Imaginative Currencies! Imaginary Resistance?
P #10


Aschauer, Michael


A stack of 0Euro notes, back side, created by the Austrian artist Michael Aschauer




Front side of a 500 Giblinge bill, designed by Austrian artist Deborah Sengl and issued by


    The 0EURO project by Austrian artist Michael Aschauer mimics the Euro currency and adds a bill with a zero Euro face value. Aschauer created a bank note and a paradox: the bill is both a token that is supposed to represent the power of access to the endless world of commodities and its factual negation. Because its face value is zero, the money can’t be used to actually gain access to material riches. Mimicking the features of the original bank notes, the missing face value indicates a lack of a different kind of values, i.e. the moral values of the Euro project. If we take a closer look at the symbolic references on the artwork, we see that the bridge on the upper left of the bill is destroyed. What was once supposed to be a project of solidarity, unity and common identity, Aschauer proclaims, has failed. The zero Euro note is meant to be a critical reminder of that state of affairs.

    Interestingly, Aschauer also seems to understand that, rather than a system of mutually held morals, it is the common currency, and hence the shared economy, that is the true benchmark for a successful European integration. In this regard, Aschauer criticizes the Euro project for something that it is not, namely an integration machine designed to bring unity, solidarity and peace. This is simply because the common currency and the inter-European market is a means for national competition designed to enrich the most powerful nations’ economies while making sure that everyone involved bows to the command of a supra-national rationality. This fundamental contradiction of national sovereignty and a supra-national economic regime has manifested itself in multiple, ongoing crises, from the Euro debt crisis to the migration crisis. Being in debt in a currency that all nineteen nations use to foster their respective national economies with Germany leading the way in terms of demanding a world currency capable of being a real alternative to the US-dollar, the vast majority of the outgunned European countries with their inferior economies face severe austerity and a significant loss of sovereignty, leaving no doubt that the Euro project is in fact not a matter of solidarity. Aschauer’s money is a symbolic reminder of those contradictions, but one that criticizes the Euro project based on the artist’s idealistic conviction that the Europe bound by the Euro was built with the goal of achieving unity and solidarity as well as implementing higher moral values.

    Aside from Aschauer’s symbolic money, which was never intended to circulate, a different group of artists and activists from Austria designed a new and imaginative currency—the “Gibling”—for use in the local community. Every other year, a new set of bills is designed by a different artist. On the front side of the current bill, designed by Austrian artist Deborah Sengl, a mammoth in the uniform of a banker, manager or politician is depicted. It may symbolize the longed-for extinction of that particular caste. From the logo and the face value depicted on the bill branches grow—probably from an olive tree—indicating a healthy and sustainable interrelation between people and money. The Gibling itself is intended to promote and nurture a local cultural scene and artist/activist community in Vienna, Austria, by being a medium of exchange that is accepted in several cultural institutions and bars. The Gibling is said to be an alternative to the Euro and as such a “subversive statement” and a “critical stance in itself,” a “protest,” and a practical and symbolic “resistance”. However, what seems at first to be a theoretically sound and practical working alternative, appears under further scrutiny to be a concept and action of debatable merits, especially when judged in terms of the artist-activists’ initial criticisms of money and its effects.

    If we take a closer look at the Gibling bill we discover that the logo of the alternative currency is based on the € sign. This isn’t just an incidental artistic link to the Euro or a coincidence. Having a one-to-one exchange rate, the denomination—and hence the value of the Gibling—is deliberately and entirely tied to that of the Euro. This is especially contradictory since the value of the Euro is based on exactly what the creators of the alternative currency have deemed unjust and are attempting to circumvent with their money: speculation. As with any other currency, the real-world value of the Euro is based on private capitalist endeavors within a given political sovereignty. These endeavors and investments are driven by a financial logic that constantly compares, assesses, and rates given risks against expected returns. Both the businesses of the so-called real economy that are concerned with the actual production of goods and services as well as the business model of the banks are speculative in nature, because all these economic efforts are based on a risky premise. Since entire societies are founded on competition and hence the permanent contestation of the private sector’s struggle for economic growth, the positive outcome is never fixed. Every success story in capitalist competition necessitates a concomitant defeat. Because contestants always contradict and challenge one another’s economic efforts, the positive outcome of these permanent private bets on profits remain uncertain, preliminary, and precarious, and the system leaves itself prone to crises. The Euro currency then, like any other currency, mirrors these antagonistic speculative ambitions. All nineteen national economies, contesting one another, are accounted for in the value of the Euro. By directly interrelating the Gibling to the Euro, the creators came up with a currency that fully depends on a value deriving from this existing, contradictory situation and that therefore leaves the capitalist dogma of speculation and growth uncriticized and unmitigated: the change is purely cosmetic.

