A licence to print money

Who decides what is valuable?

How do we create value?

I use these two questions keep my approach to art and art teaching fresh and relevant. I enjoy looking at everything from ‘the outside’, and from the outside, art must be a very strange thing indeed. Giant dogs made of flowers? Ulay and Marina Abramovich? Religious iconography? Sometimes, teaching art every day, day in, day out, we forget that our students are new to art, and it must be a very confusing, exciting and disorientating experience coming into a classroom and being expected to produce ‘art’ and look at ‘art’.

I have been teaching a project called ‘Money’ for the past two years to my Year 9 students. It came out of a desire to get them questioning norms and thinking about the value of art. It was also a sneaky way to combine lots of key skills and media and create an end product that was a bit tongue-in-cheek.

I started out by asking colleagues if I could borrow their banknotes from different countries. I quickly found out that photocopying banknotes is illegal and not as easy as you might think. I wrote to the Bank of England for permission to reproduce their notes with certain caveats attached (please do the same if you are thinking about using banknotes in your own teaching).

I went to the superb Bank of England Museum in London and found out all about forgery and the elaborate security measures used to keep our money safe. For example, I found out that most countries’ banknotes have a certain pattern of dots which are picked up by photocopiers and scanning software so that it is impossible to make colour copies of banknotes. I also looked at coin design and manufacture which I may use later for a project based on medals (look up ‘hobo coins’ for a real kick)

So, we had the ‘visual reference material’. To understand of how money actually works, I kept pestering my school’s Head of Economics and Business Studies about economics, inflation, deflation and exchange value, listened to BBC podcasts and read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. I found very interesting parallels in Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark where value is created not by consensus or social contract but by a few select actions be they deliberate or inadvertent.

While I was putting together this project, I was also completing my Masters in Fine Art and Education at Northumbria University. The Money Project was extremely relevant to what I was doing as an artist and vice versa. I was thinking about exchange and value and the connections between people and I ended up creating a Fluxus type project which involved ‘re-connecting’ with friends, family through letters and print exchanges.

Back at school we started out by looking at portraiture and images of power: representations of state leaders, dictators, kings and queens as well as celebrities. I set up a mini photographer’s studio in which the students photographed each other with tiaras, medals, big hats, looking haughty and empowered.

We looked at graphic designers and banknote designers such as Ootje Oxenaar who created the beautiful Sunflower banknote for the Netherlands. Hidden images, microprinting, using Google Translate to create cod Latin mottos kept my students thinking about how to make an object that was universal but at the same time extremely personal. My students very much liked the idea of creating their own currency. Banknotes have been issued in ‘cookies’, ‘mollars’, ‘jazzles’, ‘leaves’ and ‘smackaroons’. Lots of Photoshop lessons ensued so that they could pull all the elements of their design together. In amongst all of this I managed to teach the usual things such as the proportions of the face, drawing portraits from direct observation, how to make a nose look like a nose, tone and mark-making, the basics of graphic design and typography.

We talked about printmaking and reproduction (Walter Benjamin) and what is an ‘original’ piece of art and a ‘copy’. One of my students said that concept of editioning prints ‘does her head in’ but she appreciated the economics of it. They categorically did not enjoy the seemingly endless lessons of scratching into plastic to create a drypoint plate but they got thoroughly involved in the process printing their final banknotes. To top it all off, I negotiated with my school’s headteacher to enable them to ‘buy’ a cake in the canteen with one of their banknotes. I later turned classroom into a bank, my kiln into a safe and used it to display big wodges of cash which unfortunately could not be used to bolster our school’s budget. So, if I haven’t managed to turn my students into artists, I will have given some an alternative career in master forgery.

But seriously, I believe the desire to create art is an innate human need. So much of what we wear, use and carry around with is designed and it is good to look afresh at an everyday object such as money. To return to the questions I posed at the start of this article:

Who decides what is valuable?

How do we create value?

I would say ‘It depends on what you mean by value’, and ‘We create value by being creative.’ For example, did you know that anti-corruption campaign group 5th Pillar in India use a ‘zero zupee’ banknote to allow members of the public to thumb their noses at those who ask for kickbacks? Art is powerful.

(Originally published in AD Magazine, NSEAD, Spring 2016, Issue 15)