THE ART OF HARD CUR­RENCY

ADRIAN BURN­HAM on a new ex­hi­bi­tion which en­cour­ages us to see hard cur­rency from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives

The New European - - Agenda - BY ADRIAN BURN­HAM

Why Cash is king for new ex­hi­bi­tion

Cash is King, the book and ex­hi­bi­tion at Saatchi Gallery, is the brain­child of artists Robert Os­borne and Car­rie Re­ichardt. And they seem to have tapped into a mul­ti­far­i­ous protest aes­thetic and po­tent form of dis­sent: one that man­ages to both pig­gy­back and counter the so­ciopo­lit­i­cal sym­bol­ism be­ing ped­dled by the bank, na­tion or ruler re­spon­si­ble for is­su­ing the cur­rency.

In the US you can stamp ban­knotes but you can’t ad­ver­tise on them. In the UK it’s il­le­gal to de­face money but not to de­stroy it. In Aus­tralia it’s an of­fence both to dis­fig­ure and/or mu­ti­late notes. De­fac­ing money in Iraq could cost you a fine of up to a mil­lion di­nars or six months in jail or both.

Since China’s Ming Dy­nasty is­sued the first bank note more than six cen­turies ago, paper money has been a tool of state con­trol. Flash for­ward 500 years and you have the words ‘Votes for Women’ be­ing stamped on the King’s coinage by suf­fragettes.

More re­cently we saw the so­ciopo­lit­i­cal de­face­ment by the Oc­cupy move­ment, who stamped dol­lar bills with a mes­sage that the rich­est 400 peo­ple in the US hold wealth equal to the poor­est 150 mil­lion. A big part of the rea­son for us­ing cur­rency as a can­vas has to be its sym­bolic as­so­ci­a­tion with the rule of law and a wish to con­front and con­tra­dict it.

So de­fac­ing/refac­ing money as an act al­lied to civil dis­obe­di­ence is a time­honoured tac­tic: a small but sig­nif­i­cant sub­ver­sion aimed at cen­tralised au­thor­ity and in­tended to cir­cu­late a mes­sage of de­fi­ance and a call for change.

Econ­o­mists con­sider money in terms of for­malised liq­uid­ity, a state-in­sti­tuted com­mod­ity – of­ten steered and geared to­wards pre­serv­ing pri­vate profit – that sym­bol­ises value and fa­cil­i­tates ex­change. It is ab­stract and il­lu­sory: nowa­days only 4% of money whizzing round the world ex­ists in the ma­te­rial form of coins and notes. And if the cur­rent di­rec­tion of flow per­sists, hard cash may be­come a thing of the past, thereby ex­tin­guish­ing a po­tent ve­hi­cle for ex­pres­sion and protest.

But when cash is abol­ished – that is, when govern­ments feel com­pelled to adopt the mi­cro-sur­veil­lance of all trans­ac­tions – what­ever’s left in cir­cu­la­tion might then be used again as prom­is­sory notes to be­to­ken goods or ser­vices due the holder: sym­bols of hon­est ex­change rather than con­sumer so­ci­ety made man­i­fest. Not that con­trib­u­tors to Cash is King could give a mon­key’s about bow­ing to the law. From the re­peat-of­fender quip­ping vis­ual hacks to the lov­ingly crafted, painstak­ingly pro­duced one-off by an out­sider artist; from ap­pro­pri­ated fine art im­agery to the scrib­ble, sparse graphic and painterly, graf­fi­tied to fig­u­ra­tive, Pop to fan­tas­ti­cal, the irate, whim­si­cal, per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal… The many and var­ied con­tri­bu­tions to Cash is King all co­here, on one level, as a two-fin­ger salute to con­trol.

But who are we kid­ding? These days na­tional cap­i­tal­ism is pretty much ka­put. The era in which money is de­fined by the state is ebbing away. In its place a re­turn to mone­tary plu­ral­ity, an es­ca­la­tion of ways and means to ac­quire or ex­change goods and ser­vices: from in­ter­net barter, elec­tronic money, a pro­lif­er­a­tion of lo­cal cur­ren­cies that seek to keep prof­its away from the grasp­ing mitts of global op­er­a­tors.

