By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
NEW YORK -- Like most Americans, Laura Gilbert is outraged by the stock market mayhem, and she would like to wring the necks of those responsible. Failing that, she'd like to ask them soul-searching questions such as, "How do feel about tanking the economy?" and "Can we have our money back?"
Unlike most Americans, Gilbert devised a plan to vent her anger and pose her questions. A full-time artist based in New York, Gilbert used a computer and her drawing skills to create the "The Zero Dollar," a slightly shrunken version of the greenback. Yesterday, she headed to Wall Street, hoping to find the masters of finance who have just body-slammed our economy and, as she put it, "confront them with my art."
Just before noon, she stood in front of Federal Plaza, across the street from the iconic New York Stock Exchange, and it seemed possible that this slight, professorial woman of a certain age would start heckling men in blue suits.
That didn't happen.
It turns out that yesterday was, unofficially, guerrilla street-theater day for Wall Street, and the place swarmed with reporters and news cameras and assorted gawkers. Three "Billionaires for the Bailout" -- yes, the same folks who brought us "Billionaires for Bush" -- dressed in tuxes and tails and shouted satiric thank-yous to taxpayers for handing over $700 billion. ("Thank you for covering our assets!" was a recurring line.) Nearby, a person wearing a massive, papier-mache head of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. danced to the tune of "Money (That's What I Want)" while confederates held aloft a sign that read "US Treasury Under New Management: Goldman Sachs." Two women in ghoulish white masks handed out real dollar bills with "USA Beware, Arrest Bush" on them.
By comparison, Gilbert's approach seemed very high-concept. So there's no confusing her bill with the real thing, she printed the front and back on the same side of a sheet of letter-size paper, then signed and numbered each sheet, just like any limited-edition print. But she printed 10,000 copies, ensuring that there was nothing limited about this edition and that it would never have any value.
"I was trying to think of the best way to respond artistically to this mess," she said as she readied herself for the giveaway. "There's been this incredible loss of wealth -- people losing so much of their 401(k)s, seeing their savings disappear. 'The Zero Dollar' is a comment about that."
But before she could start pushing "Zero Dollars" into the hands of the culpable, she was cornered by TV reporters -- Jeanne Moos of CNN interviewed her, as did a crew from a German network and a variety of local news teams. Once the media had their turn, she was set upon by tourists. After 30 minutes, she finally encountered her first actual financial services employee, a late-20ish guy in a suit.
"What do you think of what's going on?" Gilbert asked, rather gently.
"Pressure," he said.
"Pressure -- you mean the pressure of vilification?" Gilbert said.
"No personal pressure. Like making the rent," he said, before walking away.
A guy with an AIG swipe card around his neck approached. AIG! The now quasi-nationalized titan of the insurance business, which was chin deep in the toxic investments that are central to our current troubles! Get him, Ms. Gilbert!
"How are you doing?" she said, the way a nurse might inquire of a bedridden patient. In part, the tone is just Gilbert's style -- she's sensitive by nature, no matter how confrontational this mission is -- and in part it's a response to the body language of AIG Guy, who seems crestfallen.
"It's depressing," he shrugs, as he walks away. "You don't know if your division will be around tomorrow."
A pattern is set. Anyone who will stop and take a "Zero Dollar" isn't worth shouting at. They all seem shell-shocked -- not surprising, given their proximity to this explosion -- and in recent weeks, they've surely lost more than Gilbert, who pulled her money out of the stock market in August 2007, having sustained modest losses. Meantime, the handful of tycoonish types who strut by won't stop, even when Gilbert pads after them. They walk too quickly.
As a drama of retribution, this is pretty unsatisfying. Nobody seems confronted by the art; they either love it or ignore it. As this becomes clearer, an investment banker stops to argue politely that Gilbert is in the wrong part of town.
"These guys down on Wall Street, they just do transactions," says Alec Kushnir, who is wearing dark sunglasses. "Most of the people here, they live on Staten Island and take the bus to work. They're not the ones who bought subprime mortgages. They just settle trades."
Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan, Bear Stearns -- they're in Midtown, a $25 cab ride to the north. If you want to confront the rascals who brought us credit default swaps, you need to head to Park Avenue in the 40s. And not to get too technical, but the whole zero dollar concept is kind of off the mark, isn't it? Our problem isn't hyper inflation, after all. The dollar has held up pretty well in recent weeks.
Gilbert later pronounced her project "very interesting." "I was surprised by how many Wall Streeters didn't care and how responsive everyone else seemed to be," she said. "And there was that undertone of anxiety as well."
If this experiment in art-related reckoning illustrates anything, it's just how tricky the issue of blame is now. Someone's neck needs wringing. But whose? We've got a long list of suspects -- speculators of every stripe, lenders, mortgage brokers, home buyers, and on and on -- but nobody is waving the white hankie of responsibility. Even Richard S. Fuld Jr., the guy who ran Lehman Brothers for years, wouldn't cop to any mistakes in his testimony before Congress on Monday. He sure didn't apologize.
We're Americans, and we need villains, darn it. Smoking them out won't be easy. And now we know it'll take real money.