‘The Bijlmer Euro is a parasitical currency that piggybacks on the ubiquity of the Euro as a vehicle for its own mobility. Yet, a Bijlmer Euro is worth more than a normal Euro because it carries local trust and good will’. Christian Nold
The Bijlmer Euro project is a powerful provocationIt provides a radical challenge to a dominant economic system by creating an alternative set of relationships that exist around and upon the euro currency. Within a particular locale, Nold’s project is ‘hacking’ money, which has important wider implications. This essay aims to explore whether thinking of art as ‘hacking’ expands the radical potential it holds within particular social networks. In the current political climate – this ‘age of austerity’ – it seems to be of paramount importance to think about art practices that can operate outside of institutions, which can continue to function at a time when funding and support are diminishing due to an apparently dire financial climate and a specific political agenda.
I will suggest that the ‘hack’ is a utopian gesturewhich attempts to re-articulate, realign, free-up or ‘open’ certain kinds of information, and in doing so creates a difference, or something ‘new’. Hacking is generative. It carves out new concepts, new perceptions and new sensations out of ‘raw data’ (Wark, 2004: no pagination). In our contemporary moment, this kind of hacking, or activism, or art, is a powerful means to engage with markets, networks and institutions, yet is not situated dependently within them. Thinking about art and hacking as sharing a filial relation provides the potential for a critique that recognises an activist art practice– socially engaged and embedded. By examining texts such as A Hacker Manifesto (2004) and The Principle of Hope (1938) among others, it is possible to argue that hacking is utopian gesture, which works as a process rather than as an event to alter or re-work certain codes and data, and in doing so implies different ways of viewing and engaging with art, activism and politics.
At first, it is necessary to understand what is meant by ‘hacking’, particularly in relation to contemporary art, to draw a loose boundary between different forms of digital activism. This will then be applied to the instance of the Bijlmer Euro project, which is a compelling example of how these two spheres might collide, resulting in an ‘art hack’. By linking this to a particular understanding of utopia proposed by Ernst Bloch, the art hack can be understood in a utopian wayas postulating alternative ways of being, a possibility for a ‘what if?, a suggestive, anticipatory playfulness that challenges the dominant modes of operation or ‘code’ within society.
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Hacker, not cracker
‘In art, in science, in philosophy and culture, in any production of knowledge where data can be gathered, where information can be extracted from it, and where in that information possibilities for the world are produced, there are hackers hacking new out of the old’ (Wark, vers. 4.0).
Could we perhaps replace ‘hacker’ with ‘artist’? Could we replace ‘new’ with ‘different’? In the many manifestos that delineate what the ‘hacker’ does there are some striking similarities to many attitudes from within contemporary art, particularly to the recent rising interest in creative commons licensing (cc) and intellectual property rights. Inspired by Nold’s project, thinking through certain kinds of art practices/processes with ‘hacking’ seems to expand their critical possibilities.
What is hacking? Thanks to Hollywood films such as The Net (1995) and Hackers (1995) that offer ambiguous views of hacking, it has come to occup a middle-space between criminality and heroic cyber activism. It is important therefore to make the distinction between the hacker and the so-called ‘cracker’. According to Abstract Hacktivism (2006) – a text that explores the relevance of hacking in contexts outside of software – the cracker is a destructive role that works to demolish or deconstruct particular codes and networks. In contrast, the hacker is a generative role. It is not concerned with the kinds of nihilist devastation that The Net would have us believe, but is instead an ‘empowering aggregation’ (Von Busch & Palmas 2006: 28). The emphasis within this approach is on modulation and modification, on construction and dialogue. Von Busch argues that hacking is a form of critique that operates constructively within code. It throws information into a parliament of things, which acts as ‘a process of convergence rather than consensus’ (ibid.). It is a form of archaeological excavation that delves into the hidden properties of hardware and software, making the unseen accessible and negotiable.
