What’s it worth? Artist and community currencies

Marcel Duchamp, "Tzanck Check," 1919. Pen and ink on paper.

The territory of art that responds to, comments on, and intervenes in the art market is vast. There are a range of practices in contemporary art that involve currency as a literal medium (collage, sculpture, public performance, altered banknotes), but here I’m narrowing the field to consider a few individuals and local communities who create alternative currencies with the intent to circulate them as a medium of exchange.

Artists have long been interested in currency design and reproduction, both as a technical challenge and as socioeconomic experiment. In the 19th century, American trompe l’oeil masters like John Haberle (1856–1933) and William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) painted depictions of U.S. currency to demonstrate their talents as photorealists. So successful at their craft, both were issued cease-and-desist orders by the Secret Service, who feared their next step would be counterfeiting. (It wasn’t, and they didn’t.) Marcel Duchamp, ever interested in authenticity and the value of ideas, created his first hand-drawn check in 1919 to pay his dentist, Daniel Tzanck. The “Tzanck Check” displays all the markers of a legitimate check, drawn by Duchamp to imitate official printing: the unique check number, the “Pay to the Order of” line, etc. Across the middle in red is the word “ORIGINAL,” which plays on the authenticity of the check as a legal promissory note but also speaks to this check’s status as a unique art object, signed by the artist. Art historian Katy Siegel notes in Art Works: Money (2004) that the signature is both the “ultimate proof of identity” and “a promise to pay — the essence of credit. The signature…assures the buyer that the aesthetic and social value created by the artist is contained within it.” Therein lay the Tzanck Check’s “real” worth. Years later, the story goes, Duchamp bought the check back from his dentist for a sum much greater than it’s face value of $115.

J.S.G. Boggs, "$100,000 bill"

A similar relationship between market value and face value is played out in the work of J.S.G. Boggs (b. 1955), perhaps the most well-known “money artist,” who has been hand-drawing and spending his unique Boggs Notes since 1984. Like the trompe l’oeil painters before him, Boggs’s work is so convincing in detail that he has been threatened by the Secret Service for counterfeiting (he has been arrested in England and Australia), although his bills are typically illustrated only on one side, with his signature and thumbprint on the reverse. Each financial transaction is a unique performance; Boggs pays for goods and/or services with the face value of his bill, asking for any change in legal U.S. currency. He then sells that change, as well as information regarding the location of the Boggs Note, to collectors, who in turn enter into their own negotiation of value — generally paying many times the denomination. (The $100,000 notes shown above are used to pay his lawyers.)

Obadiah Eelcut, "Noney," 2003. Silkscreen and ink on paper. Courtesy Alec Thibodeau.

Unlike Boggs’s bills, which vary in denomination, the face value of Noney is zero. As the reverse states, “Noney notes are cultural tender for the payment of any amount, anywhere. Go make an offer.” Designed and printed in 2003 by Alec Thibodeau (under the anagrammatic name of Obadiah Eelcut) in Providence, Rhode Island, Noney’s first edition of 10,000 has circulated globally. Each screen-printed note is hand-numbered and hand-signed, and depicts on the face one of ten different residents of RI with their favorite bird and favorite vegetable.

The artist’s website includes an ongoing list of the goods and services that people have bought with Noney, ranging from the practical (“I traded a piece of it for two copies of a zine by a woman in Montreal about fictitious sexual encounters with each of the leaders of Canada’s four major political parties”) to the poetic (“I spent my noney on a design for a frisbee that has yet to be made”). Thibodeau himself has exchanged Noney for food, work by other artists and, in one instance, frequent flyer miles. Because these are an editioned multiple, the rules of the art market would ostensibly confer a lower value on Noney than on a unique work like an early Boggs note. But, Thibodeau argues, this is all relative anyway: “Noney returns a standard to currency notes. But instead of metal, tobacco or rum, Noney’s standard is the aesthetic value of the note itself. It’s an economic system backed by art — art that also serves as the system’s currency.”

