What does $1 million represent? Maybe it’s a dream home or comfortable retirement. It could be a sign that you’ve made it.
Or it represents the unattainable.
In my adopted home country of Argentina, the dollar—let alone $1 million—is even more loaded. Here, there is an obvious and deep-seated obsession with the U.S. dollar. It is a symbol of stability in an economy that whiplashes from one economic crisis to the next while inflation continues to bloat all the while. It represents foreign debt and currency controls. It is security and protection for Argentines who scramble to save in dollars, girding themselves against whatever hits the local economy takes. In fact, outside the United States, Argentina has the second-highest number of U.S. bills per capita after Russia.
The phenomenon occurring in Argentina is just one of many consequences of a monetary system of which the world has grown increasingly tired. The emergence and popularity of alternative transaction and payment methods like Bitcoin are evidence of the fact that people are not satisfied with a world where currency holds no real intrinsic value. A growing movement calls for a new order in which the government has no role in the creation, regulation, or distribution of money. I am convinced that a big change in the way we exchange goods and services is imminent. Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “If a temple is to be erected, a temple must be destroyed.” Moneyball, my latest artwork, is my attempt to give money a new value by destroying its conventional meaning.
Money, in the end, is only a tangible token of energy: a superficial yet essential part of the financial system that governs so many of our decisions. I’ve worked as a political scientist and investment banker, in NGOs like Ashoka and with the Inter-American Development Bank, and established and sold companies, and through it all I’ve observed many of the ways that people of diverse income levels, professions, and nationalities relate with money and the dynamic it plays in their lives.
The central theme of my work was the idea of destruction. I wanted to break something down to give it a new meaning, or to see what new meaning it would be given. To find out, I shredded $1 million, and the black-market equivalent of that sum in Argentine pesos: 11 million. The money was then displayed in Murano crystal spheres in an installation I named Moneyball: The One Million Dollar Installation.
I produced it as my debut as Cayman the artist, and it was unveiled at arteBA, Latin America’s largest contemporary art fair, in late May.
No matter who saw the crystal spheres, the first question was invariably, “Whose money is this?” or “Where/how did you get the money?” All of the bills were out-of-circulation, already rendered valueless in the traditional sense. While I was probably the first person to ask, obtaining permission to take the shredded money was complex in the United States and at the European Central Bank.
Argentina’s Central Bank was the only institution to be withholding, though. It was an ironic move, given that the Argentine peso is the least valued of all the currencies, but not surprising considering how secretive the country is when it comes to its books, having reported inflation rates for years now as much lower than what independent economists assess. The Central Bank surprisingly keeps no official records of how many bills it destroys, either. For months, I followed trucks with out-of-circulation bills to wade through dumpsters with their discards until I finally accumulated enough for the installation.
Leading up to the production of Moneyball, I spent two years investigating money’s symbolism and the history of humanity’s development of and relationship with money. My research took me to the Vatican, New York City, Casa Real in Potosí, Bolivia and the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain. I spoke with cardinals and freemasons and pored over original Latin texts from Isaac Newton. I was struck by the distinct and direct path humanity has followed in the gradual development of our monetary system. The idea of money itself is an abstraction, but we have gradually allowed it to become incorporated in our very beings.
Destroying and displaying dollars, and as many Argentine pesos, was touchy. Through providing—or denying—subsidies, Argentina’s government has a heavy hand in the art world. Rarely does an Argentine artist make statements about Argentina’s political or economic reality. Even more taboo is the love-hate relationship between money and art. Art is supposed to be a pure, democratic form of self-expression. A piece or installation should reach the masses because it strikes a chord within society and evokes some sort of reflection on a topic relevant to a time and place. But it would be naive to deny that money is a powerful force in determining the scope and characteristics of the art that reaches mass audiences today, even in the age of social media.
The financial system in which we operate is not much different. It is supposed to be a pure reflection of supply and demand for services with value determined by the free market. But instead, we have been reduced to a form of dependence on a system that not only encourages greed, but averts any attempt to hold the dishonest accountable.
Now, my plan is to take Moneyball global, destroying and displaying in new ways more local currencies to generate and explore deeper monetary, financial, and societal conversations—whether it’s using euros to comment on the Spanish housing crisis or Russian rubles to show human-rights violations. The overarching and unifying goal with my work is to inspire reflection and discussion about our financial systems. Does what we operate under today in our hyper-technological world serve us? Where has it gotten us and where is it headed? Is it enough? There are signs that it isn’t in the global recession, hyper-inflation in Venezuela, Occupy Wall Street in New York City, the housing crisis in Spain, and beyond. And only through destruction in some sense does real change occur.