Greenspan goes to Burning Man?

Real-time market data comes to the playa this year, with the Stock Market Puppets.

By Katharine Mieszkowski
July 17, 2000 11:27PM (UTC)
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With online trading, the global financial markets have turned virtually every corner of the whole world into a 24-hour-a-day gambling pit. So, it's high time that the joys and agonies of market mania made it to Nevada's barren Black Rock Desert.

At this year's Burning Man festival, a gigantic installation called the G-7 Stock Market Puppets will bring trading to the playa floor and real-time market data to the info-hungry throngs of pyromaniacs, artists, tweakers, misfits, survivalists and revelers. The stock puppets -- apologies to the sock puppet -- will be the keyhole installation at the annual freaky bacchanal, situated at the intersection of the esplanade and the road that leads out to the Man himself.


"The installation is an Internet-driven kinetic sculpture that tracks the movements of global stock markets with seven mechanical puppets," says Jim Mason, the Bay Area artist who is its creator. "They move from fetal postures of desperation on the ground to leaps of elation up in the air, like that Toyota 'Oh what a feeling!' commercial."

Named for the seven industrialized nations, the G-7, Mason says that he's aware that there are now eight industrialized nations, since Russia joined, but says: "I don't want to build another puppet."

Each puppet will be matched with a live financial market, like the NASDAQ or the Nikkei, and will move up and down based on the fluctuations of that index, slumping on the ground or rising ecstatically as the market moves. If a puppet reaches its highest position, there will be a propane flame explosion 10 or 15 feet high and a bell. "It's Burning Man. In the end, it's all about fire," says Mason.


The bodies of the puppets consist of gray pinstripe, double-breasted "big & tall" men's suits, which have been stiffened with resin. "They're basically empty suits," says Mason. The ties on the puppet will bear the flag of the country where its market is located. The head of each puppet is a computer monitor, which will display not only a scrolling ticker, but the face of the financial minister of the relevant country, morphing and contorting with emotion based on the movement of the markets. For instance, Alan Greenspan's face will grimace or beam depending on how the NASDAQ is performing at the moment.

"It's kind of humanity drained of all its fullness, reduced to one-dimmensional market responses. It's a timely farce," says Mason.

At the bases of the puppets will be a field of TVs, some 30 or 40 of them arranged in a 100-foot diameter around the sculpture, broadcasting live financial news from around the world. But it's not just an exhibit. It's participatory, with a real-time live global stock market trading floor right there on the playa.


You'll be able to walk up to a blackjack table, complete with felt from Trump Plaza Casino, and place bets on the likely fluctuations of the market of your choice. Bets will be taken in the form of "whatever piece of junk you have" -- half-eaten candy bars, glitter and water bottles. "Whatever commodities you want to put up, you can put up."

Mason is constructing the enormous sculpture, which will be 20 feet high with 9-foot puppets, in San Francisco with a number of collaborators including Mike Kuniavsky, William Pietri, Jeff Burchell, Kurt Bollacker and Chicken John. In fact, they're still looking for volunteers to do programming, metalwork and woodwork.


The installation may also be exhibited at the International Society of Electronic Arts in Paris next year. It includes eight laptops and is costing some $20,000 to create, with Burning Man footing half of the bill.

It seems a small price to pay for this "market-based immersion therapy experience," as the proposal for the project calls it. Surely, it will help cure those who haven't made peace with the vicissitudes of the global economy, and help us all learn to revel in its ups and downs.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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