He substituted ads for art with an open source Firefox plugin. He created a free application that allows you to control websites that distract you from what you really wanted to do before you started procastinating. He then became famous for making The New York Times give us the good news we needed with NYTimes Special Edition. Steve Lambert (Los Angeles, 1976) has become a pivotal artist in the intersection between media, urban landscape and questioning misconceptions about nationality, politics and the self. Now he has decided to ask people if capitalism works or not with a huge ad. Just like that. An aproppriate question at the right time? Let’s ask him how he started his latest project and why did he choose to crowdfund it.
What was the inspiration for your project?
In a way, I’ve been working on this all my life. There’s been threads in my past work that lead here; using signs, criticism of consumer culture, using comedy to talk about difficult subjects, using art to get people thinking about utopia. Last year I decided this was the most important direction I could take things. The question of whether or not capitalism is working for you is what we need to be asking right now. We need to begin that conversation so we can move forward.
How did the people around you react to it when you told them about it?
As much as I wanted to do it, in the beginning I thought it might be too out there to ever be realized. I had been developing project proposals with a similar theme or message, but none of them made it through the bureaucracy of the organizations I was trying to work because of the content, budget, or other reasons. I figured it might never happen, but I would keep trying. I didn’t talk too much about it publicly because it didn’t really seem possible at the time.
One of the rewards you get as a contributor is a call from your parents…
Yeah, it’s my favourite one. They were eager to help and originally wanted to offer people a weekend at their house – which was generous, but basically a really bad idea. I suggested a phone call and they were up for it. My dad has been sick and basically homebound for the last few years. He loves talking to people so this was really perfect for him. He loves it. Actually, my dad has already made friends with some of the backers and scheduled times to talk to them again.
You were asking for a 9.500 $ funding and you got almost 17.000$. That must feel pretty great.
It does. The majority of the funding comes from Kickstarter, specially the larger donors, who were generally people that I knew that supported my work in the past. One of the nice things aboutcrowdfunding was how so many new supporters either were reminded of my work or found it first though the fundraising campaign.
Your project asks people to qualify the following statement: “Capitalism works for me”. Did you get the answers you were expecting?
So far the numbers in the poll have been pretty even. I didn’t expect it to be so split. And of course, the responses are fascinating. I’ve seen a good number of your run-of-the-mill retired white guys who vote true without hesitation and proclaim that capitalism works for anyone who is willing to work. What I was surprised by is the number of slower votes where people feel they need to qualify it. For example, «it works for me, because I’m in the union» or «it works for me now, but two years ago it really wasn’t» or «it works for me, but I realize it doesn’t work for everyone.»
I’m not so concerned with the tally, it’s beginning to consider capitalism and whether or not it’s working for you that’s important. Otherwise, there’s not really space to do that in our lives.
So, does capitalism work for you?
No. Speaking more broadly, there’s this capitalist belief that resources (environmental, human, or otherwise) that can be extracted and profited off of have value and anything that can’t compete in the marketplace is weak or unnecessary. However, art like mine that challenges our ideas and changes our perceptions is very necessary and it doesn’t always function well in the marketplace. Determining art’s value through that lens doesn’t work in my life.
More personally, everyone in my family has worked hard for generations and somehow barely scraped by. My parents owned a successful small furniture business that folded in the recession during the 90s. My mom is turning 72 and continues to work full-time because her healthcare has to cover her and my father, who is too ill to work. My bills get paid on time, but I run myself ragged paying them. And like nearly everyone, I don’t get paid what I’m truly worth because there is always someone profiting off my labor. So, no. But I figure out honest ways to get by and enjoy myself, though not everyone is so lucky.
Which is your next goal?
This one is pretty big. I’m going to focus on it for a while. The next goal will come.