To be legal does not mean to be legitimate and to be illegal is not a synonym of illegitimate
The illustration that accompanies this interview shows how banks are able to create money from a client’s 1000 Euros. The drawing is part of “Deterrence”, a project by the artist Núria Güell, in which she taught high school students how financial entities work. Güell, born in 1981 in Girona and educated in Barcelona and La Habana, talks to us about her artistic practice: intrusions into the mechanisms of power that construct hegemonic modes of behaviour, thought and meaning in society.
What is this “Fractional Reserve Banking” from which the drawing borrows its name?
It's the legal privilege accorded to banks to create money as debt, to create money that they don't have. The Fractional Reserve is a percentage of the total amount of customers' deposits, that the banks reserve in cash to be able to meet normal demand for withdrawals. As from January 2012, the stipulated required reserve in the eurozone has dropped from 2% to 1%. So the bank is allowed to invest or lend out the remaining 99%. If borrowers then deposit that money in other banks, who lend it out again, and so on, the total amount of money in deposits will far exceed the base money the bank started out with.
Even though it is legal, I believe that this system is a fraud, based on two crimes: deception and embezzlement. It is deception, because the bank lends out money that doesn't exist, and it even charges interest over these loans. And it is embezzlement, because the bank is making a profit out of what has been left in its custody. A parking lot attendant, for instance, is also not allowed to start renting out the cars left in his care by their owners.
In “Deterrence” you are disseminating information which is not usually considered part of an artist's expertise. What should we make from the fact that it is you telling us all this instead of, say, an economist?
In my artistic practice I am interested in unmasking and deconstructing the established discourses that govern us, by using their own logic. That is why I constantly involve myself with other disciplines and spheres of knowledge.
Economical matters affect all aspects of the real, not just what is strictly “the Economy”. In 2009 I started studying monetary politics in order to understand what was going on. Despite the fact that in the recent years Economy has become a much more democratic topic, in the sense that it isn't just the so-called specialists talking about it any more, I think it is still indispensable to continue to make it more accessible to different parts of the population. It is the only way people can acquire the tools with which they can form a critical opinion about the financial system.
That is the reason why I realised “Deterrence”. The project is based on the fact that the curriculum of compulsory education from the Spanish State does not cover the topic of money, even though the financial system affects all facets of life. I think this is symptomatic. By omitting this information, the educational institution responsible for improving the autonomy and critical capacity of its students, is instead instilling them with submission to what is established and the interests of a minority.
How was the project received by the students and the school itself?
We approached various institutions, who all responded negatively, before finding a teacher that would let us carry out our proposal. It was not easy to find this person, but once we did, the experience was a great success. After finishing the sessions, he asked us for the didactic unit to teach it to other groups. In addition, other teachers got in touch with me later, to let me know they had downloaded the material from the web to implement it in their classes. Ultimately, this was the real objective of the project: to create resources that could be used beyond our own specific experience with that group.
The most important response on the part of the students is that we managed to inculcate them with a distrust of the hegemonic discourses. They were surprised by the distance between the content we dealt with in the classes and what the media was telling. This should be the purpose of education: to stimulate critical and independent thought, which allows for an understanding of what lies behind any discourse, in order to avoid accepting hegemonic explanations as the only ones possible.
In “Deterrence”, you taught classes with the activist Enric Duran, with whom you collaborated before in the project called “Displaced Legal Application #1: Fractional Reserve”. In 2008 he cheated the banks out of 498.000 Euros with which he financed projects that proposed alternatives to Capitalism. You have also collaborated with other people that are considered criminals by the judicial system, such as Jaime Giménez Arbe, El Solitario (The Loner), an anti-capitalist bank robber who is in prison nowadays. What are you looking for in these alliances?
Legality is one of the central themes of my work, above all in the series “Displaced Legal Application”, which gathers methods to analyse different laws and apply them in reverse. For example, in D.L.A #1 I created a platform for clients to apply the system of fractional reserve banking to their own banks, information which I later adapted into a manual. In D.L.A #3 I subjected the institution itself, in this case the Minister of Justice, to the white torture that is applied to politicized prisoners through the F.I.E.S. Regime, a series of measures for so-called maladjusted prisoners. Since I start out from what is legally permissible behaviour within the logic of the system, my proposals are automatically legitimised.