In A Hacker Manifesto (2004)McKenzie Warkreusing intertextual lines from Marx, argues for a ‘hacker class’, which he inserts into the usual framework of pastoral and capitalist classes. The hacker class ‘create and handle information, dispossessed of their production through various forms of private property, copyrights, trademarks and patents’ (Wark 2004: no pagination). This is also argued in the now seminal A Hacker Manifesto (on which Wark based his own title), written by a teenager hacking under the pseudonym ‘The Mentor’. Published in 1986 in the ezine Phrack, The Mentor writes;
‘We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin colour, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals’ (The Mentor, http://www.mithral.com/~beberg/manifesto.html)
Both texts draw attention to the existence of the hacker as a positive force, who is criminalised for contravening the codes and laws of intellectual property. Wark argues that it is only because knowledge is valued as property that hackers exist within a criminal realm. He argues that where opposition and ‘dialectic struggle’ was the counter culture of a ‘society of discipline’, hacking is ‘modification in a society of control’ (Wark 2004: no pagination.). Both texts are highly polemical, almost satirically so, and yet this does not detract from the powerful politics they propose. For Wark, hacking is a practice of dialogue, a negotiation, which plays with ‘flows and vectors, manoeuvring through turbulence and codified circuitry’ (Von Busch & Palmas 2006: 60).
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Bending the flows of power, but keeping the current on.
In the early 1990s, the art critic Thomas Wulffen coined the phrase ‘the art operating system’. The concept of the artist, the notion of the artistic programme, what a body of work consists of, and the interfaces- who and what are exhibited where- are all contained within the network, coded in, maintained. The artist Cornelia Solfrank of the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin, and a member of the cyberfeminist website Old Boys Club, argues that where art practices unseat the conceptual ‘management’ of the operating system, you ‘become a hacker yourself, but in a different system from that of computer codes. You do ‘social hacking’’ (Solfrank 2001: no pagination). Wark’s manifesto is similarly applicable to an expanded understanding of code and operating system. Hacking becomes a social process, rather than an individual relationship with software. He writes, ‘the hacker class is the class with the capacity to create not only new kinds of object and subject in the world, not only new kinds of property form in which they may be represented, but new kinds of relations beyond the property form’ (Wark 2004: no pagination). In this way, we could begin to think about philosophy as a kind of sophisticated ‘concept management’, or creativity as an ‘advanced problem solving’.
Within this theoretical understanding of hacking, in an expanded sense, it seems clear that the Bijlmer Euro project is an apt example with exciting implications. Launched in January 2010 in the Bijlmer area of southeast Amsterdam – the ‘Dutch Bronx’ – Nold’s project has created an alternative currency, which operates within the local community, largely made up of people of Surinamese descent, who regularly send money back to their homes in South America. Unlike the ‘transition town’ movement in Britain, where currencies have been created to be transacted alongside the pound – such as the Lewes Pound or the Brixton Pound – the Bijlmer Euro is a parasite currency which operates on the euro itself.
For 6 months, Nold collected travel cards that had been thrown away, unpeeling the RFID tags and saving them. These tags are not encrypted, so can be recycled and reused if the proper technology is available. Nold then attached the tags to normal euro notes in all denominations, and started persuading local businesses to offer discounts to customers who wanted to pay with the Bijlmer currency.
In addition to keeping the money local, the RFID component allows local people to see how and where the money travels, and are then able to change their purchasing behaviour accordingly, to support local business or locally produced goods. The emphasis in the Bijlmer project is on locality as a challenge to the multinational corporations who dominate transaction, in particular in this context, Western Union. The project hopes that ‘by using the Bijlmer Euro you are helping local shops which create the social fabric of a place and which are more responsive to the local community than large corporations’ (http://www.bijlmereuro.net/?lang=nl).
