We know that economists talk about monetary flow, but a machine devised to illustrate the concept – employing dyed water to gush and eddy through sluices and chambers labelled things like ‘surplus balances’ and ‘federal reserve’ – sounds distinctly fishy. It turns out, however, that such a contraption was built by the New Zealand economist Bill Phillips in the late-1940s. Called ‘Moniac’, this early computer looks a bit like a vending machine. Fifteen were produced and shipped to cities around the world. New Zealand artist Michael Stevenson has constructed this show around the model purchased by the Central Bank of Guatemala. Unable to track down the actual machine, he has imagined what it might look like with age. Rather than some magical elixir coursing through its veins, the dejected-looking version in the gallery is furred with rust, the chamber marked ‘held balances’ is empty and a few coins have been lobbed into the tank at the bottom. This sense of abandonment is in stark contrast with ‘The Living Circle’, a 1950s US public information film that, with breakneck speed and a jaunty mix of real and animated footage, takes us from Mayan history to the banana industry of Central America, masking what we know to be an unfair trade with upbeat platitudes about opportunities for prosperity in developing countries. We’ve been here before, of course. Contemporary artists love to quote failed models – of politics, commerce, design – applying hindsight while cashing in on past miscalculations. Certainly, the stacked banana boxes as you enter the space seem an unnecessary parapet from which to lob blunt messages about fiscal imbalance. But Stevenson seems cannier than most, his slowly decomposing machine an acknowledgement that art about failure is itself an art of diminishing returns.
Martin Coomer, Mon Jul 23 2007
“Answers To Some Questions About Bananas“ is a re-telling of Michael Stevenson’s recent encounters with the first economic computer – a dedicated hydro-mechanical analog from the 1950’s, and the story of how this machine became embroiled in the politics of the tropical world. Stevenson’s recent practice has been to recover, rehabilitate or reconstruct objects (obsolete instruments of state or commerce) that allude to particular outmoded political economies. Often these objects can be so historically embedded and conceptually complete that, merely through reconstruction and relocation new constellations are brought to bear. Known as the Phillips Machine or Moniac, the hydraulic computer was developed at the London School of Economics by the New Zealand economist Bill Phillips who was at the time enrolled as a student. The Moniac, standing almost 2m high, is a representation of the monetary flow in a national economy. The machine was first used at the London School of Economics as a pedagogical aid and, in contrast to electronic computers of the day was extremely visual: a fixed volume of water - dyed red to represent money - is pumped like blood through a circulatory system of transparent pipes and sluices. The fluid accumulations in the various holding tanks become the measure for the economic data. One of the original machines from the LSE forms part of the static display at the Science Museum London. In total maybe 15 Moniacs were produced, marketed and shipped to cities world wide including Boston, Istanbul, Melbourne and Guatemala City. Charting a peculiar export of the time - Western economics and its quixotic quest in the tropical world - Stevenson's unfulfilled search for the lost Moniac purchased by the Central Bank of Guatemala led to his facsimile of that model. This replica will be the centrepiece of the installation at Vilma Gold. Together with film footage and other material, the installation alludes to an economy based on the banana and the thwarted search for national prosperity. This project began in San Francisco in 2006 as the Capp St. project at the CCA Wattis Institute where his working replica Moniac was left unattended for the duration of the exhibition reducing it to a ruinous economic state.