Capitalism has long served as a space for contention and critique, as the dominant organizing framework of contemporary global society — but perhaps no more so than in the past few years. From the temporary freezing of the global supply chain and consumer culture as people quarantined in their homes to the meme stock phenomenon that for a while seemed to challenge what we understand about how markets work, to the inflation hitting our bank accounts with fears of recession in the air and, of course, to the sharp rise and equally sharp fall of NFTs and cryptocurrencies, capitalism and its discontents are in the air.
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody,” said Elizabeth Warren. “You built yourself a factory out there — good for you, buddy. But let’s be clear: You get your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for.”
This quote appears in Euphoria, a new film installation about capitalism by German artist Julian Rosefeldt, showing at the Park Avenue Armory. It is not Warren who utters the words but an unhoused man who stands among other men around a makeshift campfire in a ship graveyard somewhere in the Midwest. They are debating the merits of wealth and economics.
“They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger,” another retorts, citing the Celtic chieftain Calgacus, whose words were recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus. “They are driven by greed. They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but desert, they call that peace.”
“Strip us all naked,” the man adds, quoting Machiavelli, “and you will see that we are alike. Dress us in their clothes and them in ours, and we shall appear noble and they ignoble, for it is only poverty and riches that make us unequal.”
The men drink, urinate, and then wander the yard as a drone flies overhead, giving us a sweeping view of the refuse of capitalism — its junkyards and its unhoused, left to rot or fend for themselves.
Euphoria is nominally an immersive cinema piece in the impressive 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. But the focus of the experience is still one screen at the front of the room. Surrounding the audience are large screen projections of jazz drummers, including Grammy Award winner Peter Erskine. They are all filmed continuously and wait for their moment to play, as if in a live band. And wrapped around the entire space in a rough oval shape are 140 singers from the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
The film takes us through debates like the one above within six major settings: an empty grocery store with spilled food and a singing tiger; a large, bustling bank with an incredible choreography of dancing bankers; a derelict bus yard with skateboarding teens; a taxi driver ferrying a passenger to Navy Yards; and an active packing and shipping warehouse in which three women work. Dramatic skyward pans from the drone footage, shown between each scene, connect the worlds depicted, for example by following a delivery person or a skateboarding teenager. It’s visually sumptuous, with gorgeous cinematography and choreography that float through a dreamscape of degradation.
In each setting, the actors engage in some kind of debate related to capital, class, and race, quoting major thinkers who go uncited except in the script. Figures like Chinua Achebe and Sojourner Truth go neck and neck with Ayn Rand and Warren Buffett, voiced by an array of figures in the film who read less like characters and more like caricatures, the majority of them representing the people most marginalized by capitalism. (One exception might be the singing tiger, but as a member of an endangered species it, too, has suffered under the principles of endless economic growth.)
At the press preview, Rosefeldt noted that the starting point for the project was “my own ignorance of the economy,” pointing out that he skips the finance section of the newspaper and heads straight to the culture, even while recognizing the importance of understanding the economic forces that shape our lives. His central question in the project is a simple one, as he stated: “Why is capitalism so unresistable?”
Even those in the art world most critical of neoliberal economics are still enmeshed in it, he points out. Rosefeldt’s work is itself an example. Commissioned by the Armory, whose 2022 season is sponsored by megabank Citi and chronicler of capitalism Mike Bloomberg (via his philanthropic foundation), the film is shown in the Upper East Side, in one of the world’s wealthiest zip codes. This context is impossible to ignore and indeed adds to the tensions captured in the film.
Technically brilliant, Euphoria is operatic speech and debate, with larger-than-life musicians, a Greek theater-style chorus performed by children — who will inherit the world we’ve built — and actors who imbue their lines with the gravitas of Shakespeare. Most of the audience sits on the ground in floor seats, gazing upward as if toward gods. While the film has a clear beginning and end, it’s designed roughly as a seamless two-hour loop that can be entered and consumed at any point.
Rosefeldt selected jazz drumming as an accompaniment because of its rhythms, which he analogies to economics. The idea is a bit surprising — we don’t usually think of the free forms of jazz in relation to economics — but if the recent fluctuations of NFTs, meme stocks, and cryptocurrency have taught us anything, it’s that, although ostensibly based on objective numbers and valuations, markets do move rhythmically and socially. Further adding to the improvisation is the production’s delay because some key scenes filmed in Kiev were interrupted by the war in Ukraine.
The choice to remove the text from its author is a necessary one, argues Rosefeldt. “The method is to dismantle the text and allow you to find new meaning,” he points out. “You are re-reading those texts emptied of the original meaning and the original authorship, which often has a huge impact on the reader, on the listener…. If you tear that text naked and make it newly accessible you will find new meaning in it.”
At the same time, when singular paragraphs and phrases are stripped from a context, we are left with pull quotes more than fully developed ideas. Tacitus, for example, may have criticized Roman emperors but not the idea of Rome and its dominance per se. While Machiavelli’s chronicles of power in The Prince continue to shock, he also argued for the merits of republicanism. And when factory workers quote Cardi B’s refrain in “Money” (“Diamonds on my neck. / I like boardin’ jets, I like morning sex. / But nothing in this world that I like more than checks.”), they do not mention the rapper’s commitment to using “the fuck out of my platform” to speak up on racial injustice (though bell hooks’s wisdom on race relations does appear).
Context is the means by which we understand where ideas come from and why they disseminate, but those bits frequently get lost in history. This is not unique to Euphoria — in an attention economy, the market demands digestible tidbits that travel further and faster than complex ideas — but the film could do more to help us understand how and why these frameworks of power and capital exist at all.
In the best case, the curiosity of the script’s structure becomes an invitation to viewers to dig in further and learn more about the concepts behind the debates. To its credit, the Armory provides a reading room for further exploration; a handout and syllabus would have been even better, in my opinion, with attributions for the quotes and a guide to their sources. Alternatively, the film could have done with fewer quotes to make space for a deeper exploration of a smaller handful of ideas and thinkers (imagine a debate between bell hooks and Machiavelli, for example).
“The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability continually to disappoint us,” wrote economist Tim Jackson. His words from Post Growth – Life After Capitalism appear in the program note for Euphoria. They seem to explain Rosefeldt’s choice of title for the film: “Consumerism must promise paradise. But it must systematically fail to deliver. Not occasionally. Not accidentally. But repeatedly. Systematically. Endlessly invoking euphoria. Relentlessly delivering disillusion.”
When I reached the end of my viewing, I took time to walk the full circle of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Unlike the traditional Greek chorus, they do not wear masks or uniforms, so we see them in their full individuality. From far away, they are life sized, staring back at us as if fully present in the room. But up close, they are blurrier. They are not, in fact, in the room — they’re a series of projections.
I wanted to ask them what they think of consumerism, economic growth, racial justice, labor, the events depicted in the film. Generation Z is advancing the most full-throated, insightful critique of the current system, and I suspect that their 140 responses would offer refreshing perspectives. By the end of one loop of Euphoria, I felt no closer to answering Rosefeldt’s central query. A simple answer would be unsatisfactory, anyway. When it comes to capitalism, to quote the great Cardi B out of context, “It’s gon’ hurt me to hate you, but lovin’ you’s worse.”
Euphoria continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 8. The project was commissioned and produced by Park Avenue Armory and co-commissioned by Holland Festival, Ruhrtriennale Festival of the Arts, RISING Melbourne in Association with Sydney Festival and Weltkulturerbe Völklinger Hütte.