On Money, Europe, and the Violence of History

Andreea S. Micu

Andreea S. Micu is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, an occasional performance practitioner, and a teacher. Her research examines the intersection of aesthetics, migration, and contemporary anti-austerity activism in the south of Europe in the aftermath of the 2008 European economic crisis. Her book manuscript, currently titled The Performative Commons: Housing Activism and Aesthetics in the Austere City, looks at how urban working classes use performance and aesthetic production to imagine alternatives to neoliberal urban development and (re)build the urban commons in Madrid, Rome, and Athens, where she has conducted extensive ethnographic research. Micu’s work has been published in venues such as Performance Philosophy, pARTicipatory Urbanisms, and the upcoming Art & Housing Struggles anthology by Intellect. She teaches subjects such as arts activism, contemporary social movements, political economy, ethnography, and urban studies. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from Northwestern University, and a degree in Journalism and Communication from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.

Earlier versions of this essay were delivered as conference presentations at the No Future Performance Biennial in Athens, Greece, in June of 2016, and the annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education in Chicago, USA, in August of 2016.

One day in February of 2014, inspired by a headline about a case of corruption within the Greek Orthodox Church, Athens-based graphic designer Stefanos Andreadis drew the small figure of a priest inside the gothic cathedral-like façade of a twenty Euro bill. That is how his Banknotes Project began. The Project is an ongoing, durational artistic intervention in which Andreadis systematically transforms every Euro bill that he comes across by drawing on it scenes that reflect stories he sees on the Greek news. Taking advantage of the fact that European central banks are not required to retire a Euro banknote unless it is more than 50% damaged, he then puts the transformed banknotes back into circulation. At some point after the first few months, Andreadis lost count of how many banknotes he had transformed, but at the time of this writing they are in the thousands. Because of the stories most commonly depicted on the news, a lot of the drawings in the Banknotes Project refer to episodes of the Greek economic crisis and, more recently, the arrival of Syrian refugees.

Andreadis’s drawings are snapshots, scenes in which tiny human figures of black ink are placed in the monumental architectural settings of the Euro banknotes’ design. Many of these scenes represent the intense period of riots, looting, and social unrest of 2011 and 2012, the period that saw the implementation of the harshest structural adjustments of the EU on the Greek economy. Some other drawings depict death. A man lying in a puddle of blood on a five-euro bill is a reference to the 77-year-old retired pharmacist who shot himself in April of 2012 outside of the Greek parliament after leaving a note in which he stated his refusal to forage through garbage bins to survive. The person hanging by the neck on a hundred euro bill and surrounded by a group of people who seem to have just arrived at the scene refers to someone who was found hanging from a tree in a public park of one of Athens suburban areas in May of 2012. The recurrence of themes of rioting and death throughout The Banknotes Project point to the economic crisis as what Raymond Williams called “a structure of feeling,” a not-yet-fully-articulated but pervasive epochal affect that is socially shared. It would not be hard for Greeks who are even mildly informed of current events to see Andreadis’ drawings and make a connection to stories they have seen on the news. Others drawings, however, are far more cryptic. The figure of the Grim Reaper holding its scythe appears in one drawing, standing still in the medieval entrance of the ten Euro bill. Someone with a cape ruffled by the wind––a superhero figure––stands on the top of the Roman construction on the five Euro bill. Two people hold someone by their feet, letting them hang precariously from the cornice of the majestic baroque arcade of a hundred Euro bill.

Despite the heaviness of the scenes depicted in some of the banknotes, Andreadis’ drawing style is simple and unpretentious, with the casual hand stroke of someone who is just playfully jotting shapes on the margins of a piece of paper. And yet, beyond this apparent simplicity, or precisely because of it, his vignettes also remind of the succinct wit of newspaper comic strips. The geniality of The Banknotes Project lies in how Andreadis uses and subtly subverts the very design of the Euro bills, and how he takes advantage of the huge potential of circulation of money to spread his art. More importantly, The Banknotes Project, perhaps beyond his author’s initial intentions, question the very foundations of the Euro as an economic project while providing critical insights into the inherent violence of European history.

