Fillip

Fillip 15 — Fall 2011

Folding Money
Juan A. Gaitán

Money is lost: if by robbery, the blame lies with the robber...; if by shipwreck, the cause is the chain of events.—Plotinus1

This essay was originally written in 2005 and was conceived from the point of view of the history of art, which was my full-time profession at the time. As the text remained unpublished, its original title, The End of Money, migrated with me to the space of contemporary art, where it became the title of an exhibition that I curated in 2010. The hypothesis of this exhibition was that money and images operate similarly today, as avatars of systems and conventions (of systemic conventions) of representation and value. 


On one level the exhibition spoke to the desires and nostalgia for matter, which at times takes an intensely materialistic bent (the collecting of art and of objects of value falls into this category, as does the current attachment to gold), and at other times an idealistic one, a non-fetishistic and non-mediated relationship to the physical world that often translates into movements of “return” to a pre-scientific, non-technological world. On another level, the exhibition considered the problem that this essay originally intended to explore, namely, the relationship between image and value that is established in or through monetary economies under capitalism. The status of the banknote as both symbol and avatar of this relationship was given much less prominence in the exhibition than in the original essay, in part because I thought that to focus on banknotes was both anachronistic with respect to current discussions of the economy and too didactic in the context of the discourse on the image that I wanted to explore. 


The tone and the subject of this paper are products of a time very different from the time we are in at the moment. In the Netherlands, where I have been based for the past two and a half years, art has become an ideology alien to the interests of the state and, as such, it is something that must be “reduced” (not to say crushed or whipped into shape) to more suitable proportions, which, in the terms set by state funding cuts, means by half. These reductions and the threat of the decimation of contemporary art favour a more patrimonial—material—sense of symbolic capital. In this “intangible economy,” to use the phrase that gives title to this collection of essays, there seems to be a new or renewed enthusiasm for tangibles. In spite of numerous efforts to expand the notion of patrimony so as to include non-nationalistic senses of this concept (making “patrimony” a more malleable category of symbolic capital, including for instance the culture brought by immigrant societies) and non-tangible ones as well (sonic and other non-material products of culture), at least in the Netherlands, the inclination of the current government is to restore a direct correspondence between the idea of a National Culture and the material things that are supposed to represent it: things, in other words, that can be transacted. This is perhaps not surprising in a culture that places so much emphasis on economic “common sense” (investment vs. profit) and whose history is fundamentally based on trade. Yet, beyond such historical essentialisms, it is important to note that the collecting fever that has transformed the art system in the past few decades is also symptomatic of a wider cultural necessity: the need to establish stricter links between wealth and matter. This doesn’t just include art, but also real estate, land, jewellery, and all sorts of collectibles. The fact that now it is possible to buy gold out of vending machines seems to be only further confirmation of this tendency. 


To me, this current bent towards material wealth seems to bring a new sense of purpose to the works that I address in this essay: Money Tree by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles and Suite of Canadian Landscapes by the Canadian duo N.E. Thing Co. Both works are from 1969, and both are directed at the unstable relationship between state and currency. Unlike what the title of this series suggests, these works are concerned precisely with the relationship between matter and value and the banknote’s unstable condition as the signifier of a nation’s wealth. 


The historical and art historical material in the essay touches upon the circumstances that led to the current financial crisis. The meditations about money that were made by these and other artists in the late 1960s, and that form the point of view of art, were still infused with a formal analysis that today may seem anachronistic in their being formulated on the object of currency (banknotes, for instance). In these works, banknotes, like paintings, are things in which the support (paper, canvas) is effectively cancelled by the image and what it represents, which is value. In order to become denominators of value, banknotes (and paintings) must renounce their materiality, all the while maintaining it intact, an aporia that is fitting of the kind of discourse I was tuned in to at the moment of writing the text in 2005 and that I will here exemplify by invoking the following line, with which Jacques Derrida opens his book Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money: “The King takes all my time; I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all.”2 Where does Madame de Maintenon, author of this sentence, find this surplus time that she devotes to Saint-Cyr? The point Derrida begins with regards surplus, a notion that he suggests is synonymous with counterfeiting: Madame de Maintenon, then, did not say, in her letter, literally, that she was giving all her time but rather that the King was taking it from her.... Even if, in her mind, that means the same thing, one word does not equal the other. What she gives, for her part, is not time but the rest, the rest of the time: “I give the rest to Saint-Cyr, to whom I would like to give all.” But as the King takes it all from her, then the rest, by all good logic and good economics, is nothing. She can no longer take her time. She has none left, and yet she gives it.3

Thus, what follows here is an exercise in which I took up—like the artists that I discuss (Cildo Meireles and N.E. Thing Co.)—that which, from the point of view of value, appears as a mere supplement in the banknote—i.e., its pictorial “quality,” suggesting that the pictures that appear on the faces of banknotes serve two functions: to cancel out the surface on which they are printed and to designate the “nature” of a given national economy. 