Why, how then does de­fac­ing/refac­ing ban­knotes still pack a punch? Be­cause money is not self-con­tained, as David Frisby notes in his in­tro­duc­tion to G. Sim­mel’s Phi­los­o­phy of Money: “Eco­nomic phe­nom­ena are no longer ‘eco­nomic facts’ but also posses psy­cho­log­i­cal, eth­i­cal, aes­thetic, his­tor­i­cal, so­ci­o­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal di­men­sions.”

Nigel Dodd, au­thor of The So­cial Re­la­tions of Money, un­packs this fur­ther by sug­gest­ing money is a fluid, dy­namic process rather than an ob­jec­tive en­tity. Again, these days money is not nec­es­sar­ily de­fined by the state, it of­ten eludes le­gal or po­lit­i­cal con­trol, “money is shaped by the so­cial prac­tices of its users”.

But an ugly fact re­mains and, if any­thing, seems to be get­ting worse: we live in so­ci­eties where op­por­tu­nity is stymied by ex­tremes of un­equal wealth. So while, as Dodd avers, “money can be cel­e­brated as some­thing joy­ful and ir­ra­tional, emo­tional and per­sonal” it still re­tains po­tency as a sym­bol of our mar­ket econ­omy: that elu­sive, face­less ne­olib­er­al­ism that can only ‘flour­ish’ with min­i­mal con­trol, beyond na­tion states and sup­pos­edly out­with pol­i­tics. Though flour­ish is the wrong word. ‘Rigged’ to truly ben­e­fit just 1% seems closer to the mark.

As philoso­pher Michael San­del put it, mar­kets crowd out moral­ity. “Part of the ap­peal of mar­kets is that they don’t pass judg­ment on the pref­er­ences they sat­isfy. They don’t ask whether some ways of valu­ing goods are higher, or wor­thier than oth­ers. If some­one is will­ing to pay for sex or a kid­ney, and a con­sent­ing adult is will­ing to sell, the only ques­tion the economist asks is, ‘How much?’”

De­fac­ing/refac­ing money slows it down. It ceases to func­tion as the means

of ex­change, a me­di­a­tor be­tween ob­jects, it be­comes again recog­nis­able as an ob­ject it­self, and, of­ten in con­tri­bu­tions to Cash is King, a plat­form for ob­jec­tions to tech­no­cratic and man­age­rial at­ti­tudes that af­flict so­ci­eties, both near and far.

In the UK it was fivers that were first to go plas­tic. Then, from July 2017 the sub­sti­tu­tion of paper ten­ners for poly­mer ones was another step away from the warmth, the his­tory-bear­ing qual­ity of paper. The new notes writhe and slip around like for­tune-telling fish, all too keen to jump out of our pock­ets it seems.

Plas­tic doesn’t carry the patina of use the way paper does: those folds, smudges, more and less leg­i­ble marks, even the smell of money. All this contribute­s to its palimpses­tic qual­ity. And that’s be­fore we get to fo­cus on these folk who pur­posely chose money as the ve­hi­cle for their artis­tic out­put.

In the case of Car­rie Re­ichardt and Bob Os­borne, phrases and mo­tifs – ones al­ready used both in their in­di­vid­ual art prac­tice and joint works pro­duced on ce­ramic ware or printed ephemera – mi­grated over to make an ap­pear­ance on ban­knotes.

Cash money was never far from the minds of Rod­ney and Del Boy of Only Fools and Horses sit­com fame – the sight of their three-wheeler van rock­ing with fresh mil­lion­aire’s glee out­side Sotheby’s was a clas­sic smi­ley tears tele­vi­sion mo­ment – so it seems fit­ting the yel­low mo­tor adorns a few notes.

Like­wise, if not money it­self but the love of it is the root of all evil, then con­flat­ing sex­ual ex­ploita­tion with filthy lu­cre is a no-brainer. Hence the fe­lic­i­tous re­peat use of ‘call girl’ card im­agery in Mad in Eng­land and Rebel Not Taken’s con­tri­bu­tions. Take the ten­ner with, in­stead of QEII’S re­gal ric­tus, Princess Di’s doe-like eyes all aflut­ter, cou­pled with a text that was to be her fate: “MAID TO BE PUN­ISHED! NEW 18YR OLD”.

