Carla Zaccagnini
Cuentos de Cuentas
Images from Carla Zaccagnini’s personal archive.

Artist and writer Carla Zaccagnini will write a series of textual and visual essays to be developed in chapters as part of our publishing program. Her research focuses on the strategies and tactics necessary to keep and transport cash at a time when money was still an object to be kept safe, secret and under wraps. Using personal memories and appropriated stories, the artist will investigate the relationship to money (primarily American dollars) in Latin American countries, at a time of high inflation, political incertitude, and social insecurity. Between the lines lies this pressing question: What do we lose in economic deals, social relations, and the right to secret movements, when cash is banned from society, and all transactions are made through bank accounts and credit cards?

This series of texts will have a final chapter in the form of an exhibition in 2022.

The Tent [chapter 1]

“What color was the tent we traveled with to the south?” I asked. “It was an army tent,” he replied. Green, I thought, olive-green. Or army-green. The next question would have been, “How did a military tent end up in our possession in 1977?” I didn’t ask.

I imagine it might have belonged to his brother Jorge, my uncle. Jorge died young, of cirrhosis, and the memories I have of him are few and discolored, yet vigorous. I remember seeing him spinning around an imaginary axis starting at the top of his head and ending between his two feet in order to roll up the belt of the impeccable gaucho trousers that he used to wear in the farm. I remember following the delicate and precise movements of his hands for days on end, when he was building an extremely complex kite in the shape of a bird—an eagle, I think—while my maternal grandfather, following instructions from the same book and using materials that the main project discarded, made a pink star with my name on it. Carla, in leaf-green. It was behind a bed in the farm for years—the star, not the eagle. The eagle had a short life. It couldn’t gain height on the first attempt or on the second, and there wasn’t a third one. Jorge walked firmly towards where it landed and trampled on it until there was nothing that could be recognized in the remaining mixture of eagle, earth, and grass.

Jorge used to collect weapons and practiced shooting; I think he once hurt his own knee when trying to hit a can. I think I remember when he invited some friends in uniform to the farm. Army-green. I remember seeing him break the blade of a carving knife in half, with his bare hands; it happened during a fight with my grandmother that I followed from a stool in the kitchen. My cousin remembers another fight—or, maybe it was the same fight as seen from another angle and stored by another memory—in which our uncle drove a knife through the pullover our grandmother was wearing. Every time I was alone with her, my grandmother would want to tell me about her youngest son. “I remember,” my grandmother would say again and again, “the last time I saw Jorge entering through that door.” And she would point at the door of the dining room in the house where she lived, where we had lived before her. I remember (I do) the night when my father woke me, telling me that Jorge had died. My mother was away and he cried alone, even though I would have liked to accompany him.

Shortly after, we found out that he used to write poetry.

We traveled south with a tent. The idea was to go as far as Ushuaia. My father drove a Renault 6—light green—with a hole where my mother could otherwise have rested her feet. I sat in the back—surrounded by luggage, I imagine. Not only the pieces we brought with us from Buenos Aires but also those we must have kept accumulating along the way. Among other things, we had a 20-liter canister filled with gasoline. I still know how it smelled and the sound it made each time the liquid hit the plastic, like a delayed reflex after every curve or bump. It proved useful the day we got lost driving on the Patagonian Meseta towards the Road of the Seven Lakes. Everything around us was flat, and we didn’t pass a single soul. Only by nightfall, when he climbed onto the car’s roof, did my father see one light on the horizon. We drove towards it. It was a house by a lake. Its single inhabitant took fuel from his own boat to feed our car and showed us the way.

I heard this for the first time the other day, when I asked about the color of the tent, the model of the car, and the trajectory of our trip. What I always get to hear is the anecdote that supposedly proves how I, already at age four, wasn’t made for camping.

