Press for Steve Lambert’s ‘Capitalism Works For Me’ in Times Square


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VIDEO: An Experiment in Capitalism in Times Square

American artist Steve Lambert has taken over Times Square with a goal: to get people talking.

The topic: modern capitalism. In what he calls "the most important work [he] could make," Lambert constructed a 20-foot by 9-foot illuminated sign that reads "Capitalism works for me!" The project, complete with a voting podium, keeps track of the public’s vote of either "true" or "false".

Lambert’s piece is part of a larger effort to engage with the public and discuss the merits and downfalls of our current economic system. Since 2011, he’s traveled to nine other cities and has found mixed results with each final tally.

"I think it’s a very important thing to talk about and I think it’s a shame that we don’t create that space," says Lambert. "So I tried to figure out how to do that with an artwork."

The traveling installation is presented by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF)’s Crossing the Line festival in partnership with Times Square Arts.

The sign returns to Broadway between 46th and 47th Street in Times Square on Sunday October 6 through Wednesday October 9, daily from noon to 7pm.

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npr_logo_rgb.JPG Does Capitalism Work? A True/False Quiz In Times Square

Steve Lambert’s art installation asks people to vote in an effort to open up the discussion about capitalism. That word can be a red flag for many, Lambert says.


I’m walking through Times Square, the crossroads of the world. Just when I reach the line for cheap Broadway tickets, I see it: a giant billboard with the word "capitalism" in bright white lights and the words "works for me!" in cursive below. There’s a podium and two buttons where you can vote whether the statement is "true" or "false."

Peggy Demitrack, a tourist from Cleveland, is adamant when she pushes the "true" button. She says capitalism works for anyone who strives and educates themselves.

When asked whether she has money for retirement, she adds: "Something! Yes. And you know what? Even if I didn’t, if that all collapsed, I’d be down the street working for McDonalds. I would not be sitting home wanting to take something from somebody else."

Steve Lambert, the artist who came up with this idea for "Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False)," has often done pieces about advertising and the media. He was once involved in a satirical hoax in which a fake "special edition" of The New York Times announced the end of the Iraq War in 2008, with more than a million copies printed.

His new economics-themed art installation has been traveling around the country, and it’s now in Times Square for a few days.

Lambert says talking about capitalism is almost impossible without sounding tedious. As he said at the Creative Time Summit last year in New York:

"If someone came up to me and said, ‘Can I talk to you about capitalism?’ I’d feel like they were walking up to me and saying, ‘Could I talk to you about Jesus Christ?’ Um … are you going to ask me to join some organization?"

So how do you get people to reflect, and not argue? Lambert’s first thought was to make it personal. It’s not about whether capitalism works for the U.S., or for the government, or for the world, he says – "it is, capitalism works for me!" He says making an issue personal stops arguments – something, he jokingly says, that he learned from decades of therapy.

Back in Times Square, many of the people I encounter are ambivalent, even embarrassed, to talk about capitalism. Eve Ting, who works in Times Square, says she drinks coffee at Starbucks and buys clothes at Uniqlo. She starts laughing and says, "I feel like this is a confession."

Or take freelance designer Daniel Dunnam. "I work from home, I work my own schedule, I make lots of money, I have insurance," he says. "I have a very charmed existence, and I’m aware of that, so obviously the system is working, right? But then I started thinking about it, and I realized that I’ve got people in my family, or even just friends, who it’s not working for them, and I decided that if it doesn’t work for those I love and who I care about, then it doesn’t work for me."

Then there are those who can’t make up their mind. Laura Wenus walks up to the podium and starts talking to Lambert. Capitalism has benefited her, she says, but "I don’t know if I can live with the moral dilemma of having benefited while others have actually suffered from it."

Lambert tells her it’s up to her to decide. "Why is this such a tough decision?" she says. "No offense, but it’s just a billboard, you know?"

Lambert says his main purpose is to get people to slow down and ponder. He says people always ask him, "What alternative are you proposing?" He always says, "Something better." They ask what that means, and he says, "We don’t know yet."

