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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Lloyd Roberts

'Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest' at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The biggest change in day-to-day material culture of my lifetime has been the decline of cash as the primary mode of economic exchange. Its replacements — varyingly dematerialised into plastic, silicon or the blockchain — all promised to be more efficient and modern than the paper and metal tokens of value they are replacing. A friend recently described to me an ‘Apple Pay Mindset’; that the swift ease of contactless digital payments makes them more profligate consumers, that the technology makes it possible not to really think about the money you are spending. This experience is intensified with venture-capital-backed credit schemes like Klarna, which apply frictionless transactions and pastel graphic design to paper over the cracks of declining real-term incomes through payday loans with Instagram aesthetics. The death of cash serves the demands of capital; ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

above, left to right: 'Welcome' (2019) by Banksy, to mark the refugee crisis; collection of coins stamped during The Troubles; Currency Collage by C.K. Wilde depicting torture at Abu Ghraib. (Photos: Matthew Lloyd Roberts.)

Indeed, for Marx in the mid-19th century (1859), even the solidity of cash itself was reliant on a fundamental blindness to abrasion and incipient material decay:

'The coin, which comes into contact with all sorts of hands, bags, purses, pouches, tills, chests and boxes, wears away, leaves a particle of gold here and another there, thus losing increasingly more of its intrinsic content as a result of abrasion sustained in the course of its worldly career. While in use it is getting used up.' — Marx, Critique of Political Economy

This anxiety, about value sequestered and stolen away by forces beyond our control is much older than Marx: from the Recoinage Crisis of the 1690s to Roman antiquity. But what else might happen to coins, other than have their worth bled slowly out of them? How might these quotidian symbols of worth, of state power and of society itself come to be used for new purposes, as tools of politics and memory? These questions, broadly, form the basis of a new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, titled ‘Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest’, open until the 8th January.

We know instinctively that currency has always been a vital tool in the creation and the validation of state authority. For much of human history money was the most constant reminder of who is in and out of power. Roman emperors from periods of upheaval can vanish or reappear in the historical record, attested only by the coins they minted. However, the exhibition argues, this communication wasn’t one directional, the inescapable material culture of money also gave the opportunity for political resistance that deliberately targeted these tokens of state power.

The show at the Fitzwilliam is concerned with the way that various political protestors have used the currency to serve their ends. The core of the exhibition is a fascinating run of vandalised coins from the last 250 years. A highlight of the collection is the work of English Radical Thomas Spence, who was jailed four times for his revolutionary politics, and used stamped or carved coins as tokens of his programme. A particularly vivid depiction features four men dancing around a Maypole topped with the severed head of Prime Minister William Pitt. An anti-revolutionary riposte of similar vintage shows the democrat polemicist Thomas Paine hanging on the gallows alongside Spence and Thomas More, with the mocking tagline ‘END OF PAIN’. The bloody political radicalism of the late 18th-century are brought starkly to light through these objects, with a thoughtfulness and care which is not applied uniformly through the rest of the exhibition.

There is a striking complexity to the web of references, tropes and memes that informed this discursive practice of political coin-marking. Sometimes the simpler moves are more compelling, as in the coin deeply stamped ‘PETERLOO MURDER AUG 10’. We are invited to imagine the depth of feeling that inspired such an act, the physical stamping of a guilty verdict against the state on its own tokens of value. I found it more evocative and moving than any Shelley poem.

The exhibition takes place amongst staging designed to conjure the barricades of ad hoc revolutionary fervour. Scaffolding poles, spray-painted chipboard and graffiti pull together to summon up the aesthetics of political protest. But the problem with this ready-made and dramatic decor is that it comes with quite a dark space. This leaves small coins often lit from above by harsh direct spotlight, giving deep-stamped coins wonderful shadows, often at the cost of the more subtle and intricate pieces, some of which properly deserve magnification.

