New materialism, a term coined by Manuel DeLanda and Rosi Braidottithe, describes how the capacities of physical objects have expanded through their digital representations in addition to a taxonomy of entirely new digital materials which may be manipulated and exert influence in ways that physical materials cannot.1 As the majority of global markets have shifted to digital transactions, these new material properties and capacities have begun to shape contemporary economics. Our ability to control global finance thus rests on a better understanding of not only the legal and political landscape, but also financial software, the mathematical constructs used in cryptographic currencies and the intricacies of digital currency exchanges.
Paolo Cirio is an artist who navigates these issues with the aim of creating works that inspire more stable, transparent, and ethically responsible economic values. His new conceptual piece (W)orld Currency is one such mechanism.
As a sustainable financial instrument, the World Currency Equation will act as a cushion that will protect people against the increased volatility of individual currencies due to speculative manipulations and economic swings, while preserving market access across different geo-political and social domains.
(W)orld Currency will be shown as part of LEAP Gallery’s upcoming exhibition Synthetisch Vernünftig (“synthetically reasonable”), which samples the many ways in which new materialism has manifested, presenting them for critical analysis.
SH: (W)orld Currency presents an equation as a speculative tool. In what capacities do you hope people engage with this construct? What do you perceive as the role of speculation in your art practice?
PC: I don’t generally consider my work speculative per-say, although it is about envisioning new possibilities. I believe systems like this can be implemented and they can actually work. In the case of (W)orld Currency, I initially explored the idea of coding the algorithm and having it complete a few bank deposits spread across several countries. I quickly realized, however, sorting out the logistical and regulatory issues was a larger technical challenge than anticipated and ultimately unnecessary to demonstrate the idea. As an artist I like to focus on creating new ideas rather than running a business, and writing financial software starts to feel like the latter. Ultimately the real artwork is making people think and leading them to discover things they wouldn’t otherwise but I also try to empower viewers with ideas that can be put to positive use. I sometimes use artifices to grab the public’s attention but always strive to engage audiences in a scenario that’s realistic, meaningful, and informative.
SH: Taken literally, (W)orld Currency might exist as a layer sitting atop free-market capitalism. How do you weigh extensive regulation as as stabilizing force vs dismantling some of the underlying systems or the revived marxist ambition of accelerationism?
PC: I find viewing today’s economic complexities in terms of capitalism and marxism confining. Those are categories of the past and today we have very different actors and agendas. It makes little sense, for instance, to think of Bitcoin within these terms as it’s governed by both algorithmic and human factors. The digital currencies of today are more autonomous and have thus become a major source of socioeconomic risk that our society must administer. (W)orld Currency is intended to rest above conventional economics and politics, providing a tool to dampen the chaotic effects of high-frequency trading systems, failures in technological infrastructure, natural disasters, wars or other sources of global currency instability. I don’t believe the market itself is ideological. Humans have always traded in exchange for something, whether it was currency, natural resources, or their own time and effort. Currencies are tools and thus politically-neutral fields, as any technology. It’s how those tools are put to use and how they are accessed that politicizes them. The point with this piece is to think about how we can create a more just market that distributes risk. One that’s designed to help develop our civilization without causing unnecessary harm. To achieve that, we simply need to adopt cultural values that aim to create fair rules and sustainability. One law can go a long way toward eliminating financial speculation and increasing government transparency but there’s an urgent need for new, straightforward political structures and greater understanding of our modernity.
SH: As part of LEAP’s exhibition Synthetisch Vernünftig (“synthetically reasonable”), which explores the use of modeling and simulation to extend human reasoning, this piece addresses our inability to fully comprehend the complexity of financial markets. What do you perceive as the emerging role of synthetic reason, De Landa’s term for simulatively expanded cognition, to which the exhibition refers, as a necessity for understanding and ultimately regulating volatile but critical global processes?
PC: Complexity can generally be captured in large-part by very simple models or formulae. If physical forces can be understood through the theories of gravitation, electrodynamics, etc. than financial markets, which are ultimately arithmetic constructions, can as well. As a product of of our own creation they should also be much simpler to control. We have the tools and knowledge today to do this effectively. Computational power and connectivity create new market forces and increase the speeds in which they act, however that doesn’t mean they are out of our realm of understanding or control, quite the opposite in fact, because we have detailed data that allows us to see how these systems are evolving. The complexity of globally networked finance is a relatively new science and will likely be something that takes time to decode.
What I’m mainly concerned with are the ethics and cultural principles which we adopt as the basis for using these tools and laws. Recently I had been focused on repurposing financial loopholes used in the creation of tax shelters to expose some of the corporations complicit in the economic devastation of the past several years. And what I can tell you is that these loopholes are incredibly simple to understand and fix as long as the political debate is presented in a straightforward fashion and tackling these issues isn’t undermined by contrarian speculation about negative consequences.
I’m hopeful, though: in some ways digital networks provide the opportunity for real political awareness because they offer everyone the ability to interact and discover what’s working and what isn’t. Digital media puts powerful tools in the hands of the masses, tools which were once accessible only to consolidated channels such as TV or Newspaper. Of course there are plenty of attempts to manipulate these systems and the politico-economic battlefield is far different today as a result of networked media. I think the next culture war will be fighting to strengthen meaningful sources knowledge and ethics and preventing them from being drowned out in a sea of the digital noise.