Windows, Gates, and Bridges, or the Architecture of the Bill

 

Three seconds past midnight on January 1st, 2002, the first euro cash purchase was made on the French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Reunion is the outermost region of the European Union. Its geographical position situated Reunion to be the first Eurozone territory to celebrate the New Year and validate the currency. After a brief barter in a street market, the mayor, Rene-Paul Victoria, purchased a kilo of lychees for 75 eurocents.

The adoption of a single currency removes the cost of exchange, allowing financial markets to become more liquid and flexible. Internal border checks abolished, the euro passes freely folded in a wallet or a pocket full of change. The Euro is nomadic, today surpassing AirBnB or Uber as the largest sharing economy in the world.

Despite being a relatively new currency, the ideas of international consolidation, shifting borders, and territorial accumulation related to economics have long been a part of European history. As early as the eighth century BC, belief systems have depicted the area now understood as contemporary Europe as a single unified body—most notably, the Greek personification of the continent as Europa.. Mythology and vast cultural narratives have played a crucial role in legitimizing both the parceling and consolidation of earth – while economic narratives have solidified the transaction from earth, land, to value.

It is common in Western history and mythology to identify geographical boundaries and features as feminine. This system of identification, within an overall patriarchal worldview, presents these territories as fragile – or at least subject to male influence and domination. Taking Europa as an example, we see the most common narrative as “The Rape of Europa,” a story which explains Zeus forcibly taking possession of the goddess against her will. This embeds the idea of territory as something that can, and must be, owned and claimed privately.

Curiously, the notion of private property and territorial exchange as a function of finance also finds its roots in Western European ideology. Canon Law under the Catholic church deemed private banking as immoral and thus illegal – a potential reason for the rise of many Jewish lenders at the time. While private banking and lending were not allowed, the accumulation, parceling, and renting of land property was not a problem.

The distinction between finance and land ironically gave way to the church’s strategic and methodical hoarding of land – typically around the periphery of urban centers – as a way to build wealth through lending; a wealth that was largely made possible by the identification of these lands as distinct legal entities, “persons” or corporations (from the root Corpus meaning body), later to be understood as the first instance of an international corporate takeover.

For John Locke, who curiously coined the term “currency” as an adaptation of “currents” – the fluid exchange of material – value was established in two primary ways. First, the use value of particular goods – such as grains – and the exchange value of other goods – such as precious metals – which held very little practical use at the time, but were useful in-so-far as they could be exchanged. Locke, a European discussing primarily Eurocentric economic trade ideas, goes on to define the accumulation of wealth as limited by a larger moral / ethical principle of spoilage and common use. Simply put, it is unethical to accumulate more property than one can rightly use because that would mean they are limiting the goods that could have otherwise been commonly available to the whole community. From here, the implications of currency, according to Locke, for territorial accumulation are paramount. Not just that if you have more money you can buy more land, but more fundamentally, the exchange value of a particular currency – or precious metal – allowed for the indefinite private accumulation of territory. By assigning an abstract value to the land its parceling was subtly reframed as a morally just, exchangeable product to help the common good rather than being seen as purely a selfishly driven pursuit. It was this abstract, purely digital, shift that in large part set the stage and allowed for aggressive systems of private real estate to begin while operating under the guise of not only “fair use” but, in fact, ethically righteous.

Zooming to the scale of the individual bill, it is clear that the note itself reflects both of these trends, the cultural narrative or mythology, as well as the private desire for territorial accumulation. Each euro note has an architectural theme ranging from classical to  “modern” twentieth century. As the bill increasses in value, the architectural period becomes more contemporary. The imagery, designed by Robert Kalina, features an attempt to visualize the link between countries using symbols of unity, such as windows, gates, and bridges. These connections attempt to remain universal, European, to remove any discretely identifiable characteristics. The Euro’s original design featured specific bridges, including the Rialto and Pont de Neuilly, but were later adapted towards a more ‘“inclusive’ design as to not mark any specific territory. The generic bridge without location produces a common image; a construct that is reinforced through myth and fiction – predominantly dependent on perception and memory. As a fiction, it works to construct a belief system that there was a unity to begin with, that this land was a singular rather than a series of aggressive fiefdoms – a tenuous notion at best.

The bill also presents a thickness of anti-counterfeit techniques, embedded information, and security features the bill demands authenticity but paradoxically utilizes “fake” architecture to represent a unified and neutral image of European history and culture.

In 2011, Dutch artist Robin Stam, built seven bridges in the town of Spijkenisse, Netherlands, out of colored concrete, replicating the archetypal, fictional bridges on the banknotes. The bridges are exact copies of those depicted on the banknotes down to the shape, color, and even crop. The increased budget for these works was approved following the council’s claim that the bridges would act as a promotional strategy for the housing project – fueling a municipal advertising campaign through the image of currency. Additionally, the housing projects that surround the bridges have become viral “selfie-photo” sites – implicitly enabling visitors to place their own face on the back of the Euro. Through this project, the Netherlands have physically claimed the representation of the currency, raising questions of authenticity.

