cold off the press: money as a readymade

Its smooth. Its stretchy. Its waterproof. But is it a sex toy? It’s a Canadian thing. The days are short, its cold, but underneath the ice and wind, radical, intense passions refuse to be constrained by nature. We have been told to be wary of Greeks bearing bonds, but what of artists bearing readymades; bonds, cheques, and bill of exchange? Yes. Financial instruments are complicated. Imagine Marcel Duchamp as head of the Federal Reserve? Where is that smart money going? Would money be art or non-art, and would the value of the signature be worth more than the nominal value of the bill?

…Canada’s new plastic money may give you a little more bang for your buck. New documents show a focus group mistook a strand of DNA on the $100 bill for a sex toy. Most people also thought the see-through window on the new polymer notes was shaped like the contours of a woman’s body. Others looked into the port holes of a famed Canadian icebreaker and saw a skull and crossbones staring back at them. These are just some of the offbeat images focus groups thought they saw on the plastic bank notes that go into circulation next month….

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Internal documents show the Bank of Canada fretted that Canadians would find all kinds of unintended images on the new bills. So the bank used focus groups to spot “potential controversies.” “The overall purpose of the research was to disaster check the $50 and $100 notes among the general public and cash handlers,” says a January report to the central bank. The Canadian Press obtained the report along with other documents under the Access to Information Act….

Read More: ---With the "Cheque Bruno a quartet of financial readymades had been completed. Duchamp created the first of them in 1919 for his dentist Tzanck, followed five years later by a bond issued to finance a roulette project. (figure 3) In the same year that he signed Philippe Bruno’s check (1965), Duchamp had also converted a Czech membership card into a readymade by wittily naming it "Czech Check."---

…Almost every group thought the see-through window looked like a woman’s body, but participants were often shy about pointing it out. “However, once noted, it often led to acknowledgment and laughter among many of the participants in a group.” The new $100s feature two portraits of prime minister Robert Borden. On the other side of the bill, there’s an image of a researcher at a microscope and a depiction of the double-helix structure of DNA….

but just like the other readymades Duchamp’s financial documents obviously criticize an art world where the signature certifies both artistic and economic value, where the authority of the artist and the authenticity of the work are seemingly all that counts. And if Duchamp had to face the fact that people ended up ascribing aesthetic value to his readymades whereas his choices were informed by aesthetic indifference, the financial documents were an effective remedy. Read More:

Read More: ---The Monte Carlo Bonds (Obligations pour la Roulette Monte Carlo) were issued five years later to raise funds for a gambling project. In an interview Duchamp recalled that he created the bonds "to make capital to break the Monte Carlo bank" : roulette would be converted into a game of chess by removing luck from the table and relying on mathematical calculations instead. Like the Tzanck Check, the Monte Carlo Bond is a look-a-like of the actual financial document. On top of the bond is a photograph by Man Ray of Duchamp’s face covered in shaving foam, while the background reads "moustiques domestiques demistock" ("domestic mosquitoes half-stock").---

But the DNA strand evoked something else. A Vancouver focus group thought it was “a sex toy (i.e., sex beads).” Others thought it was the Big Dipper. There was no mistaking the microscope, but when focus groups flipped over the bill they noticed the edge of the instrument showed through like a weird birthmark on Borden’s cheek. Respondents also thought the former prime minister was either cross-eyed or that each eye was looking off in a different direction, the report says.”Others felt that the PM’s moustache is unkempt.” Every focus group thought they saw religious iconography on the face of the Peace Tower clock. “It was often described as ‘The Star of David.’ Others referred to it as a ‘pagan’ or ‘religious’ symbol,” the document says.

“This evoked a response that suggested that the depiction of religious icons on Canadian bank notes was strongly resisted.” The research also raised red flags about the new $50 bill. Some focus groups saw spooky shapes inside the port holes of the research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen.”The small white windows at the front of the icebreaker’s bow were believed to have faces in them,” a report says.”One respondent who saw faces in the windows suggested that they looked like skulls and crossbones.” Some assumed the Amundsen was a foreign ship while others saw the Stars and Stripes fluttering from the anchor port. The Montreal group noted that oil companies have used the coast guard ship.The shape of Newfoundland and Labrador was often mistaken for other forms, including a bird, Pinocchio and a war plane. Others thought Inuktitut writing on the bill, which translates to the word “Arctic,” was some kind of secret code or a set of mysterious symbols.


nk of Canada spokeswoman Julie Girard said the bills got tweaked after the focus groups.

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Duchamp’s financial documents both specify and generalize his overall artistic enterprise. Rather than addressing all institutions of the art world, they nail art down at one specific institution: the art market. Rather than questioning artistic worth, they address the general question of how value comes into being. As epitomes of the readymade, Duchamp’s financial documents defy general interpretations. They may be fingerprints of a charlatan, but it is impossible to deny their critical potential as readymades. Conversely their refined critique of the art market’s perversity can only be seen by ignoring Duchamp’s biography; it recounts how Duchamp was highly implicated in the market mechanisms the financial documents allegedly critique. Read More:

…When Duchamp signs mass-produced objects…and sends them to art exhibits, he negates the category of individual creation. The signature, whose very purpose it is to mark what is individual in the work, that it owes its existence to this particular artist, is inscribed on an arbitrarily chosen mass product, because all claims to individual creativity are to be mocked. Duchamp’s provocation not only unmasks the art market where the signature means more than the quality of the work; it radically questions the very principle of art in bourgeois society according to which the individual is considered the creator of the work of art. (Peter Bürger)  The financial documents take Duchamp’s general critique of value one step further by not only questioning the distinction between art and non-art, but also exposing the congruency between the art world and the economy. The financial documents made artworks equivalent to monetary tokens, conflating the categories of culture and finance in one object. Read More:

Seen in this light, the financial documents take Duchamp’s “ordinary” readymades one step further: whereas the readymades had defied Marxian notions of value by indicating that objects can have value without “embodying” labor, they obscured the source of this value in the signature and institutional setting of the work. The financial documents indicate by contrast, that exchange, both inside and outside of the economic realm, may be closer to the source of value and of our desire to own a good. Desire, in other words, is at the same time satisfied and generated by exchange.( ibid.)

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