Hoping to make a fortune amidst the financial crisis embroiling South America’s Southern Cone in 1979, an Argentine electronics technician named Guillermo Zaccagnini invented a hand-held machine to detect the specific ink used to print US dollars. The “Dolar-Test,” which distinguished the real thing from the counterfeits that had become ubiquitous in the region, was quickly adopted by banks, hotels, and exchange bureaus in both Argentina and Brazil. While the venture did not prove to be the windfall Zaccagnini had hoped for, it did allow the inventor and his family to leave a reeling Argentina and secure residence in its slightly better-off neighbor of Brazil the following year.
The man’s daughter, who was six years old at the time of her father’s invention, is Argentine-Brazilian artist Carla Zaccagnini, who has recently released Cuentos de Cuentas (“Accounts of Accounting”) (K. Verlag, 2022), a book in which she probes her own relationship to the machine’s fetish, the so-called “cold dollar,” the antidote to the chaos that reigned in the region during her childhood. Published in conjunction with Zaccagnini’s first solo exhibition in the United States, Cuentos deals with many of the same themes that the artist approaches through sculpture and installation, including Latin America’s history of financial crises, currency devaluation, and the quotidian impacts of authoritarian governance on daily life.
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In the book, a petite volume whose mottled green cover evokes the texture and color of paper currency, Zaccagnini’s touch is light, seemingly concerned more with the slipperiness of remembering than with delivering a heavy-handed political critique. Cuentos de Cuentas presents its readers with a palimpsest of memories, recounted by family members, accessed through photographs, newspaper clippings, and other material traces of her past, in addition, of course, to that which she herself remembers. Zaccagnini brings another element to bear on her archival musings: art she produced as a child — an iridescent collage pasted on a theater program, an ink drawing depicting a black sun, a family in transit crudely portrayed in crayon — the beginnings of an artistic engagement with rupture and dislocation that she picks up as an adult in this project. These layers of memory coexist uneasily; we are not sure what is true, what is apocryphal family lore or perhaps just the fanciful imaginings of a child confronting trying circumstances.
“That is how history is written,” she notes, “less so with memory and more so through forgetting.” Because a child cannot possibly grasp the technical minutia of financial collapse, we are left with the affective remains of having lived through a period in which inflation reached a shocking three thousand percent in Argentina, forcing Zaccagnini’s family to migrate in search of better horizons in Brazil. At the time, Brazilians were, like Argentines, living under a military dictatorship, and coping with their own inflation crisis, one that would later prompt the civilian government that assumed power in 1985 to issue and discontinue four distinct currencies in fewer than 10 years before finally stabilizing the economy with the real, the currency still in use today.
In both English and Spanish, Cuentos de Cuentas offers its readers a series of enigmatic anecdotes from the artist’s childhood, seemingly random words marked in colored font as if to signal a hidden code within the text. In one story, inscrutable businessmen from the Ivory Coast attempt to swindle her car-dealer father with a large payment of phony US dollars dyed black; in another, a second-hand tent — that was either cream-colored, red, or blue — is purchased by a man with his arm in a sling, his payment turning out to be nothing more than an envelope full of paper meticulously cut to the size of banknotes.
When I first received a copy of Zaccagnini’s book, I turned it over and immediately spotted a small white sticker on the bottom right corner of the back cover, the figure “19.99” written in black pen. Between April, when the book was purchased, and July, when I wrote these words, the cost of living index increased by nearly 30% in Argentina, and in Brazil, prices of basic consumer goods such as groceries and gasoline skyrocketed. Salaries in Brazil have stagnated or increased at rates well below the soaring inflation that has provided a heated topic of conversation in the tense lead-up to October’s run-off election between President Jair Bolsonaro, who has desperately attempted to curb the sharp increases in cost of living, and his rival, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who oversaw one of the most prosperous periods in Brazilian history (2003-2010). Despite a dip in inflation in September and October 2022, prices remain high: basic foodstuffs such as wheat flour and coffee are more than 20 percent more expensive than they were in 2021. If Zaccagnini’s book were for sale in a store in São Paulo or Buenos Aires, its price feasibly could have nearly doubled over the past several months, during which rates of food and housing insecurity have risen sharply, meaning that for many, buying a book is an unimaginable luxury. Yet the small white sticker adorning the book identified its price in US dollars, a currency so coveted that Zaccaginini’s parents hoarded it in a jar hidden beneath their bathroom floor when she was a child.
In the book’s concluding text, the artist laments the transition away from the physical manifestations of money — cash and coins — toward the financialized abstractions inherent to late capitalism: “Money used to be a thing — concrete, present, solid,” she tells us, “it could be kept safe and counted many times.” Yet as evinced by the misfortune of millions of Latin Americans over the past several decades of post-Cold War neoliberal reforms, austerity measures, and structural adjustments imposed by institutions in the Global North, money is also a deeply precarious technology of wealth.
And cash is, after all, just paper. Even the hallowed dollars in the Zaccagnini home were not enough to guarantee the family’s stability as their region plunged into turmoil; she recounts that when her father removed the bidet under which he had hidden his treasure, the humidity of the bathroom had caused the dollars to congeal into “a paste, as if it had returned to a previous state. From dust to dust, only more humid.”