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In June of 1974 National Geographic magazine published an article titled “Oil: A Dwindling Treasure,” which compared the then-present crisis with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Thirty years later, in June of 2004, National Geographic published another article, this time entitled “The End of Cheap Oil?” in which the current crisis was compared to the former one: “You’ve heard it before, but this time it’s for real: we’re at the beginning of the end of cheap oil.” Given the ominous sentiment that accompanied the 1974 shock, people then would have been hard-put to believe that in 2004, exactly thirty years later, “The End of Cheap Oil” would have been forbiddingly announced, once again. This latter National Geographic magazine cover image features a crowded highway, at sunset, we suppose, contrasted so as to give the road a golden hue, rendering the cars as if they had come to a standstill (a confounding of the inflated automobile market and the drying up of natural resources) and the surrounding landscape absolutely black. The shape of the highway suitably evokes a more or less iconic image of gasoline being discharged from a nozzle. If we agree that in this context the colour black (or the absence of all colour) is a signifier of oil, then we see that the landscape has been overtaken by the representation of a fundamental lack that projects itself as the pure negativity, or the mythical nothingness, that overdetermines the future. Having lost the source of “our” abundant lifestyle (oil, as the matter of energy), the repertoire of possibilities with which the future is commonly invested is reduced to absolute impossibility, the present being motionless because the future is impossible. In other words, no energy = no progress. This repertoire of impossible future Jorge Luis Borges sees embodied in money: Sleepless, obsessed, almost happy, I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin whatsoever (let us say a coin worth twenty centavos) is, strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures. Money is abstract, I repeated; money is future tense.4

Yet, there is another side to this immateriality of money, one that is more strictly pictorial, or that comes from a “pictorial impulse” that Walter Benn Michaels associates with capitalism insofar as it is from it that we “return” (or turn our gaze) to nature—and this is critical for the kind of understanding of the banknote that I am addressing—and see it (nature) as a represented value: there is a distinction between what it means to love a sunset and what it means to love the representation of a sunset. [The] difference is not simply between beauty and represented beauty; it is instead the difference between...beauty and mimesis. When we love glittery objects, we love beauty; when we love objects that look like other objects we love representation. Furthermore, the suggested paradigm of objects that “mimic other objects” is “natural objects that look as if they were artificial.” Thus the representation that originally fascinates us is the natural reproduction of a man-made artefact, not the man-made reproduction of a natural one....

What attracts is the natural representation of the artificial. Such representation must be accidental...but without this accident, it seems, there would be no “primitive form of desire.” We don’t want things in themselves, but we can’t begin by wanting representations of things in themselves either; we want things in themselves that look like representations. We begin, in other words, with the illusion that representation itself is natural, and without this illusion we would never develop any interest either in representation or in nature.5

The two works that I address in this essay, N.E. Thing Co.’s Suite of Canadian Landscapes (1969) and Cildo Meireles’s Money Tree (1969), are here taken as opportunities to speak of the moment when the standard, which had hitherto been gold, was becoming the object of economic uncertainty and was causing a parallel crisis of representation.6 Both of these cases—the Suite and Money Tree—display a certain kind of realism that is inherent in money, as well as the fact that, one way or another, money invariably ends up being tied to some construction of nature. Taking banknotes as their raw material, these two works question in different ways the form in which the economy is materialized in the hands of the subject.


In a text that he titled “Tax Advice”—the advice being, we presume, to not pay taxes—Walter Benjamin called for the need of “a descriptive analysis of banknotes,”7 as it is possible to believe in money only insofar as its materiality goes unquestioned, yet “Nowhere more naively than in these documents does capitalism display itself in solemn earnest.”8 (Of course, if fiat currency9 is effectively removed from circulation and replaced by forms of payment that seem to exclude the exchange of tangibles—credit cards, etc.—that very document of capitalism becoming invisible, on what will we perform such descriptive analyses?)

