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The title of the piece, "AB42908610B", is the US Mint serial number of the one-hundred dollar bill. If a green back's serial number is its unique identification code much like a finger print or retina pattern, then it can be seen as the element that separates the object culturally from its genetic partners. In this way, the serial number is the green back's personality or soul. As an artist, I aimed to modify the bill - and not completely obliterate it. The title of the piece was decided early on in the thinking process, to ensure that whatever happened to the dollar bill physically, its soul would live on - inherited by the art object.

I chose to do the one hundred dollar bill firstly in order to be bold in destroying an amount of money that would actually mean something to someone, and secondly because the back of it shows Independence Hall, where the US nation was born. The Declaration of Independence was signed, Articles of Confederation ratified, and The Constitution was written in that building. To split this image up into ten pieces and ask the viewer to join in has obvious symbolic meaning. The pieces self-animate, creating a paper rustling noise. Through time, the paper will rub up against itself enough that the bill will destroy ITSELF, and I have delegated the alteration of the bill to the entire audience body. I am asking everyone to feel a piece of authorship in the scrambling of the bill. That idea of delegation or collaboration with the viewer is the only reason I incorporated robotics into the work. I used a light sensor so that the interaction with the money could be indirect - someone's presence is all it takes to kill the bill slightly. The piece also responds to ambient light changes, giving the robotically scrambled bill a life of its own - engaged in a noisy dialog with the household life.

I do not see my project as government subversive. If anything, it questions ideas of value in general. Destroying US fiat currency is not illegal, nor is there a body of law preventing it. In fact, one can walk into Disneyland and pay fifty cents to have their penny squashed into a Main Street Commemorative token, complete with keychain hole punch. Companies sell collectable coins colorized with pictures of soaring eagles and the world trade center. If those are sound businesses, then where is the sneaky bit in all this? It turns out according to Crimes and Criminal Procedure - 18 USC Section 331 that the only way you can go to jail is to alter the money in such a way as to trick the next receiver into trading more for it. Apart from that law, there are also intellectual copyright issues with the graphics on some of the bills. This absence of defacement law makes sense to me. Money is whatever a society can agree it is; that is money's basic truth. If the government issues green backs, it's not that they are allowing you to borrow their property. It is your property - you traded for it fairly, and you can do what you please with it. The area that the government is concerned with is how much value the monetary instrument symbolizes to its users.

I have explored the idea of incorporating money in earlier works, but it was never the main focus of the piece until now. I had also never joined the money play with my main artistic focuses on interactivity and movement in the physical space. In 1996, I was a drawing and painting student in Palos Verdes Peninsula High school. My teacher, Linda Jo Russell [1], assigned a standard drawing exercise in which students were asked to sketch objects from the environment and try to join the objects to one another through imagined fictitious conjoining methods. The assignment was entitled "Morph" by Ms. Russell. Among the contents I scavenged from around the classroom and from inside my backpack was a one dollar bill - which I conjoined to a rotting ivy leaf [2]. I recall from then that the reason I joined the leaf with the dollar bill was wishful thinking - I wanted money to grow on trees. I also remember thinking that the level of detail on the bill was so intricate that I would not possibly be able to reproduce it with my meticulous realism. I later realized that there was a functional reason for such visual intricacy.

In 2003 in New York, I was doing a drawing exercise guided by Billy Sullivan [3] in which I would do a self portrait in a "drawing" medium. Because it was that time and place, I had a very expanded opinion on what "drawing" was, and ended up attaching all kinds of materials to a piece of acrylic plexiglass that I found on the upper East side of Manhattan. Among the materials were my old retainer from adolescence, used bars of soap from my toilet, and the pocket change lying around in my flat [4]. Because it was a self portrait, I was really trying to do a meaningful job and put valued pieces of my life into the work. When asked by Billy later on to explain why I had taped money to the drawing, I responded with the unfortunate one-liner, "because I want to give my work some VALUE." The actual value of that statement was probably akin to the scene in the 1971 "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in which Gene Wilder's character picks up a pair of sneakers and throws them into a pot of boiling confectionery research, saying "gives it a little kick." [5]

I have always found money to have a troubled relationship with the arts. My parents, worried for my financial future, wanted my art training to be more industry applicable. This rational finally rubbed off onto me from within when I decided to change undergraduate major from art to design at UCLA. Then, the design department was more "design" and less "media art." I saw that I was joining a particular movement or genre that had experience being industry-integrated, hence securing my financial future. Of course I was wrong about that (aside the department switching emphasis to theory-driven media art), but the principal remained. I find that the arts in America have an anti-capitalist tint. I don't know if that's escapist, anti-corporate, or just left-over counter-culture zeitguists from the 1960s. Movements seem to try and resist what is being called "Disnification" ie. the industrialization or monetization of an art genre - much like cartooning in hollywood, or industrial arts in early 20th century Germany. I personally find no shame in creating art for money or about money. I still consider it artful. I also hold no bars on "money-free" art practices because I think there is experiential value to that. When an artist tells me that he or she is anti-capitalist, the first thing I ask the person is whether he or she has had a good experience in selling work or in employment. People I've met prefer to keep the money talk out of the art talk. But what if the piece, itself is interpretting the idea of money as the very subject matter? The conversation suddenly changes. A threshold is crossed, and perhaps a boundary of safety is violated.


[1] - Linda Jo Russell, MFA, California State University, Long Beach. Trained to teach perceptual drawing techniques by Betty Edwards [Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain], Ms. Russell now teaches workshops on drawing and creativity throughout the United States. She is part of the continuing education faculty at Otis College or Art+Design

[2] - image of drawing held by private collector

[3] Billy Sullivan, New York painter - best known for faux naive painting style - similar to Hockney in aesthetic and subject matter.

[4] - image of this drawing held by private collector

[5] - see line 2163 of WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY as transcribed by Aaron Villa in 1998.