This ominous summer, as Greece teetered on the verge of economic collapse, it was easy for sun-scorched visitors at the Venice Biennale to overlook a prophetic glint on the floor of the Padiglione Centrale. But sharper-eyed guests were rewarded with a tiny, irresistible sculpture by British conceptual artist Ryan Gander at their feet. The work, We never had a lot of € around here (2010), appears almost identical to a two-euro coin. Yet on closer inspection, the coin in fact is a 25 euro denomination and is dated 2036. It also features 24 instead of the current 12 stars, representing a swollen assemblage of European countries. It is firmly affixed to the floor, as if temporarily stuck in its voyage back from the future.
Gander, a brilliant conceptualist, is an old hand at games, narratives and literary references. His works often surface as unexpected, titillating clues that gently lead the viewer into a thicket of mystery where fact, fiction and dream collide. At New York’s Guggenheim Museum, his installation Intervals (2010) presented a paroxysm of colored glass and lead scattered throughout the Aye Simon Reading Room. This humorous intervention is Gander’s imaginary version of the philosophical dustup between Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, the celebrated Dutch modernists who became famously estranged over the use of the diagonal line. Not far away, in Central Park, Gander’s commissioned sculpture The Happy Prince (2010) brought to life Oscar Wilde’s bittersweet fable of a bejeweled statue that asked a sparrow to distribute his baubles to his impoverished citizens, only to have his unadorned form summarily toppled by the same townsfolk.
With We never had a lot of € around here, Gander takes on the hallowed and mischievous school of art and economics. (Variations include an American “quarter centi-dollar” coin worth $25 from 2032, a Great British Pound version and possibly an upcoming Yen sculpture.) Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and JSG Boggs have created their own checks, bonds, postage stamps and bills, demonstrating that “artistic tender” backed only by the artists’ reputations can mimic financial instruments to a certain degree. Among numismatic artworks, Gander’s coins from the future are unique because they explicitly raise the question of future value. Although almost everyone thinks about money and the future on a daily basis, rarely have artists intelligently addressed this issue—a further surprise given that contemporary art is no stranger to commodification.
Conceptual artists Jonathon Keats and Christin Lahr apply Duchamp’s concept of “art as capital” to solemn corporate transactions, creating tongue-in-cheek investigations into collectors’ relationships with future value. San Francisco-based Keats created Brain Trust (2003), an art investment project in which the potential value to collectors (aka investors) is only recognizable after Keats’ own death. In Nichts zu Verschenken (“Nothing to Give Away”) (2002), Lahr, a German academic and conceptual artist, invited her audience to sign gift contracts for, literally, nothing; nonetheless, they retained the right to profit from their resale of “nothing” with Lahr retaining 5 percent of such profit. The dissonance between both works’ structural formality and miniscule profit potential is an acute critique of the synthetic nature of financial derivatives that have ruled the global economy in the 21st century.
Ironically, Robin Hanson, the winner of the prestigious Golden Nica Prize at the Prix Ars Electronica in 1995 for “idea futures,” never considered himself an artist. An economist, futurist and the inventor of prediction markets, Hanson has, as a demonstration of his faith in the future, chosen to have his brain cryogenically preserved after his death. In idea futures, or prediction markets, as they are commonly known, participants bet on future events in entertainment, politics, sports or other quantifiable areas. Companies, governments and even individuals can utilize such crowd-sourced wisdom in their decision-making.
Gander’s vision of 2036 features massive global inflation and an enlarged, potentially more fractious Europe. Turkey, whose infamous exclusion from the 2005 euro coin design was castigated as a political affront to the less wealthy, predominantly Muslim nation, remains nowhere to be found despite its red-hot 11 percent GDP growth to date in 2011, which places it well ahead of its more developed eurozone neighbors.
Perhaps Gander is the wise contrarian, but he enjoys little company in his prognostication of a long-lived euro currency. In “The World in 2036,” a 2010 article for The Economist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the godfather of risk and uncertainty wrote: “The great top-down nation-state will be only cosmetically alive, weakened by deficits, politicians’ misalignment of interests and the magnification of errors by centralized systems . . . Currencies might still exist, but, after the disastrous experience of America’s Federal Reserve, they will peg to some currency without a government, such as gold.” Intrade, one of the largest online prediction markets, currently lists a 13-percent chance that any country currently using the euro will decide to drop it by midnight, December 31, 2011. This probability rises to 31 percent by 2012 and 55 percent by 2014; the scenario is likely to get much bleaker by 2036.
Another popularly cited prediction for 2036 is that the asteroid Apophis, at 885 feet across, will collide head-on with Earth. Perhaps it is that future impact that has knocked Gander’s coin a quarter-century back in time to land at our feet, a talismanic piece of change with which we can try to buy some time.