The key to the project is trust. By networking the ‘social hubs’ in the local area – the small business and service providers – Nold sees the possibility to ‘expand cultural trust networks to be more broadly local’ which would ultimately hope to ‘develop a prototype for a global, community run diaspora banking system based on the strength of social relationships between communities across the whole globe’ (ibid.). The project challenges the view that the aim of economic localisation is to create a bubble of self-sufficiency on a small-scale level. In fact, what Nold argues is that it is merely an attempt to create a better balance between the local, regional, national and international markets, which can in turn create a more ethical economy. ‘Localisation is not about isolating communities from other cultures, but about creating a new, sustainable and equitable basis on which they can interact’ (http://www.bijlmereuro.net/?lang=nl). The local is therefore shown to be a series of networks, not an isolatable socio-geographic entity.
Currently, a mobile banking unit enables people to exchange Euros for Bijlmer Euros, with shops offering small discounts, and the relationships between customers and businesses changing thanks to the reconfiguring of trust and intimacy in the act of financial transaction. A key reason why other ‘experimental’ currencies have struggled is due to a lack of trust. To exchange ‘official’ money into another value requires the ‘customer’ to both trust the note or coin and trust that they will be able to exchange it for goods. The value system is separate, and based on negotiable social relationships, which can generate distrust or anxiety. The Bijlmer Euro bypasses this anxiety by hacking the already established Euro currency, using it as a vehicle upon which to circulate a slightly altered, or modulated experience of trade and transaction, both critical and playful, but ultimately useful and attuned to the needs of the local community.
In this way the Bijlmer Euro has hacked into the ‘code’ of capital circulation, and modified it to generate an alternative set of relationships. Through attaching itself to the euro, it bends the flow of power, or modulates it, but the current stays on. As Wark writes, ‘since information cannot exist in a pure, immaterial form, neither can the hacker class. Of necessity it must deal with a ruling class that owns the material the means of extracting or distributing information, or with a producing class that extracts and distributes’ (Wark 2004: no pagination). The Bijlmer Euro relies on the very system it is hacking, and relies on its ubiquity, yet poses a radical threat to the multinational companies who dominate the market of money transfers by creating an alternative system of exchange on top and within.
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‘The nearest nearness’
The notions of opensource and hacking clearly no longer apply just to computer networks, but are relevant within other social apparatuses. Adbusters published a special issue in 2006, examining capitalism as an operating system to be hacked, asking ‘can we turn capitalism into an open source design project and make it more sustainable and responsible to our future generations needs?’ (Adbusters Sept/Oct 2006). It seems that the Bijlmer Euro is doing just this by realigning/reformulating the social life of monetary transaction, modified to be closer to the needs and practices of a local community, and making comprehensive the movement of currency and the patterns of spending. This is significant given the devastating global financial crisis of the past three years, which was made feasible due to the ‘abstract systems’ (Giddens 1991) of global capital whose formidable complexity closes them off to accountability or criticism.
Nigel Thrift argues that nobody really understands the modern system of money, which results in money approximating ‘a natural force’ where the system ‘sets up modes of social influence which no one directly controls and which often thereby feels mysterious, based upon a provisional life which often lacks moral life’ (Thrift1997: 69). Nold’s project reconfigures this, restoring to Bijlmer financial exchange a level of closeness and familiarity among the actors involved. This is clear from the messages that have been written on the notes themselves – messages of encouragement and comradeship that illustrate how the Bijlmer Euro intensifies the social relationships around it, rather than dissolving or neutralising them. To partake within this local economy is to move nearer to network of transaction in a social way, which creates a sense of intimacy.
I suggest that this project, and the ‘art hack’ as we might begin to call it, it is a utopian gesture, and by reclaiming ‘utopia’ as a concept that is useful for contemporary art enhances the radical possibilities of the relationship between art and hacking. In The Principle of Hope (Vol 1-3 1938-1947), Ernst Bloch explores a kind of immanent utopianism that is radical in its process-orientation, as opposed to a specific notion of an ‘other place’ in an ‘elsewhen’. Bloch argues that hope itself is provocative, as it does not just accept ‘renunciation’. Utopian thinking is a tool for examining the present, not only a means of projecting or awaiting something else. Utopian consciousness looks into the distance and is anticipatory but only as a way to penetrate ‘the darkness’ of the lived moment.
