June 01, 2014

"The St. Petersburg Paradox"

In the early 18th century two Swiss cousins, Daniel and Nicolas Bernoulli, presented a mathematical theory to explain why people resist gambling more than a few dollars on a game with seemingly infinite possibility for winning and gains.  This equation was presented at the Imperial Academy of Science in Saint Petersburg and has become known as the St Petersburg Lottery or St. Petersburg Paradox.  It is considered the standard accounting for probability and decision theory in economics and philosophy.

The idea is quite simple.  Imagine being invited to play a game of chance where a fair coin is flipped over and over again.  You, the player - or gambler - has put down one dollar and you will double you money every time the coin comes up heads but when the coin comes up tails the game is over and you walk away with whatever is in the pot.  Theoretically, the payout can be enormous, but how much money would you be willing to risk in the initial bet?

Surprisingly, the general consensus is very little, and this is where the term "paradox" comes in.  Despite the infinite possibility for winnings, most people are not comfortable in offering more than a few dollars to play, and explaining this hesitation to gamble with a 50/50 chance at success remains a contentious issue in economic policy.

I am by no means an economist and certainly not a mathematician, but last Tuesday night I was invited to the opening of an art installation on this theme at the Swiss Institute.  Located in a former garage space on Wooster Street in Soho, the Swiss Institute seeks to promote a contemporary cultural dialogue between Switzerland, Europe and the United States through exhibitions, lectures, performances and screenings.

It was a happening scene and once I got over the fact that I was one of the oldest people there, it was a lot of fun too!  I really didn't know much about the St. Petersburg Paradox, and I certainly didn't know how it related to art, but once I got inside it all started to make sense.

The curators had assembled thirteen works based on the ideas of chance, risk, gaming and/or value, by established and emerging artists.  Historic works include Hans (Jean) Arp's 1916 "Collage géométrique" one of a series of works to explore random arrangements of tossed pieces of paper, and Marcel Duchamp's "Monte Carlo Bond", 1938, is a direct reference to a casino and flimsy financial schemes.

The idea of chance is further scrutinized by German artist Sarah Ortmeyer who took over the main exhibition space with "Sankt Petersburg Paradox", a site-specific piece involving a variety of chessboards and chess tables scattered about with the pieces replaced by 109 eggs, both natural and artificial, seemingly randomly strewn about.

Another curious installation piece is "Remnant Recomposition" by American artist Cayetano Ferrer who assembled dozens of different carpet remnants that had been specifically manufactured for casinos and put them together as a sort of garish collage. 

There were also several video works including Tabor Robak's multi screen feature "A*" that channels the intensity of a gamer's ups and downs in an arresting 10 minute emotional roller coaster.

I cannot imagine what the Bernoullis would think of these interpretations of their mathematical theory, but I can tell you it was a very stimulating evening and put economics and gambling in a much more colorful light!

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