Music beeps like Morse code; taglines appear on screen: ‘The interview hour with David Hall, tonight’s guest: Arthur Ashenking – former CEO of BG Bank.’ As the signature tune ends on a kettledrum roll, the handsome host speaks straight into the camera: ‘Our guest tonight, Mr Arthur Ashenking, has been dragged into the spotlight when it emerged that the investment bank he headed, the BG Bank, has applied for a government bailout after decades of unprecedented financial prosperity, while he himself walked out of the bank with one of the largest bonuses ever awarded to a single CEO. Visionary or villain?’
The topic is clear, but even though I already know this is not an authentic piece of television, as I sit in the darkened basement space of a gallery watching a projection of Jan Peter Hammer’s 30-minute video, The Anarchist Banker (2010), I’m dumbfounded: when did a CEO, walking away with a big bonus after a crash, ever agree to be grilled on TV? But this is not where the surprises end – it’s where they begin.
The Anarchist Banker is a breakthrough piece for Hammer. In recent years he has realized a series of ambitiously produced film and slide-show installations situated somewhat uncomfortably in-between James Coleman and Robert Bresson: time passing a-synchronically; people stuck in odd loops of desire and misunderstanding. With The Anarchist Banker, it’s as if Hammer has broken free from the loop, ironically by using the straightforward, linear form of the one-on-one interview.
Ashencroft is played by John Quincy Long, who looks a little bit like George H.W. Bush. His irises are like dark pools, yet he’s not a sweet-talking Mephisto, but simply the epitome of fascinatingly undisguised egotism. Undisguised because the convention amongst proponents of a free-market ideology unhindered by concerns for social follow-up costs (or plain economic risks) is of course to rhetorically claim to be concerned. Not with Ashencroft – or ‘Art’, as he offers interviewer ‘Dave’ (played by Tomas Spencer) to call him. No diplomatic pep talk. Whereas for Sigmund Freud culture was about sublimation, for Art, de-sublimation is the aim, a baring of what he continues to call ‘natural reality’. This is, of course, the reality of the predator, the utilitarianism of the Übermensch: given the choice between solidarity and his own interest, he chooses the latter because it’s easier to achieve. He personifies, in Lacanian terms, the ‘real’ of the banker’s desire, the obscene father shattering symbolic paternal authority. At one point Art says he considered killing ‘members of the oppressing parties’. Dave thinks he’s kidding, but as he tries to change the subject to credit default swaps, Art insists: ‘I wasn’t kidding’. ‘Taking out a dozen capitalists’ would not change the system, so instead Art decided to take advantage of it. ‘The one person I was able to free, I freed.’ Now it’s Dave who is dumbfounded: ‘Gosh, Art, you’re blowing my mind.’
The piece is well shot, with great sound and good actors. It cleverly cites Hard Talk-type news television – the inquiring rhetoric, the ‘stay with us’ phrases – while abstracting from its details; the wooden table and chairs are reminiscent of a members’ club; there are no banners or commercial breaks. But it’s the tight, concise script (written by Ana Teixeira Pinto) that holds one’s attention for the duration of the piece. It is based on Fernando Pessoa’s eponymous short story of 1922, which provided the basic structure of an absurdly hermetic argument leading from radical anarchism to the supposedly logical consequence of radical egotism, including satirical digs at everyone from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the Bolsheviks. Ashencroft turns out to be loosely based on Alves dos Reis, the historical model for Pessoa’s banker. By perpetrating a massive fraud, Reis almost single-handedly bankrupted the Portuguese state – which paved the way for the military coup of 1926, resulting in a dictatorship that lasted until 1974. Which only goes to show, as Hammer’s piece demonstrates so eloquently, that the threats of the 20th century are still haunting us.