The Aesthetics of Money

Any banknote is simultaneously an economic and an aesthetic object. It serves a function of economic exchange, but it also provides an aesthetic depiction of the symbols of power in a given territory. That is why banknotes around the world have traditionally featured the figures of kings, queens, presidents, or other relevant characters of a nation’s history. One could say that banknotes tell, in images, some part of the story that binds the people of a nation together under the structure of a state. Because they refer to these kinds of foundational stories, banknotes also often reveal the editing hand and intentions of existing powers in the stories that are told, in the symbols that are foregrounded, and in the people that are featured. What is true of banknotes in general is also true of Euros––even though the story Euros tell is not that of a particular nation-state, but of the very ideological formation that sustains European (and by extension Western) ideas of modernity, histories of colonial domination, and the fantasy that capitalism is an economic system based on freedom. To put it simply, the design of the Euro banknotes perfectly captures the essence of Europe as a colonial capitalist project, but it does so under a seemingly innocent celebration of progress as a core European value. As I discuss below, the symbols of this notion of progress circulate in plain sight, in everyday commercial operations, big and small, that move Euro banknotes from hand to hand, across and beyond the European continent.

As the official common currency of the Eurozone, Euro banknotes were first introduced into circulation in 2002. Unlike the coins, which have different designs in each country, the banknotes are identical across the Eurozone, albeit issued and printed in various member states under the direction of the European Central Bank. The design of the Euro banknotes features architectural iconic images belonging to various styles or eras, although none of them is a representation of a real place or monument anywhere in Europe. The front of each bill has images of windows or gateways; the back, of bridges. The design makes a chronologic progression of architectural history corresponding with the increase in value of the bills. The five Euro bill features what looks like a Roman gate and bridge; the ten Euro bill features early medieval architecture; the twenty Euro bill depicts late medieval architecture with its pointy gothic arc and stained glass window; the fifty Euro bill reminds of renaissance architecture; the hundred is baroque; the two hundred is modernist/Art Nouveau; and the five hundred is contemporary. Printed in cotton fiber, every banknote also features the EU flag, and a map of the European continent that includes the overseas territories currently belonging to the member states. Specifically, the Azores, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Madeira, Martinique, Reunion, and the Canary Islands are depicted in boxes next to the European map on the bills reverse. Quite literally, the design of the banknotes establishes a direct relationship between the passing of time and increased value, crystallizing the notion that European modernity is the result of a history of linear progress. More importantly, the design also equates history with economic growth. In this temporal logic, continuous economic growth is teleological: advancing in time necessarily means advancing in wealth and the kind of technological prowess that allows for architectural sophistication. Vice versa, technological advancement and the accumulation of wealth are in this temporal logic what characterize the passing of time, something of which we have architectural evidence. This story of progress is compulsorily linear; growth is the only possible outcome of the passing of time. One can rest assured that increasing wealth and technological advancement can endlessly continue in the future, the banknotes seem to say. If, as I stated before, banknotes do not only bind people together in economic exchange, but also bind them in shared stories, Euro banknotes quite purposefully seek to bind Europeans under the fiction that history is endless economic growth. In this fiction, one could certainly see behind the recent decision of the European Central Bank to stop printing new five hundred Euro banknotes not only a measure of monetary control, but a crisis of belief in the present’s ability to continue generating growth.

