Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Currency of Currency

This essay accompanies the exhibition "Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange" opening Friday February 18th at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery.

Srdjan Loncar, "Value" (detail), courtesy the artist and Beta Pictoris Gallery, Birmingham, AL

To The Contrary

I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?

Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Money.  It is many things.  It has been described, variously, as the root of all evil, a gas, something you can’t take with you, or too tight to mention, among others.  It is a source of power, jealously and comfort, and at times it is all three.  

I am writing this while listening to “Got The Money”, a mashup of The Beatles and the Wu-Tang Clan, a sample from “You Never Give Me Your Money” providing a foundation, with Ol’ Dirty Bastard rapping over the top, and Kelis nailing the chorus melodically, if you can call “Hey/Dirty/Baby I got your money” a chorus…wait, what’s that he’s saying?  “If you wanna look good and not be bummy/girl you better give me that money.”  Means of exchange indeed.  

In the arts, money has been interrogated and represented again and again, whether in Andy Warhol’s dollar bill and dollar sign silkscreens (pause here to contextualize Warhol’s unexpected transition from documentarian to semiotician), or, in more abstract terms, in Damian Hirst’s recent diamond encrusted skull.  If there is something that incites passions and inflames tempers, something that is both factual and almost pornographic at the same time, it could be the value of art.   

I begin here because Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange is an exhibition that critically interrogates and that maps the oscillating relationships between value and value – between some form of currency exchange on one hand, and, on the other, a work of art.  This is not to suggest that this is a study of worth, or of price.  Instead, it is a revelation that the artists in Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange, are well aware of art’s tendency towards this conflation of values and, through their works, each skewers it.

Let’s begin, out of curating’s traditional alphabetical order, with the works that first caused my realization that two consecutive print exhibitions could explore two different constructions of currency.  In this case, Derek Cracco and I began with works by Curtis Readel, works that both appropriated and recontextualized money at precisely the same time.  Readel is difficult to classify, for he works across a range of media.  

What happens in his works is entirely unexpected.  Before we descend into a post 9/11 pathos, let’s think philosophically about the fact that Readel’s works tease the edges of precisely the sort of ruins that many Americans find themselves in today – financial ruin, brought on in part by both executive decisions by former and current leaders, and by laissez-faire fiscal policies propounded by the U.S. Treasury.  So what Readel does is simply appropriate imagery so familiar that most people don’t even consider its existence.  Think, for example, of what is on the back of the U.S. fifty dollar bill.  In fact, we categorize paper currency not by what is on the back, but who is on the front.  

So when Readel creates either White House in Ruins, or U.S. Treasury in Ruins, he is playing upon both the ubiquitousness and the invisibility of the material itself as much as he is commenting on social structure or political voice.  Then, to make the matter more complex, he takes something that normally appears roughly two by four inches, and he recreates it over a space of three by six feet.  Here, the specificity of the object becomes apparent, and the comments and ideas gain voice.

At times, Readel also makes the two dimensional become three.  We see the Genuis Seculi, a bronze bust of the dead George Washington.  The term translates roughly to “Guardian spirit of the age”, something we could definitely attribute to Washington as one of the founding fathers and the ‘father of our country.’  With this depiction, Readel clearly recognizes how even the most venerated forebears aren’t necessarily immune from the rages of time, nor is what they represent.

This complex relationship, between the economic and the political, is also ‘ground zero’ for Dan Tague.  Using a recurring element, the dollar bill in its many denominations, Tague teases out hidden texts.  One need only think here of the post 9/11 examples of how a $20 bill could be folded to reveal “hidden” pictures of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, as well as the word “Osama”.  Tague skewers this conspiracy theory rhetoric, highlighting both the elusive and the elisive natures of language.  I am reminded here of an episode of Batman where the caped crusader crosses out letters on a penny to create the words, “Ted Tate: Mica”, leading the Boy Wonder to find Ted Tate at the mica quarry.

What Tague realizes is that given the almost demonic regard in which paper money is held, with the constant references to its value, or lack thereof, it provides the perfect ground for constructing complex dialogues.  So, for Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange, we encounter four examples of folded or modified money.  Tague highlights both the insidiousness of the process and the disparity of the outcomes in works such as “Unite Us.”  

Srdjan Loncar’s briefcases, each containing a million dollars, do far more to divide us than unite us.  Wielding something that looks like it came from Goldfinger, and Scarface and any hip hop video, Loncar’s briefcases highlight the relationships between money and desire.  “I really wanted to make a work using money,” Loncar explained, “but there are really strict and specific U.S. Treasury guidelines on how you can and cannot reproduce currency.  In the end,” he continues, “I realized that if I included the band as part of the work it removed the issue entirely.”  “Has anyone stolen pieces from these works?” I asked recently in his studio.  “Of course they have,” he laughed.