Was it this kind of “descriptive analysis” of banknotes that Iain and Ingrid Baxter expected viewers to perform on their Suite of Canadian Landscapes? By calling attention to landscape representations on Canadian banknotes, Suite opens a possibility for analyzing what seems to have been constituted as the source and guarantee of Canada’s economic future—namely, nature—but it also did this at a time when, as with other countries, the economy began to see its future in industry and not in natural resources. The position that the landscape, as the representation of natural resources, was given within the context of a capitalist economy found itself at odds with the suggestion that (as would be evident in the new series of banknotes that, in 1969, replaced those that were used by N.E. Thing Co. in the Suite) these landscapes were at once the object of Canadian romanticism and somewhat obsolete images of the past.


For Suite of Canadian Landscapes, Iain and Ingrid Baxter took the “complete series” of official Canadian banknotes and, by means of a mat, framed each of them so that all references to their status as money were, so to speak, erased, drawing an analogy to the way in which the artifice (of the banknote as a made object) must be concealed for capital to express itself in them in “solemn earnest.” Hence, we must take note of the fact that two apparently opposite operations take place in the banknote: as money it appears as enfolded value, while the landscape necessarily appears as unfolded value. In his essay “Capital and Subsidiary,” William Wood already indicated that this suite focuses our attention on the fact that, although giving the illusion of being descriptive, the images of nature that appear on banknotes are instead “inscriptive” of a territory that must be seen to lie still fallow before its capitalization, or its conversion into capital. Wood states, “The Canadian dependence on natural resources—encapsulated so acutely in the clear-cut forests of BC [the Canadian province of British Columbia]—is, one might say, fetishized, disavowed in the bank notes, consoling the carrier of the bill that there is still some exploitable land out there, or, worse, sustaining the illusion that Canadians have not totally dominated and capitalized upon the environment.”10 Indeed, Suite makes evident that, on these banknotes, the Canadian landscape enters a space of reflections: as visualizations of an idealized past, these “natural” landscapes must be experienced as images that bypass the present, propelling the economy (and us with it) into the future. The beholder’s sight must therefore constantly be deflected from the present for this image of nature, or of the “wealth of the nation,” to become visible. It is perhaps this deflection of the eye from the present that banknotes seek in presenting allegorical images in which the sense of time is always outside the present, at once historical and of the future.


A year before their Suite of Canadian Landscapes, but this time under the name of N.E. Thing Co., the Baxters produced a work called 1/4 Mile Landscape (1968), in which they placed three signs along a quarter-mile section of a highway; these signs, as one drove past them, would determine three points of interaction with the surroundings: “Start Viewing,” “You Are Now In The Middle of a N.E. Thing Co. Landscape,” and “Stop Viewing.” Three interrelated aspects of this work can be mentioned. First, the directives to start and to stop viewing, in all their obscurity, seem to incorporate the arbitrariness of the commandment,11 and while formally reminiscent of a display of state authority, they appear to be signed by private capital (as signalled by the “Co.” of corporation). Secondly, the strict directions expressed in these signs can be matched only by the sense of disorientation that, in driving along the highway, one must have experienced in trying to choose between the already established direction (as determined by the highway) and the endless directional possibilities that “viewing” suggests. Last, and even more obviously, the claim laid by N.E. Thing Co. on the landscape (“a N.E. Thing Co. Landscape”) makes the viewer aware of the apparent fact that everything in sight has been already claimed (by vision). The rhetoric of colonialism is quite clear, since this would (or at least should) immediately call up an entire history of colonization and First Nations land claims that has been very present on the Northwest Coast and in Canada as a whole. This adds the claims of private property through which capital is now no longer in the hands of the state—as it would have been up until the second half of the twentieth century—but in those of private corporations.12 As in an episode in one of Kafka’s bureaucratic nightmares, one seems to enter a territory where one is at once constituted as a foreign body and as the subject of an obscure regime of power. The one thing that is clear can be seen only from a distance not afforded the viewing subject: in the capitalist privatization of space, sovereignty becomes ownership, and this ownership can be extended to the bodies that happen to be inhabiting that very space, this time not as citizens but as denizens. 


