While the curators of ECONOMY don’t explicitly say it, one of the messages that can be taken from this ambitious exhibition, which spans two venues (Stills and CCA) and two cities (Edinburgh and Glasgow), is that post-2008 crash, all of us – or at least most – are losers. Such is the state of the global, and specifically European, economy; such is the impact of the uncertainty, the confusion, the chaos that haunts many of our institutions, both governmental and private.

It’s a point encapsulated in a short video piece, Loser, made in 1997 by the Estonian artist Kai Kaljo and showing at Stills. Originally conceived as a statement on the us-and-them position of Estonia and countries like it in the post-Soviet Bloc Europe, its message now, say ECONOMY curators Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd, is relevant to and redolent of the situation that many of us now find ourselves in.

“Loser is an historic piece that we’ve included because the condition of precarity Kaljo identified in Estonia following the collapse of the Soviet Union is something that has been generalised,” says Dimitrakaki. “It is precisely what most artists around the world are facing at the moment and how they’re defined. It’s a social condition that is no longer limited to the East.”

Loser, 1997 from Kai Kaljo on Vimeo.

It is the economic and ideological collapse of Europe, and the shifting relationship between the haves and have-nots of the European project, that ECONOMY attempts to address. Originally from Greece, it’s a subject that University of Edinburgh lecturer Dimitrakaki has been following closely.

“Eastern Europe has featured a lot in exhibitions in the past, but we’re introducing it into the mainstream of developments,” she explains. “It’s not this feral thing any more that needs to be examined; what used to be happening there in the ’90s is pretty much what is happening everywhere now.”

Historically, the two turning points that inform ECONOMY are the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; and the banking crisis of 2008. All the featured works – by artists including Johan Grimonprez, Rick Lowe, Andreas Gursky and Tracey Emin – were produced in the last 20 years, with the exception of Martha Rosler’s Airport Series, which began in 1983.

The ECONOMY project was concieved in 2009, its scale and cost dictating the long gestation period it has gone through. Originally planned by Stills curator Lloyd as the third and final instalment of a series of shows looking at artists’ use of documentary modes, it quickly became clear that it was an idea that couldn’t be contained within one small space.

“Rather than just move the show to a bigger space, we thought about working with a gallery in Glasgow, CCA being the obvious choice,” explains Lloyd. “Clearly there are differences in the two institutions – Stills is focused on photography, CCA on contemporary art generally. But also the two cities have very different contexts and histories: the bankers and financial base in Edinburgh, the industrial history of the Clyde in Glasgow. With that in mind, we’ve placed specific works in the different cities, such as Mitra Tabrizian’s City, London [2008] at Stills, which is a very Edinburgh image – a pack of young bankers standing in the foyer of a grand bank.”

There was, say the curators, no shortage of work that addressed economic relationships. “We could have included thousands of works on an economic theme – there are so many that have been made,” says Dimitrakaki. Lloyd adds that there is “a growing willingness of artists across the globe to engage in and reflect upon economic and social issues”. Interestingly, the majority of the selected artists – around two-thirds – were women. “It wasn’t a conscious decision,” says Lloyd, “but in part it reflects the impact of these economic changes on women.”

It is a piece at CCA by Serbian artist Tanya Ostojic, Looking For a Husband With a EU Passport (2000-2005), which perhaps best captures the central thesis of the show – that more than ever our lives, our choices, are determined and defined by the tottering unpredictability of capital.

“She was one of the first artists we approached to be part of the exhibition,” says Dimitrakaki. “It’s a piece that was produced as part of her own life and is emblematic of the sexualisation of the migrant… Her purpose is essentially to cross over to the ‘good side’ of capitalism, where it ‘works’, and that was Germany. So this desire to belong, the position of the economic migrant, is something that is very much determined by capital, and because of labour mobility [within Europe] it will have a massive impact on ways of life.”

While ECONOMY is an exhibition with a strong curatorial voice throughout, it is not just an exercise in ‘listen and learn’. There are discussions and debates scheduled, and the curators intend that the ECONOMY website will act as an open forum. Members of the public, for example, are invited to upload images which they feel reflect or describe the economy in some way. Says Lloyd: “The artworks are part of a much broader dialogue, our narrative is part of a much broader dialogue, and we’ll just see how it goes over the next few months.”

ECONOMY is at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until 21 April, and CCA, Glasgow, 26 Jan–23 March. economyexhibition.stills.org