Reviving Drachma

Installation (mixed media)
"Men, let one of them die, another live, however their luck may run, Let Zeus decide."  The Iliad: Book 8

This is a fictional proposal to bring back the Drachma, one of the world’s oldest and obsolete, and effectively dead national currency of Greece. But this time, rather than returning as a form of currency, the Drachma plays a different role. Bacteria living on the surface of an old banknote is harvested and genetically-modified, to act as living sensor of Greek economy. They respond to series of electrical stimulations generated from the rise and the fall of the national stock market, Athens General Index. At a brink of financial crash, bacteria glow brightly as a warning signal to an impending crisis. During recession, the bacteria release enzymes that degrade cotton fibres of the banknote, rendering the currency useless again. The stock market effectively becomes God Zeus, throwing lightning at its bacterial citizens, forcing genetic responses. This results in ‘economy-dependent’ bacteria, literally handed-down through the hands of Greek society, and now acting as beacons of its economic health, announcing the country’s fortunes and tragedies through a cycle of revival and self-destruction.

closeshot_final

“Steady Growth”: No disruption to cells, normal growth
“Saturation”: Special electrical field is applied to allow cells to glow under UV

“Market Crash”: Cells release enzymes that break down the cotton surface of the banknote
“Recession”: Cells are killed following break down of the banknote

Process

ebay-drachma
Drachma banknote (1970) featuring Zeus was bought on Ebay
yanis-note
Hand-written note from Ebay seller, Yanis

 

Backdrop

Greek economic troubles since the Global Financial Crisis and also with heightened instability of Greece’s future in the Eurozone had initiated the possibility of the country’s exit from the EU and re-introduction of its previous currency, the Drachma. Although the Greek referendum of 2015 resulted in a resounding ‘No’ against so-called ‘Grexit’, fresh rumours of Drachma’s return never seem far away. Only in January of 2017, Syriza lawmaker Nikos Xydakis shocked the political world and the public opinion when he implied a possible Greek withdrawal from the Eurozone. But perhaps more significantly, Xydakis said that speaking about Drachma is a taboo and that there should be no taboos when we speak about people’s fate. And indeed, whilst opinions are divided on the potential impact of Drachma’s return, the need for stability and comfort, more specifically over uncertainty that loom over Greek citizens and their financial futures is rather undeniable. This project started with thinking about alternative roles that Drachma could play, that addresses Greece’s volatile and unpredictable economy in an artistic way.

Anti-austerity project, Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece (17.5.2017). This was taken during Athens Digital Arts Festival, which was being hosted only tens of meters away, where this project was being exhibited.

“Better immediately with [a return to the] #drachma” (Athens, 4th October 2016). Tweet & photo by @Giovanni_Lido.
However, this project is not intended to give solutions or answers to what is clearly a complex and sensitive challenges of economic uncertainty in Greece. The suggestion of using of modern biotechnological tools, such as (but not exclusive to) CRISPR-Cas9, as part of the outcome, the project runs many risks. First, it may create a false promise of a quick technological fix, not least compounded by the general hype, noise and fear surrounding the implementation of modern biology. And secondly, there are dangers of the project falling into a cultural appropriation trap, that could make it appear to be hijacking Greece – an unfortunate symbol of European austerity – in order to demonstrate a technological competence.

Rather, Reviving Drachma is a fictional proposal that merely depicts an alternative future amongst many futures that are possible, a microbiologically-mediated one to be precise, using it as a medium for debate and discourse. It is also a celebration of microbial life, not only of its global abundance and its inherent intelligence, but our developing relationship with them through advancing technologies such as synthetic and DIY biology. And lastly, this project explores the intersection between Greek mythology and metaphorical representation of Greek citizens in a bacterial format.

The name drachma is derived from the verb δράσσομαι (drássomai, "(I) grasp") [1].  
It is believed that the same word with the meaning of "handful" or "handle" is found 
in Linear B tablets of the Mycenean Pylos [2,3].

Research

One of the first port of call in approaching the issue of unpredictability in economy was to look at what professional economists are doing on this issue. Didier Sornette is Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He is an advocate of a theory called Dragon-Kings, which is a way to monitor tiny perturbations in the data and turning them into prediction models for forecasting the next big extreme event (eg. market crash). His TED talk below that explains his work further:

He mentions the model being already applied to non-financial industries. For example, in rocket manufacturing, sound waves can be applied to internal structures of a rocket to obtain acoustic feedback data that would help engineers to monitor and predict its potential destruction under stress. What’s more, same principle is being applied in gynaecology and neurology where potential abnormalities can also be predicted in such manner. This then ultimately lead to thinking about applying the same model to bacteria. Could the tiny changes in the stock market be translated into something that could stimulate bacterial cells, so that any predictions could be translated into a visual response?

Featured

PostFuture, 13th Athens Digital Arts Festival (ADAF), 18-21 May 2017, Athens, Greece