In late 2021, the Vienna-based adO/Aptive collective founded the Danubian Bank as an artistic project. In January 2022 this bank launched its first community currency: the Störling. The currency aims to contribute to a cooperative cultural landscape in Central Europe. This is how the idea developed.
Minted by a fish
It was the second week of my studies of the master course Cross-Disciplinary-Strategies at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna when I first encountered the sturgeon. In Autumn 2021 we visited the Life Sterlet Project at the Donauinsel, an initiative led by researchers of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAS), and the municipality of Vienna’s Water Bodies (MA45). It is funded by the European Union with 60% through the LIFE-Program. Further sponsors are from the field of fisheries, nature conservation, and governmental bodies. It is also the working place of Christina Gruber who works for the project funded by Thomas Friedrich in 2016 since 2019 and gave us a tour around the facility. The team built up this project to reintroduce a stable sterlet population to the last segment of the Upper Section of the Danube River, that is, the part of the Danube that flows through and after Vienna.
When Christina, who is an artist and freshwater ecologist based in Vienna, took a young sterlet out of the water, its distinctive anatomy became visible. You could see the cartilaginous bone structure that distinguishes them from the images you have in mind when you think of “a fish”. The sterlet is the only not anadromous sturgeon species in the Danube. They spend their entire life in freshwater but migrate up and downstream, tributaries are of high importance for them. The other freshwater sturgeon species are anadromous or migratory fish, which means they grow up in the river and migrate downstream, to then later wander back upstream close to their own hatching grounds, this behavior is called “homing”.
The sturgeons have developed these survival strategies through over two hundred million years of evolutionary resilience. The earliest sturgeon fossils date to the Late Cretaceous, a period that started two hundred million years ago and lasted for forty-four million years. But it was only about twelve million years ago during the Miocene period that the Danube river started to form. Back then, the African and Eurasian tectonic plates cut the Pannonian sea from the oceanic network so that it dried out due to rising temperatures. It was the same epoch when Chimpanzees and Humans split their lineage. The sturgeon is a living fossil.
Putting the little grey fish back into the tank, Christina explained that the Danube used to be home to six different sturgeon species. But through overfishing, environmental changes, and most importantly, dams and other human interventions in the river their populations drastically reduced, driving five out of six species extinct in the Upper Section of the Danube River. The Life Sterlet project is the only one of its kind in Austria and Germany. At their station in Vienna, they hatch approximately sixty thousand eggs a year and release as many as thirty thousand juveniles. The hungry sturgeons have to be fed every two hours for around five to six months, otherwise, they might eat each other. By the time they are released, the sterlets reached about 20% of their final size, which increases their chances of survival. Before the project started, there was a population estimate of two hundred reproducing individuals in the Upper Danube, upstream close to the German border. How many sterlets were swimming around Vienna was uncertain. The stock of the sterlet is highly endangered and needs support by ex-situ measures like the hatchery. So far the project released around two hundred and thirty-eight thousand sterlets the effects will become visible only in the years to come.
Fished by a coin
It is difficult to think about the essence of money when economic transactions are so inevitable and omnipresent as they are in our contemporary societies. We tend to forget that one of the main functions of a state-issued currency is that of representing the issuing state. Every time we use a €, $, ¥, HUF, CZK, PLN, or any other national currency we let the state have its bit of representation as a by-product of their guaranteed exchange rate and market value. When an Austrian baker sells a Krapfen in exchange for two little metal Bundesadler, he expects to be able to buy a Semmel at another Austrian baker with that same coins; he would also expect to be able to exchange the coins for approximately two one-dollar bills or a fifty Czech crowns coin. Because money has value security we negate the other agencies of a currency that go beyond its economic value. Next time you get some cash in your hands, take a closer look at the faces you hold between your fingers, the gothic churches and medieval bridges you carry in your pockets, and ask them: “what are you really worth?”.
I work at the visitors’ cloakroom in a theatre where my job consists of exchanging pieces of clothing and €1,30 for a bond stamped by the Theater. These papers guarantee the visitors that they will get their coats back once the play is over. Little and circular metals minted with a Bundesadler, Salvatore Mundi, King Phillip, French Mariannes and Mozarts pass the same fingers with which I held the nearly extinct and heavier juvenile sterlet.
