The acculturation of Gen Y, the generation born in the 1980s and 1990s, can be summarised by one single idea: a political rhetoric, originating in the late 1970s, supposing that free market capitalism equates individual wellbeing.
After some forty years, the West is as obsessed with living well than ever. In the U.K. the wellness industry was valued at over £18 billion in 2018 and by 2022 it is expected that British consumers will spend on average £470 per person on wellness products and services each year.[i]
Yet in 2014, the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, an assessment of the state of mental health and wellbeing in England, had found that one in six adults now had a common mental disorder.[ii] During this same period the NHS would report that antidepressants had been the area with the largest increase in prescriptive items. The dispensation for conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks having increased by 108.5% in the period 2006 to 2016.[iii]
What connections can be made between these, at once related and yet divergent, phenomena? And what role can visual culture play in narrating this story?
Finiliar is an avatar, created by artist Ed Fornieles, which occupies both the digital world, as a motive icon, and the physical, in a series of pop sculptural forms. In both instances Finiliar are accessible, in their simplicity of line and flat colouration, and familiar, by way of a warm, easy charisma.
In their digital iterations the Finiliar are animated, quite literally brought to life, through data sets; more often strongholds of market capitalism, such as companies, currencies and other large structures. The wellbeing of each avatar is closely tied to the growth or profit of its data set; the Finiliar wants only to expand in size and value.
Consider then a Finiliar vitalised by the British pound. As the currency increases in value the Finiliar experiences joy. A mood signified through a range of gestures; unrestrained ease of movement, dance, laughter, celebration, and the relaxed body. And as the currency decreases in value the Finiliar is struck cold, the head dips, the body pauses and stiffens. Before long it becomes a site of pain, the Finiliar clutches the stomach and head, drops to its knees, incapacitated, immobile and broken.
The Finiliar personifies a link between individual experience and large abstract structures. They are the embodiment of the system, the very same idea that has dominated political thought in the West for the last four decades. And whilst capitalism thrives when hidden from the senses, with this single gesture, a force that largely goes unseen is rendered
Curiously, this gesture, the giving visibility to neoliberal logic, is the very same gesture that in turn debunks it. In Finiliarland, a terrain of blue skies and vibrant flora not too dissimilar to our own world, it becomes quickly apparent, that according to this logic, the Finiliar are unable to coexist peacefully.
Once elaborated, this single link becomes a matrix of interaction. Modelled for instance on the Foreign Exchange Market, where participants are able to buy, sell, exchange and speculate on currencies, Finiliarland is transformed into what writer Franco Berardi might call, ‘… a field of war, where everybody is a winner or a loser, is eliminator or eliminated’.[iv] That is to say the gain in one’s own pound is the inevitable loss in another’s dollar, euro, yen and so forth.
This discord is intensified by the scrutiny imposed on it by the finite picture plane of the LED screen, a format Fornieles often lends to the presentation of these works within a physical setting. Here, a world is framed, one bound to an immediate and deducible present, in refute of the endless freedoms and resources mythologized by neoliberal orthodoxy.
The scene is made all the more urgent by Finiliar’s ability to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Described as, ‘… the most delicate, cutest, sweetest form imaginable’, the Finiliar uses similar proportions to those of a newly born baby so as to elicit the sensation of parental bonds and responsibility.[v] As much then as these works are about making capitalism visible, about making it seen, they are perhaps even more importantly, about making it felt.
‘If you can see something’, Fornieles urges, ‘you can begin having a relationship with it. If it’s unseen it sits in the shadows of the subconscious, a felt but undefined presence’.[vi] It might then be said that the interpretation of this presence is crucial in firstly understanding, and perhaps then even resolving, important challenges within society today.
All the while this feeling is left unchecked it remains what might be described as, ‘… the unease associated with the difficulty identifying the origin of the threat and making plans to control it’, a term used by Laurent Thévenot to define an experience of anxiety.[vii] But in ascribing an effect with a cause; that is to say the inability to coexist peacefully, discord, a field of war, with the ideological conflation of wellbeing and free market capitalism, this anxiety might in fact become something of an axis of resistance. Knowledge, after all, is power.
It is on the practice of naming that Fornieles remarks, ‘… to know something’s true name is to understand it and I think identifying something, giving it a name is an extremely powerful act. At that point you can turn it over in your head and possibly negotiate your relationship to it’.[viii]
It is precisely here that a critique of capitalism might be refurbished. The point at which anxiety, and the mental health crisis to which it more broadly points, might be reinterpreted. A moment in which the West’s obsession with wellbeing and living well, becomes less a coping mechanism, than a threshold on to consciousness.
And perhaps this is the point of the Finiliar, a desire to think in these terms, to think about networked effects. Or as Fornieles suggests, ‘my wellbeing, is your wellbeing, is their wellbeing’.[ix] A powerful reminder of the role visual culture can play in making this information available to sight and in turn to discourse and criticism. Seeing, above all else, is believing.
[ii] S. McManus et al., ‘Mental health and wellbeing in England’, Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014, (September 2016) p. 2.
[iii] NHS Digital, ‘Prescriptions Dispensed in the Community, England, 2006-16’, (29 June 2017) online.
[iv] Berardi, F. Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. London, UK and New York, NY: Verso. (2019) P. 46.
[v] In an early iteration of the Finiliar animation titled Tulip Fever, 2017.
[vi] In a conversation with the artist in October 2020.
[vii] Please see Boltanski, L. and Ève Chiapello. trans Gregory Elliot. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London, UK and New York, NY: Verso. (2018) P. 420.
[viii] Conversation, October 2020.