For months we had been trying in vain to get in touch with Virek. His immense wealth, his encyclopedic knowledge of money and his obsessive preoccupation with the more obscure aspects of the subject seemed to make him an ideal person for us to talk to.
We were finally able to get in contact with him through the K-Foundation. Some time previously, Virek had paid Bill and Jimmy an enormous sum for all the material left over from burning the million pounds – the suitcase, the video tape and of course the brick, which they had had made out of the ashes of the two thousand £50 notes. Bill gave us the name of the intermediary, who had arranged the deal at the time. The latter, a gallery owner in Wiesbaden, passed on our request for an interview to Virek. A short time later we received a laconic faxed message from the heart of Virek’s business empire, informing us, that at present Herr Josef Virek was staying at his summer home in Wörgl, in the Tyrol, and was willing to receive us there for a short conversation.
Summer home – that was a controversial and much-discussed complex of massive reinforced concrete buildings, which had only recently been built for Virek in the mountains of the Tyrol by one of the star architects from the south coast of China. The monolithic structure, in neo-bureaucratic style, was in marked contrast to Virek’s other domiciles, for example the opulent retreat, reminiscent of Ludwig of Bavaria’s fairy-tale castles, which he had built on the Venusberg, or the Synthetic Oyster Building, drifting in the sea off the Turkish coast.
We had to go through several security checks, before reaching the main building. Once we had given our names to the receptionists, we sat down in the lounge. The staff, both inside and outside the building, consisted of Orientals. If the rumours circulating about Virek were true, then these were without exception North Koreans. While we waited, we puzzled over the reasons for this idiosyncratic recruitment policy. Was it mere eccentricity? Did it provide him with greater loyalty and security? Or was it a symptom of paranoia?
After a brief wait, the butler welcomed us with exquisite courtesy and led us into the spacious library. „Please sit down. Herr Virek will be with you shortly.“ At the centre of the building, with its massive, bare walls, the library seemed almost like an oasis. At first sight, aside from the classics of literature and political economy, we also noted less familiar works; writings by Laum, Schacht and Tegtmeier, for instance. A glass case contained rare manuscripts and first editions, among them Faust, several Balzac volumes and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s manuscript of Ökonomie der Sprache, which recently turned up in a Norwegian archive. Hanging between the bookcases were numerous pictures and paintings which further reinforced the impression of being in a Wunderkammer. Particularly conspicuous among them were Brener’s adaptation of Malevich and one of Nancy Chunn’s front pages, covered in dollar signs. Through a half-open door at the far end of the room, we could see the valley below. It was roofed over by a huge glass dome and iridescent light from slopes covered in artificial snow penetrated into the library. Against a wall beside the terrace door there were a number of consoles, displaying various auratic objects: An ancient Greek skewer, an Ethiopian salt bar, the model of a helicopter. Above these objects there was a monitor showing a video kaleidoscope, looped sequences from cartoon films: Uncle Scrooge diving into his morning bath of money, Beavis and Butt-Head photocopying dollar notes, one of those crazy dialogues from Shane Simmons’ Money Talks . . . The flow of images was abruptly interrupted and the butler’s face appeared on the monitor. „Herr Virek very much regrets that, due to an unforeseen engagement, he cannot be with you in person. He will, however, be at your disposal by video link.“ His face disappeared and was replaced by the familiar features of Josef Virek in front of a monochrome background.
During the conversation, which lasted almost forty minutes, Virek was disquietingly alert and in command; his answers came very quickly, without hesitation and without displaying any discernible emotions.
You are considered to be one of the richest men in the world. Can you remember how you earned your first money?
You mean that, although money is so important in your life, you no longer have any first impressions of it?
It is precisely because money is so important in my life, that I have forgotten them entirely. They would also be quite irrelevant.
Peter Drucker once said: „If all the superrich disappeared, the world economy would not even notice. The superrich are irrelevant to the economy.“ Do you agree?
Absolutely. You see, and that’s the point Drucker is making, the key economic factor has for a long time been the sum of anonymous small investors and not the individual big investor. On the other hand, there will always be individuals, who concentrate a greater amount of money in their hands than the average. It accommodates the human need for the personalisation of wealth. I think very highly of Drucker by the way, in particular his remark on Freud’s money neurosis. It was not sexual neurosis that was the outstanding phenomenon of fin de siècle Viennese society, but money neurosis. Freud himself writes in a letter to Fliess, that he had known utter poverty in his youth and had been constantly afraid of it ever since. Money was laughing gas to him. That probably explains the business sense of psychoanalysts . . .
But you don’t deny, that there’s a relationship between money and sexuality. We’re thinking of the well known photograph by Helmut Newton, which shows you posing with a large shell.
Of course. Anthropologists have plenty of theories on the relationship between early forms of money and the female genitals. Nor should we forget the historically important fact of prostitution, which is, after all, a basic constant of human society. In simple material terms alone it demonstrates the close link between money and sexuality. My coin collection for example, contains a large number of Roman brothel coins. In fact, I would go even further and suggest that there is also a relationship between sexuality and money theory. I need only mention Schumpeter, who was sexually very active and made no secret of it. – And apart from that, as you know money always makes everything easier.