One of the upshots of privatization is, of course, that it bypasses the legal structures that in Canada and in other parts of the world have traditionally guaranteed land restitutions to original inhabitants. In the sense that the landscape is at once constituted as the archetypal expression of Canadian economic history and as the site where the body of the individual enters into a conflicted system of possessions and dispossessions, one may take these aspects of 1/4 Mile Landscape as a set of instructions for looking at Suite of Canadian Landscapes—in which an antagonism between capital and nature is played out.


This opposition may be posited here as one between production and recording, which seems to be tied to a problematization of the artist’s function: the traditional artist-as-maker vis-à-vis the conceptual artist-as-recorder.13 Putting aside the references to these objects as banknotes, the framing draws attention to the fact that what appears on them are engravings. As Wood has already observed, this is highlighted by the choice that the artists made to sign each “landscape” with their own initials and as artist’s proofs. For Wood this constitutes “a joke on editioning and framing, signing and claiming to represent.”14 Perhaps more significantly, this gesture re-establishes in the image an “originary” state, making it evident that these landscapes have not merely appeared on banknotes but have been produced by an artist and in a medium that has been traditionally developed for the purposes of reproduction. This, in turn, can be easily transposed to the landscapes themselves, which, at least in the Canadian context, have a long and conflicted history of representation (many have indeed argued that the representation of the wealth of the nation as a pristine and untouched landscape has become a uniquely Canadian staple). We have therefore seen that in bringing up the uniqueness of the landscape, the Baxters are able to speak of the mythical character that nature has acquired in the Canadian imaginary as originary or productive of value. In this sense, these works broach the reproductive aspect of capital: although presented as unique, these landscapes in fact abound, being repeated as many times as the bills have been issued. Nonetheless, the artist’s proof suggests that there is an original and that there are proofs, both of which must be taken out of circulation—a surplus that must be turned into refuse—and which at the same time prefigure the banknote itself. In this suite, the representation of nature—itself, as we have seen, a representation of wealth—is restored, so to speak, to a complicated moment when, as proof, it was not quite money; each landscape becomes unique15 at the same time as it prefigures endless repetition (endless not in the sense that it will never end, for in fact it will, but in the sense that as citizens we have no control over the issuing of bills). Endlessness is therefore experienced here not as an infinity but as absolute independence of the economic system from the subjective will; at a moment when the nature of the standard is being questioned, it is also experienced as the open possibility to re-establish the source of wealth as anything whatever. The signature of the Baxters on this series thus can be said to be a “pathetic” attempt at performing the individual’s will on the economy by emulating the arbitrariness with which the economy sees the real world as the limitless realm for the imposition of its will. 


At the same time, we may say that at a point when the representative standard is in question—that is, near the end of the gold standard in 1971—Iain and Ingrid Baxter’s Suite of Canadian Landscapes throws the landscape itself, as the representation of productive nature, into question.16 And they do this by attempting to replicate, at a subjective level, the strategies of appropriation that capital was performing on nature. Put simply, by showing that what appears on the banknotes is a representation of capital, the Baxters suggest that for capital nature is but the representation of wealth. In this logic, in the official banknote, which is itself a surface upon which exchange value is recorded or inscribed, the process of engraving obscures itself in order to present the image 
(of the landscape in this case) as a record of reality. In Suite, however, the framing of the bills appears as a gesture made by an artist-as-recorder who gathers these images, as ready-made representations, in order to reveal the artificiality that capital must conceal in order to function effectively. But it is only between these landscapes, which appeal to the past and seem thus anachronistic, and the scenes that would appear in the newly circulating banknotes (showing images of industry or workers, and some of the landscape) that it would become clear that, at this time, Canada’s economic dream was to enter the era of industrialization through the exploitation of coal, and fuelled by oil.


