“Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important than the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.” — Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (19)
by Kenneth Steinbach (2023)
Over the past decade I have been developing several bodies of work using imagery taken from failed and devalued fiat currencies from across the world. Fiat currencies are paper monetary systems willed into existence by government or para-government agencies. Their values are entirely defined by decree, without being backed by physical commodities, such as gold. The functions of these fiat systems are constantly challenged as they encounter real world circumstances, their values endlessly changing in cycles of expansion, decay, and political upheaval. Most modern currencies are fiat currencies, and the history of their failure is both a fascinating and sobering study.
The Voice of the People print series uses symbols and images taken from currencies from pre 20th Century European empires such an England, Germany and France, which tended to be highly embellished and baroque. The notes are filled with images of figures, texts, animals, architecture, patterns and other symbols that are extrapolated for the raw material for my prints. The Voice of the People also employs the bi-lateral left/right symmetry used in virtually all currency design, a visual strategy used to evoke a sense of stability, completeness and hierarchical order. In short, the prints use a design strategy that evokes power. We see this kind of symmetry used in other situations where forms of power are evoked, most notably in the architecture of religious structures, government buildings, museums, and financial institutions.
I find both the visual design and social contract with these currency systems to be representative of Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique, an interactive set of ideas that emphasizes efficiency, productivity and rationality. Both powerfully attractive and malignant, technique exists as a value system in search of an application, a methodology that once embraced, begins to thoroughly shape all aspects of the environment into which it is planted. Working pervasively in our contemporary society, we can see its influence in how we form ideas about the natural world, our definitions of healthy individuals and societies, the role of labor, and even our spirituality.
I have been intrigued by Ellul’s emphasis on the misapplied rationality within technique, and the way it offers both an energy and motivation for making choices that consistently erode qualities of our humanity. “Whatever its aspect, or the domain in which it is applied, a rational processes is present,” he notes “which tends to bring mechanics to bear on all that is spontaneous or irrational” (The Technological Society, 79). It is an energy I see within the precise but unpredictable forms of logic that characterize the function and dysfunction of these monetary systems in diverse economies across the globe. Such systems work in simultaneously helpful and indifferent relation to human need and desire, their unpredictable rise and fall taking people’s lives along for the ride. The Voice of the People prints dismantle and reinvent the imagery of these systems, finding alternative forms of value and meaning in as objects of contemplation and meditation. It is my hope that such dismantling allows us to reconsider our relationship to them, suggesting the possibility of alternative ways of living.
The Voice of the People series of silkscreen prints were created with the help and support of the Trykkeriet Printmaking Center in Bergen, Norway during an artist residency in 2017.
For more information from the artist, contact Kenneth Steinbach in the Art Department at Bethel University, St. Paul, MN