Universal Capital by Christina Schmid

In "Universal Capital" Sean Smuda presents a selection of nine digital collages, which are part of a larger body of work concerned with the emergence of empire. Rooted in research of 17th-century cartography, the series consists of densely layered compositions where models of economic theory collide with photographs of street protests, the logic of global capitalism with Spinoza's ethics. Smuda's quasi-baroque information overload effectively conveys the complexity of speculative capital: unhinged from concrete, material contexts, capital has become purely relational, a nonorganic system whose energy, movement, and dynamism defeats our ability to perceive and manage its totality.[1]

In each collage, layers of meaning sediment and settle into new alliances. Thus neoliberal faith in the infallibility of the market comes to look like a 21st-century version of animism, models of interconnected global corporate networks replace celestial constellations in predicting uncertain futures. The photographs documenting demonstrations are always already overshadowed by vast power structures poised to absorb any and all attempts at resistance. With titles such as Debt, Austerity, Social Democracy, and SuperPACs, Smuda names financial and political facts and fictions that shape 21st-century life under neoliberal capitalism.

Unlike empires of old, today "globalization has no emperor, no capitol, and no structure except for the endless labyrinths of corporate mergers, government bureaucracies, and the ever-proliferating nongovernmental organizations. It is a rhizome of networks, webs, and mediascapes where the buck never stops, the telephone trees never stop growing, and no one is in charge."[2] "Universal Capital" grapples with the economic sublime of capitalism unfettered: mutating, highly flexible, regenerative and autotelic,[3] it is terrifying in its disregard for human dignity and a future for all, awe-inspiring in its compulsive loyalty to profit alone, regardless of human cost and planetary consequence.

David Harvey defines capitalism as "any social formation in which processes of capital circulation and accumulation are hegemonic and dominant in providing and shaping the material, social, and intellectual basis for social life."[4] Under such auspices, the pursuit of profit is literally what makes sense and generates meaning. Yet obstinately, life under capitalism allows for small acts of resistance: "how we live our everyday lives--our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual, and political organizations--are in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, full of things we do for free, out of love, and on principle."[5] What "Universal Capital" engages with is both the ubiquity of capital and the resilience of gestures that refuse to abide by its logic.

Dizzying and dense, "Universal Capital" operates as a form of artistic data visualization, labyrinthine and hallucinatory, never prey to the illusion that data are neutral.[6] Tellingly, Austerity includes a white diagram of the molecular structure of LSD--along with references to the bible's Daniel, whose interpretation of Emperor Nebuchadnezzar's dream of an idol with a head of gold but feet of clay prophesies the succession and waning of empires; sheet music titled "WPA Polka" from the 1960s; and a 17th-century cartouche of a Dutch soldier, on one side of the map, and a Banda tribesman on the other, a face-off inspired by the Dutch East India Company's mercantile interest in nutmeg trees on the Indonesian Banda islands. A brutal take-over followed and the first ever establishment of colonial rule in the service of corporate profit. 

The 17th century features prominently in "Universal Capital," since this is the age when colonialism paved the way for globalization. In the early days of empire, mercantile interests met religious fervor: "our objectives are the 'propagation of the Christian Religion, and the prosecution of the Eastern Traffique,'" the Earl of Arundel extolled when floating the fantasy of colonizing Madagascar in the seventeenth century.[7] These twin objectives are also clearly present in the 1660 atlas titled Harmonia Macrocosmica, Smuda's starting point for his research on "Universal Capital." Then, celestial constellations were assigned Christian names in an effort to sever ties to Greek polytheism, while down below, commercial interests staked colonial claims on "company land." In Commodity Fetish, Smuda superimposes a 2011 graphic model of corporate entanglements over one of Harmonia Macrocosmica's maps. Colorful dots represent the 1318 most powerful and well-connected transnational corporations (TNC). The study responsible for the diagram finds that "money flows toward the most connected members." This is the logic of the network, where "simple rules governing TNCs give rise spontaneously to highly connected groups."[8] Connections lead to accumulations of power, which in turn escalate inequality. Rather than an unfortunate side effect, this escalation is now seen as foundational to the functioning of neoliberal capitalism: capital begets capital.