As countries move towards a new age of de-globalization (as seen through the recent Trump and Brexit votes) we are building more walls and forming more islands with borders, threatening collective relationships like the European Union. At the same time, we are witnessing an exponential rise in corporate globalization through land acquisitions. A few obvious examples are companies like Cheung Kong Infrastructure, whose business model is to purchase substantial amounts of foreign infrastructure or similar companies bidding on large chunks of Africa’s land – not to mention the petroleum industry spearheaded by both corporations in the United Kingdom and United States. The shift is not that people are more freely or aggressively investing in real estate, but instead that formerly public or civic responsibilities are being overturned by these transactions. While these economic and architectural dynamics are much more complex, they are in no small part indebted to the international currency market’s pivotal switch to “floating currencies,” which took place in 1971 following the collapse of the Bretton Woods valuation system. Individual governments are no longer responsible for establishing the worth of their specific currency, but instead, the value is determined by the international forex market. The decoupling of governments and civic responsibility (or accountability) has effectively acted like dumping several gallons of KY Lube over the set of a BangBro’s video to be broadcast on PornHub, creating the smooth surface for nationstates to be supplanted by corporate land grabs. This drift impacts both social and territorial boundaries, creating a new kind of archipelago – redefining both international and state lines.

Paper money takes advantage of this recognition by releasing gases caused by the unique combination of the ink and paper, which can be identified by Currency Detection Dogs (CDD). These notes shed molecules specifically intended to easily travel in the air and adhere to surfaces. When designing a currency, the introduction of specific scents is not only a protective measure for identifying corruption (or tax evasion if you happen to be Snoop Dogg walking through an Italian airport with a duffel bag full of Euros) but consequentially becomes a strategic means of establishing large scale territorial relations through manipulating embedding memory related to national identity.

Money has always been digital. The significance today is not the dematerialization or digitization of money, a process which has long been underway, accepted, and practiced, but it instead marks a potentially new shift in civic responsibilities and national borders. When speaking of digital money today, there seems to be two equally important, parallel, concepts. First, the increasing push of conventional currencies to become more electronic, a trend which is made evident from even the most banal example of “go paperless” banking options – loosely veiled under a “green” rhetoric – to more complex methods of exchanging money; the progressive removal of physical steps required to complete a transaction, “contactless” Venmo, Paypal, automatic bill pay. Secondly, the recent rise in crypto-currencies such as bitcoin, which have had their own physical demons to grapple with such as bitWallet, appear to present a new and innovative way of framing economic exchanges. As the supply chain and authenticating power for transactions are removed from central banks, there is an opportunity to more evenly distribute agency and power across a global community.

Here, the value of the coin is understood as token of participation in confirming the legitimacy of previous transactions in an effort to more fairly distribute the roll of the national bank.

Clearly, the most consequential component of these crypto-currencies is not the currency itself but the underlying software involved. While there are many extremely interesting and relevant innovations here with implications extending even to methods of legal contracting, it is however in this moment of translation, from software to the computer processing power needed to resolve complicated equations, that the spatial consequences become most evident. This is not just the physical space needed for powerful machines, but has a much larger implication for territories and the relationship between private finance and nation states. In the meantime, we will likely still see private initiative capitalizing on contemporary state-led welfare subsidies, such as the electricity subsidies in both Venezuela and China that are allowing large scale currency mining to occur without the typically prohibitive overhead of utility bills.

The large scale proponents of these currencies are not individuals hoping to rethink economic exchanges anymore, but rather, mostly private individuals who have the most capital to gain through its commercialization–notably, the opportunity to gain control over the booming electronic transfer market by offering lower fees for international money transfers or even credit purchases onsite. A possible outcome of crypto- currencies today is not the utopian vision of decentralized value and trust systems, but rather an exponentially more centralized process controlled by those currently in the position to invest more capital into gaining control. While centralized national banks present massive problems, they were also first created to prevent exactly this situation from happening, a regulatory process that was considered a civic duty in service of the people, not a free market opportunity. As it stands, it is not inconceivable to imagine these extra-state currencies becoming a pivotal cog in the gear to exchange civic responsibilities from the state to private corporations or individuals; a shift which clearly implicates borders, not as geographically defined national territories, but instead a globally expansive corporate takeover.

 

Hunter Doyle and Sofia Pia Belenky currently live and work in London, where they are finishing their studies at the Architectural Association. They each have previous degrees in fine arts and work in publishing and design.

 

Photo: Euro, Kārlis Dambrāns | Flickr
Published on June 28, 2017.

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