27.ix.2007. Arts House: Sara Juli’s The Money Conversations

It's been two years since I've last seen my family and most of my friends. I haven't been able to save the money necessary to go back to visit.

It's the beginning of the night, only a few people in the audience, and Sara Juli comes on stage in low key, wearing jeans and a blazer, takes her shoes off, her socks off, takes a pile of cash out of her left shoe and counts it. It's US$1500, in $20 notes. She gives some to select audience members with the words: “This is 20 dollars and I want you to have it.” Some of them have to work for it: she puts money in her cleavage, in her pockets, or performs little intrusive routines in gibberish: mumbling, complaining, touching their bodies or faces, poking at them. One lady gets so uncomfortable she gets up and moves to another seat, then runs around the auditorium. Sara Juli is very intrusive for a person allegedly watched.

Then she returns back on stage and asks: “What is $20?” Silence. She offers: “A ticket for Sara Juli at the Meat Market.” What is $40? Someone says: “A dinner at a good restaurant.” “A massage.” What is $80? “Rent.” “If you live in a shoe box?”, she asks. What is $100? “A formal dress.” “A dentist check-up.” “A ticket to Queensland.” We're opening up now.

A few rounds of this. Juli reveals secret hiding places on her body for bigger slabs of cash, counts another $1500, then $2000, in bigger and bigger notes. Dances around, gives money away. Some refuse to put her hands down Juli's underwear to get money. Some do it without qualms. I am given $50. What is $150? “A public transport fine.” What is $200? “IPod Nano.” What is $250? A lady in front of me says: “A daily wage for a nurse (if she works overtime).” Someone on my left: “The hourly rate my accountant charges.” Someone behind me: “The price of a cup of coffee with a lawyer. Or at least what one recently asked for a consultation.” Someone casual:”A pair of G-Star jeans.”

I got lost, I must admit, after $150. After $150 (a decent pair of shoes) I cannot think of recreational purchases. There is the price of my coat ($400), my monthly rent ($700) and the cost of a visa to move to Australia ($2000 if you have to do a complete health check and an HIV test, like Croats do), but none of this is real money. The cost of these things, I realise while sitting there, is measured for me as the effort needed to save up the precise sum (time, work). Juli asks about $850, about $1000 and about $300. Answers come up. An expensive dress. Two nights in a good hotel. One night in the emergency ward. A ticket for the AFL Grand Finals, says the man next to me about the price of my coat. I'm getting lost in this whirlpool of little desires. $500, Juli says, is the price of a ticket for a Madonna concert. $500, for someone else, is a gym membership, and $2000 is a new clutch on their Swedish car. What happens if you truly desire these things? An iPod Nano, an experience of Madonna, a Swedish car? Does your horizon of wants stretch with your salary? Or your friends' salaries? Sara Juli does her little interpretative dance, credit, debt, investment, to have money. I am holding a $50 note in my hand; it has by now become a complicated thing, a repository of possibilities. I've heard someone recently say that money has become our collective symbol of reality. The more money you possess, the more real you become in terms of participation in life, this life, this life based on consumption. Perhaps Juli wants to create in us the same sense of confusion she felt during the money conversation with her partner. Perhaps this is why I initiate money conversations, because I don't think of it as anything other than work and time. I feel suffocated by the number of things we've named tonight. Particularly iPod Nano.

The conversation, that went somewhat quiet around $1000, gets lively again with $2000. It's obvious that I'm not the only one that thinks only in everyday-small and exceptionally big sums. Juli suddenly raises her hand and asks for 5 cents. People rummage through their pockets, wallets, bags. Juli makes a round and gets her cents, then asks. “Who has 5 cents? Who needs 5 cents? Who doesn't give a cent? Who has never earned a cent in his life?” I feel bad (I have no cents, only tip dollars). She correctly returns the cents to each person, collects the remaining cash scattered on the floor, gets a pen and paper, adds up, returns the pen and paper, and turns to me: “This is $3680 and I want you to have it.” She gives me the slab of cash. Lights go off.

People applaud, I applaud, lights go on, Sara Juli leaves the stage, people start leaving, a 'Donation Box' is placed by the door. The man next to me, whose AFL ticket is worth the price of my coat, gloats over the money in my lap, and congratulates me on my tough decision.

I count the money over and over (the result is different each time; I'm too confused). I came to the show intent on keeping anything I get. Money is money is money and I need it. Perhaps I would have kept that $50, you see. But I would not, cannot, keep $3680. I don't want this big pile of cash. It's dirty, it smells, it's a theatre prop, not something I need in my life. I would have kept $50, but it's equally clear to me that if I'm not going to keep the slab, I cannot keep a couple of notes. The situation is oppressive. I feel like I'm trapped in a game show. I walk to the 'donation box', where Juli's partner stands, and asks what will happen if I keep the money. “The show will have to be cancelled.”, he replies dryly. Has it happened yet? “Once, almost. One man took a large amount, but it was returned the next day.”

His current job, and her current job, are centred around the cash in my hands. Her entire life savings in my hands. I saved more than that in the past year, although it all went on my university fees. Her entire life savings. I start throwing the money in the box, note by note. By the time I'm sick of it, there's still a hefty pile left in my hands. I want to tell him I haven't seen my family in two years because I cannot pay the ticket back home, but he's not interested in me, he's looking elsewhere. I throw the last notes in and tell him I've decided to keep the last $20, for record. He's not interested (he's still looking elsewhere). As I walk out, I start to cry.

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