Perhaps “forced” by the realities of an underdeveloped economy, Cildo Meireles reverses this perspective in Money Tree by focusing not so much on the iconography of the banknote (this he would do a couple of years later in, for example, his work Zero Cruzeiro [1978]) but on the form that money takes as its circulation patterns are affected by inflation. Here it is not a question of what kinds of representations appear on banknotes as guarantees of their validity, but what the circulation of banknotes itself represents. In an inflated economy like Brazil’s at the time, a stack of bills would have been a familiar object, found for example in the hands of bus drivers or gas station attendants.17 Meireles’s stack of one hundred One Cruzeiro bills, cross bound with a rubber band, would have been therefore but a variation on a ready-made object that, despite its size and volume, would be more or less worthless. Money Tree thus withholds two important elements in the Brazilian economy (money and rubber), showing their interrelation in a sort of crass literalness. Having been an important element of the Brazilian economy, especially with the demand for Brazilian rubber during World War II, this industry began to collapse for the second time in the 1960s,18 after the demand for rubber dropped significantly once the plantations in Asia began to flourish.19 By 1969, the currency that Meireles used for Money Tree had been out of circulation for over two years (the One Cruzeiro banknotes had probably been out of circulation for longer, since inflation had surely rendered them worthless) and had been replaced temporarily by the cruzeiro novo, which was to then be replaced again in 1970 by a revalued cruzeiro, after which the design of the Zero Cruzeiro was fashioned.20 It seems, then, that in this minimalist work Meireles is tying together two factors of inflation: industry as the underlying factor (rubber, in this case) and money as the surface on which inflation is made most evident and “palpable.” Rubber—which, as we know, comes from the rubber tree—would therefore be at one and the same time that which would disallow the growth of this “money tree,” and that which ties money together, binding the inflationary tendency of the Brazilian economy.


In Brazil, 1969 also marked the end of what, with some presumptuous Eurocentric parallelism, was called the Brazilian “economic miracle.” In 1964, the military seized power in Brazil in order to, as Roberto Schwarz put it, “protect capital and the continent of Latin America from the threat of socialism.”21 Between 1964 and 1967, and under the motto “development and national security,” Castelo Branco’s government at once intensified the mechanisms of surveillance and control and brought inflation down from 100 percent in 1964 to 24 percent in 1969. But a number of factors brought the “wonderful” economic growth of Brazil (the Brazilian Wirtschaftswunder) to an almost abrupt halt. Early in 1969, decrees were passed by the military government according to which the militia and the police were put in direct charge of the federal government, a move that was made possible by the fact that in 1968 they had declared the Congress in indefinite recess. According to Joseph Smith, it was this move that made it “official” that Brazilians were ruled by the military—i.e., not by consensus (as it could have been imagined up to that point by some) but by force.22 The revolts of workers in Minas Gerais, and the posterior formation of an urban guerrilla, made the underside of the “economic miracle” quite evident (and in this sense, it also made it evident that this had not been a miracle at all). At the same time, it began to become clear that the world was beginning to experience a shortage of oil, which, as Fred C. Allvine and James M. Patterson suggest in their book Highway Robbery, can’t be interpreted as being caused either by nature or by the oil exporting countries of the Middle East. While today it is more common to refer to the energy crisis as “the OPEC oil crisis,” this must seem a strange nomenclature given that it focuses all the blame on the embargo that the oil exporting countries of the Middle East placed on the countries of the First World that had supported Israel over Palestine. As it turns out, this embargo was more a matter of opportunism: the opportunity of worsening a crisis that was already underway and that, at least according to Allvine and Patterson, was to give a small group of oil companies (Shell, Exxon, Oxy, etc.) a monopoly on the oil industry, gradually cancelling out independent distributors (as well as workers, through the implementation of self-service at the retail level).23

The repercussions of this crisis in the Brazilian economy were significant in a number of ways. During the early twentieth century, rubber had been stolen from Brazil and grown by Malaya, which was then under British administration and subsequently fell under Japanese rule during World War II. A dearth of natural rubber in world trade—caused, among other factors, by rising costs of production—was counteracted by the popularization of synthetic rubber in the immediate postwar period. As a result, the Brazilian economy, which had hitherto been largely dependent on the exploitation of rubber, had to reorganize itself around an agrarian economy that, by the mid 1960s, was mostly in the hands of landowners, whose production had focused on coffee, cotton, oranges, and cattle. The military coup of 1964 was therefore set against what was then seen as an internationalist right-wing landowner elite. The motto of “development and national security” was therefore a direct reference to a desire to constitute a national industrial economy against North American economic imperialism. This new industrialized Brazil depended largely on the supply of cheap oil, but the prices of oil became increasingly volatile towards the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s.24 Hence, the irony in Meireles’s Money Tree has as much to do with the fact that under an inflated economy there is a proliferation of banknotes (which, as Freud would have it, would seem excremental) as with the fact that rubber itself would appear to be a mere illusion for Brazilians. Once a natural resource and the force of the Brazilian economy, now rubber was an artificial product that had once forced the economy to restructure itself entirely and that now, having become an oil derivate, embodied the uncertainty of the future national economy.