It’s at that point, he says, that the conversation begins to open up. It’s almost like science fiction: Lambert wants people to go beyond the available answers and dream of something new and different.

By the time I leave, "false" is winning slightly over "true," but it’s pretty evenly divided. "Capitalism Works for Me! True or False" is in Times Square through Oct. 9. Lambert got support from Times Square Arts and The French Institute Alliance Française.



Times Square Art Project Keeps Score on Capitalism


20artsbeat-sat-blog480.jpgOn Friday morning, an odd sign was unveiled in a pedestrian plaza at the north end of Times Square: a 20- foot by 9-foot red, white and blue retro-styled illuminated scoreboard, emblazoned with the chirpy slogan "Capitalism Works for Me!"

The scoreboard, which was hooked up to a device allowing passersby to vote "true" or "false," wasn’t a cleverly postmodern advertisement but a provocation by the artist Steve Lambert, who conceived of it three years ago as a way of initiating a direct conversation about capitalism and inequality without coming off like a crazy person.

"I wanted to get people thinking about something better than the system we have," said Mr. Lambert, who wears his own sympathies as openly as the brown fedora, orange sneakers and neo-Amish beard he sported on Friday. "But if you bring it up in a one-on-one conversation, people usually just run."

The scoreboard, brought to New York by the French Institute Alliance Française and Times Square Arts as part of the Crossing the Line arts festival, initially drew more gawkers than voters, with passersby perhaps uncertain if it had more in common with the huge Coca-Cola advertisement looming overhead or the handwritten "Free Hugs" sign carried by a man making his way down Broadway.

But a line soon formed, and just after noon a cheer went up for the first vote: a "false" from Michael Smith, 18, a vacationing high school student from Palatine, Ill., who had wandered by while killing time before his hotel check-in.

"Capitalism may work for me personally, but it isn’t working well for the country as a whole," Mr. Smith, who has campaigned for several Democratic political candidates, said, before rattling off statistics about income inequality and youth unemployment.

Seif Shazly, 24, an Egyptian living in Germany who was about to start a job in management consulting, offered a vigorous counterpoint. "My belief is that ownership of capital is a freedom granted by nature," he said after punching the button for "true." "An economy based on competition isn’t just better for me," he added. "It’s healthier overall."

Other early voters included a jump-suited worker from the Times Square Alliance (false); a retired federal government worker from Chicago (true); a part-time security guard at the nearby American Eagle store (false); a self-described "evil defense contractor from Texas" (true); and a young man from Coney Island holding a sign, apparently meant in earnest, announcing himself as the second coming of Jesus Christ (false).

Some rough and unsurprising patterns quickly emerged: younger voters, European tourists and people in working-class jobs tended to vote false; older people, visitors from red states, and the more prosperous tended to vote true.

"Capitalism has given me lots of opportunities to work hard and better myself," said Scott Grigsby, 61, who had flown in from Bella Vista, Ark., for the Razorbacks-Rutgers game on Saturday. He added: "I’m a banker. Of course I like capitalism."

Bernardo Silva, 58, taking a break from his job handing out fliers for a nearby Brazilian restaurant, voted false. "People don’t make enough money to live," he said.

When the polling ended at 5 p.m., the tally on the scoreboard, which will return to Times Square for another round of voting Oct. 6-9, stood at 93 for capitalism, and 109 against. Business in Times Square seemed to continue as usual.

But at least one "true" voter, James Wallace, 43, from Manhattan, spotted a hidden note of realism in Mr. Lambert’s idealistic project.

"The sign doesn’t say ‘Capitalism is perfect,’" he said.

The Crossing the Line festival runs through Oct. 13. Steve Lambert’s "Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False)" will be on view again Oct. 6-9 on Broadway between 44th and 47th Street.


WNYC on Capitalism Works for Me Installation in Times Square
Steve Lambert’s Capitalism Works for Me!True/False in New York Magazine’s Approval Matrix

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