There’s a murky des­per­a­tion in the inky graphic up­skirt/tits-out/mouth agape de­cals cou­pled with ogling skulls and las­civ­i­ous text. But jokey smut flips to in­ci­sive protest on notes that call out Ox­fam work­ers’ sex­ual pre­da­tion in blighted coun­tries where sell­ing your body isn’t a last re­sort but pretty much the only one if you’ve medicine to buy or a fam­ily to feed. It’s this con­text that re­frames the economist’s bald, sup­pos­edly ef­fi­cient, ques­tion, ‘How much?’ as re­duc­tive, de­cep­tive, down­right crim­i­nal at times.

On a cheerier note, what’s great about Cash is King isn’t just the ar­ray of works through­out the book or the prom­ise of fu­ture ex­hi­bi­tions: it’s the global muster of im­age mak­ers. Do­na­tions to the project have been su­perb, gen­er­ous and dizzy­ingly wide-rang­ing. From Sax Im­pey’s Fog­bank of Eng­land that casts the UK monarch’s youth­ful face out to sea, up to her neck in the roil­ing black wa­ters (an ele­giac nod per­haps to fad­ing em­pire and sea power, maybe?) to the fun­nier money that’s reached these shores. For ex­am­ple, sent from Cleve­land, U.S., Josh Us­mani’s exquisitel­y de­tailed psy­che­delic pat­tern­ing. Maybe Her Maj should treat her­self to an en­theogenic trip or two: it might take her mind off the bonkers tra­jec­tory her beloved GB seems set on.

The range of me­dia used to de­face/ reface money in Cash is King is a feast. Col­lage, sten­cils, lip­sticked kisses,

sub­ver­sive stitch­ings: is Holly Searle al­lowed to re­fer to the Queen of Eng­land as ‘Vin­tage C***ge’? Shouldn’t she be in the Tower by now? But it’s not all sedi­tious swipes. Se­ri­ous points are made, too. Dot­mas­ter’s ad­di­tion of John Wayne on an Iraqi note that fea­tures a horse­back charge and Sad­dam Hus­sein’s smarmy mug neatly al­ludes to for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions that con­tinue to un­ravel with dis­as­trous con­se­quences. Nina Gha­fari’s raw, eco­nomic reface of a 500 Kroner note to­gether with the words “No Hu­man Be­ing Is Il­le­gal” is a stark re­minder that money trav­els eas­ier than peo­ple flee­ing war, famine or per­se­cu­tion. ATM’S or­nitho­log­i­cal won­ders are charm­ing, finely de­tailed works and when you re­alise his mis­sion is to high­light en­dan­gered species the fact he’s cho­sen money as his can­vas makes them all the more poignant. It is, af­ter all, the pur­suit of profit that more of­ten than not threat­ens the nat­u­ral habi­tats of these beau­ti­ful crea­tures.

Fi­nally one of Re­ichardt and Os­borne’s less lewd of­fer­ings sums up the bind of our con­sumer cul­ture: bla­zoned on a freshly-minted score, the un­furled scroll in a crow’s beak reads: “Are you be­ing se­duced into buy­ing some­thing you don’t need?” Eco­nomic so­ci­ol­o­gist Vi­viana Zelizer has ar­gued for a ty­pol­ogy of monies since it op­er­ates in mul­ti­ple reg­is­ters to the ex­tent that peo­ple will “seg­re­gate, dif­fer­en­ti­ate, la­bel, dec­o­rate, and per­son­alise it to meet their com­plex so­cial needs”.

In Cash is King we see the gamut of so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and aes­thetic con­cerns ren­dered on ban­knotes from across the globe. Hard cash trans­formed into vis­ual gifts. An ex­change of im­agery, ideas and wit that from their in­cep­tion went against the rules and for that we’re all a lit­tle bit bet­ter off.

Cash Is King opens on Au­gust 30 at Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, Lon­don SW3 4RY. The book can be or­dered via www.re­bel­not­taken.com

DIS­NEY DOUGH: Ben Allen’s Dol­lar Mickey

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SUB­VER­SIVE:1 Doo­dle Pound by Marc Craig2 Bird Col­lage by Miss Printed3 Snipe Pound by ATM Stree­tart

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