The Art and Politics of “Valor y cambio”: An Interview with Frances Negrón-Muntaner

Familia Clemente en Contrafuertes

Many thanks to Frances Negrón-Muntaner for sharing this interview with us.

Since 2006, Puerto Rico has been enduring a debt crisis that reached $127 billion and resulted in increased poverty rates, mass migration, and cuts to essential public services. To investigate what Puerto Ricans and other residents of Puerto Rico value and how the current economy can respond to most people’s needs, artists Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Sarabel Santos Negrón launched a community currency project called Valor y cambio (Value and Change).

Negrón-Muntaner, who is also a curator, filmmaker, and professor at Columbia University, explains the initiative’s first phase that ran from February 8-17, in several locations in Puerto Rico, and will continue for the rest of the year. A Spanish-version of the interview can be read in 80grados.net and a longer version in English at publicseminar.org.

Q: What is “Value and Change”?

FNM: Value and Change (valorycambio.org), is an initiative that combines art, storytelling, and just economy principles to investigate what Puerto Ricans and other island residents value as a society. It also introduces a community currency, Personas de Pesos Puerto Rico or pesos for short, as a way to share valuable stories and practice exchange-base economies.

To set the project in motion, we designed an initial series of six “banknotes” that ranged from one to 25 pesos and featured images of Puerto Rican historical figures and an iconic community. We also reconfigured an ATM bank machine that we named VyC (acronym of Value and Change) to record people’s stories and dispense the project’s bills. To obtain a bill, the VyC asked participants to tell us about what they valued, how Puerto Rico can support what they value, and what people or groups are already sustaining these values. Participants could then exchange the bill for items at businesses located in several neighborhoods and cities, including San Juan, Caño Martín Peña, Bayamón, Rio Piedras, Cupey, Miramar and Humacao.

Overall, the project aims to spark a conversation about what we call the “economy.” On the one hand, we are questioning the idea that collective resources should be used to promote the success of a small group of individuals instead of the well-being of all. On the other hand, we want to emphasize that economics is not only about production or work, but also about subjectivities, political possibilities, and how people relate to each other.

Q: Some readers will ask what is a community currency and how does it work.

FNM: A community or complementary currency is one that communities, industries, or groups create to meet their particular exchange needs. Community currencies vary greatly: they can be organized as time banks or supported by national currencies. In general, they do not replace the national or main currency, but offer ways to strengthen local activity and build solidarity economies that are not based on profit and accumulation. There are numerous community currencies circulating around the world; in Spain alone there are hundreds.

Our initiative also views the use of community currencies as a challenge to the idea that communities, groups, or people with little access to the formal or dominant economy are inherently poor. While not having employment in that economy may mean less access to basic products and services, many communities called “poor” can be rich in their relationships, in addition to having resources and competencies in multiple areas such as engineering, healthcare, agriculture, and the arts. Community currencies can recognize and facilitate the exchange of these talents and knowledge for the benefit of communities and regions.

In a captive market like Puerto Rico, where US and transnational companies dominate and extract enormous wealth, community currencies can have an additional impact. As the bills would only circulate in Puerto Rico, they can support local economies instead of enriching large corporations. This is the way they are used in places like Bristol in England and in Fortaleza, Brazil. In addition, community currencies open the possibility for residents to develop their own monetary policies and thus collectively recognize what they value.

Q: How did Value and Change begin?

FNM: For me, it was a combination of revelations, questions, and discoveries. One happened last year when Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, editor of Small Axe (http://smallaxe.net/sxlive/unpayable-debt-capital-violence-and-new-global-economy-interview-frances-negron-muntaner) interviewed me about the work I was doing as part of Unpayable Debt, a research group on global debt that I co-direct at Columbia University (New York). For two years, the group devoted itself to studying the economic crisis of the island in a global and comparative context. The process made me think of a concept I had not dedicated much time to before: money. What is money? How do you acquire value? How can money be a strategy to reconfigure the prevailing economy? I realized that while money in itself is “nothing,” it can also tell stories, configure human relationships, and be part of political change.

