When it comes to patriotic iconography, you’d be hard-pressed to find a medium that wears national pride on its sleeve more than money. Physical currency is laden with emotive emblems and historical figures, not only out of hubris, but also to provide visual reassurance that the glorified IOU has actual material worth.
But according to Icelandic designer and artist Magnús Ingvar Ágústsson, “In the end the only value in the currency is the trust you put into it. There’s no gold standard anymore; there’s just paper that we trust will deliver what it’s meant to.
“I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land, a sci-fi novel [by Robert A. Heinlein] where a guy is left on Mars as a child, and raised by Martians. When he eventually comes back to Earth, his parents—who were some crazy astronauts—have left him a fortune, so he’s super rich. He becomes a kind of cult leader, but he doesn’t understand money. Then finally he gets it, and he talks about how beautiful the medium is and how it brings people together. That was one of the reasons I started to get interested in it myself.”
While studying on the Man and Communication program at the Design Academy Eindhoven, this interest in currency led Ágústsson to experiment with creating his own cash, a hypothetical set of paper notes to be used in a paradoxically cashless future society. By then, Ágústsson imagines, we’ll use a central digital standard like Bitcoin to control global funds instead of a variety of national currencies.
The idea is not as far-fetched as its sci-fi inspiration. As financial transactions are increasingly digitized, the need for a system of coins and notes is fast becoming redundant, reducing physical waste and eliminating holes in the system (like coins lost down the back of the sofa, or notes abandoned in old pairs of jeans). But it also allows all transactions to be closely monitored, an idea Ágústsson is uncomfortable with.
“I was reading about cashless transactions in Sweden, where most of the payments are made by phone or with credit cards. Once everything is digital, your privacy is totally gone. You can’t pay your local drug dealer with a mobile app. So I was thinking about how, after that, we might need cash again, because it can be used to preserve privacy.”
The solution? A kind of cash hybrid. “Vessel is a new form of physical payment for a future when cash as we know it is obsolete. Each vessel bears a unique public ‘address.’ Users can check the address online to make sure the given value is valid. The money then changes hands without further tracking. Every single bill is backed up by a Bitcoin wallet, and the private key is encrypted on the bill itself. You have the opposing noise on a transparency, and when you superimpose it the numbers read off. It’s crazy, it’s like magic, you know? And it actually works.”
If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But perhaps no more so than existing financial systems. Ágústsson’s idea still requires banks, of sorts (though he refers to them as “collectives”), which can transfer your cash back into digital currency, destroying the note in the process to ensure there’s no excess in circulation. He’s in no hurry to set all this up, though. He’d much rather focus on his experimental design work.
There’s definitely an element of technophobia in Ágústsson’s portfolio—an acceptance that technological progression is inevitable, but an awareness that progression comes at a price. He’s also interested in the disconnect between tech consumers and technology itself, and the confusion that creates.
“Back when cloud storage was just starting, I came across an interview with people on the streets of New York, asking them what The Cloud was. They were like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s when you store your data in the clouds.’ That’s fucking great, it’s beautiful!”
This provided the inspiration for a series of tapestries that merge ancient mythology with meme culture and the visual language of the net. The Oracle’s Query is a luxurious piece of fabric depicting a strange landscape that’s at once alien and familiar. Mechanically woven, Ágústsson finished the fine detailing by hand.
“Just like this idea that the internet is stored in the clouds, people once believed that Helios, the god of the sun in Greek mythology, drove his chariot across the sky, and that caused day and night. So I started to play around with these concepts to create my own mythological world where meme cats were roaming free, DARPA robots were house pets, and data mines dotted the countryside. That was the spark that got me working on these tapestries.
“Intellectually, I want to explore these ideas more. I tend to think in threes, and I want to do one from the top of Mount Olympus, which would be like the social media sphere. And then I want to do a tapestry that would be the underworld—obviously representing the Dark Net. I think this is such a rich world.”
In the meantime Ágústsson can be found “flipping pixel burgers” at Reykjavik agency Jónsson & Le’macks. Hopefully he doesn’t stay there too long; that tapestry triptych won’t finish itself.