"If you want to have people avoid you at a party, just ask them if they want to talk about capitalism," artist Steve Lambert says. "So I thought, how could I do that in a way that wouldn't totally be off-putting, and make people run away in fear?"
Lambert's solution was to create a 20-foot-long sign that reads "Capitalism works for me!" And, like a football field scorekeeper, the sign keeps a tally of whether people respond "true" or "false." Last month, Lambert displayed his work in New York City's Times Square for the first time. The final count: 93 true, 109 false.
This week, Lambert's back on the streets to collect more responses and initiate a second round of challenging conversations.
Times Square isn't the only site where Lambert's invited people to respond to the question. He's carted around the sign to Cleveland, Boston, Hartford, San Diego, Los Angeles, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and cities in Europe. But when I ask him if he's noticed any major difference between cities, Lambert says that the differences are largely found between neighborhoods within cities, not cities themselves. He's also gotten some counterintuitive responses. Last month, he met a working, but homeless, man who told Lambert that capitalism worked for him, personally. "He needs it to work," Lambert said. "Life is depending on it; all his hopes are pinned on this job working out and him getting out of the situation that he's in."
Other responses detailed just how devastating a deregulated economy playing hard and fast with capital can be. In the last interview compiled in the video above, one woman tells Lambert the story of her parents, both entrepreneurs who started small businesses. "When the economic collapse happened in the early 2000s, basically everything fell apart," she says. Her mother and father lost their businesses, their home, their marriage, and health. At one point, her mother resorted to living inside her store, trying to make the business succeed, and attempted selling her food stamps just to get by.
"I attribute the recession to capitalism, and the recession resulted in my family falling apart," the woman told Lambert.
Because of these stories and perspectives, the final true/false count is probably the least interesting aspect of the project, Lambert said. "I encounter thousands of people--I don't really care what button they press," he added. " What I want is for them to think it through and not have a knee-jerk reaction." If it capitalism unequivocally works for someone, Lambert will prod his interviewee as to why, or ask how capitalism might be reformed for the better. If our current economic system doesn't work for the interviewee, Lambert might play devil's advocate and ask why he or she doesn't have a different job.
It's no surprise that the sign's creator cites the Diggers as inspiration. In the mid-to-late '60s, the radical street theater group and ideological movement popularized by the Grateful Dead set up a similar space for rethinking the economy. Idealizing a society in which everything was free, the Diggers served free food to hundreds of people throughout San Francisco. In order to receive it, one had to step through a "Free Frame of Reference," a large yellow picture frame that symbolized entering a zone in which people critiqued the status quo and imagined different modes of living.
Primarily, Lambert says he'd like people to slow down when they approach the sign and give the question a good think. For Lambert, if you're wondering, capitalism doesn't work. But if you'd like to talk to him about it, or if you missed his contemporary riff on the frame of reference the first time around, you have until tomorrow to show up and cast your vote. It even comes with free "I voted!" stickers (unlike New York City's mayoral primaries).