Sunday, August 10, 2008

Mastercard Slavery/House of credit cards

(author's note: having recently crippled myself and reduced annoyingly to three-finger typing, the shift key will not be my priority in the next few posts)people always ask me how long that sculptures take. most are quite fast, sucking me in and driving their own completion. i love the feeling of staying up late working on a piece and then waking up early to continue. when an impulse grabs you like this, months' worth of labor compacts into weeks, and the repetition becomes faster as efficiency is learned and improved. i like repetition, it passes the time quickly, and the results remain as evidence of the effort invested.
the cycles of time are vast, and contain endless evidence of patterns, neverending. the patterns we choose to follow daily affect the environment, and last into the future. being an artist for me is a subtle way of creating patterns of repetition that have never before existed. i enjoy the freshness of this thought, and the freedom it allows.

it's difficult to consider an action which is not repetition, given the amount of people on the planet and the vast number of others who've lived in the past. it seems everything possibly doable by now has surely already been done. people assume that repeating established actions they will live a stable life in a stable environment. i beg to differ. to me the historically developed pattern is fundamentally flawed, and always has been. being a cog in the current system is difficult for me to swallow, so i haven't. in return i live the precarious struggle that most artists share. it's a struggle, but life remains rich, fresh, new. challenges come in abundance and rewards seem few and distant, but the alternative of stopping, giving up, and being absorbed into the system becomes less and less feasible the further you proceed down the path of being an artist. eventually you reach a point where pursuing anything else would be like murdering yourself.
of all the obstacles and restrictions that we collectively endure, none causes more suffering than our global willingness to be controlled by money. money is an invention, a tool, and properly used, can simplify exchanges. abused, it destroys lives. i might just be an artist, but i read a lot of news, and what's happening to the financial world is by no means surprising. corporate banks designed to make profits do not serve the growth or stability of a nation of people.
the first thing i remember about having a bank account were the fees i was constantly being charged, and even as a teenager i loathed the banking institution. one thing i've never been able to stomach is being fined for not having enough money. if i could add up the amount of penalties and fees i've been charged for being broke it would surpass years of income.
in 1994, when i was a freshman in college, i was lured into signing up for a citibank mastercard by a very pretty lady who assured me i'd be accepted regardless of my income simply because i was a university student. this seemed alright to me. 500 dollars could buy a lot of things, and i had as long to pay it off as i needed... no pressure: cool! less than 2 years later my limit had risen several thousand dollars and my balance followed close behind. i didn't scrutinize my statements much, just kept up the minimum payments and figured my balance would recede. i always charged less during the month than i paid in, so i thought all was good.what i didnt realize was that my bill was actually going up each month because the finance charges were basically the same as the minimum payment, so everything i charged was extra.
to make matters worse, my paycheck schedule never quite lined up with the due-dates. this was back in the days when you were supposed to mail payments 10 days in advance to make sure they arrived on time. every time i missed the due date i was assessed a penalty and my interest was raised. the penalty, as well as the monthly finance charges and annual fee, were charged to the accounts as purchases and assessed the highest rate of interest.
any lower rate or promotional interest would be paid off first, regardless of the chronology of the charges, and the highest rates would remain until last. occasionally i would receive a phonecall where a fast-talking representative would convince me to sign up for this or that with promises of free gifts and easy cancellation after a free trial period. somehow at one point i found myself agreeing to a 60 dollar per month roadside assistance program. i didn't have a clue what it was, and when i tried to cancel i found it extremely difficult, requiring 3 separate attempts over 3 additional months before it finally stopped appearing on my bill. by this time i was swamped. in 1996, my parents bailed me out and i cut up the card. a few years passed with no incidents, until one afternoon in 1998 I picked up the phone and found myself talking with somebody who was very excited to tell me that i had been fortunate enough to be approved for a gold card from MBNA america. somehow this sounded good to me. i felt special. in less than a week i was staring at the new card. the limit was higher than ever, and i vowed not to use it recklessly.