The Fiction of History

The notion that history is linear progress is far from innocent. From the perspective of scholars who study the history of race and empire, this notion of history has been thoroughly exposed as essential to modernity and coloniality. Philosopher Sylvia Wynter demonstrates that the very notions of the human we find at the core of Western political projects of freedom that ushered modernity were articulated to exclude the enslaved and the colonized. The liberal subject of political modernity defined himself in opposition to those peoples that Europeans encountered and subjugated in the colonies, and who were always represented as living in the past. Drawing on Wynter, we can see that the principles of the liberal project on which the EU is built are, in fact, the same principles that separate the liberal subject from all the other forms of life that cannot or would not conform to the norm that constitutes him: primitive, indigenous, woman, animal, savage, etc. These forms of life are rendered as the antithesis of civilization and progress, the “others” against which the liberal economic subject becomes a coherent individual. Hence why European modernity is as much invested in the production of the liberal economic man as it is invested in the production of these “others.” The “others” cannot achieve the full category of human, of course, as they constitute both the antithesis of the civilized and a project of civilization in which the European subject is invested. This need to understand itself through the negative category of the “other” runs so deep in the core of the European political project that we see it constantly re-formulated in contemporary discourses both against and for immigration, or in debates about granting asylum to refugees from the wars in the Middle East. In these discourses, non-Europeans are savages whose massive arrival puts in peril the very essence of European civilization, yet at the same time, it is only the extension of a charitable hand to the savage that makes Europe truly civilized. This is a contradiction only in appearance, since both positions are the result of the paradigm of linear historical progress.

The history of capitalism itself cannot be divorced from this understanding of history as linear progress. The fact that economic growth projected in the future is the end that justifies all present forms of human and ecological sacrifice shows that Europe, and Western civilization more broadly, can only understand its history as never-ending expansion. The fact that this ideology is so clearly captured and aestheticized in our money is far from casual. Money itself is an instrument that capitalism uses to flatten our experience of time, to empty time of its capacity to present itself as a series of sensuous, unique moments that expand in all directions. Capitalist time can only move narrowly forward, as Walter Benjamin noted in his Thesis on the Philosophy of History. In the Marxist tradition, the problem of money and time comes from the very nature of capitalist market exchange. In Volume I of Capital, Marx noticed that in order to make commodities exchangeable, capitalism makes equivalent the units of time of the labor expended in producing them. By making these units equivalent, the specific and qualitative experience of time of each different kind of labor is lost in the process of exchange. The universal equivalent that renders labor, commodities, and time exchangeable is money. Making things that are incommensurably different in their nature exchangeable requires a process of abstraction that disregards those sensuous qualities that constitute them. Therefore, money as pure abstraction reveals nothing of the specific material conditions of the creation of something; of the labor necessary to make it; of the laborers’ bodies that have been transformed, marked, exhausted, or annihilated by this labor. When we see money, we see value divorced from its material base, value that conceals the specificity of people’s labor. For Marx, this abstraction is key in the reproduction of capital, because it obscures the mechanisms of labor exploitation, hiding under the guise of free exchange what is in fact capital sucking living labor out of bodies for the creation of profit.

Labor exploitation and colonization, therefore, constitute the Western paradigm of historical progress. To the extent that it excludes any alternative, this linear narrative is first and foremost a project of power, a totalizing ideology that brings together technological progress, capitalism, modernity, and colonialism. It is this totalizing ideology that justified colonial domination in the past and that currently justifies incorporating all the spheres of life that are not yet part of the market in the circuit of exchange. And nowhere are the symbols of this destructive political project more perfectly captured that in the design of the Euro banknotes. Each Euro banknote is an object that commemorates this political project, but it does so under a seemingly neutral celebration of architectural progress. This celebration of progress is, in fact, the erasure from history of the bodies of the colonized, enslaved, and destroyed by capital in its process of accumulation. That Euro banknotes celebrate this history is also obvious in the seemingly innocent depiction of overseas European territories alongside the map of Europe. French Guiana, for instance, is not only one of the last remnants of French colonialism alongside Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Reunion, but was also a slave colony for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The paper on which Euro banknotes are printed is made of cotton fiber, the material that linked Africa, Europe, and the Americas in the slave trade and that made possible the English industrial revolution. That the Euro as an economic project is nowadays used to undermine the sovereignty of the EU southern members through technocratic solutions and economic measures that subject its working classes to increasing precarity is only surprising if one ignores the history of oppression that made Europe what it is today. The principles of liberal democracy and economic freedom that the European Union holds dear were always at their core a project of violence and exclusion. For Europe, the consequence of this project is that those excluded do not always simply waste away and die far from sight. In fact, they often refuse to do so and fight back.