The most dislocating examples of coins in the exhibition are coins stamped by paramilitary groups during The Troubles. Irish coins marked ‘UVF & UPF’ or ‘1690’ are arresting in their violence, but, as someone born in the mid-90s, who can’t remember life before the Good Friday Agreement, seeing the recognisable pounds sterling of my childhood marked with ‘RIRA’ or ‘SMASH H BLOCK’ is a stark reminder of how close to us that conflict is in history. It is also testament to the remarkable haptic memories triggered by touch that we have of money, and this exhibition is at its strongest when it clearly considers the relationship between the political power of these objects, and their connection to a culture of experience and feeling reliant on the pound in your pocket.

above, left to right: 'HANDS OFF THE NHS' by STIK; coin marked to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre; exploded van by the collective BANK JOB to mark debt cancellation.

(Photos: Matthew Lloyd Roberts.)

There are some uncomfortable moments in the curation which frames these coins as objects of political protest in the broader aesthetics of a post-Occupy Wall Street protest movement. There are exhibits of coins marked or mounted as souvenirs for British soldiers who fought imperialist wars in Sudan in the Mahdist War, South Africa against the Boers and China during the Opium Wars, often mounted alongside trophies taken from victims of British colonial violence. In my view the curation of the exhibition fails to respectfully or adequately interpret and contextualise the significance of these objects, which clearly pose different questions (including that of restitution) to the broader culture of political protest through currency. Similarly, currency minted during the siege of Mafeking by the British defenders, featuring the cannon ‘Long Tom’, a stalwart of British imperial propaganda, feels discordant with the overarching exhibition theme of political protest.

Defaced! Money, Conflict, Protest is not just about the relatively narrow medium of currency protest, it also draws on other forms of media used to convey political messages, and on the use of money and its aesthetics in fine art practice. There are moments in the show where this breadth of reference leads to a loss of focus. I am in favour of historical curation that draws on contemporary art, and some of the pieces used, like CK Wilde’s currency collage recreating photographs of Iraqis tortured in Abu Ghraib, do add to the show. However, the dominance of the twee and often tasteless work of Banksy (see a “Welcome” mat embroidered with lifejackets to mark deaths in the Aegean), even when it bears no direct relation to the question of money, feels like an audience-grab of the worst kind. When the first object you see on entering the exhibition is a “HANDS OFF THE NHS” placard that has nothing to do with currency per se, beyond the conceptual frame of austerity, you have to ask whether the premise of the exhibition has become a bit indistinct along the way.

Partly, this may well be a problem of audience expectations. As we have seen particularly this year, the British public have a very narrow conception of what constitutes legitimate political protest. As parliament takes an increasingly authoritarian approach to legislating against disruptive action, it is a shame that the curation of the exhibition didn’t examine this tension more explicitly. Publicly acceptable but often ineffective placard-waving; or the quaintly political art of Banksy might not serve as a model for meaningful political change. The furtive, violent and cathartic action of defacing currency that embodies state authority belongs to a different family of protest, less precious about legality or propriety than the British public tends to be.

This compromise is disappointing because the political and material significance of vandalised cash pose remarkable questions. What are our best guesses about how these material objects actually existed in the past: how were they disseminated, where were they kept, how actually reproducible were they? It would have been productive to spend longer on these questions, which seem to pose serious ramifications for the historical significance of these objects. Some more detailed commentary on the provenance of the collection might have started to answer these questions. For example, were large numbers of coins stamped with paramilitary slogans in circulation during The Troubles? Who produced them, at what scale, and to what end?

The exhibition is very sharp in some of its inclusion of contemporary art practice that seriously engages with questions of politics through the medium of money. The highlight is the Walthamstow-based collective BANK JOB, who raised funds through selling a sort of community currency as art-objects, and then spent that money in secondary debt markets to cancel payday loans ruining the lives of those in the borough. This radical action that genuinely blurs the boundary between art and political activism is dramatically testified by a Cornelia Parker-ish display of fragments of an exploded van filled with debt paperwork.

The exhibition ends on a potent note, displaying an Asylum Support Enablement Card (ASPEN), a tool used by the Home Office to monitor how asylum seekers spend the £40.85 a week they are entitled to. Cash may always have been used as a tool of state authority, but its replacements enable an ever more intrusive control and oversight through governmental and corporate data collection. The political, social and material problems wrapped up in this exhibition are well worth our serious consideration, and it feels timely and should be visited, despite some unresolved questions about its curation.


Matthew Lloyd Roberts is an architectural historian, podcast producer, and Contributor at Curation Space. You can read more about Matthew here.

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