This is the context within which Money Tree emerged, as a parody of accumulation. The accumulation of hard cash in one’s pocket was but the formal manifestation of an inflated economy that, although issuing banknotes at an irrational rate, had no power to accumulate wealth. The minimalist literality of the work thus expresses the fact that “everything about capitalism is rational, except capital or capitalism itself.”25 The fact that the excessive visibility of money is a negative symptom is completely absurd, and it is this kind of absurdity that, according to Roberto Schwarz, characterizes Brazilian culture during this period, an absurdity that artists and musicians were incorporating, paradoxically, as the new “Brazilian character.”26

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Sleepless, obsessed, almost happy, I reflected that there is nothing less material than money, since any coin whatsoever (let us say a coin worth twenty centavos) is, strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures. Money is abstract, I repeated; money is future tense. The coin that Borges is holding in his hand—a coin that is worth, say, twenty centavos—is “strictly speaking, a repertory of possible futures.” Strictly speaking, one of these possible futures regards the coin; it regards it as a thing (a disc made of metal alloy) detached from its denomination (twenty cents), as something worth more or less than twenty cents (of whatever currency). 


This may be an issue that is worth discussing—namely, the issue of language and money: the word “centavos” is obviously the Spanish word for cents. Why did the translator choose to keep the Spanish word? Perhaps because the cent is already the smallest denomination in the lexicon of money, beyond which there are only mathematical fractions (half a cent; a quarter of a cent), and thus the Spanish word becomes the name of something even smaller than a cent: a centavo, a thing that is a whole but that has no corresponding name in the language of a healthy economy. But this might be unfair to the translator. Perhaps the translator thought that the reader should at least know what coin Borges was dealing in when he wrote his sentences—what kind of abstraction and what kind of future he had in mind when, already blind, in his mind he was flipping a coin worth twenty centavos while holding it in his hand and choosing, as he was wont to do, the idea over the fact, which is to say, imagining an entire repertory of possible futures. 


In these futures this coin is an object of history, an object for a museum, once time (or, strictly speaking, historical contingency) has effected that which cannot be performed from a subjective point of view, namely, to see the object pass from one to another form of symbolic value. Regarding the fact that what appears in a photograph is a former present, different from the one in which one looks at the photograph, Barthes states in Camera Lucida, “I cannot undeceive myself.”27 The same operation applies to the banknote: regarding its denomination, its current value as currency, one cannot undeceive oneself. A banknote is worth what it states as its worth.


Notes
  1. Plotinus, The Enneads (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 87.

  2. Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 1–2.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, eds. Donald Yates and James Irby (New York: New Directions, 1964), 156. Please see the postscript of this text for further thoughts on this excerpt of Borges’s writing.

  5. Walter Benn Michaels, The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 157–58.

  6. After a mounting crisis regarding the US dollar’s gold convertibility, the gold standard was officially abandoned by Richard Nixon in August 1971.

  7. Walter Benjamin, “One-way Street,” in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume I: 1913–1926 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), 481.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Fiat currency: currency that has value by governmental decree.

  10. William Wood, “Capital and Subsidiary: The N.E. Thing Co. and the Revision of Conceptual Art,” in William Wood and Nancy Shaw, You Are Now in the Middle of an N.E. Thing Co. Landscape, exhibition catalogue (Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery, 1993), 17.

  11. Both Antonio Negri (A Time for Revolution [London: Continuum, 2003]) and Achille Mbembe (On the Postcolony [Durham: Duke University Press, 2002]) have spoken of commandment or commandement as the instrumental characteristic of the modern nation-state, whereby all the mechanisms of dissemination that the state deploys are ultimately designed to express the rule of the state.

  12. In his book Geography Lessons: Canadian Notes, Allan Sekula would show how, in fact, Canada, unlike the US, has remained strangely caught in the moment when control over national economies is transferred from the state to the private corporation. Allan Sekula, Geography Lessons: Canadian Notes (Vancouver and Cambridge, MA: Vancouver Art Gallery and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1997).

  13. This artist-as-recorder appears in N.E. Thing Co.’s works in different guises, sometimes in the form of an office worker, sometimes in the works themselves, which look like visual evidence of land surveys and explorations that, although of unspecified purposes, replicate a language of representation of the landscape that suggests a future exploitation of the land.