The Banknotes Project

At first glance, what makes Andreadis’s drawings so appealing is the juxtaposition of two different modes of representation. The realistic, stylized, and printed design of the banknotes versus the hand-made, improvised, imperfect strokes of the anthropomorphic figures; the rich colorful background against the dark shades of their anonymous bodies. Andreadis’ ink people do not belong in the design; they are from a different world. They seem to be forcefully entering the setting, imposing their presence in the architectural environment. Like an unstoppable swarm, they invade the bridges, crawl into the buildings, climb on the facades, and slip through the arches and windows. They are faceless, ubiquitous, exchangeable, disorderly, and they are taking over the grand monumental symbols of European history. They are not a sum of individuals, but a shapeless mass that can move in unison in ways that seems more proper to some animal species, like birds in a flock. This contrast is further underlined by the stillness of the setting and the motion of the anthropomorphic figures, which are always seemingly captured in the middle of action. In Andreadis’ drawings, two different temporalities come together and clash. The first temporality is the linear historical progression that lays at the foundation of European history and that the design of the banknotes represent. The second is the temporality of the scenes in black ink. In these scenes, we see a form of expanded present in which life––and by extension death––take over, grabbing our attention and bringing it back into the immediacy of the now. The Banknotes Project allows us to imagine––for however fleeting a moment––that linear capitalist time has broken open and we are making history under different premises. The drawings also seem to make visible something that we already know, although perhaps only intuitively: that the existence of capital and its centers of power is contingent upon the erasure of laboring bodies. That European history as economic growth and linear progress is the process of producing expendable masses, of erasing from official history those who are precariously employed, exploited, and eliminated by capital in order to reproduce itself. Could it be that what Andreadis has accidentally achieved in The Banknotes Project is to give shape to the laboring bodies that were absent yet present all along, always haunting the narrative of linear history?

One of the drawings in The Banknotes Project depicts a swarm of ink figures running through the Roman arches of a five Euro bill. Because of the placement of the European map in the lower half of the bill, the figures seem to be about to crawl all over the continent. The drawing conjures up a massive and disorderly demonstration, or the crossing of a walled border. The tiny running figures are captured sprinting at full speed, giving a sense of urgency to the whole scene. A few figures have their arms up in the air, in positions that could be read as both reflecting the chaos and fear of fleeing from something and the euphoria of a body that knows itself free. The overall tone of the scene is ambiguous, capturing a moment of heightened intensity that cannot be contained into a narrative. As I contemplate the scene, I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s reflection that an essential condition of revolutionary change is “to make the continuum of history explode.” Of course, making the continuum of history explode is not the finish line, not the place of arrival at which the injustices committed in the name of progress simply cease to exist. Rather, making the continuum of history explode is a pre-condition, a possible beginning for whatever might emerge in the aftermath of the explosion, perhaps a sense of history that might be incompatible with Europe as we know it and yet more attuned to sustainable life for everybody.

Acknowledgments: Joshua Chambers-Letson, Kelly Chung, Marcela Fuentes, D. Soyini Madison, Jonathan Magat, and Elliot Heilman provided comments and criticisms that made this essay better in its different stages of production. I would like to thank Stefanos Andreadis for the generosity of sharing his time and answering questions about his work.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 2007: 253-264.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. New York: Penguin, 1990.Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man: Its Overrepresentation––An Argument.” New Centennial Review 3.3 (Fall 2003): 257-337.