Stephen Barnwell, "Community Currency One Ounce Note," 2009. Digital print, 8.5" x 11". Source: www.moneyart.biz

As Thibodeau points out, the key to the success of alternative currencies is confidence: “Currency today is more abstract than ever. The concept of a guaranteed standard is gone. Money, whether in your pocket or your bank account, only has value because everyone believes it does.” This idea is at the heart of “community currencies,” which build local economies by maximizing circulation of trade within a defined region, and which are growing in number thanks to the plummeting confidence in the U.S. dollar. Some, like the long-established BerkShares in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, are backed by area banks, who disburse the notes in exchange for U.S. dollars. Others are based on a time-exchange system, like the IthacaHours; both models require commitment and trust. Robert Swann and Susan Witt write in Local Currencies: Catalysts for Sustainable Regional Economies:

Confidence in a currency requires that it be redeemable for some locally available commodity or service…Local currencies can play a vital role in the development of stable, diversified regional economies, giving definition and identity to regions, encouraging face-to-face transactions between neighbors, and helping to revitalize local cultures. A local currency is not simply an economic tool; it is also a cultural tool.

Artists are central to local currency projects, both as designers and illustrators, but also because the barter system is already familiar territory; alternative currencies are in a way just a formalization of the art-for-services trade that has long ensured the survival of urban artists. The Brooklyn Torch, currently in development, was started by a group of seven artists in North Brooklyn to “bring together both artist communities and immigrant communities in our area to improve integration of social groups and economies as well as boost our pride.” With local businesses like Woodhall Hospital, which allows uninsured artists to trade their services for medical care through their Artist Access program, it seems a supportive culture is already in place.

Gene Lu, "Alphabills." Source: www.genelu.com

Inspired by the growing number of these local currencies, and the potential for artist involvement, students in Jason Santa Maria’s “Designing Communication” class in the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts were assigned the task of designing a suite of five banknotes for one of several Manhattan neighborhoods.  The parameters for the assignment parallel the kinds of concerns that communities discuss when embarking on a local currency project:

Create local currency for neighborhood in Manhattan. Research societal and political concerns for currency. What similar issues will you face for designing a local currency for just one neighborhood? Is something traditional called for, or something more modern? What’s important about your neighborhood? What’s important to its residents? How does color work as a system and affect the psychology of actually using money? Should it even be paper or coins? How could you convince a local community to use it instead of US Dollars? How does the form factor of the money affect usability?

Gene Lu‘s proposal for Alphabet City, called Alphabills, celebrates the neighborhood’s graffiti subculture in a sophisticated layering of references. Four denominations are mapped to specific avenues ($20 to Avenue D, and so on), and the fifth is the “40oz Pass,” in honor of “many of the first graffiti writers, b-boys, rappers, and DJs during the 1980s.”  Laid side by side, the four notes form a stylized skyline, overlaid with the avenue letters in a typeface inspired by a storefront awning. On the obverse of each note is the work and tag of a different graffiti artist, which Lu imagines would be produced in limited runs to allow for more artists to participate. Lu’s Alphabills represent the best of information design, conveying a complex amount of information in a clear format that also evokes the cultural significance of a particular place.

Keeping alternative currencies in circulation requires a high level of interaction between you the bearer and your local purveyor, neighbor, or service provider. In today’s global and electronic financial system, built on credit, codes, numbers and data, artist and community-designed currencies keep the human element in the mix. That might be the most valuable commodity of all.

  1. Fangdai Chen says:

    I am particularly interested in Boggs’s works because he insists so much on the idea that the work is never complete until it’s spent. The notes/drawings are undoutedly well-made and require extremely high skills; however, it is the idea behind the works that make them more than just good. Boggs throws out a question, and uses his talents to answer it or make others answer it. More importantly, he makes sure that he finishes the project off. Boggs’ spirit is just what makes postmodernist art so unique and remarkable. There are plenty of great artists but never enough heroic ones.

  2. Hyun Soo Cho says:

    I only watched the last part of the documentry film of J.S.G Bogg. Even though, I did not watch the first part of the film, I can imagine how hard to make other people to understand the value of the “money” which he made. And I am sure that every artist, who makes money, will fase those difficulties which Bogg faced it previously. There was a lot of Tromp L’oeil artists in the state. Who was the first artist in the state? who was the first artist in the world? why did he or she start making those kind of art?

  3. rebecca c. says:

    Because Boggs spends so much time and effort on each one of his pieces, the act of exchanging them for things that aren’t even close to the ‘worth’ of his art is forcing the people who participate in his work to find and assign meaning and value to his pieces. this was an element that i really loved about Boggs’ work

  4. sarah smith says:

    I think that my favorite thing about Bogg’s work is the involvement of other people. He insists that the work is not compete until it has been spent, or until somebody else has deemed its worth.

  5. Allie says:

    Boggs gave me an interesting idea, can you put a price on the price? buy art with art? The fact that people pay to have the money (counterfit or not) seems a little continual.