As if to echo such excessive accumulation of wealth and power, each of Smuda's monstrous maps accrues excessive information. Yet the sheer sense of overwhelm is tempered by recognizing that "the religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market" has started to falter:[9] even economists close to the International Monetary Fund are aware of capitalism's irresolvable contradictions. [10]   Despite such insight, the network's imperative still persists: it "is forced to function or else risk being destroyed. It must perform."[11] This pressure to perform is not an abstraction. It extends to people, the workforce maneuvered into a state of precarity. Jan Verwoert sums up the situation: "To provide our services we are willing to travel, so we go west to perform, we go north to perform. We are everywhere, fixing the minds, houses and cars of local customers wherever we end up staying because there is work available--and for as long as it’s available." But as cracks appear in the neoliberal consensus, a suspicion dawns "when we dimly sense that our willingness to perform might be elicited under a false premise:" instead of liberatory potential and limitless opportunity, the pressure to perform--or else--enforces conformity and control.[12]

Smuda's performances put a different spin on this imperative. They eschew capitalism's foundational logic and embrace an exuberant absurdity instead. In seven videos that document processions and performances, Smuda foregrounds the image as fetish, as an artifact vested with excess meaning. Thus Gross Domestic Product was carried down Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis, in a march part ritual, part protest. With Warming, an alarmingly red collage that incorporates a map of the highest temperatures measured on earth to date, Smuda walked into a lake. SuperPACs accompanied the artist and a group of collaborators to the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul, where they recited a text collage that included fragments of an exorcism meant to levitate the Pentagon in 1967. Animated by performance, the work opts out of a predictable logic of protest and instead enters uncertain terrain, where the commodity fetish meets idols of old. This is an intersection of interest because it reveals that, whether pre- or postmodern, people still fall for golden calves.

"When Marx looked about for a figure to define the magical character of Western, capitalist commodities," he chose the fetish, a concept invented amid burgeoning 17th-century colonialism, to describe the beliefs of other people: specifically, their belief in artifacts holding "the real presence of an animating spirit."[13] Commodity Fetish explicitly engages the mutation of non-European spiritual belief into colonialist coinage into a defining symptom of capitalism: use value alone does not explain the monetary exchange value ascribed to the commodity fetish. Something else animates belief in its superior value, just as intangible confidence and faith can make the market soar or plummet.

As a work of fine art, Commodity Fetish refers to its very own cultural status. Its excess value metaphorically congeals in the central figure, a blob of considerable conceptual density: it resembles a quasar, "believed to be powered by accretion of material into supermassive black holes in the nuclei of distant galaxies;"[14]a Congolese nkondi, a figure pierced by countless nails and believed to house a spirit capable of hunting down evildoers; and Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the planet in the Soviet Union's reach for the stars. Smuda thus layers colonial and imperial histories without exempting fine art: after all, "aesthetics as a quasi science of artistic judgment is a separation of the redeemed from the damned, the purified from the corrupt and degraded object." Aesthetics is "imperial practice."[15]

Art as commodity fetish retains the premodern belief in a mysterious added value, a belief only slightly less mystifying, perhaps, than the neoliberal faith in the market's capacity to regulate itself, just like a beneficent organism animated by an ineffable spirit. But faith changes; hegemony has to be won. And there comes a point when capitalism's foundational feature of producing extreme wealth and poverty becomes the locus of crisis formation and social revolt.[16] "Universal Capital" shows the mounting tension between those with faith in the cult of capital and the disenfranchised whose bodies take to the streets to insist that they too matter. Rather than produce "endless maps and graphs" as gigantic corporations do, Smuda mashes up data. He is not trying "to upgrade the reader's mind" with uplifting constructive information but "melt it." His art takes us out of the "persuasion business" and into the "magic business," where chanting incantations and staging processions perform a belief in the power of images no less absurd than faith in capitalist fetishism.[17] 


Christina Schmid thinks with art and writes as critical practice. Her essays and reviews have been published both online and in print, in anthologies, journals, artist books, exhibition catalogs, and digital platforms. She works at the University of Minnesota's Department of Art in Minneapolis as an Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Art and Social Practice. Her teaching focuses on contemporary art and critical inquiry, ecology, ethics, and queer theory. 

[1] Rita Raley, Tactical Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.  116, 147

[2] W.J.T. Mitchell, What Do Images Want? Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005. 150.

[3] Rita Raley, 134.

[4] David Harvey, The Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism. Oxford, London: Oxford University Press, 2014. 7.

[5] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark. Second Edition. Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2016. Xvii.

[6] Rita Raley, 23.

[7] W.J.T. Mitchell, 155, 161.

[8] Andy Coghlan and Debora MacKenzie.

[9]  Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999. 8.

[10] David Harvey, The Seventeen Contradictions of Capitalism. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Paul Mason, Postcapitalism. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2015. For recent studies supporting this effect, see, for instance,

[11]  Rita Raley, 134.

[12] Jan Verwoert, "Exhaustion and Exuberance." Center for Advanced Studies at MIT. 2008.

[13] W.J.T. Mitchell, 161.

[14] Quasar on Wikipedia:

[15] W.J.T. Mitchell 147.

[16] David Harvey, 177.

[17] "We need to get out of the persuasion business and start getting into the magic business, or the catalysis business, or the magnetizing business, or whatever you want to call it. Using reason isn't wrong … it's not enough simply to use art as candy coating on top of facts. We can't just be in the PR business." (Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 181f.)