What Bloch calls ‘the telescope of polished utopian consciousness’ is a way of ‘hacking’ the present, rather than being only anticipatory. The temporality of utopian consciousness – and the gestures it animates – is situated in the present and tangentially to the future. Where Bloch differs from other thinkers is where utopia is considered to be a kind of blueprint of a ‘good elsewhere or elsewhen’ (Anderson 2006: 692). Bloch argues instead that the utopian is an excessive movement toward something better that exists immanently and continually. Because of this is has an excessive and disruptive nature. Bloch even goes so far as to suggest that ‘the very profusion of human imagination, together with its correlate in the world…cannot possibly be explored and inventoried other than through utopian function’ (Bloch 2009: 43). Utopian consciousness is a means of thinking and acting which is not concerned with an optima res publica or the old social utopias but rather an immanent radical relationship with the present. He locates utopia as ‘a breadth of anticipations, wishful images, hope-contents collected in part called: construction’ (Bloch 2009: 45).
Utopianism as a constructive, or generative consciousness is an ethic echoed in hacking, where the goals of free, open information, opensource networks and codes, collaboration and ‘face-to-face’ ethos generate new engagements to information and data, in turn modifying and modulating individual and group relations to contemporary life. The Bijlmer Euro is an apt illustration of these two concepts; of hacking as a means of social engagement, which is a utopian gesture in the way it acts as an immanent process within social life, disruptive in the way it tinkers and twists with codes, playing with temporality as it is concerned with the present via a project for the future. In Nold’s case, the goal is to bypass the grip that Western Union has over the Surinamese population, by creating a sister economy within Suriname that operating similarly to the Bijlmer Euro.
In an interview with DJ Spooky, the philosopher Manuel DeLanda argues that along with ‘cutting language down to size’, it is
‘Equally important to adopt a hacker attitude toward all forms of knowledge; not only to learn UNIX or Windows NT to hack this or that computer system, but to learn economics, sociology, physics, biology, to hack reality itself. It is precisely the ‘can do’ mentality of the hacker, naïve as it sometimes may be, that we need to nurture everywhere’ (http://www.djspooky.com/articles/essayonmanuel.html).
To ‘hack reality itself’, to continually push against dominant code is a utopian way of thinking, radical in its possibility to challenge ‘what is’, to disrupt prevailing ideas and assumptions about social, economic and spatial organisation, whilst simultaneously imagining something different, or new. This is the consciousness that this essay proposes the Bijlmer Euro operates within. Nold’s project is a process, ethnography of exchange and monetary movement, a radical local organisation and a challenging hack into the official Euro currency.
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Anderson, Ben (2006) “Transcending without transcendence: Utopianism and an Ethos of Hope” in Antipode, vol. 38 issue 4, pp. 691-710.
Bloch, Ernst (1938-47) “The Principle of Hope” (extract) in UTOPIAS ed. Noble, Richard (2009) Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, Massachusetts.
Cornelia Solfrank (2001) Hacking the Art Operating System, oldboysclub.org
Deleuze & Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus, Ann Arbor MI, University of Minnesota Press
DJ Spooky: Interview ‘Manuel Delanda’s theory of life, the universe, and everything’ http://www.djspooky.com/
Thrift, Nigel & Andrew Leyshon (1997) Money/Space: Geographies of Monetary Transformation. Routledge, London.
Von Busch, Otto & Karl Palmas (2006) Abstract Hacktivism, OPENMUTE.org
Wark, McKenzie (2004) A Hacker Manifesto http://subsol.c3.hu.subsol_2/contributors0/warktext.html
The Bijlmer Euro: http://www.bijlmereuro.net/?lang=en
 The Hacker Manifesto (1986) written by ‘The Mentor’ is a rather dramatic piece, which in a rather more juvenile way argues for a ‘hacker class’ repeating the phrase ‘we’re all alike’.