The Zero Dollar

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David Segal of the Washington Post wades through the chaos outside the New York Stock Exchange to interview an artist quietly handing out copies of her Zero Dollar. Combining software with hand drawing, artist Laura Gilbert reproduced the dollar bill in slightly smaller form. Yesterday she handed out copies to any masters of the universe she could find. However, the only NYSE-associated employees she encountered were outer-borough worker drones; the real villains were in Midtown, skirting the crowds in their chauffeur-driven cars.

The Zero Dollar falls somewhere between Pop Art and performance art. Generally Pop Artworks derive their meanings from an ironic distance from the world of things. Pop Art was invented for museums. We’re forced to recreate the context that they reflect. Here Gilbert is intervening directly–at least that’s the intention–in the context to which her dollars refer. However, the intent of Pop Art is to reveal the sham existence of commodities. In the context of the current financial crises, it seems to me, the exact opposite point should be made: that dollar bills have real consequence to people with ordinary incomes. Right now, commodities are the bearers of anxiety, not the illusionary promise of happiness. Trying to invoke shame, as Gilbert seems ultimately trying to do, already seems passé. In the space of a week we’ve already moved into a whole new realm of uncertainty–an uncertainty that can be understood as a crisis in representationality that Gilbert’s Pop Art gesture can’t address.

A more avant-garde gesture would be to hand out slightly shrunken dollar bills at the height of the bubble, when money was an internationally-traded commodity, thus losing its already tenuous relation to the real. No wonder the financial system workers she’s handing out her exquisite representations are puzzled: art should reveal the unseen, not belabor the obvious.

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