In the summer of 2010 I temporarily relocated to Chicago to insert myself into the commodity system and discover how an abstract wheat futures contract connects to real wheat, real food and real people.
This intervention began with the purchase of a futures contract for 1000 bushels of wheat on the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). 1000 bushels is the smallest futures contract available on the CBOT but that’s 30 tons of wheat – more than a semi-load.
I then bought 1000 bushels of real wheat at a grain elevator in Indiana, then had the wheat milled into flour at a family-owned mill in Indiana.
The 30 tons of wheat made about 20 tons of flour. I brought the whole truckload back to Chicago and gave it away to decommodify it and nourish people, turning it from an abstract tool of capital back into something individual and artistic.
This project was inspired by William Cronon’s book Nature’s Metropolis, which describes the change from wheat as a food with a distinct pedigree and quality, into an abstract commodity - and how that change was inextribly linked to the growth of the city of Chicago into a modern metropolis and middleman of a city. Little did I know when I began the project that not only was Cronon right, but since that book was written the commodity system had been devoured by Wall Street as a tool of capital. Increases and extreme spikes in food prices at that time (roughly 2008-2012) were connected to the financializing of commodities markets, with firms like Goldman Sachs leading the way - a gross manipulation of basic needs for financial gain, and very similar to how Wall Street caused the housing / mortgage crisis in 2008.
Validation came in the form of Frederick Kaufman’s article “The Food Bubble: How Wall Street Starved Millions and Got Away With It” (available at Fred’s website) which came out in Harper’s in 2010 just as I was arriving in Chicago for the project. Fred later published Bet The Farm, a full length book on the topic.
Basically I thought I was going to be documenting a bunch of arm waving lunatics in the trading pits and ended up doing a deep dive into food and economic justice. I did a ton of writing about it on a blog for the project (remember those?) which is still available here.
In 2012 I was invited to present the project in Mexico City as part of SITAC X, a biennial forum on the state of contemporary arts and culture. The 2012 theme was El futuro: de vuelta a la cuenta larga (The future: the long count begins again, a reference to the Mayan calendar cycle that ended in 2012). It was a huge honor to present alongside Trevor Paglen and Julieta Aranda as part of the panel El artista como viajero del tiempo (the artist as time traveler). Video below (in mixed English & Spanish); my presentation begins about 42 minutes in.
The largely Mexican audience was surprised to hear of the poverty and hunger that existed in the US; witnessing this emphasized to me how we are all victimized by these large systems of capital.