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Last week we had the opportunity to present a paper at the Aesthetics After Finitude symposium in Sydney. Our performative lecture, ‘Disappearing Bees’, developed ideas that were percolating during our residency at ZK/U, and perhaps points towards future directions of the Plan Bienen project. You can read a text version in the upcoming un Magazine 9.1, due for publication in May 2015.
A big thank you to the AAF research collective, who for the last year or so have been “discussing, experimenting and theorising at the frontiers of aesthetic theory. Taking the critical tradition of aesthetics to be no longer adequate to the possibilities of knowledge and experience of the twenty-first century, we have begun to develop an experimental practico-aesthetics that is less oriented towards the success or impact of work that defers to the judgement of a (human) receiver, than towards an aesthetics that is productive of realities, experience, and new declensions of ‘art’. This alternative is generational, not analytical; interventionist rather than evaluative.”
[Script for parting performance presented by Sumugan Sivanesan at ZK/U, 25 September 2014]
Hello and welcome to our Openhaus. All of us at ZK/U have been busily anticipating this evening’s schedule, and I would like to begin the tour by drawing your attention to those that might have been the busiest of us all, but have now retired for the evening—the Moabees. Over the summer there has been some buzz around die Bienen in the city and the extent to which Bienenvolke are appearing in each and every kiez. It seems that reports of scores of dead and disappearing bees over the last few years have revived our interest in these long-time cultural companions, calling attention to the ways in which we all profit from their presence.
The phrase ‘robbing the bees’ is often used to describe the task of collecting honey from beehives. Honey may well be sought after as a ‘nectar of the gods’, but is in the first instance food made by and for bees from the nectar they collect from flowers. Recently, Tessa and I were talking to a beekeeper who described the honey she had extracted as ‘a gift from the bees’. This Imkerin said that the bees permitted her to take their honey as long as she agreed to pass it on. She gives jars of honey to friends and relatives, and to tradespeople as a reward for a job well done. Such gifts spotlight the interplay of goodwill and obligations that bind us to one another and are in excess of more rational economic relations.
Humans have harvested honey and cultivated bees since the earliest recorded civilisations, however for many of today’s beekeepers honey is simply a ‘sweet bonus’, a byproduct of the crucial pollination services that these and other insects provide. In the current eco-cultural climate bees are often portrayed as a benevolent species—‘the good bee’ brings the world into abundance and maintains the conditions on this planet in which we thrive. If we believe that by improving the lives of bees we also improve our own, then what kind of lifeworlds would emerge if we pegged our progress to bees?
Berlin has a reputation as a bee capital. In the past, the city’s beekeepers lobbied for the planting of certain trees that would provide food for bees… their success can be read in street names such as Unter den Linden, Birkenstrasse and Kastanienallee. More recently installing hives atop significant buildings such as the Abgeordnetenhaus, the Berlin Opera and of course right here at ZK/U, not only locates bees in the heart of the city but brings them into our social consciousness. Today European beekeepers have been instrumental in having particular insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, banned in the EU, reducing the mortality rates of bees and wilfully keeping the prospect of a world without bees at bay… as one local beekeeper puts it, ‘intervening politically on behalf of the bees’.
Honeybees are social beings capable of collective decision-making and action. They are creatures of extraordinary strength and endurance that give their lives for the hive and are often used to symbolise patriotism and hard work. The sociability of bees has been read as a metaphor for both social collectivism and capitalist industrialism, as well as to argue for and against the value of individualism. Our fascination with bees has inspired the sciences, arts and philosophy, so might a bee-led social turn, in turn shape our wellbeing?
Whilst it is unlikely that if all the bees of the world suddenly died, we would soon follow, such a scenario would spell catastrophe for both our habitats and industries. Little is known about the effects of bees on the systems that support arable land, but we can be sure that yields of, say, almonds in California or coffee in Costa Rica would collapse overnight. As the once well-stocked shelves in our food halles and supermarkets began to empty out, would ideas that we associate with bees, such as social cohesion and cooperation, also disappear? As a consequence, imagine if organised and once industrious workers arose as a swarm of vengeful killers!
A principle of classical economics known as Jean-Baptist Say’s law states that ‘supply creates its own demand.’ According to this logic, supply precedes demand and seeds desire. Now into my last week at ZK/U, and with Tessa already back in Sydney, I find myself with an over supply of raw local honey—more than I could possibly consume before I too must leave. As a parting gesture and in the spirit of ebullience and abundance Tessa and I would like to pass this bounty on to you. Consider it a gift; from ourselves and the beekeepers, and by extension a gift from the bees.
Video: Faraz Anoushahpour
We recently spent some time with the economic historian and bank bill broker, Winfried Bogon, whom we had contacted to purchase notgeld or emergency money that was used in times of fiscal crisis such as hyperinflation.
A well known episode of hyperinflation occurred in Germany in the 1920s. When World War I began in 1914, Germany ceased to back its currency with gold reserves. As the conflict was expected to be short, the Empire funded its efforts by borrowing, rather than with savings or taxation, leading to a steady devaluing of the Deutschmark as the war drew out over four years. The end of the war saw the demise of the German Empire, which was succeeded by the Weimar Republic in 1919 that became responsible for paying the massive reparations demanded by the Allies under the Treaty of Versailles (1919). This debt was to be paid in gold-backed hard currency, not the rapidly depreciating ‘paper Marks’, as well as in commodities such as coal, iron, steel and wood.
