The stock market planetarium that could have a big bang any minute
Source:theguardian Author:Oliver Wainwright Date: 2015-12-07 Size:
A black dome, dotted with thousands of tiny stars, hangs in the vaulted bowels of Somerset House in London……

Twinkle twinkle ... inside the Black Shoals stock market planetarium.

A black dome, dotted with thousands of tiny stars, hangs in the vaulted bowels of Somerset House in London. The stars blink and flash, then begin to form misty galaxies, like the evolution of the universe replayed at warp speed. Suddenly there’s a great flash, and the whole thing lights up with the white heat of the Big Bang.

“That’s Wall Street waking up,” says Joshua Portway, lounging on a bean bag under the dome beside fellow artist Lise Autogena. “A huge amount of money just changed hands.”

The planetarium this duo have developed, on show now as part of the Big Bang Data exhibition, depicts a cosmos made up not of stars in the night sky, but of money. These are constellations of global capital, generated from a live feed of the world’s financial markets, which form the amorphous signs of the zodiac according to Mammon. Stock exchange tickers never looked so dreamy.

Each star represents a traded company, each flash a transaction. The bigger the deal, the bigger the flash. The stars drift slowly as the market changes, and gather together with similar stocks, outlining the forms of different industries and multinational conglomerates in shape-shifting star signs. The stronger the correlation between the histories of any two companies, the more powerful the gravitational attraction is. One misty accumulation seems to be glowing particularly brightly – could it be the Milky Way of mining industries? Or the petrochemical nebula?

“The stock market is quite a distant thing to most people,” says Portway. “You might hear on the news that the FTSE index has dropped two points, which you know means something bad … but you don’t really know what or how. Market forces impact on our lives, but we don’t always know where they come from.”

The stock exchange planetarium is a brilliant metaphor for the dark arts of the market, equating the unseen forces behind financial flows to the astrological beliefs of early stargazers. “People used to look at the stars to try and understand how the world worked,” says Autogena. “They would project their belief systems on to the signs of the zodiac, just as people believe in the inevitabilities of the market – as if it’s some natural system that we can’t control.”

The pair came up with the idea for the installation in the late 1990s as a commission for a big banking hall in the City of London, where their twinkling dome would have hung above a restaurant of braying bankers. The joke was that it was an interactive artwork, but the only way you could interact with it was by spending tens of millions of pounds. “There was a sort of Mount Olympus element to it,” says Portway. “The traders could sit and marvel at their creation.”

It never happened, but it caught the eye of the Tate, which exhibited the first version of the piece in 2001, as the dotcom bubble was beginning to inflate. It was a response to the era of fast cash lightly earned, when money “wasn’t grounded in the sweat and blood of people working,” say the artists, but became a world in and of itself. It was also a critique of the increasing use of natural models to analyse the market – the rise of chaos and complexity theories – as if the financial sector had become an autonomous, uncontrollable ecosystem.

It proved to be prescient. One morning, Portway got a panicked phone call from the gallery, saying the installation had stopped working: all the stars had fallen out of the sky. It turned out the problem was the result of a stock market crash, which collapsed the trading universe into a big black hole.

It is a fate alluded to in the name of the piece – Black Shoals: Dark Matter – which refers to the Black Scholes model, a formula for estimating investment risk developed in the 1970s. It won its inventors the Nobel prize for economics and their company, Long-Term Capital Management, went on to become spectacularly successful. It crashed equally spectacularly in 1998 and, with more than a trillion dollars invested, nearly brought the entire stock exchange down with it.

“The problem was that their formula wasn’t self-aware,” says Portway. “It didn’t take into account its own effect on the market and the feedback loops it would create when others started copying the model. It led to a sudden spiral of collapse, like a galaxy imploding into dark matter.”

Their planetarium nods to this in the form of shoals of mysterious creatures that “feed” off the transactions as they happen. Every time a trade takes place, a gaseous blue cloud emanates from the star in question, like luminescent plankton released into the financial ocean. The glow-worm creatures are programmed to sniff out the money, roaming across the night sky and gravitating towards particularly bright constellations. They will grow, evolve and reproduce throughout the duration of the exhibition, their behaviour guided by fiendishly complex algorithms and constantly informed by a streaming Reuters newsfeed.

“For these creatures, the heaves and surges of the world economy are like the Earth’s tectonic plates,” says Portway. “Just as we are only aware of the constantly shifting and unstable plates that make up the Earth’s crust when there’s an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the creatures have no way of knowing what lies ‘underneath’ their world – they only know that sometimes there are explosions of money, and sometimes there are famines.”

“They are living in an artificially constructed world we invented for them,” adds Autogena. “Living by rules that we have imposed on them, in the same way that we live in a market structure that we created ourselves.”

It might all sound like just a poetic metaphor by anti-capitalist artists, if it wasn’t for the fact that “financial astrology” is actually a real – and very lucrative – discipline. John Pierpont “JP” Morgan kept a personal astrologer on staff to track the movement of celestial bodies in order to determine when best to invest. “Millionaires don’t need astrologers,” he would say, “but billionaires do.” Whether it’s down to planetary movements or superstitious traders reading their horoscopes we will never know, but even non-believers say the correlation has sometimes been eerily accurate.

It might explain why the artists have been inundated with very serious inquiries since they started the project. Market watchers, take note: you might do better to abandon your computers and set up shop on a bean bag at Somerset House. The celestial stocks await.

[Editor] 张艳