    Also, by creating money coupled with the Euro, the founders of the Gibling gave birth to a currency that hinges on a fully established capitalist regime over one’s own capacity for work. You need to earn Euros first before you can exchange them for Giblings and spend them. This dynamic is not as innocent as it may appear to the Gibling activists, who seem to think that by exchanging it the Euro magically loses its predicaments, contradictions and antagonisms. Taking a look at the capitalist command over the labor power may clarify that: in order to earn the money they need to live, people almost always have to sell their ability to labor to those who own the means of production. Since the people’s ‘earnings’ are expenses for the businesses that employ them and hence a reduction of their profits, wages are kept notoriously low and people systematically stay poor, if they want to keep their jobs. As a whole, the person that possesses only an ability to work produces all the material riches but remains separated from the yields of his/her own labor.

    The creators of the Gibling sought to mitigate the effects of speculation, which they detest, by decreeing that the money can’t be hoarded or treasured. The Gibling gradually loses its face value, until six years after being issued it becomes valueless. Based on the premise that only spent money is good money, people are then urged to consume. To use the money properly means to spend it. Interestingly, the way the initiators designed the monetary features of their currency, they assume that speculation has something to do with hoarding and keeping money out of circulation. They couldn’t be more misguided. Speculating with money means to use it, invest it and let it circulate. It means that owners assert their questionable right to profit, i.e. money that returns with interest. Hoarding is the very opposite of an investment strategy and even small-scale investors know that. Secondly, the Gibling activists all too willingly misunderstand the nature of money. They think that speculation is something that money doesn’t have to allow. What they lightly cast aside is the fact that modern capitalist money is the result and derivative of an entirely speculative mode of production. Money in capitalism is a token in which the speculative nature of the credit and its prerogative of constant growth—that the real economy serves, or else it perishes—has been objectified. To use money therefore means to serve that very equation of money = entitlement to profits (naturally only in the hands of people who actually own enough of it.) Money in modern capitalist societies is far from being a neutral tool that can be reassigned to different tasks, even if it’s given a different name and some extra features.

    The Gibling is also said to cater to the needs of people who use it, as opposed to the Euro, which only serves monetary interests. Well, if the needs of people really count why do you use money anyway? Because when money is involved only the solvent needs are going to be considered. In this society a need without purchasing power remains unsatisfied. And everybody knows that, either from her/his own experience when window shopping on Fifth Avenue or from the newspapers constantly reporting on hunger, water and health crises in the global south. If we don’t have the monetary power our needs are being ignored. That’s the harsh truth of a world economy that runs on private property and money. Because when it comes to the societal mode of production that is based on commodities, exclusion from all the things people need is the lever to get to their money. Now what is indeed strengthened and catered to by the Gibling is in fact the local economy. But why would I want to support that? No business, be it local or not, relinquishes its goal to earn money and hence satisfies my needs only for money. The creators of the Gibling mistake the desire of local businesses to earn money for an unconditional satisfaction of local residents’ needs. Since both sides’ interests are opposed, this contradiction can’t be cured by a currency that people can only spend where they live.

