Steve Lambert can’t hide his excitement as he approaches his monumental Capitalism: Works for me! interactive install—or as he simplistically likes to call it, “the sign”—located outside the Santa Fe Art Institute.
Standing nine feet high by 20 feet long and adorned with blinking marquee-style bulbs, the aluminum behemoth—which asks passersby to vote true or false by pushing a game show-style button—is far from inconspicuous.
“You wanna see its guts?” he asks.
He then takes a Phillips crosshead screwdriver out of his jeans and proceeds to reveal his creation’s operating system, all open-source electronics.
“[Freeware] has really improved things for halfway artists like me,” he says, opening up a plastic First Aid kit that houses his creation’s “brains.”
“Ten years ago, this would have been terribly complicated and expensive,” he says, adding that the entire price tag for the innards was 35 bucks.
“All my work has always been about capitalism and power, but I couldn’t find a way to address it head-on,” he muses. “I hadn’t found a way to do that before, and I was like, ‘OK, I’ve been avoiding this for too long. It’s time for me to deal with it.’”
The opportunity came when Lambert, currently artist-in-residence at SFAI, was asked to do an installation that directly engaged with its audience in Boston’s deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum last year.
“I gave them three different options,” he says. “The one I thought was cool was this ball drop in downtown that would—like on New Year’s Eve—come down every day at lunchtime and play Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration’ really loud in order to get everyone to leave work at lunch; a sort of lame one that I knew they wouldn’t do; and then this one, which I thought was totally crazy.”
They went with crazy.
“I was like, ‘Seriously? OK.’”
Back at his dorm, he recalls his first capitalism-centric memory.
“I got a nickel for unloading the dishwasher at age five, and I immediately realized I was getting ripped off.”
A more grown-up grasp on the subject arrived during his teens when his mother, a Dominican ex-nun, and his father, a former Franciscan monk, lost their custom furniture business.
“It was feast or famine,” Lambert says, adding that his parents would stockpile food and supplies when they came across some extra cash.
“This whole bullshit about how if you really try and work hard? I’ve always been suspicious of that,” he says. “I figured out really young that working hard doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be successful.”
With this perspective, Lambert’s work as an in-your-face public intervention artist often walks an uncomfortable line, compelling spectators not only to observe, but also to answer questions.
“The thing I’ve figured out is that asking ‘Hey, you wanna talk about capitalism?’ is just like going up to people and asking if they want to talk about Jesus Christ,” the 30-something says. “They’re like ‘Get away from me; what’s your agenda?’”
Onlookers’ knee-jerk reaction is to say yes, but the more they think about it, the harder it gets, he points out. “Sometimes I’ll be there and ask them, ‘OK, do you get paid enough, do you receive fair wages? Do you have health care?”
“They all want this middle button that says ‘sort of,’ and because there’s not, they have to decide yes or no. That, to me, is the goal,” he adds.
As of press time, the current tally is 181 votes in favor, 241 opposed.
Before Capitalism…heads to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego; LA's Charlie James Gallery and ultimately New York's The Tank, Santa Feans can vote round-the-clock until July 27.
In the meantime, he remains hopeful that one day his “Celebration” opus will take shape.
“I’ve been proposing that for years with no takers,” he says. “I think, if it existed, people would be like ‘This is amazing!’ It’ll happen someday.”