Vol.1 / Issue 3

In Boggs We Trust

by Olav Velthuis


4.     Indecent proposal

When Boggs talks about his work, it is with great enthusiasm, cheer and wonder. However, when talking about the lawsuits, the tenderness in his eyes makes way for a furious look. Although Boggs seems flattered with the artistic and financial success of his endeavor, he does not strike me as particularly "money" oriented. Boggs admits that the material form of money is what fascinates him--the fact that it functions as a visual icon of society in a way that electronic money does not. But more than just a copier of money, he is a performance artist. When a collector recently offered to buy all his remaining coins for $100,000, Boggs refused. The golden rule is that he only parts with his money in real economic exchanges. He does not sell his work, in other words, he only "transacts" it.

"Do you think they will accept Boggs money here," he asks in an old Amsterdam bar. Boggs insists that I will not intervene during the transaction, and promptly walks to the bar with a gentle smile on his face. Then he explains to the barkeeper with a charming voice: "Hi, I am an artist; I make my own money, and I try to spend it in real transactions. Today I would like to spend my money with you. These coins represent the value of a dollar. Would you accept four of them in exchange for two beer[s]?"

The lady looks puzzled and doubts if she should accept his offer. Before she can answer, however, her husband intervenes: "Paying with fake money is impossible," he says aggressively, "is playing a trick" [in Dutch the husband used the word "kunstenmakerij," which means both "making art," and "playing a trick"]. Unsolicited, the barkeeper continues that he has been making his own living for thirty-five years, and urges Boggs to support himself with honest means as well. The next day, many refusals of his coins will follow, even at the coin shops located behind Dam Square. There is a striking pattern in the responses that his proposal evokes. Out of disbelief, men react irritated, while women often start giggling -- an indication for social scientists that some taboo is being violated. Never does Boggs mention that the deal he is offering them is an offer nobody can refuse -- after all, even the coins are worth much more than their face value on the resale market for Boggs' work.

5.     Resisting uniformity

By fabricating his own money, Boggs takes us back to a time when money was far from uniform. That time is not as far behind us as we tend to think. Until the nineteenth century, and in some countries up until the early twentieth century, a hodgepodge of different coins and bills were in circulation. In the United States, for instance, the dollar as we know it was only standardized in 1928. Until that time, almost any bank could issue its own bills. The Central Banks that were established in the nineteenth century were supposed to monitor the circulation of currencies and to create order in the chaotic monetary traffic of those days. As a result, the uniformity of money increased rapidly around the turn of the century, while issuing money was monopolized by the state in many Western European countries.

Around the same time, the German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his magnum opus Die Philosophie des Geldes that money is ultimately a destructive force. Money, that colorless and indifferent equivalent, would cover the world with an "evenly flat and gray tone," Simmel wrote. Money reduced the diversity of goods and transactions to a common, uniform denominator. It even put pressure on relationships, Simmel argued, since social interaction was increasingly transformed into economic exchange.

In a late response to Simmel, the American sociologist Viviana Zelizer showed in The Social Meaning of Money (1994) that people do manage to resist the destructive power of money. In the second half of the nineteenth century, when monetary traffic was becoming standardized rapidly, many households started creating what Zelizer calls domestic currencies. They earmarked money for specific goals and named them Christmas money, drinking money, vacation money, etc. Moreover, these households established a direct link between the way money was earned and the appropriate spending of it. Thus, they partially nullified the alleged uniformity of money.

Currently, an area of tension is emerging comparable to that in the nineteenth century. This tension is exactly what provides Boggs' art with the necessary ammunition. On the one hand, the uniformity of money has entered an era of renaissance due to the introduction of the EURO in the European Union, no less than eleven different currencies will disappear at once on January 1, 2002. Because of the increasing use of credit cards and payment by means of a PIN code, money is on its way to becoming extinct in its material form of bills and coins. In the global economy, money can only be spotted as changing numbers on computer displays in anonymous offices. "You see?" Simmel mumbles posthumously.

