It often happens that language tricks us, makes us believe that words are there only for one reason. As the truth emerges, we realize that words are there not to make things clear, but rather to make things more unclear. The word “currency” – here written with the use of letters that were once manipulated in order become symbols of currencies for different countries in the world – has taken quite an interesting path, from its etymology to its common meaning.
When we type “currency” into Google, its dictionary gives us two possible meanings: the first is “a system of money in general use in a particular country”; the second is “the fact or quality of being generally accepted or in use.” While these two definitions have something in common, they also outline a difference, which is in fact the issue at stake. From the first definition to the second, innumerable discourses emerge, and it is within this opaque space that we should wander while experiencing the reality around us. To these two meanings and the space between them, we can add currency’s etymology, which comes from the Latin currere, “to run,” and leads to many ends: to those already mentioned, as well as to electric current, a flow of electric charge, which connects the word to whatever is flowing, streaming, circulating, and dispersing.
People in the field of art and in other domains are currently highly interested in the connection between art and money. From academic papers and books, like Svetlana Alpers’s Rembrandt’s Enterprise: The Studio and the Market (1988), which research the birth and evolution of the art market, to startups like Artsy, which try to forecast with algorithms the value and market trajectory of an artwork. Even Hollywood has become fascinated by the issue, with the HBO documentary The Price of Everything (2018) and the Netflix art-world horror Velvet Buzzsaw (2019).
However, as always in the art world, things are far more complex than they appear. It seems that only works of art themselves might offer responses to the current situation, responses that are not definitive answers, as they both clarify and confuse.
A possible starting point for this visible increase in the bond between the behavior of money and the behavior of visual art is some time in the 1960s and 1970s. From the side of finance, the administration of French president Charles de Gaulle began to reduce its dollar reserves, exchanging them for gold at the official exchange rate and therefore reducing US economic influence. This, along with the fiscal strain of federal expenditures on the Vietnam War and the persistent balance of payments deficit, forced President Nixon to end international convertibility of the US dollar to gold on August 15, 1971, a measure that became known as the “Nixon Shock”.
From the side of visual art, there was Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in 1968, and Joseph Kosuth’s “Art After Philosophy” and Lawrence Weiner’s “Statements” in 1969. These seminal texts, which can also be considered artworks, radicalized the possibility of creating works of art that exist before or beyond any physical object, in common with the nature of a currency, for example the US dollar, which can circulate without a direct correlation to gold. What came after these two decades, whether as a progressive or conservative position toward this radicalization, can only be understood if we consider that works of art can retain their status even when they are not objective, either in the sense of “objective, as such”, or in the sense of being related to an object. Whether deliberately or directly or consciously, or not, all the artists involved in this exhibition have considered these issues of currency.
For one year Marco Cassani regularly visited the fountain of a Balinese temple and collected the coins that locals and tourists had thrown in the water while making their wishes. Through producing a sculptural epitome for the accumulation of money, a tall vertical stack of coins, the artist obliterates their monetary value. As an artwork, of course, the object will be valued anew. In Fountain (Gunung Kawi) (2017), as in previous works, Cassani reflects on the global economic system; in particular, the precarious state of interhuman agreements, and the subtle distinction between trading and economy (i.e. value creation), which is at the base of cultural production.
Paolo Cirio’s work illustrates a global currency through the creative formulation of an equation and trading algorithm for the currency exchange market. (W)orld Currency (2014) addresses the inherent instability of various currencies, as well as the need for a new independent global reserve currency that could potentially empower and unite the world population. The conceptual work is represented by the artistic expression of a mathematical equation and a diagram of the algorithm, suggesting how the value of the currency is calculated and how its liquidity is created and maintained, while an accompanying text explains how the equation works.
G+S’s contribution, VWAP MEAN REVERSION STRATEGY WITH DONALD MACKENZIE (SOCIOLOGIST OF FINANCE), PHILIP GRANT (ANTHROPOLOGIST AND FORMER EQUITY FUND MANAGER) (2013), comes from the duo’s series of confidential trading strategies, acquired by the artists from financial experts who are also interested in the arts, in exchange for artworks. The strategy documents are bound in files with cover illustrations by the designer Johan Hjerpe, which visually interpret the main dynamics of the strategies. The tricks of the trade remain sealed in glass boxes, out of access yet performing as art.
For a whole year Igor Grubić wrote the message “Resist the epidemics of greed” on 1,300 banknotes of different values. The message, at the core of his work Banknotes from the series “366 Liberation Rituals” (2008-2009), refers to the wave of consumerism that had a huge impact on Croatians during the transition process from socialism. Shopping malls opened and became places that generated a new way of community life, of leisure and fun, where whole families would spend their time together. One of the most visible signs of this new era was how Croatian citizens were spending more money than they earned, a gateway to another lifestyle.
Michal Helfman’s drawing Untitled (1 Dollar) (2015) functions as a door to a universe she has been in the process of ‘constructing’ through exhibitions and installations. In this universe the figure of the artist is freely associated with figures in society that are apparently disconnected from art. The figure of the smuggler, the currency-exchange store owner, and the terrorist become metaphors, channels to a deeper understanding of the current situation, both in art and in reality at large.
Agnieszka Kurant’s piece is a continuation of her longstanding interest in the notion of “phantom capital”, the dematerialization of money and labor in contemporary economy, the subsequent rise of influence by social capital, and the increasingly popular digital or nonphysical manifestations of financial exchange such as bitcoin and forms of shadow economies. In Currency Converter (2018), Kurant explores the history of objects used as money from antiquity to the present day. The work is comprised of two elements: a picture of a custom shelving unit containing over fifty objects which represent the great variety of alternative monetary forms, and a corresponding map which traces their global circulation. Examples from earlier civilizations include salt slabs used to compensate Roman soldiers (the word salary derives from the Latin word for salt, salarium). Other examples include brightly colored candy wrappers traded in communist Poland, when companies were no longer able to afford colored packaging for the goods they produced, and anything with color became a valuable commodity. In isolated communities such as prisons, a variety of goods including tobacco or vacuum-packed mackerel become part of a functional system of currency and trade.
