It's an old fashioned voting booth, a sort of tall, curtained desk on flimsy-looking legs, standing near the window.
Walk up to it and you find a ballot, of sorts. It informs you that each American's share of the $700 billion federal bailout package comes to $2,296.84.
"What does $2,296.84 mean in your life?" the piece asks, and it provides a sheet of paper on which to write your answer. Previous visitors have left their own responses: "1/8th of what I make in a year!" "College." "A year of psychotherapy."
Julie Thomson's "How Much Am I Paying" is one of the distinctive works in a unique art show up through March 15 at Golden Belt on East Main Street. "Bailout Biennial" features 57 works by 26 artists, all focused on issues surrounding the current global economic crisis -- capitalism, scandal, greed and other facets of the post-industrial age.
"People ask me where the idea came from, and all I can truthfully say is that it came to me over lunch," said elin o'Hara slavick, a professor of art at UNC and the co-curator of the show, along with Jeff Waites. "I'm a political artist, and I thought, 'Let's do a Bailout Biennial.'"
The idea, of course, has a built-in incongruity; given that this is the first, and quite likely only, incarnation of the show, it's not a biennial at all. Not to worry; turning conventional ideas on their heads is one of the functions of art. And unlike most biennial exhibitions, this one was put together in a hurry and on the thinnest of shoestrings.
slavick and Waites put out a call for submissions, specifying that participating artists would have to pay for their own shipping and transportation. Upon seeing the responses, they decided not to bother with a selection process.
"We thought, 'Why not just accept them all?'" slavick said. "That's more democratic, and in keeping with the theme."
The staging could hardly be more spare; the works are arrayed around a vast second-floor room with tall windows and high ceilings. The show is remarkable not only for the variety of media it includes -- painting, photography, sculpture, installation, audio -- but the variety of perspectives and approaches the artists took. Some of the works are subtle, others distinctly less so, and some offer no easy or obvious interpretations.
Maria DeGuzman, a professor of art at UNC, has two large-scale photography-based pieces in the show. One is a closeup of Abraham Lincoln's eyes from the $5 bill, with a sort of crown of fool's gold over his brow, and the other, also a sharp closeup, shows two toy figures -- "minikins," she calls them -- one clearly in a subordinate labor role, the other in management.
"In times of crisis people tend to go back and think about those figures who also got through very difficult times," DeGuzman said, referring to Lincoln. "You look at those deep-set eyes. What are those eyes saying?"
Severn Eaton has a striking trio of pieces on the far wall: huge portraits of the currency versions of Lincoln, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, done in dark red pixilated dots -- the artist's blood.
Andrew Johnson's large painting, "Futures," depicts an enormous blood-red hog with a spiky yellow stock exchange graph line running along its length and the tiny figure of a man clinging helplessly to its tail. There's no doubt who's in control.
slavick has several pieces, including "Global Economy," a large light box featuring the gruesome entrails of a cow moments after it had been slaughtered in rural Brazil by her brother-in-law, "in a pink Izod shirt, martini in hand, an Austrian handgun aimed between the cow's poor eyes. This way of life and death, wealth and poverty, need and greed, screamed absurdity and this image became a symbolic spectacle of the imminent collapse of global capitalism."
David Tinapple has one of the simplest and most intriguing pieces: a simple white base upon which stand a microphone and a pair of headphones. The microphone picks up the sound in the room and continually relays it through the headphones -- but on a 24-hour delay. Put on the headphones and you hear what was going on in the room yesterday, exactly 24 hours earlier.
It's a meditation on how important timely information is in a social or economic system.
"On Wall Street for example, and in investments, timing is crucial and advance knowledge can be highly beneficial," Tinapple said. "Even if markets are going to crash, if you have advance knowledge, you can 'sell short' and make a killing. Timing matters, and most of us get stale, delayed information."
DeGuzman said the way the exhibit was quickly pulled together might offer a model for one way to deal with the sort of problems besetting the world today.
"The danger in a crisis like this is that people feel isolated with their troubles," she said. "This exhibit was a very collaborative venture, and it worked wonderfully. It shows the power people have when they come together. In a way, the process reflects a workable response, on a micro level, to a dark and depressing set of circumstances."