At the same time, however, a widespread and multifaceted resistance against this ongoing standardization of monetary traffic is emerging. Look at the new republics that came into being after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis in the Balkans. One of the first political acts in these countries is the introduction of their own currency, which serves as a symbol of national unity. As inhabitants of a small country, the Danish population had good reasons to vote against the introduction of the EURO in a public referendum that was organized last fall. And on the Internet, where you would expect the ultimate triumph of money's uniformity, new electronic currencies like e-gold are coming into being. Finally, it is remarkable that in the last decade, local currencies have been established in a number of places, like the British LETS (Local Exchange and Trading Schemes), Ithaca money in the American college town, or Noppes in Amsterdam. Like Boggs, many citizens refuse to reconcile themselves with the uniformity of money.

6.     The Fragility of Money

All of these manifestations of resistance - Boggs' bills in the first place -- emphasize the conventional nature of money. If a businessman remarks that Boggs' money is not real, Boggs acts surprised. Why would it be less real than the money we spend in everyday life? With a smile he replies that it costs the Central Bank only a few cents to print the bills we use, whereas Boggs himself has to put many hours into making his own money. It is a reversal of Duchamp's institutional critique, addressing the economy rather than the art world. Whereas people demand originals rather than mass produced objects inside the walls of cultural institutions, Boggs' original work is not accepted in the economic realm as a stand-in for the ready-made bills of modern Central Banks.

Thus Boggs forces people to come to terms with the fragile basis of money, with the fact that money lacks a solid, material basis. It solely derives its value from agreement—a widespread agreement, for that matter, but certainly not more than that. Many people still think that we can exchange our paper bills for gold at the Central Bank in a case of emergency, but that possibility was abolished in most countries in the first half of the 20th century. Given the conventional basis of money, it is easy to understand why objects as diverse as pearls, horse blankets, beads, rice, salt, gold, playing cards or cigarettes could serve as media of exchange in the past. (Boggs united them in an installation for the New York office of the consultancy firm Accenture.) Because many of these means were neither divisible, transportable or perishable, they did not survive the test of time. In that respect, Boggs argues tongue in cheek that his own Sacagawea coin is a good competitor of the original. It is both lighter and larger than the original which makes it easier to distinguish from a quarter.

Click to enlarge
Figure 8
David Greg Harth, "I Am America" dollar bill, July 1998
© David Greg Harth, New York
Figure 9
René Magritte, Ceci n'est
pas une pipe
[This is not a pipe]
, 1926
David Greg Harth, another American artist with a fascination for money, underscores that the value of money is ultimately founded on trust.(Fig. 8) <> On one-dollar bills he puts stamps with texts such as "I am not a dollar" (the parallel with René Magritte's painting Ceci n'est pas une pipe (Fig. 9) goes without saying.) "He is right," says Boggs. Ultimately, the bill is not a dollar at all, at most a representation of it. The bill is real, but the dollar itself is an abstraction… just like God. Indeed, it is remarkable how fundamentally modern monetary systems are grafted onto religion. According to Boggs the invention of both money and God date from the same era, and the traces are still visible in our own days. Just think of the double meaning of words like "redeem," or the root of the word "credit"--it is a direct derivative of the Latin word for believing. The side of Dutch coins reads "God Is With Us," while "In God We Trust" is printed on American bills.

7.     Keep Boggs in circulation

Click to enlarge
Figure 10
J.S.G. Boggs, On Broadway
(Dance Dollar)
, 1995
Private Collection, Larchmont, NY
Given the fragility of money, it is hardly surprising that Boggs' proposals arouse such hostile reactions. It confuses people to a greater degree than they are comfortable with. And who can blame them? How easily trust in economic value can be undermined and the consequences have lately been illustrated when investors gained billions of dollars on the NASDAQ and lost them as easily when stock prices collapsed only months later. As mysterious as the rise and fall of the Internet economy is the creation of value that Boggs realizes by printing his own money. Without the help of any official institution--the Central Bank in the last place--he sneaks plastic coins into the economy with a face value of 100.000 dollar. Their real value is even many times higher: a month after their first release, a complete set of six one-dollar coins was sold on Ebay for $87. It goes to show that as painstakingly as the fundamentals of our modern monetary system were established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so easily are they tampered with. Or, as Boggs remarks: "When you are dealing with an abstraction, the borderline between something and nothing is very subtle." (Fig. 10)

*Works by Boggs © J.S.G. Boggs--courtesy Szilage Gallery

page 1 2