F. A. Q. by MARK WAGNER
CURRENCY COLLAGE FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Read this essay in print in the “Money, Power, Sex, and Mark Wagner” exhibition catalog available in the WEB SHOP.
1. Is that real money?
2. Isn't that illegal?
3. How much money went into that?
4. How long did that take?
5. Why money?
1. IS THAT REAL MONEY?
Yes. Eating a cow and eating a picture of a cow are two very different things. And this is not a vegetarian meal.
Banknotes are just ink on paper... but only in the way that a Vermeer is just pigment and varnish on wood. You can’t simply decide to make some for yourself.
All the qualities that make banknotes difficult to counterfeit make them a great material to work with. Bills are the last example of engraved printing in practical use. The process provides a fineness and quality of line unmatched by other print processes.
The paper that bills are printed on—milled by the same company that produces Crane stationery—is also quite specific. Blue and red silk fibers are added to deter forgery. It is designed to be handled by thousands of people without deteriorating. With its high flax content, and a hardness imparted by the pressure of the printing process, it can take abuse that would turn lesser papers back into the mush from which they’re made. In the studio, thin ribbons can stand contortion without tearing. They can be glued, peeled up, and glued again; they can be soaked, scraped, sanded, and burnished.
People seeing the work in print or online often assume the images are digitally produced. Sure, images like these could be made in the digital environment. But I don't think they would be. The medium steers the result. There is an analog, slow-thinking creativity at work here that the facility and speed of the computer would undermine. A letter written longhand has a different tone and quality than an email.
Real money is a necessary component of the magic spell. The material has to be the thing of value, because the transgression, the naughtiness, and the sacrifice are all part of the emotional appeal. Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t have made his monster out of color Xeroxes.
2. ISN'T THAT ILLEGAL?
Everyone asks this question. Most Americans believe that destroying money is illegal. But why? None of us can remember where we first learned that it is against the law. It is not a lesson taught in the classroom. It is not one of the Ten Commandments. It is not a matter of common sense.
The belief that destroying money is illegal—whether or not it actually is—is transmitted as urban legend, not fact. We either have playground rumors or puppet-masters to thank for it. We never learned our multiplication tables properly, but we all know it’s illegal to cut up money—and that you should never consume Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola at the same time.
In general, laws are created to curb natural temptations. We are tempted by easy gain, so there are laws against stealing. We are tempted to act with aggression, so there are laws against assault.
Why would we need a law against destroying our own wealth? Who is the perpetrator such a law is meant to deter? Who is the victim such a law is meant to protect? There’s no law against hitting yourself in the face.
The object in question is essentially just a piece of paper. Why should it, more than any other piece of paper, deserve protection?
Maybe there’s some next-level macroeconomic reason to not cut up money. If money is the blood of our economy, could I damage the nation’s blood pressure by taking it out of circulation? There’s no practical difference between destroying money and collecting it; both practices end its movement. Should it be illegal to collect state quarters? To lose money? To save it?
Our actions betray an ingrained affection for money. We keep close track of it. We guard it. We are happy when we have it and sad when we don't. But we are also skittish about money. Though we handle it daily, we don’t know exactly what it is. Money is kind of spooky. Through repetitive use we’ve become familiar with it—but that is not the same as understanding it.
Instinctively, subconsciously, we know that money is merely a collective myth. As with a dragon or a mermaid, we can agree on its form, but it has never existed outside our imaginations.
It is a house of cards and we fear the wind.
There is an unspoken social contract that we all must value money. We must protect the construct in which we are so heavily invested. So we build a taboo around its destruction.
Yes, by the way, it is illegal to cut up money. Statute number whatever of the US Penal code states blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Please don't tell anyone that I'm doing it.
3. HOW MUCH MONEY WENT INTO THAT?
Not as much as you might think. The finished work is deceptive. In a crowd scene you might see 300 Washington heads, so you might think that collage took 300 dollars; but it’s not like I’m throwing away the rest of those bills.
Don’t count individual elements. Think of a dollar in terms of acreage: a bill’s worth of paper. Sixteen square inches.
The notion has precedent in the minting of coins, where weight and not unit was once key. When coins were made of silver, ten dimes, four quarters, and a silver dollar all weighed the same. There were times and places, even in the early US, where lacking small coins, larger coins were simply cut into pieces to make change.
Most of the collage work here is alla prima: once glued down, it is not reworked. If you look at any of the physical collages in a raking light you can easily see the areas of overlap. There are areas of indecision where paper piles up, but about 80 percent of each surface is covered with a single layer.