One immediate measure taken to finance these payments was to print more Marks in order to buy foreign currency, which was in turn used to service the debt. As no other workable solution was found, this initial inflation soon spiralled into hyperinflation as more marks were released into circulation. Furthermore, annexed territory and the required reduction of the German army led to unemployment and volatile political conditions. When it became apparent that Germany would be unable to make the required payments, Allied forces occupied ports and industries in the Rhine, such as the industrial Ruhr region, to ensure the reparations were paid for in goods. As workers undertook strikes, more money was printed to pay for their means of passive resistance further excacerbating the fiscal crisis. The price of a loaf of bread illustrates these effects; in 1922 a loaf of bread cost 163 Marks. By September 1923, it cost 1 500 000 Marks and at the peak of hyperinflation in November 1923, a loaf of bread cost 200 000 000 000 Marks. Other anecdotes published in a US report in 1970 state:
By mid-1923 workers were being paid as often as three times a day. Their wives would meet them, take the money and rush to the shops to exchange it for goods. However, by this time, more and more often, shops were empty. Storekeepers could not obtain goods or could not do business fast enough to protect their cash receipts. Farmers refused to bring produce into the city in return for worthless paper. Food riots broke out. Parties of workers marched into the countryside to dig up vegetables and to loot the farms. Businesses started to close down and unemployment suddenly soared. The economy was collapsing.
Notgeld were issued during this period by townships, industries and utilities. Forms of emergency and community currency came into use across many parts of Europe and are still used today in some places. Valid for short periods of time, Notgeld were to be spent not saved, nevertheless according to Winfried, German Notgeld and a subset of bills known as Seriensheine were unique as they were often designed to be collectable. Featuring commissioned illustrations, etchings and employing sophisticated printing techniques, these bills present an ephemeral pictorial history of financial crisis. revealing the desires and opinions of communities during these times of distress.
Amongst Winfired’s collection were notes or coupons issued by merchants valid for basic supplies such as flour or sugar, prompting the money expert to recall times when pieces of coal were more valuable than coin as they had a greater use value. We had already heard from several beekeepers that in the DDR the state bought home-produced honey from citizens for a fixed price, suggesting that the local tradition of keeping bees was at one time an important alternative source of income. Such accounts piqued our interest to use honey in lieu of money.
The American money manager George J. W. Goodman, writing under the moniker Adam Smith, commented that when one US dollar became equivalent to one trillion Marks in 1923, the German currency stopped making sense. For some people, having to calculate such fantastic figures for everyday exchanges brought on a nervous affliction known as ‘Zero Stroke’, a condition which compelled sufferers to write endless rows of zeros or ciphers. Eventually a simple cure for these hyperinflationary maladies was found in 1923, when the Reichsbank issued a new note to replace the Mark. One Rentenmark was exchanged for one billion of the old currency, striking nine zeros from the latter and prompting the ‘miracle of the Rentenmark’. As the Republic was still rich with working mines, farms, factories and forests, the new currency was backed by property mortgages and factory bonds that effectively speculated on the future productivity of the state—a form of wishful thinking known as credit. Goodman notes that the word ‘credit’ derives from the Latin credere, ‘to believe’, to proffer that the German people must have desperately wanted to believe. Winfried concurred, and it seems we all agree; ‘money is a matter of belief’ that is fundamentally a system of trust.
You are cordially invited to the Unofficial Opening of the Plan Bienen Mint.
After 3 months researching real and possible relationships between people,
bees, honey and time in Berlin, our time is (almost) up. We have over the summer
accumulated quite a number of very local honeys, and we would rather share
them with you than try our luck with Australian customs.
See what trades have been taking place between beekeepers and honey-eaters,
with a special private viewing of the commemorative Notgeld soon to be minted for each exchange.
For anyone in Berlin this weekend, tomorrow at ZK/U is the very first ‘Gütermarkt‘ – a different kind of local market.
We will be there all day with the Plan Bienen – ‘Honey Stock Exchange’. Bring something special, home-made or home-grown for your chance to take home honey produced by the bees right here at ZK/U. High-frequency trades welcome, all reasonable offers considered.
Sunday 7 September
ZK/U – Siemensstr 27, Berlin
‘Killer Bee’ movies emerged as a popular strain of ‘creature feature’ films in the Cold War era of the 1960s. Films such as The Deadly Bees (1966), Genocide (1968) and The Swarm (1978) established a genre based around formulaic ‘nature’s revenge’ plot lines in which insects, often mutated in scientific experiments, escape from laboratories to attack and kill human protagonists. In The Bees (1978) swarms of mutant bees bring down military aircraft, target politicians and deliver an ecologically-driven ultimatum to the United Nations via a human interpreter. Such fantastic narratives can be read as popular cautionary tales about the modern sciences empowering humans to ‘play god’, underpinned by a Cold War fear of biological warfare and the scientific supremacy of ideological rivals. Curiously these films attribute direct agency and political action to swarms of angry, organised non-human actors, entertaining the prospect of non-human rights.
The phenomenon of disappearing bees synonymous with Colony Collapse Disorder has compelled lobby groups such as Mellifera e.V. in Germany to interfere on behalf of this ‘subaltern species’ in human affairs, resulting in a temporary ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides in the EU, which is soon take effect in the US as well. In his book The Politics of Nature (2004), Bruno Latour details his vision for a collective yet-to-come of human and non-human agents that would supersede the society/nature divide upon which modern institutions are founded.
Might this most recent phase of human-bee relations provide an entry point to consider how such ‘multinatural’ political associations are actually taking shape? Furthermore, is it only in fiction that a species capable of collective decision-making and with which human cultures share a long history–and also food–could have ‘thought’ to take actions in order to change our behaviour?