It is said that I fell ill and was taken to a doctor in the first village that emerged on our way. It was called Tres Plumas (Three Feathers) or possibly Tres Chapas (Three Locks). The waiting room was lugubrious—I think this is where I learned the word, or maybe it was when we were already back and tried to describe where we had been. The illustration of lugubrious will always be the waiting room of a village doctor who doesn’t like the sunlight. My father wanted to draw the curtains, but the receptionist refused. “The doctor doesn’t like this,” she said. We left. In the next village, one called Tres Chapas (Three Locks) or most likely Tres Plumas (Three Feathers), we met a pediatrician who didn’t shun natural light. After examining me, she concluded that all I needed was to spend a few days in the same place. It is told (insistently so) that when we entered the hotel room at the Automobile Club in Trelew, I jumped on the mattress shouting: “A bed! A bed!” “A bed,” my father invariably repeats it in a high-pitched voice.

A man, who, at that time, I would have described as big, came to see it. He had one hand in plaster and a briefcase in the other. A hard-shell attaché with a code, like the ones used by businessmen and spies back then. He also had a nephew with him. He liked the tent (it’s possible that we saw it open after all). He gave her a closed envelope. I followed the conversation from a distance—interested but wanting to pass unnoticed.

I remember seeing my mother taking the bills out of the envelope and counting them at the kitchen table. Her expression was that of someone wanting to appear as having done this before, as if this time wasn’t more than once more. I can still picture her polished nails, her attentive eyes, her lips moving fast but little, letting a flow of thin air escape, sounding more like wind than like numbers. I can still hear each note evoking a partial result instead of its own name; each bill added to all the previous ones and waiting for the next to come, like a link in a chain. I still sense the sound of the paper raising and stretching, detaching itself and then leaning against the bundle again. She counted without unfolding them, without unmaking the wad of bills, without shuffling the color order. Just like the way in which each different layer in a cake has its own taste and texture, so also does each layer of color in a well-built stack of bills have its own density and sweetness. Tsssfts tssscfst trssstsffs trssstvtcs, and, finally, the sound of the agreed sum. Then the money disappeared back in the envelope.

“Very well, thank you, I will show you to the door.” The man took the briefcase from the kitchen table with his healthy hand. The nephew took the tent.

I think I also followed them to the door. And when we came back my mother opened the envelope, held the wad and noticed that it wasn’t the same anymore. The man who then seemed big had taken the bills caressed by my mother’s fingers and named by the wind coming from her lips. As in a magic trick, a sleight of hand, he had transformed those notes into others, into a stack with only one real bill, the one on the outside. The filling was made of white papers, carefully cut into the size of banknotes. They were folded with less precision than when separated by color and embraced by an identical rubber band—a cake made of nothing but flour.

My mother ran to the door, unlocked it, opened it, and looked at both sides of the street. They were nowhere to be found. Gone. Gone the man who probably wasn’t that big after all; gone the briefcase that may have had a false bottom; gone the arm that may have been healthy and strong; gone the young man who instead of a nephew may have been an associate (or a lover). Gone the tent, which may not have had the colors of the French flag. Gone the money with its volume and smell.

True or False
[chapter 2]

Between the kitchen and the dining-room, there was a hall with a beige, pinkish floor (or maybe light green with black corners) from where one could enter five different doors. On one side, the door to the kitchen and that of my room, the windows of which had a view towards the garden. On the other side, the doors to the dining room and my parents’ bedroom, with windows looking out to the central patio. In the middle was the door to the bathroom, in front of which were two stairways. One was big, full of light, made of white marble and leading to the second floor. The other one was dark, narrow, finished in raw cement and leading down to the basement.

I was once coming down from the second floor, when I heard my mother’s exalted voice arguing with the woman who then worked in the house some days a week. I think she had lost a silver armband and was accusing the closest suspect, probably without reason. Offended, I suppose, to be accused of this and who knows how many other reasonless imputations; cornered, or perhaps impotent for being unable to prove her innocence; the woman said, quite calmly: “If I would want to, I could make your daughter fall down the stairs.” I took a false step and rolled down the last six or five steps, surrounded by white marble. We never saw her again. The armband, on the other hand, reappeared a few days later.