You are one of the world’s most important art collectors and you have a particular interest in art with money as its theme. Looking at the paintings and graphics hanging in this room, it is noticeable that many convey a message critical of money. What do you think of artists’ criticisms’ of money?
Take, for example, Jamie Reid’s The Death of Money, which is hanging behind you. Reid was graphic artist for the Sex Pistols, who are a nice example of the ambivalence of artists and Anarchists to money. Malcolm McLaren’s maxim as manager of the Sex Pistols was „Cash from Chaos“. So it was quite consistent, when in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle we were told: „The only notes that really count/Are the ones that come in wads.“ John Lydon, the singer of the Sex Pistols, later formed Public Image Limited and with This Is Not A Love Song wrote one of the finest hymns to money and free enterprise. „I’m going over to the other side/I’m happy to have, not to have not/Big business is very wise/I’m inside free enterprise.“ Even when an artist creates a work of art in a spirit of refusal, as agitation, he usually underestimates the possibility of affirmation on the part of the beholder. Take, as another example, Idol by Winston Smith, hanging over there in the corner above the card table. Even the figure of Christ nailed onto dollar notes, which the Dead Kennedys used on the cover of one of their records with the unambiguous intention of criticising capitalism and religion, can also be seen as entirely affirmative.
Ultimately, however, I am only interested in the aesthetic value of the critique of money made by artists. That’s the only thing that matters, when I buy a work.
There is a rumour that you are one of the financial backers of the lawyers, who are at present attempting, through the international courts of justice, to break the state monopoly on money and allow the issuing of private currencies. Is that true? And is it true that, should these actions be successful, you are thinking of issuing your own currency?
Obviously I cannot comment on proceedings, which are still pending. Nevertheless I should like to say at this point, that in a historical perspective, private money is nothing new. In the present day too there are good arguments for allowing private money. Hayek already formulated them in the last century. As to the second part of your question, I should like to say, that I created my own currency – the Virek – some time ago. I invited famous artists, like J.S.G. Boggs to design the bank notes and other bearers. I must add, however, that this is really for my own private amusement and I have no economic goals in mind. For the moment at least. But even though there are no plans for a public issue of the Virek for the moment, I certainly believe, that my currency could hold its own against other currencies.
Are you not afraid that you will be accused of vanity, if you give this currency your own name?
Not in the least. My considerations were exclusively economic ones. What would the alternative be? After endless market surveys and long reflection highly paid marketing experts would suggest a name. The name would first have to be introduced and popularised and that would require a great deal of energy and, above all, money. Since my name may already be regarded as a synonym for wealth and money, the choice is an obvious one.
Apart from a sophisticated artistic design would the Virek exhibit any other distinctive features and idiosyncracies?
It would be like every other efficiently functioning currency and it would of course have the most up-to-date safeguards against forgery. A necessary measure, even though I personally find the phenomenon of forgery very interesting. It has been of central importance since Diogenes, the cynic and counterfeiter, and not only in economic matters. What is genuine? What is fake? What has worth? What is true?
The accumulation of knowledge about money, the proliferating collections and investments – are they ultimately anything more than attempts to escape the burden of money? Or put another way: Do you fear that one day you may reach the point, where what you really want can no longer be had for money?
It’s a question I’m familiar with . . . „Money may buy you a fine dog, but only love can make it wag its tail.“ – A sentence, which Kinky Friedman likes to repeat. Nonetheless I have dismissed the question as being of no relevance to me. I have learned to regard my privileged position as one of the wealthiest men in the world primarily as an adventure, which was and is possible for very few besides myself. Top class staff allow me to reduce my involvement in everyday business affairs to a minimum. Therefore I have the time to carry out a more profound investigation of the character of money, which, as you know, is a pure intellectual and energetic concept. One of the characteristics of money, for example, is its ability to manifest itself in extreme forms of solidity and liquidity. A figure, whom at the moment I find very interesting in this context, is Vauban, who was not only a master of the construction of fortifications, but also a distinguished economist of the day.
What you say is very impressive. Nevertheless we must confess that you have not convinced us entirely. Perhaps we can turn to a literary figure to express our reservation: Lurking behind the figure of the all-powerful, self-confident Anarchist Banker is there not also his creator, the melancholic Pessoa? Can you understand this tension?
Like everyone else, I too am subject to economic constraints. More so indeed. I wish I could embrace the philosophy of money, which Dominique Aury once described as the only tenable one for her. „Holy Mother, I pray you to grant me enough fish that I may eat and feed my family, have sufficient left to give some away, and then enough more so that those who need may steal it from me.“ Unfortunately my wealth prevents me from practising that. Nor is an act of liberation, of the kind, that the K-Foundation carried out, possible for me. My wealth has taken on such dimensions, that even the possibility of destroying it is denied me. One could even say, I don’t own all the money, it owns me. The fact that I am so inextricably involved with money is not only bound up with an enormous pressure, it also produces a surplus of pleasure. A print by a young slogan artist, which I acquired recently, gets to the heart of the matter: $LAVE.
Richard Brem and Andreas L. Hofbauer for Robert Jelinek (Ed.) and Sabotage Communications. This article was published in SUBETAGE (Vienna 1999)