If you imagine laying intact bills neatly across the surface of a collage and then tossing a couple more on top to account for overlapping, you’d have a rough estimate of how many bills each piece took. Maybe thirty bucks for a two-by-two-foot collage. Fifteen for a portrait. Two hundred for something the size of a door.
Very little goes to waste. Some smaller-than-confetti-size pieces are hoarded jealously. Bill scraps that lack a compelling character individually can, en masse, create an interesting texture. “Ugly” pieces that have been piling up for years have new uses invented for them.
Half-a-dozen Ziploc bags marked “almost useless” are filled with even smaller bags of minute slivers of money. But even these might get put into circulation again someday—sprinkled on top of a layer of glue like flocking, or added to the pulp of handmade paper.
A dozen years of cutting up money at up to a thousand dollars a year has generated only a couple pint jars of true refuse. In a way these jars of minced, mangled, and tangled oddments are more compelling than the collages themselves. Any day I might point the art wand at them, declare them a sculpture, and effectively reduce wasted currency to zero.
Art materials are expensive. A single sheet of Fabriano Roma paper lists for $17.65, a one-ounce tube of cadmium red oil paint for $28.39. A favorite irony is that dollar bills end up being an inexpensive material—and possibly the only one that effectively gets cheaper through the action of inflation.
The value of the materials is eclipsed by the amount of labor required to animate them. I pay my studio assistants more than a dollar just to cut up a dollar.
4. HOW LONG DID THAT TAKE?
I never know what exactly people mean by this question. Do they want to be impressed by patience, or by speed? To an extent, people equate work taking a long time with its being good. But track and field events reward the quickest competitors.
People like a good statistic; a number can really make it feel like you’ve got a handle on something. In a way practical concerns and statistics belong with the material: money... therefore accounting... therefore counting. Some of the pieces are accompanied by timesheets. Some of the pieces have tallies of the total number of scraps of paper glued down.
It’s pretty obvious that the work is labor-intensive.
People always say, “You must really be obsessive.” Obsession implies compulsion: an uncontrollable and irrational urge to do something. One cannot stop oneself. I’m sure many artists work in response to their own clinical obsession, but I am not one of them. I do it because I like doing it and because other people like seeing it. It points to a particular poverty of our age that the chief way people have to relate to patients is through mental illness.
I once overheard my gallerist tell a viewer, "Rather than think of him as obsessive, think of him as generous with his time."
Done is the loveliest number. But the art will exist so much longer than it took to make. What’s another day or two to get it right?
I always give an answer because I don't want to be rude. “It took two weeks.” “It took a year.” But the question of time is more open to interpretation than you might think.
Do you count the time spent sweeping the floor after I’ve finished? Do you count the time I spent eating or sleeping—both activities undeniably necessary to making art? What about filing my taxes at the end of the year? Do you count the years I spent in art school? Do you count my countless failed attempts at making art? How long did it take? It’s taken my whole life.
5. WHY MONEY?
I came to the dollar bill through a desire to transform something familiar, like a magician turning your pocket watch into a petunia. But the staying power is in the loaded nature of the material.
Money is a universal medium of exchange—therefore, it’s a universal concern. It strikes some chord in all of us... the wealthy and the poor... the thrifty and the profligate... the dog people and the cat people. Anarchists are certain I’m an anarchist because I cut up a favorite tool of the oppressor. Capitalists think I'm a capitalist because I revel in it.
Money is arrogant. The way it tends to control the conversation, and monopolizes words like worth and value. Like Einstein’s equation relating mass to energy, money seeks to measure everything. Measuring time in terms of an hourly rate or a yearly salary. Measuring mass in terms of an ounce of gold or a pound of flesh.
Though omnipresent, money is becoming increasingly ephemeral. Once it was fully tangible—weighty, even—stamped metal disks. Then it was a piece of paper that stood for an amount of metal held somewhere else. Then the piece of paper was divorced from the metal and valued only in faith. And now paper has given way to electronic currency. The closer you look, the harder it is to see.
One day some years ago... back when I was broke and each dollar came dear to me... my studio-mate and I were heading to the corner restaurant for linner, our only meal of the day. I checked my wallet and it was empty. Shit. I sat at my workstation for probably a whole minute... hungry, annoyed, and complaining... before my friend pointed out that there were 40 or so spendable dollar bills sitting on the table right in front of me.
In my mind they had already become something else.