The Miracle of Money
a story about change

"A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."  – Yogi Berra

[This story is published to coincide with the exhibition "Exchange Rate" at the Galveston Arts Center, July 13 – October 6, 2019.]

The Art Guys, "Pennies from Heaven "1992, pennies with Art Guys stamp impression are recirculated at locations worldwide, pictured: Times Square

I love money. Or rather, I appreciate it (so to speak). Who doesn't? The thing is, I don't always think of it in the same way as others. And if, in the words of Andy (last name unnecessary), the best art is exemplified through good business as measured by the accumulation of money, then I'm a pretty lousy artist, not to mention businessman. But however you stack it, money is interesting.

 

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The Art Guys, "Penny Column"  1995, pennies, secret stacking technique, variable dimensions, private collection

pictured: 1995 installation at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, for the exhibition The Art Guys: Think Twice,

In 1989, against all rational logic, or plan, I resigned from a wonderful, creative, well-paying job to dive head first into the empty pool of working full time as an artist. For several reasons, which shall remain unnamed here, I realized that one really does go around once, that you really do get one shot at life. I decided right then and there that it was now or never for me, and, come hell or high water, I was going to survive as an artist. This I swore. There would be no turning back. This moment also coincided with the decision by Jack and me to devote all of our efforts, full time, to The Art Guys, and to make The Art Guys a full blown art/life project rather than the occasional spotty, albeit buoyant blooms of our "behaviors." 

 

By the early 1990's The Art Guys had received a fair amount of attention in the media but receiving compensation for anything we did almost never happened. In 1994 the situation had become acute and I had run out of money. I was down to my last 40 dollars. So, in another act of illogic, I took my last remaining two $20 bills, went down to the bank, and converted them into forty individual one dollar bills. I then carefully cut these bills into the shapes of the states and made this collage. 

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The Art Guys, "The United States of America" 1994, cut one dollar bills, glue on paper, 22x30 inches, private collection

It was a carefully deliberate back-asswards gesture of frivolously discarding any last remaining symbolic vestige of survival. A trip to Fiesta would have to wait. Money, at that moment, was very, very real. 

What happened during the tedious, painstaking conduct of cutting and pasting the dollar bills, besides diverting my mind away from the anxieties of poverty, was that my attention was forcibly drawn (so to speak) to the material itself. Accurately tracing the contours of the state borders on such a small scale necessitated close observation over a long period of time. I was trying to get it right. The result, besides the drawing, was a new appreciation of the thing. I was required into, for perhaps the first time, an unfiltered, meticulous examination of the printed document of a dollar. I found it fascinating. During this focused looking, my attention turned into appreciative thoughts about the why of it all – Why the pyramid with the creepy eye? Why the vegetative decorative embellishments to fill otherwise empty areas? Why those fonts? Who's name is that signature? This then expanded even further into more abstract wonderings – It's my money, after all, why can't I be cutting it up? What exactly is "legal tender"? What is value? Commerce? Desire?

Soon after, an art collector saw it and bought it. With this particular sale came a revelation hiding in plain sight (alas, again). This was a realer real transaction this time. Money was exchanged for money. And art. Which was money. And at a profit, no less. It became, for me, a circular, miraculous transubstantiation loop of concepts into cash, and cash into time, into more concepts, into more cash... etc. You get the idea. Matter into energy and back to matter again.​ Maybe not miraculous, technically speaking, but magical to me nonetheless.

 

The Art Guys have always had a blitzkrieg tinkering approach, racing through ideas and experiments without much superfluous pause. If something didn't work, do it again. Or do something else. Again and again, over and over into what eventually became a marathon run at sprinter speed. We knew that real reflection would have to wait for another day. There was always too much work to do. Over the course of about a decade beginning around 1990, we did a lot of works with and about money. Jack started this particular money race with his early cut cash collages. "The United States of America" was just another along this line. Later money experiments veered off into detailed computer drawings, again, mostly done by Jack. 

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The Art Guys (left to right)  "Change", "No Cash Value No. 1," "No cash Value No. 2" 1991, cut one dollar bills, glue on paper, 22x30 inches each, private collections

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The Art Guys (left to right with detail views of each) "Coin Grid," 1998, "Dollar", 2003, computer vector drawings, graphite on paper, 22x30 inches each

One of the best things about The Art Guys, and one of the real reasons for any success we've had, is that the collaboration cultivates constant conversations on a topic of interest. Like a self-contained, open sourced plagiarism system, concept appropriation is allowed and encouraged. Innumerable what-if/why-not questions are entertained. Stuff is considered and critiqued, and either attempted or tossed. More than anything else, The Art Guys is a thought lab.