Loncar’s briefcases represent both the absolutely desirable and the absolutely taboo.  Who wouldn’t want a briefcase containing a million dollars in hundred dollar bills?  But who, at the same time, would be constantly afraid of its loss – stolen?  Lost?  Confiscated?  It is as if Loncar has created desirability ne plus ultra, through a copy, a simulacrum, an other.  He explains this work as part of a discourse on the value of art.  Of course, complicating the matter is that Loncar’s million dollars doesn’t actually cost a million dollars, which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth a million dollars.  It is just caught up in that oscillating relationship between stated value, use value and exchange value.  And just what is a million dollars actually ‘worth’ in any event?

For Jonathan Ferrara, the issue is not about the value of money, but about its representation.  In Shifting Dynamics, Ferrara also highlights the changing nature of the value of money.  Installed, variously, from a traditional gallery work to a pile on the floor, its shifting characteristics embody the oscillating nature of the thing it represents.  “The work was inspired in part,” Ferrara remarked recently, “by the shifting natures of the stock market, the housing market, and the idea of net worth.  One day you are worth x,” he continues, “and the next you are worth x – 40%.”  

Of course, the unspoken variable in any analysis of market worth is for our purposes the value of art.  Ferrara, as both a practicing artist and a gallerist, has the unique perspective of being both a maker and a marketer of objects that circulate as currency in the world of visual arts.  So when we encounter Shifting Dynamics as a pile on the floor, it is both an enticing pile of money and the rubble that remains after the market, whatever market it may be, has begun to  crumble under our very feet, or at least off our very walls.

For Imin Yeh, that value can be depicted precisely.  In her “Benjamin Print Project”, Yeh has created an exact relationship between the value of the works in the series and the value of on portion of the cost of her education.  As Yeh explains, “The Ben-Jam Project is a hand-pulled edition of 85 woodblock prints.  I am selling each Benjamins for one hundred dollars each.  If and when the edition sells out for a total value of $8500, the proceeds would be equal to one federal subsized Stafford Loan.”  In fact, this is the entire student loan amount that Yeh has for graduate school, so she has visually and economically represented the ‘cost’ of her graduate education.  She has also reduced participation in the retirement of this debt to $100, being the value of the dollar that would be represented if Benjamin Franklin were to appear on its face.  

So, in this moment, Yeh synthesizes face value, exchange value and cost, pegging it incrementally at $100, and overall at $8500.  This process of establishing value may seem arbitrary, for $100 seems like a small price to pay for a hand-pulled woodblock,  In many ways, this is precisely the point – that the print, capable of being reproduced in a multiple, creates the opportunity for exchange at values that become lower and lower the more times a work is created.  

Turn then to the works by Obadiah Eelcut.  Entitled Noney, these are handprinted sheets of money that can, as the artist states, be used “for the payment of any amount, anywhere.”  Its lineage lies as much in Marcel Duchamp’s Tzanck Check as it does in other forms of non-government issued printed money.  Its value derives both from its face and from its capacity to be used as a negotiable instrument.

Eelcut recognizes the disparity between perceived and actual value, writing on noney.net that “[c]urrency 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.”  In fact, Eelcut highlights the value of his money, Noney, by giving it the value of “0”.  He offers noney as something that has the power, or lack thereof, to negotiate its agreed value as itself, and in itself, at each point of exchange.  In a sense, this renders the value of Noney as both nonexistent and infinite in precisely the same moment, which is precisely Eelcut’s point.  

Eelcut is also interested in the journey Noney makes, and he invites people to send their Noney stories to him.  In a sense, this is reminiscent of the “Where’s George” currency tracking project where bills, identified by their serial numbers, can be tracked geographically.  But while the possibility of encountering a “Where’s George” bill is reasonably high, Noney’s limited printing makes the likelihood both smaller and more special.  Eelcut’s commitment to Noney as simply a means of exchange makes its existence even more compelling.

Regardless of intention, both money and representations of money exist as means of exchange.  Currency is the printed or minted expression of a shared belief in value as representational.  For Currency Part 2:  Means of Exchange, each artist calls this common delusion into question.  Readel explores the frailty of its architecture, both physically and psychologically.  Ferrara depicts is indeterminate value.  Yeh highlights its regularity, and its simplicity.  Eelcut reminds us of its opportunities for exchange, and of alternate systems thereof.  Loncar brings both humor and vice to its depiction.  And Tague takes us on an almost mystical journey through systems, meanings and messages.  

In every instance, we participate as willing believers in the value of the objects and the means by which they are exchanged.  It is here, in the realms of currency, that values are made, remade, destroyed and made again.