    Finally, the Gibling is said to be an artwork that transcends and subverts the speculative nature of the art market because it can’t be bought or sold within this particular market. The opposite is true. Since it is a commodity like any other, the Gibling of course can be sold, even on an art market. As long as there is a buyer there’ll be a price and hence a value. Historically, the “Knochenmark”, a kindred Berlin-based art currency project from the early 1990s, exactly yielded these results. Since it only existed for a limited time—like the Gibling, which is reissued every other year, with older versions becoming obsolete—people started to keep and then trade the artistic currency, which is now worth many times more than its initial value of twenty Deutschmarks. The subversion of the art market turns out to be an imaginary effect.

    Besides, there’s another success story of an alternative currency, founded almost 30 years ago. This currency has also had a one-to-one exchange rate, was coupled with the locally dominant currency (in this case, the U.S. Dollar), was also restricted to a certain area, served a certain community, and as a collector’s item is now worth several times as much as its initial face value. This currency is the Disney Dollar! Unlike the stated intentions of the Gibling, the Disney Dollar was created by a multi-billion-dollar corporation as a means to smoothly run a speculative capitalist business that pays minimum wages while declaring generous profits for its stakeholders. And that demonstrates that the features that alternative currencies like the Gibling hold are not a means to subvert and resist capitalist economic dynamics, but rather to harness them.

    The list of critical artistic projects devoted to (alternative) money is long and most of them blur the lines between the aesthetic realm and existing functions of an economic medium. They range from Marcel Duchamp’s Monte Carlo bonds, to Joseph Beuys’ art=capital signatures on real bank notes, to the above-mentioned “Knochengeld”, all the way to recent initiatives such as the Viennese Gibling, the Afro currency project by Mansour Ciss Kanakassy and Baruch Gottlieb, and e-Flux’s Time/Bank project, to name just a few. Most of these projects entertain the thought that money should be nothing but a neutral tool working in favor of everybody who uses it. By criticizing the actual outcomes of a money-driven capitalist society, artists and activists on the one hand announce that money is neither something neutral nor an innocent tool. After all, they admit that the money they know doesn’t have an adequacy to the needs of ordinary people. On the other hand, artists and activists neglect to address the underlying nature of the monetary system whose ramifications they so harshly criticize—be it for the sake of immaculate art or for the sake of people’s needs. Instead they proceed to create imaginative currencies that are supposed to perform those functions that they have in mind. As consequence their vision of either the purity of art, the improvement of the world, or of providing aid for a specific community then becomes just a matter of currency design. With a just and righteous currency, all grievances are said to wondrously vanish. What these activists and artists in fact put into practice is to confront the economic reality with a simple “ought,” with a list of wishes money should grant, but which it always fails to do. The projects thus contradictorily imitate the design and functions of money in order to criticize, oppose and undermine its most fundamental ramifications. In other words, these projects intend to cure the outcome of a money-based mode of social reproduction by creating more money. As a result, they do create alternative money, but no alternative to money.

      Artistic currency projects mentioned in the text

      Marcel Duchamp issued his Monte Carlo bonds 1924 as a satirical attempt to criticize the art world for its speculative nature. Duchamp sold the bonds to raise money for a company which purpose was to explore the laws of chance. To achieve this goal Duchamp wanted to gamble at Monte Carlo’s casinos, more precisely its roulette tables and hand the dividend over to its shareholders. The 1938-print, which remained in lifelong possession of the artist, sold for almost two and a half million U.S. Dollars at the New York branch of Christie’s in 2010.

      Joseph Beuys’ signature “art=capital” on real bank notes, including Deutschmarks, U.S. Dollars, Francs and Pesetas was a comment on the nature of art, which in Beuys’ eyes serves as genuine capital, as a facilitator and producer of social change and progress.

      Time/Bank is an artist-run project fostered by e-flux, in which money is abandoned in favor of a direct exchange of labor power skill sets and services. Time is considered to be a neutral intermediary for all kinds of work, echoing the time-sensitive value production of a money-based economy. Time/Bank’s goal is to exceed the boundaries of a local alternative economy and bring it to a truly global level.

      The Afro currency project promotes a pan-African currency, which is said to bring back economic sovereignty to the crises-ridden and IMF-weary African countries. The Afro is supposed to be a currency that allows all of these different national African economies to make the best of their potentials and resources, and become truly autonomous.