When they are no more visitors arriving, I count the number of bonds I issued for the theatre and repay them with 1 and 1/3 pieces of Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, or Austria for each bond to my supervisor. The rest of the euros I can take for myself. After the play ends, I stand behind the cloakroom and exchange the bonds back for the corresponding item, but the small national symbols stay with me until I exchange them again for a good, service, or another type of currency.
Searching for another type of currency I traveled to Linz, a city further upstream on the Danube. There I met Franz Xaver, an artist and cultural worker operating from the Stadtwerkstatt, a cultural center, since 2008. Franz founded the Punkautsria, a bank that issues the Gibling, a community currency that originated from printing vouchers at the Stadtwerkstatt and is now accepted by over 80 partners all across Austria. The Gibling is a paper-backed currency that is pegged to the Euro. In principle, this means that one euro and one gibling are interchangeable; but to ensure its liquidity, the gibling follows a demurrage pattern and loses a percentage of its value three years after its printing. Ever since Punkaustria launched its first giblings in 2012 they have commissioned different artists to design yearly editions, this enabled them to identify the older bills which have lost their euro value. Every 15th of June, they release a new edition and host a public event to burn old giblings.
Anyone can exchange Euros for giblings at certified exchange offices in Graz, Vienna, or directly at the Central Bank, located on a shelf at Xaver’s office in Linz. In doing so, the users commit to spending the money at the partner localities that accept its face value. These partners range from cafés, restaurants, museums, artists, hackerspaces, bars & concert halls to toy stores, design stores, print shops, clubs, and law firms. The partners then exchange the giblings they received for Euros at Xaver’s desk. But not all giblings come back. Since 2016, when the demurrage pattern of the first and second editions started, the gibling community has been using the acquired money to buy art by local artists.
When asking Franz if building an art collection had been the objective from early on, he answered with a smirk on his face, that the project has always been for the community that supports it. The acquired value has been some sort of by-product which was then recycled as direct investments in artists that share the vision of the Punkaustria.
Tools for relocalization
Inspired by the gibling, the Danubian Bank has a parasitic approach to economic hegemony. The currencies it issues do not have economic growth as a goal. Instead, they try to reactivate the tacit layer of money to renegotiate the representations that it propagates. In doing so, the Danubian Bank supports currencies that promote the identification of transnational issues and urgencies. The currencies function as idioms for communities that transgress national, linguistic, and cultural borders. The Danubian Bank, like the sturgeon, calls the Danube and its tributaries home.
The Störling is dedicated to building a community that supplements bits and pieces of national identities by messages of urgent action and the Danubian agency. The sturgeon fish, a living fossil that swam in prehistoric as well as contemporary oceans is on the brink of extinction because of anthropogenic incursions. This fish is the character that the Danubian Bank has dedicated its first currency to.
The Störling is inspired by the aesthetics of the sterlet and other types of the sturgeon family are printed on the Störling bills. Like the Gibling, the Störling is pegged to the euro, but its demurrage pattern is significantly stronger. It loses twenty percent of its value after the first year already. Therefore, the project generates an acquired value faster than the Gibling. Fifty percent of this gain will be donated to the Life Sterlet project, while the other half will be invested in the Störling community.
The next step for the Danubian Bank and us, the adO/Aptive collective is now to build a sustainable network of Störling users, holders, and recipients in the Danubian Basin. Thereby, we aim to create a stable community for the currency and future pan-Danubian projects.
The printed sturgeons that we have issued are not as fluid as the sterlet that lives at the Donauinsel, it is also much younger than the Cretaceous creature. The Störling does not belong to the biological sturgeon family, it belongs to the set of anthropogenic things that distinguish us, humans, from other types of living beings. This paper in our hands can become a tool to reevaluate our futures and coexistences – but only if there is enough engagement on and with the community that assures its liquidity.
You can contact Daniel Hüttler and the adO/Aptive collective here: adoaptive[at]protonmail.com
Special thanks to Christina Gruber, Franz Xaver, Friederike Teller and Sarah Hager