This interdisciplinary research project examines the phenomenon of hyperinflation as a cultural process and psychological event of economic uncertainty. It employs artistic practice as a tool for understanding economic uncertainty as a superstratum of language which challenges the experience of contemporary society and elicits shifts in value representation. The research observes how hyperinflationary uncertainty provokes an altered cultural state of mind, serving as a channel to an intrinsic cultural understanding where everything is possible and impossible at the same time. Starting from the design of inflationary banknotes and memories relating to the Yugoslav hyperinflation (1992-94), this research will further expand toward common points of economic uncertainty and autonomy at the time of the global economic crisis (2008-) and a rise of “off-grid” economic models in culture and art. The research results will be communicated through exhibitions, initiatives, talks and art-publications.
As an economic category, hyperinflation is being studied as an extreme, out of control inflation. It is a sign of a severe breakdown in money’s value, provoking distrust in government, requiring day-to-day solutions and generally altering the sense of value, order and authority. As such, hyperinflation is also a subject of social and cultural studies: “Inflation is an integral part of modern culture and intensifies and condenses the experience of modernity in a traumatic way” (Widdig, 2001).
Its factual history can be traced back to the Roman Empire, being one of the contributors of its collapse (Temin, 2006). Phillip Cagan envisaged hyperinflation as an economic problem in The Monetary Dynamics of Hyperinflation (1956), which occurred 55 times in the 20th century. However, the science of economy still offers no exact understanding of hyperinflation, as its fluctuations heavily rely on people’s confidence in government (Tarullo, 2017). Yugoslavia’s hyperinflation of 1992-94 was the last case of such inflation in Europe, with the highest montly rate hitting 313,000,000% (Hanke-Krus, 2012). Recently, the Belgian financial crisis of 2008-09, although incomparable in amplitude to the collapse of Yugoslavia’s dinar, managed to shake the country in a manner one could hardly expect.
Artists have always been concerned with economics as a topic. Some of the most outstanding examples are found in the works of Quentin Metsys (The Money Changer and His Wife, 1514), Pieter Aertsen (Market Scene, 1550) and Pieter Brueghel the Younger (The Tax Collector, 1620-40). They explored economics as a cultural operation that penetrates all layers of daily life, questioning people's’ ideals and their existence. More recently, with the development of digital economy, artists became increasingly interested in “abstract” economic notions like “debt”, “stock market” or “profit”, as in the Google Will Eat Itself (2005) by Ubermorgen, the The Lost Horizon (2003) by Matthew Cornford and David Cross or the Credit Crunch Lexicon (2012) by Simon Roberts. Others were taking the indirect way, rendering economic foundations in the notion of work, globalization, gender equality or knowledge accessibility, such as Martha Rosler, Jesper Alvaer, Baltensperger & Siepert, Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens, among others. However, hyperinflation has rarely been studied by artists as a central subject, with the exception of few yet crucial works of art: Disorder and Early Sorrow (1925), Thomas Mann’s short story on the life during hyperinflation; the Hyperinflation (1927), Hans Richter’s film on banknotes’ absurdity; and more recently The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (2016), somewhat controversial novel by Lionel Shriver, on the near-future hyperinflation in the USA.
In the cultural domain, we are witnessing growing interest in the idea of citizen empowerment, through an off-grid economy of third-places, local money and community gardening. Smart cities may offer an impressive mode of life (for a certain class of citizens), but are extremely vulnerable to security and technical workflow (Kitchin-Dodge, 2017). Belgrade managed to survive the economic breakdown primarily because of its citizen’s peer-to-peer connections to cousins and friends, working in the countryside as small independent food producers (Lyon, 1996). In that context, this project is going to tackle the subject of hyperinflation, not only as an abstract economic data absurdity, but also as a possible offset of the way we are used to represent value, organize systems and our approach to authority. We will try to make that offset a tangible poetics of our uncertain cultural chronotope.
Designs of banknotes and coins are never random. They encrypt a cultural state of mind, its psychology, and economy, combined into a singular semiotics of value. It is through hyperinflation that we can observe devaluation and distortion of these values and the overall social, political and cultural shift. Therefore, by entering a visual, symbolic and discursive environment of a post-economic condition, the project aims to examine how much the phenomenon of hyperinflation can be a fertile ground to dig for better understanding of sudden cultural mind-shifts and social reconditioning provoked by new technology. The project will pose the following questions:
● How can art change our perspective of economic uncertainty and how much does the process of economic dismantling resemble an art experience on its own?
● What can we learn by studying people’s organic reactions to technological changes in the economy, its collapse and ritualistic elements?
● How can we visualize and sense the process of paradigm shift, its nature and form?
● What are the models of economic autonomy in arts and culture today?
The opening part of the research is focusing the Yugoslavia’s hyperinflation of 1992-1994. The survey starts by tracing the origins of Serbian (dinar) banknotes’ design, which was published for the first time in 1884 (Ćirić, 2013), and made on the basis of reserve 100 francs’ banknote cliché, held by the National Bank of Belgium. This is how the creation of the Yugoslav dinar can be considered as an “offspring” of the Belgian franc and its parallel life-story. Some 108 years later, the dinar went through one of the worst hyperinflations ever recorded in history.
Following its progress, the project will expand towards common points of economic uncertainty, observed within the context of cultural processes imploding under the weight of the inequality of wealth distribution, technological acceleration and a lost vision of human wellbeing. Consequently, practical part of the research will be embodied through interdisciplinary works of art, whose system we will tackle later in the file.
The discursive part of the project will be an essay-based study, relying on the hypothesis that passing through hyperinflation can be compared to passing through a near-death experience, fundamentally altering the worldview. A simulacrum aspect breaks in when money obviously loses its credibility and ability to represent value and the whole system of “real” collapses. To support this hypothesis, we will base the research quest on Bakhtin’s concept of carnival (Rabelais and His World, 1965) as an upside-down world where ideas and truths are endlessly tested and contested, and all demand equal dialogical status (Stallybrass-White, 1986). In this context, we will ask the main question: What is altered cultural state of mind, why does it happen and how does it affects our understanding of certain social, economic and political rituals, which appear to be “illogical”?
The question of a representational crisis will be also observed in works of Jacques Lacan (Fetishism: The Symbolic, The Real and The Imaginary, 1956), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (Anti-Edipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1984), and Donna Haraway (A Cyborg Manifesto, 1984).
Link to the works