with a text by Amber Esseiva
19 January - 8 February, 2021
Directed and Produced by Liang Luscombe.
Dedicated to David Graeber.
Miss Piggy always gave me the creeps. Something about her fussy prima donna persona and her insistence on stardom, no matter the cost, made me feel both annoyed and concerned for her. Obsessed with the glitz of fame, Miss Piggy fled her life on the farm only to catch her big break starring in a bacon commercial. Being the attention seeker that she is, Miss Piggy’s appearance in Liang Luscombe’s Itchy IOUs (2020) felt searing, like the bacon she would inevitably become. In this video she goes by the name Miss Wiggy, still the Muppet archetype serves as a decoy for our deepest desperations and delusions surrounding fame and fortune. Of course, we hear later that Miss Wiggy has actually never seen a penny from Hollywood.
Itchy IOUs is Luscombe’s latest situational comedy. The video takes place in a series of constructed interior sets: domestic spaces and doctors’ offices wherein a cast of human characters, puppets, and props serve as absurd externalizations of subconscious distress associated with debt, ideal living, and consumption. There are two Muppet puppet knock-offs Miss Wiggy and Cermit, who encourage the classic devil-angel dualities. Miss Wiggy promotes financial fantasies while Cermit grounds us in the harder truths of money management. Larger-than-life papier-mâché objects also play an important role in this work: itchy hands, back-crushing boulders, and oversized mouths with mangled teeth become surreal instruments for the farcical and over-stretched world Luscombe has created. Other non-human characters seen in Luscombe’s previous work make a return appearance: elaborately carved vegetable animals who serve as voiceless by-standers within the television-set environments.
The video opens with Luscombe performing the role of narrator turned human slot machine, dispensing coins from thin air as she sets the stage for the characters and scenes to come. The video’s protagonists, and their accumulating debts, appear in vignettes. The drip of a cheap coffee machine becomes a stand-in for the incessant demands for productivity that capitalism requires of our bodies. The characters in Itchy IOUs are always late for work.
Itchy IOUs follows Sol and Fran, two millennial women with different coping mechanisms for their financial precarity. Sol is a therapist who at first glance, seems to have all the answers to life’s problems: a steady income and access to better psychologies. She has a flair for life-hacks and mysteriously large, itchy hands. The less well-adjusted Fran, an artist and dental nurse, is on a mission to discover a get-rich-quick scheme to vanquish the creditors that haunt her inbox, mail box, notifications, and subconscious.
“Itching is a petty form of suffering,” wrote French author André Gide. An itch acts as an embodied push notification. Its saliency overriding the mind within social contexts. In Itchy IOUs, Sol’s large, manky, blistered hands reflect a nagging debt that just can’t be suppressed. The hands, and in many ways the entire premise of the video, recall psychoanalyst’s Didier Anzieu’s skin-ego theory, in which skin, an otherwise protective barrier, turns against itself as an indication of internal self-destruction. Also bubbling away is the superstition that an itchy left palm is a sign that the itcher will come into large amounts of money, while an itchy right palm means you’re about to lose your fortune; or vice versa… Others say that by scratching your palms you will encourage wealth in your direction, either way this persistent itch will not be leaving the skin anytime soon.
Fran, who is on the verge of financial ruin, receives a series of incessant notifications on her handheld device. Small amounts of money begin to drain from her bank account and she can’t figure out why. Her account has begun to hemorrhage money, plunging below the overdrawn threshold many millennials know so well. After shuffling through piles of neglected mail, she identifies the leak—student loans—and sets out to remedy our most unpayable debt.
Fran considers starting the herbalist business she has always dreamed of, borrowing money from Cermit (who she already owes), bitcoin mining, looting, and even selling her own teeth for cash. As if in answer to her prayers, a television salesman makes an unconventional proposal. “Do you need a little more exercise and a little extra cash?” he asks. “Stop working with Uber or Lyft, and get with the real innovators.” The product he’s pitching is BLDR, an acronym for Bitcoin Leeching Debt Reliever, essentially a large boulder worn as a backpack. It promises gradual debt relief in exchange for back-breaking labor. Now, the problem of bills, bills, bills can be remedied with a little good, old-fashioned labor; transforming each wearer into an Atlas under the crushing weight of their own debt.
But Fran’s still broke, broke, broke. But broke is just a momentary condition, isn’t it? Unlike being poor, being broke suggests that there is a solution to your current condition—out there, somewhere. So she scrolls, scrolls, scrolls, turning up more lifestyle envy and more deadends. Luscombe’s Itchy IOUs presents skewed environments and absurd characters in highly plausible predicaments. She seems to be having fun with a reality that is not funny at all. In doing so, Luscombe provides a commentary on the primacy of debt in our conscious lives—the way it invades our emotional, professional, and creative worlds. After tirelessly searching for solutions, the video concludes with Sol and Fran deciding to abandon the prospect of repayment in favor of a new delusion: a tax haven for women in the Caribbean! Cue Episode Two, in which Fran and Sol will set out for an intergalactic tax haven, because why invest in the present when you can discover a shortcut to the future?
Amber Esseiva is the Associate Curator at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University (ICA VCU).
This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.
Images Courtesy the Artist: Liang Luscombe, Itchy IOUs, 2020, video still, 22:40