Image courtesy Gary Zhexi Zhang

fud is a new body of work by Gary Zhexi Zhang, drawn from the artist's research into the role of insurance in shaping the times and spaces we inhabit, commissioned by Arts Catalyst and Bloc Projects, Sheffield, in partnership with Medialab Prado.

Insurance has long been practiced as a form of protection from individual life and loss. However, in today’s era of deep financialisation, insurers and reinsurers manage hazards at a planetary scale, connecting storm surges in Florida to nuclear reactors in Asia through global capital markets, hungry for risk. What were once “acts of God” become calculable, exchangeable resources to be mined from an uncertain future. 

Over the past year, Zhang has been researching the "catastrophe industry", the billion-dollar market for insurance against hurricanes, earthquakes and droughts, priced through climate simulations and financial modelling. Over three episodes, fud explores the catastrophe industry as an elaborate work of science fiction, in which the business of underwriting the earth begins to resemble the shaping of possible worlds.
This 18-month project comprises a digital commission (launching online 16 October 2020), an exhibition at Bloc Projects in Sheffield (April 2021), a residency at Medialab Prado in Madrid (2021) and an accompanying publication. A public programme (online and in person) will accompany the project throughout its development, engaging audiences through study groups, workshops and talks.
The first episode, a web-based artwork developed in collaboration with Agnes Cameron, will be launched online on 16 October. Zhang describes the work as a “simulation play”, a computer-generated narrative to be performed over the total duration of fud. On a website imagined as a catastrophe market observatory, human and software participants argue, speculate and negotiate over the value of emerging planetary disturbances. The moods and desires of the characters in Zhang’s generative narrative respond to live climatological activity and market signals. Over an anonymous chat server, their drama invokes the dynamics of online prediction markets, where bets are placed, contracts are exchanged and debts are underwritten over future scenarios. Over several months, their interactions veer from the banal to the prescient to the absurd, as each player seeks new ways to game the market in the face of global uncertainty.
The second episode, an exhibition taking place at Bloc Projects, Sheffield, will bring together a selection of real and fictional artefacts gathered over the course of Zhang’s research and interviews with simulation engineers, existential risk analysts, loss adjusters and financial astrologists. Through encounters with its materials and practitioners, the exhibition will engage with the making and shaping of catastrophic time.
While fud was originally conceived in late 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the fragility of global infrastructures into plain sight. In the third episode, a residency at Medialab Prado, the artist will explore risk in relation to locality and statehood from a Southern European perspective. If insurance is a form of mutual security, how can its operation shift towards one of planetary accountability? And what will become of the anthropocene’s uninsurable hinterlands, cities and communities that find themselves beyond the calculus of financialised time and space?
fud forms part of the programme for Ungovernable Machines, Arts Catalyst’s ongoing strand of research investigating the social, political, economic and ecological implications of the intangible networks and systems that govern our daily lives, and the structures of power which underlie them.
Two study groups led by the artist on the theme of “Catastrophe Time!”, exploring the temporality of global uncertainty and finance, will be held on 25 September and 2 October, both at 6 – 8pm UK time. If you are interested in joining, please send an email to admin@artscatalyst.org outlining in one paragraph your interests and why you would like to join. Participation is free.
Gary Zhexi Zhang is an artist interested in concepts that interface between concrete and abstract worlds, such as ecology, finance and information. Recent group exhibitions and screenings include Participation Mystique at Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai; the Swamp School at the Venice Architecture Biennale; Cross-feed at Glasgow International 2018, vdrome.org (online) and All Channels Open at Wysing Arts Centre. Recent residencies include Delfina Foundation, Schloss Web (with Agnes Cameron), SPACE Art & Technology, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Praksis Oslo, CCA Glasgow and Wysing Arts Centre.
Established in 2002, Bloc Projects is a contemporary arts organisation in the centre of Sheffield focusing on the support and development of contemporary artists at pivotal points of their careers. Bloc Projects provide a safe and stimulating environment that is free for the public to explore ideas and creative practices and regularly works closely with other local art organisations, universities and charities to ensure that their activities welcome a diverse and intergenerational demographic. An expansive programme provides opportunities for cross-disciplinary and participatory learning, meaningful arts engagement, and skill development for creative practitioners as well as wider publics. Over the past two decades, Bloc Projects has developed a range of pivotal projects led by artists such as Beatrice Gibson, Joy Labinjo, Joey Holder, Rachel Adams, Ben Jeans Houghton and Alex Farrar. 
Based in Madrid, Spain, Medialab Prado is a laboratory for experimentation and cultural diffusion promoted by the Government Department of Culture and Sports of the Madrid City Council. It is a space that favours the encounter and the collaboration around open cultural projects. Activities are structured around work groups, open calls for the production of projects, collaborative research and learning communities that address a very wide range of topics.
fud is supported by the Elephant Trust, the Henry Moore Foundation and Arts Council England.