  14. Wood, “Capital and Subsidiary,” 17.

  15. This is in part what I take William Wood to suggest when he speaks of a joke on signing and claiming to represent.

  16. In fact, the series of banknotes that in 1969 replaced those used by the Baxters in their Suite, and that would circulate until 1979, featured similarly framed landscapes, but this time including more direct references to industrialization and the built environment. The series used in Suite, which circulated between 1954 and 1969, featured a number of landscapes that were open and upon which the traces of industrialization were almost invisible. It is also worth noting that as these banknotes have become rare, their value as collector’s items has begun to conflict with the value of the work of art itself, an awful aberration of our system of value that allows the least “original” objects in circulation to turn into “authentic” collectibles.

  17. As Dr. Carol Knicely pointed out to me, in an inflated economy with a devalued currency, stacks of bills tend to become a regular sight in buses, taxis, gas stations, etc. Surely Meireles noticed the “objecthood” of these stacks of bills as they were folded into a pile that would hopefully be worth something, since individually each bill would be more or less worthless, in that there would be nothing that would be worth as little as the amount stated on the bill.

  18. Up until the 1920s, Brazil had had the monopoly on the world’s rubber industry. However, the British had been establishing rubber plantations in their colonies, especially Malaya, where the production became significant enough during the 1920s and 1930s so as to destabilize the Brazilian economy. During World War II the Japanese took hold of several of these colonies and their plantations, which made Brazil once again the primary supplier of rubber for western Europe and North America.

  19. As a result, in the 1970s, the government began a new campaign of modernization and development that would, amongst other things, revitalize the rubber industry in the Amazon. Of course, this meant the continuation of a series of historical and long-lasting traditions of abuse and slavery principally affecting indigenous peoples of the Amazon, some of who were still living in relative isolation. And since the “discovery” of nature as a cause for activism, more or less during the 1960s, it has also been one of the principal grievances for environmentalists’ peace of mind. As Alcida Rita Ramos has stated in her book Indigenism, these two groups have been engaged in a rather strange conflict whereby environmentalists tend to side with indigenous peoples only as long as they act according to the stereotype of existing in a “primordial” (i.e., intuitive) loving relationship with “nature.” As soon as indigenous peoples display any sign of desiring to capitalize on their own lands, their own means of production, and/or their own knowledge, environmentalists (and other groups with them) accuse them of becoming assimilated into a corrupt system (capitalist or otherwise) and thus of being corrupt. Alcida Rita Ramos, Indigenism: Ethnic Politics in Brazil (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).

  20. It is also significant that this One Cruzeiro bill was manufactured by the American Bank Note Company. This company, which changed its name in 1999 to American Bank Note Holographics Inc., has for over two hundred years issued gift certificates, currency, food and gas stamps, traveller’s cheques, social security cards, identification cards, passports, manufacturer’s certificates of origin, certificates of authenticity, and other documents of the sort within the United States and all around the world.

  21. Roberto Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas: Essays on Brazilian Culture (London: Verso, 1992), 126.

  22. See Joseph Smith, A History of Brazil (London: Longman, 2002), 195–207.

  23. Fred C. Allvine and James M. Patterson, Highway Robbery: An Analysis of the Gasoline Crisis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), 210. “The mechanism by which supply was denied the independents is simple. Once there was a shortage—intentional or otherwise, the large petroleum companies merely cut off inter-refinery sales of gasoline to the buffer companies (smaller majors, independent refineries, and superbrokers) who traditionally sold gasoline to the price marketers. This was accompanied by a reduction in crude oil sales to the independent refiners who also were a prime source of gasoline for the discounters. By mid-1973, many independent refineries were operating at less than 70 percent capacity because of insufficient feedstocks. Yet the majors were running at 95 to 105 percent of capacity.”

  24. Smith, A History of Brazil, 203.

  25. Gilles Deleuze, “On Capitalism and Desire,” in Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953–1974 (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2004), 262.

  26. Schwarz, Misplaced Ideas, 1–19.

  27. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982).
About the Author

Juan A. Gaitán is a curator and writer. Recent exhibitions include I, YAMA (Istanbul); The End of Money, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam); Models for Taking Part, Presentation House Gallery (Vancouver) and Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (Toronto); and K, CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (San Francisco). His writing has been published in AfterallThe Exhibitionist, and Mousse, among others. Gaitán currently lives in Mexico City.

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