Although things in Greece appear to have stabilised slightly after a fortnight of dramatic uncertainty, the heightened speculation on the future of Greek money that we saw at the height of the crisis is by no means irrelevant.
A BBC journalist, speaking in Athens just as the referendum results were reported, considered the whereabouts of the drachma printing presses (he needn’t have bothered: the Greek finance minister had confirmed some days earlier that they had been destroyed on Greece’s entry into the euro). Elsewhere, scenarios involving Greece printing euros independently of the European Central Bank, stamping existing euros with the word “drachma”, using IOUs, bitcoins or local currencies began to circulate.
These anxieties weren’t confined to Greece. On the day that the German parliament voted on the bailout, the light artist Oliver Bienkowski projected the message “Außer Betrieb” (out of order) on the European Central Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt. And, despite the recent settlement, these anxieties are far from consigned to history.
At the root of the crisis lie the divisions between national economies – divisions a shared paper currency cannot paper over. A euro printed in Greece looks similar and is worth the same as a euro printed in Germany, despite the obvious differences between the economies.
Hence the crisis awakens age-old anxieties about what paper money itself means, what relations of power and trust it symbolises and what happens when they begin to break down. All the current talk of Greece’s debts conceal a more fundamental truth: paper money is itself always a debt, backed not by gold but by the future taxation that the government is able to levy.
So the questions of who owns the debts that the euro represents, and how the connection between Europe’s national taxpayers and its single currency can be forged, are clearly political and social as well as financial. They are also questions that bite uncomfortably deep into the history of the eurozone – as Thomas Piketty’s high-stakes intervention into the debate has recently highlighted.
The desperation, frustration and anger that many Greeks clearly feel regarding the nature of their euro trap – or “fiscal waterboarding” in the words of Yanis Varoufakis – can now be seen on their euros themselves due to the work of the Greek artist Stefanos. On his website, he documents his daily drawing, scanning and spending of euros. He fills the classic imposing architecture of these doctored euro notes with ghostly stick figures. Some of them are desperate: they hang, fall, bleed and lie on the Gothic buildings of Europe’s financial institutions.
In an interview for the London Review of Books, Stefanos describes how the project was initiated by news of a suicide, saying: “Whenever violence or poverty is reported, I transfer the message on the medium.” Other images from Stefanos’ archive are incredibly threatening. They speak to the other kinds of crises that Greek has faced this summer. In some examples, the figures become multitudes, surging up rather than falling from buildings, crowding through archways to enter new spaces.
These notes can clearly be placed in the much longer tradition of artists appropriating banknotes, something that is explored in an exhibition I have been involved in curating. As Stefanos understands, the everyday tenacity of paper money makes it the perfect vessel for carrying its own critique: the invisible relations that money reproduces can easily be written onto its very surface and released out into the world for people to peruse while spending.
Show me the money
Artists started to experiment with money from the time of the financial revolution in the early 18th century. Some of William Hogarth’s work, for example, tackles the threats, the decadency and the corruption, that paper money represented to him.
In 1797 the government passed the “Bank Restriction Act” which meant that the Bank of England no longer had to exchange paper money for gold. A rise in counterfeiting followed, and the government introduced draconian laws to safeguard paper money. Artists reacted to these laws by creating money themselves. In 1819 for example, George Cruikshank made what he called a “Bank Restriction Note”.
Like Stefanos some 200 years later, Cruikshank altered the traditional iconography of the note, converting it into the images of state violence (skulls, a hangman’s noose, ships for transportation) that was dealt to those who dared counterfeit paper money and disturbed the fragile social promise upon which it was based. And of course, Cruikshank’s note was itself a satirical forgery that disrupted circulation.
Similar are the pennies laboriously defaced by the Suffragettes in the early 20th century, which saw the cry “Votes for Women” being circulated on currency itself.
Or the annotations of conceptual artist Cildo Meireles, who defaced paper notes in order to condemn and question the repressive military regime in Brazil, naming those journalists who had been silenced and then killed by the state. Meireles wrote on both Brazilian and US notes. The circulation of the notes alongside one another offered its own critique of the US complicity with the regime. This is a tradition that continues in the US to this day: Occupy George saw the public ambitions of the Occupy movement being quietly transferred to the dollar:
By circulating dollar bills stamped with fact-based infographics, Occupy George informs the public of America’s daunting economic disparity one bill at a time.
An artistic currency
Other artists treat the threat of money’s destruction, the end of the complex social relations that underpin paper money that are always attendant on these moments of crisis, very differently.
Some, such as Robin Bhattacharya, use it as an opportunity to produce alternative structures for money. Bhattacharya is based in Zurich, one of Europe’s most important financial centres. He has yoked together the value of art and the value of currencies by creating a currency based on his own persona:
The Robin Currency is a fully functioning currency system based on prime numbers. The coin and notes of any denomination each correspond to one prime number and are therefore unique. Other currencies such as euros, dollars and British pound can be exchanged for ROBIN™. The currency can be freely traded and the fluctuating exchange rates reflect its market value.
The value of Robin’s notes is determined by their relative scarcity or point of introduction into circulation. The currency began with 1 ROBIN™, and each new note issued since has been a prime number. So the lower the number, the more it is worth.
Faith in such an entirely self-referential system of supply and demand has to be shared between a community of believers – so, in this case, art collectors. Which gives his currency an oddly secure status:
In times of economic uncertainty, the investment in art is – while risky – one of the most recession-proof … And while other, state-supported currencies are in turmoil, the art-currency ROBIN™ might well be one of the most stable as each note is unique and therefore, in time, can only increase its value.
Perhaps, then, it is time we learn the lessons that artists have spent centuries trying to teach us: that money is a social and cultural as much as an economic concept and it is one in which all of its users need to have faith.