When the financial crisis hit in 2008, the value of the US dollar actually increased. Even as the housing bubble burst, banks failed, and millions of Americans lost their jobs, investors worldwide rushed to trade in other currencies for dollars; the world’s most widely traded reserve currency was considered a safer bet than others in times of economic uncertainty. As regular Americans suffered the consequences of shoddy regulation and reckless trading, their dollar—and therefore, their government—still came out on top. “Global financial crisis has one beneficiary: The dollar,” proclaimed one New York Times headline from that year.
This is just one of the many grim inequities that make American artist Mark Wagner’s money collages—including Topic’s February 2019 cover art—hang so heavy in the mind. Yes, those are real dollar bills: meticulously dissected, rearranged, and glued into fantastic scenes by Wagner and his small team of assistants. (In case you’re wondering, yes, technically, it is illegal to deface currency. But Wagner hasn’t gotten a call from the government yet.)
Wagner has been working with cash since 1999. “The more that I showed the work to people, the more I realized what the implications were of using money—what value it held for people. There really is an endless amount of thought dumped into this one piece of paper,” says Wagner, speaking on the phone from his studio near his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he has lived since 2012. Wagner’s work has been shown at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., among other venues, and was recently included in exhibitions at North Carolina’s Mint Museum and CUNY in New York. (He also used his money-slicing skills to design a poster supporting education funding, available on his website for $0.)
Below, Wagner spoke to Topic about how his friends’ smoking inspired the work he does now, his background as a paper conservator, and why America could never quit cash.
When did you start making art?
When I started in college in the 1990s, I was doing academic stuff—math and chemistry. And then I took an art class my second year at school, thinking that it was recreational, and stuck with art after that.
I ended up in a funny little niche, but I used to make all sorts of different things: paintings, drawings, writing, and lots of artist books—press printing, book binding, and small editions, with lots of hand attention. And then I started cutting up money as one of the things that I did, and after repeatedly showing it to people, it became obvious that that was the thing most people were interested in. [So I] concentrated on that, to get to where I am.
How did you get to the point where you were literally putting knife to bill?
While I was living in Brooklyn in 1999, I was making a lot of collage out of a lot of different materials. I was a smoker and had friends who smoked Camel cigarettes, so I kind of had a never-ending supply of that one kind of paper. I started doing some things with the packs that are kind of like precursors to what I ended up doing with money: I would cut up the imagery and recombine it into textures. People who knew the package really reacted to it as something super familiar. So at one point, I was like, “What other pieces of paper are like that?” I hit on the dollar bill. It's the most common piece of paper, literally, in the world.
When I started using it, I was just using it because it was common. And then I realized that I could bend the subject matter of the work to address what it held for people.
“The dollar bill is the most common piece of paper, literally, in the world.”
It's really striking looking at your work, how many small, decorative elements are on money—I had never really thought about it until I saw them isolated and used in a different way.
Yeah, the one-dollar bill especially, because it hasn't been redesigned. The US Mint started sort of an unfortunate modern redesign effort in the ’90s. It's one of the ironies about money: everybody has this piece of paper in their hands every day, and no one can remember what it looks like when it's not in their hands.
You previously worked as a paper conservator in your home state, Wisconsin. Do you think that had any influence on your appreciation for the tactile qualities of money?
There's a direct line of influence from doing that sort of work to doing the sort of work that I'm doing now. You know, working as a paper conservator, I was a grunt worker. But while I was doing that, my glue chops got up there, and I had to do some delicate work on sometimes super cool, sometimes super boring, old documents.
There is something super special about bills—how they're made, how they're printed—that's irreplaceable. There's nothing else I can find that handles like this paper. The US bills are still printed with engravings, and that's a quality of ink on paper that can't be matched. Literally, the paper that the bills are made out of is more durable than anything else you can find, so I can do things with it that I can't do with magazines, or stamps, or anything. You can't even walk into an art store and find paper this nice.
How much do you think it would cost to buy pieces of paper that were as durable and as nice as just using a bill?
Well, they're not commercially available. Crane Currency, which produces the paper for US bills, just wouldn't sell that to you, and no one else knows how to make the paper like that.
So it's actually completely practical, because it's the cheapest way to get these high-quality materials. It's easy to picture you with just a big tub full of bills, like Scrooge McDuck.
People always think that it's expensive, but it's not in the long run. I use up most of the bill. A piece might look like it has a whole lot of dollars gone into it, because it has 300 heads on it, or 1,000 heads on it, but that's just that one little piece of paper from the middle, and the rest of those bills are being used in other works.
I think it's one of those reasons why the work is successful, because a bunch of things pop into people's minds immediately. And most of those things are, to some degree, mistaken. I've sped up a lot of the elements in working on it; I work with other people. So the amount of expense isn't as much as it seems; the amount of time that it takes me isn't as much as you might think.
“There is something super special about bills—how they’re made, how they’re printed—that’s irreplaceable. There’s nothing else I can find that handles like this paper.”
How did you come up with the image of the bear used for Topic’s cover?
My initial impulse to make that piece was I was reading old children's books to my kid, and it’s sort of based on Goldilocks and the three bears, with a bear sitting behind a big bowl of porridge. Money is sort of mythological, or mythic, and I love monstrous things. Money has that effect on people: it’s something you wake up in the middle of the night fretting about.
Capitalism is certainly about people living off of other people's efforts. So a big thing living off of a bowl of little things, as in that picture, makes a certain sense to me. But also a lot of the impetus behind something like that isn't super thinky—it's just me wanting to have fun.
What is the value of the bills used on a piece of this size (30 by 40 inches)?
Definitely less than $100. Probably more like $80.
How do you think your work would be received if the United States became a cashless society? Would you keep working with money if we were moving in that direction?
I think something happens to these sort of cultural forms as they're getting phased out, where they kind of have a renaissance. In the late ’90s and early aughts, when I was engaged in the book arts, it was a time when there were loads of discussions about the “end of the book.” Everybody was turning to their devices to do their reading for the first time. I could name you 40 other artists that have either dabbled in, or committed to, using money in their artwork—I think stuff like that is happening partially because a similar thing is happening with the form of money.
We are clearly moving in that direction, but I don't think we're ever going to reach that end in this country, or at least not for a long time. We're just not organized enough these days to get rid of it. I mean, if we can't pay government employees to keep their departments open, then how are we gonna get organized enough for every person in the United States and beyond, to use the same virtual currency?