unfortunately, my college income was extremely low. no matter how cheaply i survived in life, i always fell just a little bit short, and the credit card stepped in. my paychecks paid bills, the card bought food, gas, and whatever incidentals occasionally arose. over the years, my minimum payments rose from 15 dollars a month to 75, and my balance continued to rise.
due dates always seemed to roll backwards, so my notion of when the payment needed mailing was always suspect, leading to more late payment penalties and higher interest rates. at the same time my limit was constantly being raised, and offers from other credit card companies began arriving in my mail. by the year 2000, i reached a percentage rate of over 30 %. my largest bill every month was the minimum payment, and my balance continued to grow.
by 2002, when i moved to delaware to earn my MFA, my monthly minimum payment was 150 dollars and my balance was nearly $5000. eventually i filled out an application to transfer the balance to zero percent interest with Providian, and they took over $2000 or so, and issued me a new card.
this could have been my salvation, but unfortunately the pay during gradschool was very low, and the cost of living on the east coast was much higher than i was used to. i opted not to apply for student loans, which seemed wise at the time. in retrospect i should have taken the chance to pay everything off completely. with two credit card payments to make each month, it was only a matter of time before i was late enough times for my zero percent rate to rise, first to 8%, then 15%, then %21, %29, before finally maxing out just over %30, waiting for the next legislative permission to hike it up more.
by the time i moved to NYC in 2004, i was paying a minimum payment of $250 on one card, and $150 on the other. with no steady job and a dream to fulfill of living as an artist in the city, one credit card paid the other, one month after the next. it was easy because they both sent me three checks every month, so each swapped loans and earned fees, which in turn could be taxed like purchases. this made MBNA & Providian both so happy that they continuously raised my limit, at a rate of nearly $500 a month for the next year. occasionally i'd accidentally grab an old check (they expired in 30 days) and would be charged a bounced check fee, a returned check fee, a late payment fee, and often an overlimit fee as a result. hundreds of dollars of pure profit in one second: the banks loved me.during this year i struggled and toiled, doing odd jobs off craigslist and trying to figure out how to enter the vast and wealthy artworld just across the river. i was still under the naive assumption that simply making great art could lead to opportunities. unfortunately it doesn't work this way. you need to enter the city with either money or connections, otherwise: good luck.
in time, after a series of triumphs and defeats, i accepted an offer for a fulltime job at a fabrication studio in manhattan and began to bring in a steady, though meager, paycheck. in exchange i lost my life outside the job, and my ability to make and promote my artwork was severely diminished. during this period, i had a girlfriend who was impossible to keep up with financially, and my only recourse was often the cards, as not to be left in the dust. eventually, in 2006, the relationship came to a tumultuous end.
when the dust cleared, i found myself paying a minimum payment of $400 on one card and $300 on the other, and the interest was now nearly 35% on both. both were fully maxed out and most months included a 45 dollar overlimit fee, usually caused by the fee from the previous month. for the next year i didn't touch the cards, paid more than minimum whenever i could, and switched to online payments to avoid late fees. in over a year the balances moved down less than $100 on each. around this same time, MBNA was bought by Bank of America, and Providian turned into Washington Mutual. during this same period, i began to work on a new sculpture. i had accumulated a large number of barbie dolls, and i started by chopping off their arms and legs. i used a chefs knife and chopped for hours at a time, eventually dismembering about 150 dolls.
using 16 gauge steel wire, i pierced each arm & leg many times. i let the wire trace fairly organic paths, and i fit each new piece like a stonemason turning rocks into a wall. eventually, over many months, a background began to form.
it was rectangular in shape, roughly 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall. the corners were gently rounded, and the wallet friendly shape we've all come to know emerged into being.
my next concern revolved around finding suitable elements to convey my frustrations with the corporate banking system. i obsessively researched the banks to determine who qualified as the worst of the worst. by this point i became utterly disgusted with the entire economic charade that has hypnotized the world population with its fancy lies, raking in profits from the poor, and keeping them in debt for their whole lives.