The other stairs, the ones I almost never used, led to a basement with a persistent smell of mold. I didn’t like the place at all. I sensed it to be lonely and full of ghosts. Only once I remember going down the whole way, accompanied by the familiar voices and laughter that raised from the underground. I saw my father’s back and his friend Jorge, who was almost like another uncle, looking at him with the face he used to wear for parties. In every basement or cave, ghosts are compensated with treasure trunks.

In this case it was cardboard boxes. And they were not filled with precious stones and noble metal, carrying the brightness and the sound they carry on films. Inside the boxes were these little black machines: personal, portable, and newly fabricated. Each came in a leather case designed to be easy to access, they could be quickly opened and closed with velcro and worn on one’s belt. The machine set comfortably in an adult hand and could be turned on and off with a simple movement of the thumb. When running over bank bills with the ideal pressure and speed, they would react to the minuscule metal particles present in the ink used to print dollars, and reveal, by means of a robotic little light, if this paper treasure was true or false.

Tablist help: use the tablist controls to toggle the visibility of their respective panels (below the controls).

True of False (article) (panel)

Keen Eye. In Brazil, a small electronic device to detect counterfeit dollars.

The Argentine tourists who have invaded Brazil for the past two years are creating a headache for the federal police, despite being eagerly awaited by retailers and tourist authorities.

It is a rare case that not one of these tourists is unknowingly carrying false dollars in their pockets. This practice is already well established in Argentina because of the country’s support of currency exchange and now is finding fertile ground in Brazil. This country is quickly becoming an international center for the production of counterfeit dollars. This year, however, the headaches could spread to those who produce the fake money. Two hundred agencies of the Banco do Brazil and over four hundred hotels and tourism agencies have already acquired the Dollar-test, an electronic device, no bigger than a matchbox, capable of detecting counterfeit dollar bills. The inventor is an Argentinian engineer named Guillermo Zaccagnini.

After three years of good sales in which over five thousand units were sold, the market was exhausted, and so Zaccagnini followed the same path as the fake dollars and moved to Brazil. After six months of fundraising, he convinced a Brazilian industry, Sociedade Alpha, to invest in the manufacture of his device.

The dollar test mechanism is based on the electronic detection of a metallic mixture that contains the same ink used for fabricating real dollars. The device needs to be rubbed on the banknote, so the metal of the ink turns up a small red light automatically. If the bill is false, the lights remain off. In Brazil, only the notes of 500 cruzeiros contain that ink, so if in the future the government approves the Dollar-Test, notes of 5.000 and 10.0000 cruzeiros should be made with this special ink. If it depended on the decision of the Head of the Exchange Control Department at the Bank of Brazil, Roberto Martins Carrijo, the device would be already approved. “It really works,” Carrijo guarantees.

(English translation from Portuguese)

Photo: Brazilian weekly news magazine Veja, January 7th, 1981, published in São Paulo. Archive of Carla Zaccagnini.

About the Artist

Carla Zaccagnini was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1973. She currently lives between São Paulo, Brazil and Malmö, Sweden and is a visual artist, professor of Conceptual and Contextual Practices at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and guest curator of the 34th Bienal de São Paulo. Group shows in which she has participated include SPRÅK (Havremagasinet, Länskonsthall, 2020), Shout Fire (Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg, 2018), A Universal History of Infamy (LACMA, Los Angeles, 2017), Carla Zaccagnini and Runo Lagomarsino (Konsthall, Malmö, 2015), Un saber realmente útil (Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2014), Under the Same Sun (Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2014).
She has participated in the 8th Berlin Biennale (Berlin, 2014), the 9th Shanghai Biennale (Shanghai, 2012) and the 28th Bienal de São Paulo (2008). Her recent solo shows include Mañana iba a ser ayer (MUNTREF, Buenos Aires, 2019), You say you are one, I hear we are many (Obra, Malmö, 2019), Histórias feministas: Carla Zaccagnini (MASP, São Paulo, 2015) and Elements of Beauty (Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven / FirstSite, Colchester, 2015).