If you tried to get some Euros out of certain ATMs in downtown Madrid during the financial standoff between Greece and the rest of Europe, you might have noticed something odd. The ATMs seemed to be spilling out an old, valueless currency: the drachma, Greece’s old money before it joined the Euro.
The installation, a project of Spanish “light art” collective Luzinterruptus didn’t actually modify the machines themselves but used covers to turn the empty space in the machines into a sculptures filled with money and light, intended to celebrate the possibility of the Greeks returning to their own currency after leaving the euro.
“We, at a distance, were so elated at the landslide of the Oxi [“no,” in Greek] at the referendum against the austerity measures demanded by Europe,” says the anonymous collective. “That’s why we decided to take to the streets to celebrate with our lights, humor, voting ballots, and drachmas. We wanted to celebrate the chance that ATMs in Greece could have their very own currency flowing out of them, a currency that would lie outside the malign influence of the Eurogroup.”
In 2002, much of Europe adopted the Euro to replace individual currencies, and the Eurozone roughly corresponds with the countries that enjoy free trade across borders, and free migration for citizens of member states. For instance, a German can move to Spain and take a job without any pesky immigration papers.
When the world’s banks collapsed in 2008, Greece was in trouble. In 2010, the state became insolvent. The rest of Europe lent it money, but in return demanded harsh austerity measures that cut public funding and completely stalled the economy. Imagine if somebody lent you money to get you out of a hole, but then told you how you had to run every aspect of your life as a condition of that loan. This is austerity, and it doesn’t work. The idea is that they should spend nothing until their debts are repaid, but this has led to mass unemployment and the current economic crisis.
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his left wing Syriza party were elected primarily on their promise to stick it to the man, which in this case meant refusing to comply with Germany’s micromanaging of Greece’s economy, and the rejection of austerity. For a few weeks last month, it looked like Tsipras would win this game of chicken, and force the rest of Europe into restructuring Greece’s debt and reforming its economy, similar to the approach taken with the U.S auto industry after the 2008 financial collapse.
Instead, Tsipras buckled, accepting what former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis calls the “toxic option,” “extending new loans to a bankrupt entity while pretending that it remains solvent,” he wrote last month. A significant chunk of these loans will immediately go to pay off debts to the European Central Bank instead of being used to save Greece’s economy.
Many people–Luzinterruptus included–thought ditching the euro and going back to the drachma would be the preferred path to end the power of Germany and European bankers. Hence the pro-drachma protests.
We managed to convert 7 ATMs in downtown Madrid with minimum work; we turned them into referendum ballot boxes which, once a negative vote was deposited, drachmas were fired out.
Outside of Europe, the Greek crisis is talked about in terms of the global economy. Inside Europe, especially in the south, people see it as a very real and everyday threat to their well-being, which is why artists like Luzinterruptus are getting involved. Imagine that you not only had to fear the incompetence of your own elected government, but also the malign intentions of an unelected entity that can force your government to do what it’s told. Actually, put in those terms, the current European political environment isn’t that different from the U.S. and its powerful industry lobbies.