In August, an unknown artist created a street-level installation in London’s SE15. Using a regular Santander ATM as a base, the work – simply titled No Money – was created. Passing comment on the economic profile and leisure-oriented use of its particular space, the work aims at forcing self-awareness on the viewer as a consuming subject, while also alluding the feminisation of consumable products and the potential for sexual violence within such a nightlife culture.
In everything from the location to the form of the piece, it is clear that this work is intended as an intervention into daily life, a stumbling block to the quotidian continuum. However, this inconvenience does not seem to be aimed at all the residents of Rye Lane, or indeed, at any residents at all. Selecting the ATMs within a small square off of the street, the artist targets those who using the area for leisure and pleasure. Separate from the food stalls and shops which line the road, this space instead contains the entrance to the Peckhamplex cinema, and then to gallery Bold Tendencies and favourite hipster haunt Frank’s Bar. As such, the interruption is targeted not so much at the people of Peckham, but those short-term migrants who drift into the district to socialise on warm summer nights. With this in mind, the written aspect of the piece becomes less a comment on viewer’s attempts to interact with the machine, but rather on their appearance at the site in the first place. Signalling the divide between those that work and those that play in the area, the sign identifies the latter as interlopers, who are literally “out of order” – that is, the order of things – when they view the work. The primary title of the work hints at both symptom and consequence of their presence: “no money”. The large student clientele of these attractions calls attention to the limited income of this class of reveller, and redirects them away from the frivolous pursuits ahead with a prophetic warning: “don’t waste your time”.
While perhaps signalling a politics of class rather than full-scale revolt, by choosing to disrupt the flow of economic exchange the unknown artist’s method of intervention references the work of Brazilian artist Cildo Mierles. Becoming politicised by the oppressive censorship of the Brazilian government from the 1960s onwards, Mierles’ began his Insertions Into Ideological Circuits series in 1970. This piece was physically manifested in small edits and additions to everyday objects, easily missed by censors and widely disseminated to reach the masses. While the most famous incarnation of this piece is probably the amendment of recycled Coca Cola bottles, Mierles’ also made use of the universality of money, and its all-pervasive presence within every level of society. Mierles’ added political stamps and slogans (“Who killed Herzog?”, “Yankees Go Home!” and “Direct Elections”, for example) to a number of banknotes, making use of the governments systems of distribution in order to spread his message. In the same way, the artist behind No Money makes use of the ubiquity of the ATM machine to smuggle his concept into the light of day. Furthermore, in that the work of art becomes almost totally indistinguishable from the aesthetics of the real, it seems to echo Mierles’ conviction that the greatest artwork of the twentieth century is Orson Wells’ War of the Worlds broadcast, precisely because of this demolition of boundaries between “art and life, fiction and reality”.
Like Mierles’ Insertions, this work makes use of state-sanctioned object in order to force the viewer to gain an awareness of their own position as a consuming subject. In this sense the scale of the piece assumes primary importance. In order to engage with the ATM, the viewer/user has to bring their engage with it bodily and visually. As the machine corresponds to the size of the person who is forced to stoop or lean to use it, the user finds themselves gazing into its ‘eyes’ while placing their hands on its form. Answering its posed questions with the correct touch, the user is allowed access to the bounty they desired. While this in itself is inconsequential (one could argue that this is simply the design of the machine; that it needs to be this was to make it easy to use), it clearly seems to refer a less than innocuous art historical precedent. In 1977, the French performance artist Orlan caused a scandal by offering her own body to the viewing public as a sexual vending machine. Placing a coin between her breasts, which rolled to a slot in her crotch, viewer’s paid for a kiss which the artist then delivered. While making eye contact and physically interacting with the mechanised augmentations of her body, in Kisses of the Artist the viewer nonetheless treated Orlan in very much the same was as the ATM, complying to its conditions in order to receive gratification. Equating consumption with consummation, this work again casts judgement on the actions of those who would engage its services to buy pleasure in any form, comparing their fair-weather use of the site to the activities of those within the sex industry.
However, in this instance, no artist suddenly appears to offer the viewer a kiss. Indeed, the viewer is strongly deterred from attempting to engage with the machine. Whereas Orlan’s machine body offered the form of the artist, but also of the female, as readily available for temporary purchase, here the artist is far less willing to comply. For this mechanism of gratification, no means no; it is iterated in three different ways throughout the work’s legible component. Given current tensions around the technical definition of rape and sexual assault, this work takes on new currency, especially being located in an area of revelry. Where catcalls are frequent, and unwanted attention perhaps next to inevitable, the ATM offers a readable dramatization of its female user’s thoughts. The choice of red now becomes significant – not just alluding to sex, now the colour constitutes a warning. In a sense, the ATM is complicit in facilitating their verbal harassment, creating the need for them to not only stand still, but also turn their back on the main street while in a state of physical and (while withdrawing cash and entering their PIN number) economic vulnerability. As with Orlan’s Kisses of the Artist, once again machine is a made a synonym for the female body. However, here with its message of defiant non-compliance, it clearly articulates the discomfort provoked by such attention, offering a surrogate and literally legible response for those women who are currently absent.
Formally, this work is still very naïve. Making use of found materials (with even the written addition to the machine apparently sourced from bins around the corner) the artist create a work which is truly part of the Peckham landscape, an unseen and easily overlooked contour on a well-known and familiar map. However, the multiple messages of the piece, and its clear reference to previous rebellious prototypes suggests a fast-growing maturity, and a need for further spontaneous creation. In short, we suspect it will not be long until the artist re-appears, throwing a similar spanner into the machinations of London’s partying class.