different point of view. You have time for ten conversations of your choice.
This engaging performance is designed by They Are Here and enacted by the bankers, economists and activists in the room. The hustle and bustle of people moving between the tables and around the space brings to mind the trading floor of a stock exchange. There is also a stage where a timekeeper – a woman in a corporate-style suit – is standing behind a microphone. Located by the countdown screen, she is the only figure on the stage; the main events happen on the trading floor – in the many dialogues that begin to crescendo as each countdown begins.
Attendees can ask any question they want: How does “The Parasite” work at Wall Street? [‘This is an algorithm used for investing in stock exchange’] Why did you leave HM Treasury? [‘It was boring’] What are the legal uses of Bitcoin? [Laughter] What will become of the thousands of jobless experts in fossil fuels industry? [‘Make sure you take my email’] What happens at the Houses of Parliament at night? [‘Some people said there were ghosts … I don’t believe in anything I can’t touch’].
But the timing of the work, a day after the EU referendum results are announced and Britain has voted to leave the European Union, has shifted the subject of many of the conversations: What does Karl Marx think of Brexit? Is it better to invest in Bitcoin rather than Pound Sterling? How do you explain Brexit to your 14-year-old students? Who would worry you the most as the next Prime Minister? … And this is the brilliant flexibility of the work, that it has the capacity to respond to the pressing concerns of the day – to the trending topics in your area, to what’s on peoples’ minds at this very moment in time – here, only 1.7 miles away from the Bank of England.
Dialogue – that which distinguishes democracy from other political philosophies – forms the focal point of this piece. The rules of this game create a simple mechanism that allows an intimate exchange of subjective views and personal perspectives on finance, amongst a plurality of voices from individuals who would not have met otherwise – perhaps never in this one-to-one, time-bound and focused form of communication. The performance becomes an agent that enables a face-to-face connection and a dialogue with those ‘Others’ who run the city but are rarely met in the flesh, especially by those from the world of art, excluding those involved in corporate sponsorship. It is through these dialogues that the audience makes sense of the artwork, as well as their everyday curiosities: the dialogues that are created within the work, at the conversations at each table, and beyond it, in the recounting of these conversations and the sharing and comparing of your experience of the afternoon. No one is running out of questions, but time is running out – every ten minutes – fast, pleasant and full of new provocations.
Whatever the exchanged questions and answers are – you can potentially get 24 different answers to one question – what matters more is that these direct encounters, these hand shakes at each table, happened. That the women who were out walking in the sun and by chance ended up at the Southbank Centre met the former Secretary of State Sir Vince Cable and an academic embodying Karl Marx.
Surplus, deficit, oil, hedge fund, trade, sanctions, capital, Bitcoin, investment, exchange: words that usually sound out of context within an artwork are repeatedly heard throughout the two hours’ running time and are all intriguingly discussed by the speakers. In these conversations, one cannot help but notice a passion for communication in those who have accepted the invitation to contribute to this dialogue and be reminded of those who did not respond to this call or perhaps were not interested in a dissemination of information between the financial sector and the wider population. This is not just a chance for audiences to ask and listen, it is a chance for the speakers to communicate their thoughts as well. ‘I never talk so much in my job’ one of them tells me towards the end.