Eventually I became dissatisfied with the altered money pieces. They seemed overdone, too... baroque. They were visually interesting, and elegant, but the physical alteration brought with it an implied intended meaning, which I've never cared for, and have mainly tried, with mixed success, to avoid. In any case, I sensed that some sort of subtraction was needed. 

Our conversations about money led to the question of how might different permutations of the same thing, the same amount, manifest itself? (Referencing Euclid's axiom of equality, Leibniz's Identity of Indiscernibles, Zermelo's Set Theory, and other logical structures and paradoxes.) Out of this discussion came "One Hundred Dollars of American Currency Expressed in Different Denominations and Arranged in Descending Order" which was exactly what its title said it was. We took one hundred dollars and displayed it in all its various ways beginning with one centenary note, then two fifties, five twenties, etc. all the way down to ten thousand pennies. The idea was to present money, unto itself, unchanged by alteration or explanation, as a self evident material. This presentation decision, to allow the unaltered, unadorned thing be itself, coincides with similar experiments with food, alcohol, and other materials.

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"One Hundred Dollars of American Currency Expressed in Different Denominations and Arranged in Descending Order" 1996 (click on image for more information)

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Kemper brochure cover.jpeg

The first presentation of "One Hundred Dollars of American Currency Expressed in Different Denominations and Arranged in Descending Order" was at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City in 1996 for the exhibition "Visualize The Art Gize," an overview of our work similar to our 1995 show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Rather than simply duplicate that show, we introduced some new pieces, of which "One Hundred Dollars..." was one. Some curious things happened. 

The literalness of "One Hundred Dollars..." determines its look. We made no aesthetic decisions save for ordered sequence, and this was done only at the service of visual clarity. The elements are laid out on the floor, or upon a low sculpture stand, in a simple manner, allowing only gravity to secure the individual elements thereby giving it a delicate precariousness. Instead of a "That's it?" let down, the result is rather stunning. Its beauty, I think, comes from its at-a-glance, all at once, visually revealed structure. And, like it or not, money carries with it the emotional burden of value thus making it necessarily overwrought with meaning no matter what. It is perceived to have an inherent worth, not as art, but as itself, as money. Because of this, the visual punch of "One Hundred Dollars..." is achieved effortlessly.

This is what separates it from a urinal or a vacuum cleaner, which, in the hands of different handlers, depends on a contextual shift, the supposed elevation of relatively worthless, mundane materials into something of great value: art. "One Hundred Dollars..." depends on the contextual association with money, a redundancy.  It's already elevated because of itself. Experiencing money in an art context, and its inevitable accompanying desires and histrionics, casts a much wider societal net. There's more to catch. 

Separated from itself, considered (merely) as sculpture rather than money, a weird reversal takes place. Why would printed pieces of paper and cut and stamped metal generate any interest or be perceived to have any inherent value? Seen as (just) sculpture, its power is drained and it becomes emotionally inert. Is there any there there? Or is it all one big illusion? The rug is pulled out, the water is let out of the tub.

The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Visualize the Art Gize, exhibition brochure

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Because we had never made it before, some planning and measuring was necessary. In American currency, there are thirteen different denominations of one hundred dollars. Therefore, it takes one thousand three hundred dollars to make "One Hundred Dollars...," a relatively small amount. However, it requires 13,888 units of the various denominations to make it, a relatively large amount. This is the list of its components:

1 one hundred dollar bill
2 fifty dollar bills
5 twenty dollar bills
10 ten dollar bills
20 five dollar bills
50 two dollar bills
100 one dollar bills
100 one dollar coins
200 fifty cent coins
400 quarters
1000 dimes
2000 nickels
10000 pennies

 

Since we didn't have enough of our own money to build it, we had to borrow it. Coincidently, and conveniently, the founder of the Kemper Museum was Crosby Kemper, Kansas City's biggest banker. Crosby was big in several ways. At 6'7" with an exuberant personality, Crosby's presence commanded any space he occupied. Luckily, he liked us, despite having reservations about our work. Crosby's association with the museum, and his stature in the city, eased the complexities of getting the money we needed. We wanted to use pristine, uncirculated money, which we were able to obtain through the local Federal Reserve with Crosby's help. 