  6. Dhameer A. L. R. says:

    I am interestedin Boggs work because it isn’t anything you might consider normal. It is so out there that it makes you think. The fact that he doesn’t ever make his munnies with the intention of fooling anyone, complpetely dispells any thought that he only declares the money artwork to get out of trouble. What goes on in his mind would be amazing to see.

  7. leah strickman says:

    This work brings up an interesting point– Thibodeau says that “Money, whether in your pocket or your bank account, only has value because everyone believes it does.” This statement is definitely highlighted with this work because these pieces are most likely worth much more than what they are being “spent” on, or exchanged for. People seem to value american currency as something that can always be depended on, when it is really not that much more than value assigned to a piece of paper.

  8. Sarah Gilbert says:

    The idea of creating art having to do with currency is distressing to me. I mean it makes sense, taking art in that direction, because art and money are constantly butting their metaphorical heads. How much is art worth, can artists get by solely on their art, et cetera et cetera. But to deliberately take it in that direction seems like a slippery slope. This concept of assigning value to something based only on the figure the government places on it is scary to me. While this is not in any way what the majority of artists are doing, I fear that art might romanticize the idea of worth for worth’s sake.

  9. Kieran says:

    while this discusses the independent or non-government sanctioned artistry of money, it fails to discuss the art of government sanctioned money. While the bills we use in day to day transactions hold higher monetary, in common discourse they hold little to none artistic value. Prints are always more valuable the more rare they are, so as a culture we have rejected the idea that the money we handle hold artistic value because it is common place.

    However there is a niche of people who do appreciate the artistry of money. Coin collectors. Though some coin collectors collect coins out or the fun of the search, or a compulsive desire to accumulate, many collect coins as a way of appreciating the artistry that goes into them. Also i think its relevant that not all coins and bills that are sanctioned by the government are actually intended for circulation, some are specifically intended to be traded within the coin collecting community. Mints make coins called proofs, by first polishing the disk on which the image is going to be pressed and then by pressing the image two times, leaving the coin with a deeper relief and shinier surface. These coins would only hold face value if spent at the grocery, but to coin collectors they are appreciated and worth much more.

    I think this is representative of peoples approach towards art in general. The more rare the art the more valuable it is. The more rare the skill required to make the art the more valuable it is. People often dismiss the value of abstract or simple art by saying “anyone could make that.” But this system of judgement does not applied to other aspects of our world. For example a modern toothbrush. Given 200 years and unlimited natural resources I (or I’m guessing any single person) would not be able to construct a toothbrush from scratch, but just because toothbrushes require huge amounts of skill, cultural knowledge, and cooperation to construct, does not make them seem particle valuable to me, so why should something simple or abstract automatically be of less value that something that is representative, or requires a rare skill to create. My point isn’t that “there is a huge injustice done to art in society especially abstract art, people are uncultured and dumb!” My point is rather, that we are culturally trained to accept some aspects of our world as valuable and some aspects and worthless, but that their is nothing inherently valuable or invaluable in any aspect of our world.

  10. Shari says:

    I think the concept of recreating currency is really interesting and the way Boggs portrays the worth of money in our society is really innovative. Even though it is a cool concept and looks really fun to make, I can also see why people aren’t opened to accepting it. If the government doesn’t accept the fact that these art pieces are worth something, then society deems it as wrong. I think the diversity in these dollars is something that is unique and if the U.S. is seeking to make themselves a “unique” and “original” nation, the acceptance of these art dollars would be the first step in accepting the diversified society that we have.

  11. Kasem Kydd says:

    The way Boggs portrays his beliefs and ideas about how art should work, in this case money as an art, comes off as a bit pretentious and awkward at times. However, what he did in the film certainly revolutionized the way people thought about conceptual art and the arts in general. They way Boggs proposes it is that his work of notes is not counterfeit, and should be worth more than a regular dollar because it’s unique. Billions of dollars print every day but the works of Boggs notes are limited to a few.

  12. Liddy Helmus says:

    The idea that how money looks is important to how we think of it is really interesting to me. It made me think, if money is art, then what if, instead of assigning arbitrary values, we instead had many different prints of works of art as currency, and the value was based on how aesthetically pleasing each one was? Or, if I have a 100-dollar bill that’s crumpled up, torn, and dirty, and a perfectly crisp, freshly-minted one-dollar bill, shouldn’t the one-dollar bill really be worth more, since it has been better preserved?

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