HELICOPTER RIDES COURTESY CRITICAL ART ENSEMBLE
Since the Reagan years, the Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of five artist-activists scattered around the U.S., had been trying, unsuccessfully, to enact their idea for a performance called “A Public Misery Message: A Temporary Monument to Global Economic Inequality.” The problem was money: The plan involved erecting a crane-sized bar graph depicting wealth disparity in America, with every 1cm representing $100 and, when it got too tall, using a helicopter to soar 225 meters up in the sky to represent, hyperbolically, the top 1%.
So, like countless expensive, over-the-top art projects, the performance got sent to the idea graveyard. It was even memorialized in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Unbuilt Roads, a book devoted to unrealized art.
“To us it always made sense,” said ensemble member Steve Kurtz (who faced his own trials when he was bizarrely persecuted for “bioterrorism” by federal authorities). “But that was before Occupy Wall Street, 20 years of neoliberalism, and austerity in Europe.”
Now that income inequality is the controversy of the day, the project seemed due for a resurrection. Curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev agreed, and saw a space for the project in her particularly political edition of Documenta, the global art exhibition that opens to the public tomorrow, June 9, 2012, in Kassel, Germany. She met with the collective, a group based between Florida, New York and Arizona, and arranged for the performance to take place in the courtyard of Kassel’s Orangerie.
On opening day, a red carpet stretched along the grass leading the 50 people who had bought tickets for a flight. The 99%, meanwhile, could pay a coin of their choice in any currency for a lottery ticket and the chance to win a ride. Between 10 am and 8 pm, the Critical Art Ensemble planned to give about 300 rides.
Unsurprisingly, the project still loses money (Kurtz said he’d be lucky if the ticket sales recouped 30 percent of the costs), but he’s thrilled that the idea has finally lifted off. And another performance is already in the works in Portland, Ore., set for March 2013.