A second revelation emerged when reading about how, in 2013, while Ireland continued to deal with the economic crisis of 2008, the government promoted a conversation about what people value in order to develop new curricula and inform policy. I realized that this public conversation had not occurred in Puerto Rico, but it seemed very urgent to have it there.

The third had to do with art. From the beginning, our working group identified the arts as one of the key practices to imagine and share other ways of thinking and acting in the face of debt crises, and I also noticed that solidarity economy projects are frequently initiated by artists. With this in mind, last year I organized an exhibition called Puerto Rico Under Water: Artistic Perspectives on the Debt Crisis (https://www.cser.columbia.edu/puerto-rico-under-water)

in the Gallery of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University. The curatorial process confirmed to me that artists were performing important work in investigating the affect of debt, producing new subjectivities, and challenging dominant discourses. Equally important, the process made me more familiar with the work of Sarabel Santos Negrón, one of the exhibition’s artists. After the exhibition, I approached Sarabel and told her about the idea of ​​the currency. She immediately agreed to collaborate and we began to work on the design of the bills.

Q: The bills are beautiful. How did the design come about?

FNM: Sarabel and I studied national, social, and artistic currencies from around the world. In this process we saw the great potential of currency to tell different stories and circulate other values. We also conducted an informal survey of people living in Puerto Rico and in the diaspora. We asked what figures, communities or places embody the values ​​we had identified as fundamental to the project – equity, justice, solidarity and creativity – and likewise allowed us to discuss current critical issues such as public education and access to healthcare, clean environment, self-government, food security, just distribution of wealth, and racial and gender equity.

It was difficult to select only six stories from the resulting list. In the end we chose figures from the past and communities of the present, who have acted according to shared values ​​that have enriched the lives of others. They are (generally in order of birth): the siblings Gregoria, Celestina and Rafael Cordero; Ramón Emeterio Betances, Luisa Capetillo, Julia de Burgos, Roberto Clemente and the eight communities of the Caño Martín Peña. Another part of the design was that we inserted a QR code on the back of the bills. This element is an integral part of the exchanges that the project sets in motion: In exchange for telling us what they value, the code directs the participants to our website to get more information about the figures and communities that we value.

Q: How many bills circulated?

FNM: In the nine days of the project, approximately 1600 bills of all denominations circulated. To avoid overwhelming the participating small businesses we limited the circulation of the 21 and 25 bills. But eventually we saw that this precaution was not necessary. We found that most people wanted to keep the bills instead of exchanging them for products or services. For some participants, what the bill represented far exceeded its exchange value.

Q: How have you measured the success of the project?

FNM: Talking about success is difficult because the effects may take a long time to manifest and may not be what we imagine or assume. But, measured by the values ​​and immediate objectives of the project, one could say that the project was successful from the first conversation as nearly everyone wanted to participate, even if it entailed the possibility of “losing” money and “wasting” time. And though the project’s first phase lasted just over a week and was not extensively promoted, thousands of people participated directly and online. As a result, in only a few days, we managed to broaden the conversation about solidarity economies and present the idea of ​​a community currency and its possible uses in Puerto Rico. At the moment, there are at least four communities that are considering adopting their own currency on the island and the diaspora.

The project similarly circulated a certain joy and optimism or what I’m calling in an upcoming essay “decolonial joy,” which I define as an emotion of varying duration that results when people can glimpse and feel the possibility of a different future where neither colonialism and coloniality dominate their lives This suggests that, contrary to the impression among many that Puerto Ricans and other residents of the island are apathetic or lack a collective vision, there is in many a deep hunger for a different society, and ways for people to relate otherwise. In this way, Valor y Cambio showed that not only other worlds are possible, but that we can live them every day, including through relatively small gestures such as imagining a currency, sharing a story, and valuing each other.

[Photo above: Frances Negrón Muntaner with members of the Clemente family, holding up bills featuring Roberto Clemente.]

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