In this first iteration we dispensed with placing it on a sculpture stand for both practical and aesthetic reasons. We weren't exactly sure how big it would be and therefore we didn't really know what the dimensions of a sculpture stand would look like. And besides, we liked the backdrop of the natural maple wood floor of the museum. Dana Self, the curator, decided to place it in a trapezoidal shaped space located at the perimeter of the museum adjacent to a window which looked out to a Robert Graham sculpture. Dana reasoned that the work could be cordoned off to visitors so that they could not approach it or walk around it. A small wooden floor divider demarcated the area behind which was the piece and beyond where visitors could not go. 

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"Study for One Hundred Dollars of American Currency Expressed in Different Denominations and Arranged in Descending Order" 1996

"One Hundred Dollars of American Currency Expressed in Different Denominations and Arranged in Descending Order"

installation at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 1996 (click on image for more information)

Still, there were security concerns. The piece made them nervous. Even though the drawing study of "One Hundred Dollars...," displayed on the wall just adjacent to the sculpture, was valued at more than twice the amount than the money on the floor, Dana was still worried. So she contacted a local security company to see what they could do: AAA Securities.

 

The owner of AAA visited the museum to assess the situation. He was a somewhat gregarious guy and was intrigued about the piece. Bantering with us about the work, he came to understand it, and even like it. His security solution was to install a motion detector alarm which, when triggered, activated a voice recording which was broadcast on small speakers. A few seconds of a voice warning of any kind could be copied onto the device to act as a deterrent. This was just the kind of play toy we loved. On it, we recorded some absurd, threatening warnings in a stern voice – "You WILL step away from the sculpture!" or "BACK AWAY from the sculpture!" it was ridiculous, and in our opinion, much ado. And very funny. In a surprising act of generosity, the owner told us we could keep the device at the conclusion of the show as a donation. After the show closed and was dismantled, the Kemper shipped the alarm to us along with all the other work.

Months later we received a letter in the mail from a company called National Revenue Corporation, a collection agency, requesting $555 on behalf of AAA Securities for the cost of the alarm. We were puzzled. Why would the owner of AAA now want us to pay for the device that he gave us? And why use a collection agency rather than contact us directly? Neither Jack nor I had ever dealt with a collection agency before and weren't sure about what to do. Confused, we wrote to AAA explaining what happened and expressing our desire to keep the alarm in order to use for other art works. We never heard back. Instead, a few weeks later, we received another letter from National Revenue demanding, in harsher terms, to remit $555 immediately. Confused further, we chose to ignore it. 

Then a few weeks later, we received yet another letter from National Revenue Corporation, this time expressed in even sterner terms, and printed on red highlighted stationary, lest we misunderstand the seriousness of the situation. Reviewing the letters and lining them up sequentially, they accelerated in both language and hue: green, request; blue, demand; red, or else. The whole thing worried us, but only temporarily. I recognized an opportunity and conjured a solution.

I uncarefully copied the threatening letters to scale as a hand-drawn facsimile, a crude counterfeit. Then we framed it and sent it to AAA securities offering it in exchange for the alarm. We never heard back from them, but the letters from the collection agency stopped.

 

I wish we still had that drawing. It's worth something.

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The Art Guys "AAA Securities" 1997, graphite, colored pencil, pastel on paper, 22x30 inches, private collection

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May 20, 2019

[Note: All works collection of The Art Guys unless otherwise noted.]

epilogue – spooky action at a distance

 

After having written this story, but before its publication, The Art Guys received the following email from Curtis Schreier, one of the original members of Ant Farm and a friend. Prior to publication, I shared my story with no one. How could Curtis know? Wonders never cease.

 

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Friday, June 28, 2019

a certificate of title

Art guys might like to know:


Your piece "One Hundred Dollars of American Currency Expressed In Different Denominations and Arranged In Descending Order" appears to contain arrays of paper notes (bills) as well as coins. Yes?

The general term for coins is 'specie': Your piece may rightfully be called "One Hundred Dollars of American Currency and Specie Expressed In Different Denominations and Arranged In Descending Order" there is also another aspect of the word 'specie':


The phrase 'in specie' describes the transfer of an asset in its current form rather than in the equivalent amount of cash. 'In specie' distributions are usually made when cash isn’t readily available or when it’s simply more practical to hand over the asset rather than cash, such as art-to-art. 

many happy returns


C U R T I S