For me the only legitimate authority is ethics. I don't believe in the law as the standard because, in many cases, to be legal does not mean to be legitimate and to be illegal is not a synonym of illegitimate. I think this is an important attitude to take as a citizen, so that we can be truly critical of the world we live in. Although I don't just enter into these alliances for this purpose, but also out of affinity and because of the coherence between the message of each project and the semantic connotations of each collaborator, I nevertheless do believe that the projects realized in “Displaced Legal Application” contribute to this reflection.
Did you get involved in the Barcelona “acampada”?
I got involved in different ways: I attended as a citizen, presented the manual “How to expropriate money from the banks”, and created a local nucleus of the “Cooperativa Integral Catalana” with my friends in the village where I live. The C.I.C. is an initiative that extends throughout the Catalan territory, that establishes itself as a cooperative of producers and consumers, with its own currency, to practice economical and political self-management with equal participation by its members. Its objective is to be the transition to a way of life where neither the bank nor the State are necessary and where we can live with dignity in accordance with our principles. Even if this project is not directly related to 15M, and was prior to it, I do think that it makes a contribution, because initiatives like this generate a certain social environment and have a didactic function which benefits from mutual feedback with 15M.
Did the movement influence the way that people receive your work?
Just to give you an example, when I organized the educational meeting on how to expropriate money from the banks with the collaboration of Enric Duran and Lucio Urtubia in 2010, we had to do it clandestinely in a underground garage. Most of the people in my surroundings who knew about the project thought it was immoral. Whereas on the 25th of May 2011, we were doing a public presentation of the Manual in the center of the Paza Catalunya, which was unthinkable in 2010.
One of the most important tasks of 15M has been to generate alternative discourses of interpretation of reality and analysis of power, and to bring those closer to a large proportion of the population that usually has no access to them. This, one of the achievements of the movement, has also affected the perception of my work.
The first time I heard about Núria Güell's work was when listening to the artist Tania Bruguera at the seminar of “The Autonomy Project” at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven (the Netherlands). Bruguera was presenting the “Behavior Art School” in which Güell had been a participant. Operating between 2002 to 2009, this studies program was an intensive point of encounter for students to examine the theoretical and practical implications of art as an instrument of social transformation.
In a seminar which tried to revitalize the debate on the notion of “autonomy”, Bruguera's provocative proposals towards a more “useful art” functioned as a bridge to redefine the term which, according to the event's programme, in allusion to the arguments used by the Dutch Government to justify the budget cuts on culture, “once designed to specify art’s place within society, has become a means of occluding its public relevance”. Different experts, including the prominent philosopher Jacques Rancière, spoke on this topic with innumerable references to Occupy Wall Street and 15M, trying to escape the binary between the romantic notion of the isolated Artist, developing works in a studio, and the artist as an instrument of public policies. It is in this redefinition of autonomy, put forward in the seminar, that Núria Güell's work is to be found, rising above the distance between representation and action, proposing narratives that challenge the immobility of a political reality, while extending a practical invitation towards collective action.
This invitation to act could shed a different light on the images of occupied squares and multitudes raising their hands in the air, that served as a backdrop to the seminar, by framing them not so much as representations of protest, but as portraits of a certain mindset.
Much later, after listening to more than 20 hours of talks, with just 10 minutes between speakers for questions from the audience, there is finally a stirring, a disruption of the rules of the institutional game. Some members of the audience propose to set up an improvised working group, parallel to the scheduled workshops, to introduce the methods of the Occupy assemblies into the fomat of the seminar. This improvised committee convenes in a flurry of contagious enthusiasm, and returns to the central hall with a statement on the need for more friction between the “guest” and the “host”, in which the former refuses to be held hostage by the hospitality of the latter: a symptom of the way new forms of institutionality should no longer be demanded, but actually put into practice.
I'll conclude with a timely quote from Roland Barthes' text “To the seminar”:
When we say that knowledge must be shared, it is against death that this frontier is traced. (…) Therefore, let us risk more: let us write in the present, let us produce in the others' presence and sometimes with them a book in process; let us show ourselves in the speech-act.