In 1903, as H. P. Berlage’s stock and commodities exchange was preparing to open in Amsterdam, one of the greatest labor disputes in Dutch history was unfolding in the form of mass railway strikes throughout the country. This episode is rarely discussed in relation to the opening of Berlage’s Exchange, despite the fact that it was very much a part of the context in which operations began there. An Unknown Quantity is set in the Grain Trading Hall of Berlage’s Exchange, where a clear view of Amsterdam’s Central Station, a key site in the 1903 strikes, is framed by a series of north-facing windows, which were part of a lighting scheme devised by Berlage to provide the grain merchants with a cool even light to facilitate the evaluation of the quality of the grain being exchanged there.
An Unknown Quantity is constructed out of a vast number of still images that have been put together to form a single field of view through which the film moves. As this movement unfolds and the field is gradually revealed, a history of the room, which in 1978 became the home of Europe’s first Options Exchange, is told. This shift that took place in the Grain Exchange Hall is seen as part of a more general change that took place throughout the world of exchanges in the last quarter of the twentieth century, when more and more capital became tied up in financial instruments at the expense of those commodities, and the work that went into their production, underlying them. In this world prices are formed through algorithms processed by computers rather than through the evaluation of goods in light of their material properties. The spaces of exchange become harder to locate as their former locations are transformed into backdrops for the production of images of the “new economy,” where, as the Beurs van Berlage website now announces, Berlage’s true intention for his stock exchange, to become a People’s Palace after the fall of capitalism, has finally become a reality. But these “people,” it turns out, only appear in the form of business meetings made up of 2 to 60 persons.