Artist Tom Bogaert on investing in “sin stocks” of arms manufacturers as an act of resistance against the logic of war
Guest post by Tom Bogaert
As I reflect on the past year, immersed in my residency at the Ars Electronica Futurelab, I have found myself at an intersection of politics, entertainment, technology, art, propaganda – and an unexpected venture into the world of finance. Armed with a grant from the Flemish government I embarked on a journey that blurred the lines between conscientious objection, war, and the enigmatic realm of sin stocks.
My objective was clear: to hack weapons and simultaneously hack into the fabric, strategies, and geopolitics of the arms trade, turning it into a form of art. In my idealized vision, I pictured a laboratory-like setting filled with screwdrivers, computers, brainstormers, books, and soldering irons – a place where the boundaries between war and peace would blur.
However, soon my lack of first-hand knowledge about weapons became glaringly apparent. As a conscientious objector who has never served in the military, I decided to address this – by attending an arms fair. The International Defence Exhibition & Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi promised a glimpse into the convoluted web of the military-industrial complex.
After having received my official visitor’s badge, I explored the expo halls with both apprehension and curiosity. But surprisingly, the atmosphere felt more like an art fair or a car show than the ominous darkness I had anticipated. Exhibitors fervently discussed their products, their necessity, and their intended consumers.
Inspired by this experience, a certain idea began to take shape in my mind – what if I were to buy shares in the very weapons-producing firms I had encountered at the arms fair? And what if I used these shares as a medium for my art project despite my status as a conscientious objector? The act of purchasing sin stocks with government money meant for an art project became a form of art generating contrarianism.
After consideration of the ethical implications and potential objections from my sponsors, I decided to go ahead. My ownership in these arms companies would become an integral part of my art installation, a statement embedded in collateral damage. Prospective buyers of my ‘Objection’ art installation would inherit not just the art but also the responsibility of owning weapons shares.
At the Ars Electronica Festival 2023, I showcased prototypes and AI-generated imagery of hacked weaponry, including tear gas canisters with blueberry-flavored smoke, bullets with built-in painkillers, firework bombs that seem to make buildings bleed, snow cannons instead of water cannons, and more. Alongside these materialized hacking, I presented the interface of my online brokerage account to the audience.
I had made my first purchase in weapon shares on May 2, 2023, amidst the turmoil of the Ukraine war. By the official presentation of my project at the Ars Electronica Festival in September 2023, my portfolio had yet to turn a profit. However, the unexpected twist came with the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war on October 7, 2023.
In a single day, my equity portfolio surged more than ten percent – a trend that has continued ever since. And so, I find myself as a sin stock owner, a conscientious objector grappling with the paradox and ambiguity of being part of – and profiting from – the very industry I hate to the core. The daily ritual of checking the value of my portfolio on my phone has become both strange and addictive, a constant reminder of the complex dance between art, ethics, and the unexpected impact of the ebb and flow of global disasters.
As I pen down these thoughts at the end of January 2024, I remain immersed in the evolving narrative of my ‘Objection’ project. The “Hamas Effect”, unforeseen and profound, has added layers of complexity to my artistic endeavor. It prompts reflection on morality, finance, insider and outsider trading, suffering, and the uncharted territories where conscientious objection meets the tumultuous world of sin stocks.
Tom Bogaert came to art after a career as a refugee worker with the United Nations and Amnesty International in Europe, Central Africa, and South-East Asia. At the age of 38, Bogaert gave up his legal career to settle in New York as an artist. He has widely exhibited in Europe, the US, the Middle East, and North Africa—mainly and proudly in artist-run and nonprofit venues.
Bogaert is one half of the Haitian Belgian art-generating business Lafleur & Bogaert. They are best known for their critically acclaimed projects for documenta fifteen as part of Atis Rezistans / Ghetto Biennale, for which they received “the Best Exhibition of the Year 2022 Award” by the International Association of Art Critics in Germany.
Tom Bogaert was the 2023 Artist in Residence at the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz, Austria. Born in Bruges, Belgium in 1966 and based in Rome, Italy, Bogaert works in situ.