i can't understand why banks don't operate in such a way as to enable the 'paycheck-to-paycheck' working class to grow financially and contribute to an all around healthy and stable economy. it seems that this approach would ensure the banks a future return on their investments. instead they've chosen to ignore the future and to focus on getting as much money as possible immediately, less interested in payback on the loan than the pure profit of monthly fees.
as long as the 'customer' keeps up on the payments, the IOU remains in the bankvault as an additional asset whether or not it will ever be possible for the cardholder to pay it off. in essence, you are renting a chunk of money you don't have, paying interest on interest, impossibly screwed.
eventually, enough is enough. poor people have no use for debt, and eventually they snap and stop paying. the banks are like 'the wizard of oz' and the credit score system that they've recently invented to try and police millions of people is a curtain behind which they are really very small. when your credit score is already bad, you don't have much more to lose, so eventually you give up, ignore the calls and letters, and go on with your life.
at the same time the banks realize that their IOUs are worthless and their monthly profits have fallen. this is what is happening, and part of the reason that the financial system has recently deflated like an untied balloon.
the global corporate beast should be ashamed of itself and what it's become. human lives are spent as operating costs for machines that are only programmed to grow. investors looking to make money by having money demand high returns, so the working poor are squeezed and bled.
this sculpture was deeply personal for me, representing a great weight in my life. the idea when making it was that i would sell it for the equivalent of my mastercard bill, and the buyer could either pay it off in full, or take over the monthly payments. i envisioned freedom from debt-slavery, like having a large tumor successfully removed.
whether or not this will happen is debatable. the conundrum underlying this piece is profound. the people who can relate to my angst will also never be able to afford artwork, while the people who can afford it will not be able to empathize, and therefore won't purchase it, considering my financial folly to be the result of bad decisions i've made in life.
choosing to be an artist alone is not something for which a person should be penalized. this type of choice takes the kind of strength and commitment few others possess. consider the amount of faith you need to have in yourself to continue. for an artist to remain true to their ideals is a constant struggle. the fact is, i have been a victim. if not for the eagerness of these corporate banks to mire the population in depression and futility, poverty could diminish and eventually disappear. instead the rich rise and the middle class sinks. money pools in places where it does greater harm than good.
this sculpture evolved many times, ebbing and flowing as i tried to determine what i wanted to say, visually and metaphorically.
at one time, the names of three banks formed a frowning face with their logos, made from silver coins and dismembered trophies.
the name on the card was made from hundreds of pennies, and spelled "VALUED CUSTOMER" sarcastically punned the term 'value', comparing the theoretical ideal of the importance of customer satisfaction with the actual practice of turning customers into dollar signs alone.
the number i chose for the card is a rising progression of doubling numbers: 1...2...4...8...16...32...64...128...256 eventually, craving the clean visual attributes of the original ocean of arms and legs, i pulled off most of the additional information. bank of america, who make more money in a minute than i owe them, became the sole remaining logo.
the expiration date stretches into infinity, expressing the futility at hand. two years after starting this piece i still do not consider it complete. i long for the day that the credit card mega-naires crumble like the housing lenders already have, and the outstanding balances are refinanced by the goverment at low rates.
until then, i slowly walk the minimum payment tightrope to which i've grown accustomed and pray to sell enough artwork someday to reach solid ground.


Anonymous said...

I too am enslaved by credit card debt. I have never been late on them or paid the minimum , always more than. Still , I owed them and they knew they could stick it to me without my permission. My interest rate went from 6% to 33%. I cheered when WAMU went under. Citi will be next and I will cheer for that too. What goes around comes around. If you pay more than the minimum payment even if only a few dollars you will eventually get ahead. The minimum payment is what they figure will get the MOST amount of money out of you for the longest amount of time. It will take me 2.5 years paying arount 700 amonth to pay them all off. How did we do this to ourselves?

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