Navid Nuur’s Hyped by History, Hypnotized by Memory (1976-2019) employs a material made for public transaction as well as for private use; a durable alloy for outdoors, for surviving, but also a domestic alloy for inside. The multifaceted work moves from a collective value – that of the 5 euro cent coin – to an alternative system of value – that of the art; from a collective position, within Europe, to the personal position of the artist; from symbols of the power of humanity – like the Roman Colosseum, inscribed on the Italian version of the 5 euro cent – to a human’s finger. It is not incidental that copper, which coats all 5 euro cents, is also an excellent electrical conductor.
With Untitled (rice) (2014), Pratchaya Phinthong investigates the role of Thailand as the world’s largest exporter of rice, and how this role effects society and politics. In 2013, Thailand’s prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra created the so-called “Rice Pledging Scheme”, a plan through which farmers could consign rice and receive a mortgage paper. The plan aimed to gain the support of the rural population, and at first generated a consistent cash flow, until several factors intervened – namely the decline in Thai rice prices on the global market and the corruption within Shinawatra’s political party – causing the scheme to crash and millions of farmers to miss the repayments of their debts.
In coherence with her practice of questioning the role and effect of a human’s most basic actions – cleaning, paying taxes, playing – within social structures, Ana Prvački’s At the Tips of Your Fingertips (towards a clean money culture) (2007) détournes the cliché of “dirty money” with unexpected results. As Anne Barlow writes, “In cleaning each note by hand in an almost ritualistic way, Prvački provides her clients with money that is fresh enough to use as a face wipe. But in doing so within the context of the UBS lobby [where the work was first presented], she becomes a kind of institutional Sisyphus, momentarily achieving the goal of cleanliness and then immediately failing as the note becomes ‘contaminated’ on receipt by its owner. Given that some believe the actual value of the note may also be diminished through the act of cleaning, the poetry of the piece lies in the sheer absurdity of the endeavor.”
As in the other works of the exhibition which reflect upon pivotal and yet overlooked historical moments, the starting point for David Rickard’s Stolen Pound (2018) is a moment in the late twentieth century when the UK government realized that, due to a rise in copper prices, the face value of one and two penny coins was being overtaken by the value of the copper they were made from. In response to this, in September 1992 the Royal Mint changed the coin composition from 97 percent copper to copper-plated steel. However, some of the older “higher value” coins remain in circulation. Carefully collected by the artist over a number of years the work consists of a long line of original copper pennies. Together, 280 coins form a one-kg rod of material, which has an estimated scrap value of £3.80. The material that forms the work has been significantly devalued by becoming currency and therefore the stolen pound is not the coins themselves, but rather the value that has been taken from the material. The value of copper will rise and fall in line with the metal commodities market, so the length of the sculpture will be adjusted over time to equate to one British pound of stolen value.
Conceived following a conversation with Israeli artist Nir Harel, Miri Segal’s The New 25 (2019) continues her desire to decode systems of meaning in order to flip them and charge them with subtle autobiographical elements. Segal proposes a new currency, which literally consists of half of a 50-euro banknote. The artist invites people to tear banknotes and start using the two halves for the value they would have had “pre-Nixon Shock”, or as if the banknote were a piece of gold. If you cut a 50-euro banknote in two, you could use it to pay as if it were a 25-euro banknote (which of course doesn’t actually exist). In addition to this semi-illegal act, which is conceived, like bitcoin, as a peer-to-peer economy, the artist refers to the word ‘crisis’, both in the sense of a so-called ‘midlife crisis’, and in terms of ‘financial crisis’.
Following their own words, Slavs and Tatars’ work When in Rome (2010) is based on a “deliberate slippage of terminology that allows for a move that is at once commemorative and confused. Coins are offered, not to beggars, but to believers, as they are often strewn across icons of Orthodox Christianity. If modernity is the totalizing project of the twentieth century, which doesn’t allow for failure, and where expediency trumps reflection, perhaps Roma communities offer the possibility of escape from the tyranny of the past and present.”
Finally, Jan Tichy’s History of Painting II. (2019) is based on the idea of obsolescence in relation to visual art and education. In 2014 the Art Institute of Chicago decided to discard its collection of over one million teaching slides. The artist took all the 35mm slides filed under “history of painting” to his studio, around ten thousand in total. In 2015 he created History of Painting I., an installation for the Chicago Cultural Center, covering three large windows with slides edited by color, presenting the ratio of color use in this chosen history of painting. His new work from this discarded didactic material consists of forty slides, pressed together in pairs in 35mm-slide frames and mounted on a carousel. Each slide was not cut, colored, or edited in any particular way; the artist simply carefully placed them on top of each other to achieve the desired composition and tone.
The panorama and premises of ₡ U R ₹ € ₦ ₢ ¥ are brilliantly evoked and summarized by Agnieszka Kurant’s words: “the juxtaposition of [these] objects reflects the ability of all things, real or intangible, valuable or disposable, to be exchanged in a system where everything can be converted into or expressed as something else.”
* ₡ = Costa Rican colón / [$]U = Uruguayan peso / R = South African rand / ₹ = Indian rupee / € = euro / ₦ = Nigerian naira / ₢ = Brazilian cruzeiro / ¥ = Japanese yen or Chinese yuan.