Making Performance Art Out of the Stock Market

The young artist behind a cryptocurrency called Bitchcoin has been painting her investment returns.

Sarah Meyohas performs at 303 Gallery in New York on January 13, 2016. (303 Gallery)

This week, reports of market turmoil were splashed across just about every financial publication on earth. As of Friday, Bank of America Merrill Lynch estimated that $8 trillion of value had been wiped out in global markets in 2016.

Meanwhile, in a gallery in New York City, the 24-year-old artist Sarah Meyohas was also watching the markets, but for a very different purpose: making art. In a project entitled “Stock Performance,” Meyohas, who calls herself “the most irrational person on the market,” has been using the stock market as a medium for visual creation for the past 10 days. “It’s not for profit,” she explains. “It’s purely visual.”

The first step in her process is investing a small amount of her own money and seeing how that investment does. Then, in her live performances (which concluded this week), she draws the fluctuating values in the form of a line on canvas with an oil stick. The result of the performance is a painting. In this action, Meyohas says she’s trying to bring together “philosophy, art, understanding what it is to be human and existing, and finance—which sometimes feel devoid from that, but ultimately it's just made up of humans.” To Meyohas’s knowledge, no one has attempted a project like this—perhaps not least because she has sunk her own money into making it possible. (She reportedly lost tens of thousands of dollars, but has sold the majority of her paintings.)

“I was not interested in making something that looked super regular, so much as making something that looked like it was a drawing. And maybe it looks like any other stock line, and that’s okay. But it’s scratching into a stock like, ‘I was here,’” says Meyohas. She explains that sometimes she even has an idea of the kind of image she was trying to produce before buying stocks—say a line that moved up and down, or one like a heartbeat—and would invest with that image and intention in mind.

Her work is notable in that it goes against the stated purpose of stock trading, which is to invest in companies and hope for profits. It’s fun to see someone break all the rules, especially the serious rules that undergird the financial industry. And Meyohas isn’t exactly ignoring those either, as her project is an exploration of value from an artist’s perspective. She injects a meditative quality into the way she views the basics of markets. For example, in her closing performance, she stated:

The stock market joins an extreme subjectivism with an extreme objectivism through its valuation of the world. Value follows from the price in which it is revealed. That is, perspectives intersect, perceptions confirm each other, and value appears. But this value must not be detached, or converted into a world in the realist sense. Because the market is not pure being, but rather the value that shines forth at the intersection of my views with those of others through a sort of fitting into each other.

That’s a high-minded analysis, but in person it seems that Meyohas is mostly light-hearted and is trying to have fun with something that so many others take so seriously. This also isn’t the first time Meyohas has incorporated finance into her work. She was the artist behind the project “Bitchcoin,” a cryptocurrency that could be mined for the sole purpose of investing in her art.

The most surprising outcome of this performance might be how the New York finance world has taken to Meyohas’s performance. A preview of her exhibition showed up in the arts section of The New York Times, and then, to her surprise, coverage of her work started to pop up at financial publications such as CNBC and Bloomberg. It was featured twice in Matt Levine’s mostly serious-finance newsletter (where he called her work “a delight, with a sort of Derrida-meets-Eric-Hunsader vibe”).

Now that her performances have ended (her paintings will be on display at 303 Gallery until the end of the month), she says that she was initially a little worried that people in the finance world would dismiss her work as too simple, considering finance’s complexities. But on the whole, that wasn’t the reaction. “My guess is just familiar language and an entry point into something that's otherwise somewhat opaque … I’m not really sure what it shows, but I’m excited about it,” she says.