Funding public art with community currency?

Last week, Interactive Architecture ran an article about the Singing-Ringing Tree sculpture in Burnley, Lancashire, UK. The video resonated very much with some of my recent thinking on how public art that is part of the commons can be at the heart of community economic development.

First of all, it reminded me of an interview of Douglas Rushkoff about his latest book Life Inc where he tells the story of how Middle Age cathedrals were built:

The Vatican and central Rome did NOT build the cathedrals. The funds came from local currency. They were what we would now call “demurrage” currencies that were earned into existence. Towns ended up creating more value than they knew what to do with! They started investing in their infrastructure and their windmills and their water wheels; and also in their future in the form of cathedrals and other tourist attractions.

The second thought I have had recently is that a currency is a unit of contribution to a common goal, and it is this common goal that gives the value to the currency, because the common goal provides a social incentive for everyone to participate in their own way, some by contributing directly to the common goal and being issued currency, others by contributing indirectly to the goal by accepting it for goods/services. In my view, individuals’ common goals or common individual goals are what initially create community, more than anything else.

A public art piece like the Singin-Ringing Tree is such a common goal. It creates long-term value for local businesses like the cathedrals of the middle-age. It creates identity and pride for the local population. It also create jobs.

One approach to funding art is to seek grants from tax-funded government development agencies, but this approach can be viewed as quite inefficient since it requires tax collection, projects competing for funding with other projects, and a hierarchical and highly centralized decision making process.

Another approach could be to use a community currency dedicated to the particular art project. It would work like this:

  • The art project would issue acknowledgments for in-kind or monetary donations made to the project. Issuance would be made public.
  • Businesses could show their support by accepting some of these acknowledgments for partial payment of goods/services they provide.
  • The notes, if printed in paper, could bear an artist rendering of the public art piece to be built.
  • After it is built, the public art piece would likely attract tourists to whom the notes could be sold as a “piece” of the art piece, likely for many times the face value in dollar, since originals would be in limited supplies. This would provide a natural way for the currency to disappear from circulation, and be replaced by new ones for new projects.

Money system as architecture and other insightful metaphors

Video recording of J-F Noubel talk on the Future of Money

In April 2008, Jean-Fran├žois Noubel gave a talk on the Future of Money in Paris. If you understand French, are not familiar with money and want to sit and relax and learn about it, I highly recommend watching this video. I hope this will be eye-opening for you.

For non-French speakers and those already familiar with money, I want to share some of my notes as I think J-F Noubel found excellent metaphors to explain complex concepts:

  • Money is an invisible architecture. An architecture is something human designed that defines the rules on how the components of a system relate to accomplish the system’s purpose. Inevitably in software development, the architecture of the system influences how software developers contribute to the system, leading them to good and poor division of work and determining speed of development, maintenance and execution. A monetary system is very similar to a software architecture in the sense that a monetary system is fundamentally an information system, which relate to establishing value and tracking exchanges, with very precise rules defined and refined over time by humans. It is invisible because we’ve got so familiar with it that it’s like air we breathe.
  • Our current monetary system is like the Monopoly game: there are only losers. Just like the game of Monopoly and many natural phenomenon, our monetary system obeys the Pareto law of self-aggregation: 20% of the population own 80% of the wealth, 250 individuals own 60% of the World’s wealth. This is because money attracts money: the more you have it, the easier it is to make more. Just like in Monopoly the winner takes it all, and as a result cannot play with the other players who lost, so he lost as well. Just like we could change the rules of Monopoly to make it impossible for a winner to take it all, we could change the rules of our monetary system to make sure distribution of wealth is more equal.
  • Money is like water, and the money system is like an irrigation system in a garden. You don’t want your water to end up in one spot, but distribute it equitably in the way that maximizes the fruits, beauty, diversity and long-term health of your garden. This metaphor is particularly relevant as “currency” comes from current, so etymologically money is the thing that flows between us.
  • Money influences our culture (society) just like water influences our culture (garden). Our current monetary system forces us into competition and extreme optimization of processes making our overall society less resilient to shocks. No only do we depend more than ever on each other, but as we optimize we end up in a monoculture. It’s like having one giant field of genetically modified corn, instead of a lot of small fields, each with a different variety. Not optimized, but much more resilient to a pandemic.

Here is a link I found where some of these metaphors are also discussed.

Frank Lloyd Wright 1957 with Mike Wallace

Boing Boing just posted a link to a series of archived videos of the “The Mike Wallace Interview”. There is an interview with FLW in there, which I watched this morning.

Frank Lloyd Wright in the The Mike Wallace Inteview

FLW talks about his view on religion, politics and architecture. FLW is a strong believer in nature, or to try to put it more precisely in the belief that the natural should be the prime guide behind the artificial or man-made. This concept influences his architectural views, but also his religious and political views.

His notion of organic architecture, an architecture that draws its inspiration from its surroundings is well known and almost not mentioned in the interview. The architecture-related points focus on how the architecture of where we live influences our human nature, and how he would like to spend the next 15 years of his life (he was in his late eighties at the time of the interview) changing this country (the US) by changing where we live. This reminded me of this TED talk by James Howard Kunstler on the tragedy of American suburbia and how the US have a dramatic need to change its architecture. It also reminded me of this article Is Your Pleasant Suburb The Next Slum? on the possibility that American suburbia is becoming the new ghetto as prices dwindle there and people are willing to comprise space for convenience, car-free lifestyle and community.

On religion, he talks about “Nature with a capital N” as his Church, his rejection of organized religion, and how this independence has ironically allowed him to do his job as an architect for a number of Churches

The most interesting part to me is his views on politics. FLW seems to be a strong proponent of the Jeffersonian natural aristrocracy, one that is acquired via talents and virtues (as opposed to artificial aristocracy, which is acquired by birth/wealth). Unlike Jefferson, FLW does not provide a way for the natural aristocracy to be separated from the artificial aristocracy, for the wheat to be separated from the chaff. Jefferson believed in leaving to people this task, but I doubt from what I have heard in the interview that FLW believed that. He qualifies people as an incult mob with no taste and no awareness.

Anyway, this video is quite an interesting watch, and filled with quotes such as:

Arrogance is something a man possesses on the surface to defend the fact that he hasn’t got the thing that he pretends to have. He’s a bluff in other words.

Video here.