Amongst the diverse artists using the representation of money in their visual creations, James Stephen George Boggs aka J.S.G. Boggs has attracted lot of (including unwanted) attention.
Born Steve Litzner in 1955 in Woodbury, New Jersey USA, he is also known as “Just Some Guy Boggs” or “Boggs”.
Boggs a Pittsburgh artist and Fellow of Art and Ethics at Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania USA was known for his hand drawings of currencies from multiple countries with humorous or satirical details.
“It’s all an act of faith. Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands in for. And that’s what my work is about.”Boggs in his New Yorker profile by Lawrence Weschler
The Birth of a Performance Act
Boggs started his artistic career as an abstract painter unfortunately not meeting great success. In 1984, he travelled to Chicago, while walking around the city, Boggs found himself lost. He stopped by a cafe to ask for directions. Once inside, he sat for a coffee and doughnut, doodling the number one on a napkin, enhancing it to the point where his drawing looked like an abstract one dollar banknote. The waitress approached him, saying his doodle was the most beautiful one dollar bill she had ever seen.
“Can I have that?” she asked… Boggs, surprised, didn’t comply.
The waitress came back and asked,
”Can I get it for twenty dollars?”
Again Boggs replied “no”, while thinking the waitress would be “nuts” (quote) to buy that.
“Forty dollars?” and again Boggs said no.
Boggs, reflecting on what just happened, comments “Here I am, a poor starving artist, looking for two things. People who appreciate my work and people who would support me financially and here is a person who has just offered to do both, and I told her to go away!”
When the waitress came back with the 90 cents cheque, Boggs realised there might be more to this, he asked her: “Would you take this note as a payment for the bill?”
Taken by surprise she just said “Are you serious”.
“Yes” he simply replied.
“Yes!” concluded the waitress, recalling Boggs earlier denial to sell his creation, yet still determined not to let it go.
As he was giving his first money drawing to her, they talked, about the value of money, the value of art, the value of waitressing, of coffee and doughnuts, the human interaction and more. As they went on debating and philosophising other customers joined the conversation, collectively conversing, exchanging ideas and thoughts.
As we look back, it was amazing how a single action developed into a dialogue about everyday life, further blossomed into a multi-sided conversation, between people from different walks of life.
Time came for each of the participants to go back to their lives; the waitress came back to Boggs:
“Wait! You forgot your change”
“Keep it as a tip” he replied.
“No, you’ll take this” she insisted.
That whole interaction had Boggs thinking, how taking this object, an unremarkable dime like any other, came to have a specific relevance to him. Fascinated with “How any image takes on a different dimension.” (quote).
The Artistic Process
There was an argument to define if Boggs processes and creations were, in fine, art. As much as art dealers and collectors recognised him as an authentic artist, the Secret Service and other government bodies went after him as a fraud, a deceiver.
Further to that, if Boggs was to be recognised as an artist, what style or movement could he be categorised in? The answer lies in part with the English and Australian’s Court of Justice who concluded, after prosecuting Boggs for various accounts of counterfeiting, that his works were identified as art. However, the USA Court of Justice didn’t seem to see things the same way, prosecuting Boggs a number of times and seizing artworks, and personal effects. Boggs told the Associated Press in 1992
“They said I was a counterfeiter. They don’t understand the difference between art and crime.”
Boggs made art to critique money as a social construct, money being an idea created and accepted by the people in societies, battling against money’s established notion of value. From the early days of his artistic process to the latest of his printed creations, Boggs seemed to be on a crusade, a fight against the established value of money as a mean of exchange between people.
Boggs started his works drawing by hand, using ink and pencils on high quality paper; he estimated it took him about 10 hours of work for one drawing, later moving on to produce limited edition prints, inking his thumbprint on the reverse side. Boggs preferred the word “production” as opposed to “reproduction” to qualify his artwork, emphasising the uniqueness of his work, and the creative process involved behind it.
Boggs Bills or Boggs Notes
Boggs tried himself at diverse creative processes, his first artworks are fine drawings based on real banknotes from various countries, one-sided with a blank reverse, where Boggs would write down the details of a transaction when it occurred. Boggs Bills consistently included a twist, witty or humorous details, making these notes easily discernible from real banknotes.
Alongside his banknote sized creations, Boggs created larger formats, some found in collections, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the British Museum in London.
From his early days of artistic creativity, Boggs worked with digital painting, incorporating digital transfers of photographs in his creations. In 2003, celebrating his 20th anniversary of activity, Boggs unveiled a massive digital wall painting “All the World is a Stage”, at Babson College, in Wellesley Massachusetts USA, based on a digital reproduction of a UK Shakespeare commemorative twenty pound note. Made using a hydraulic lift, a Mac G4 computer, a colourful ink palette and an Epson 2000P archival printer, Boggs estimated that this artwork would last more than 200 years. Described by the purchasers as “the physical manifestation of the work of an artist’s performance of the original work that may be considered an original work in its own right, much the same as musicians create new interpretations of original works by Bach.”
In Boggs creative process, the drawing of the note was as important as the interaction with people. He triggered a number of discussions regarding, the debate about the value of things, eventually leading him to attempt to persuade merchants to accept his drawings as payment for supplies or services.
Boggs’s analysis was to remove its trusted financial value from a currency, therefore candidly see printed money as a print like any other. See banknotes as artworks with portraits, letters, numbers, vegetal or animal imagery, shapes, colours etc… Here we identify what Boggs envisioned the definition of Art Fiduciaire in banknotes before the term was coined.
By stripping the money of its institutional role of a valuable asset, Boggs could present his drawings as an equal work of creation, an artistic work with portraits, letters, numbers, patterns, assorted imagery etc… using the same vocabulary as used in banknote design.
The merchant, potential recipient of a Boggs Bill had to decide whether or not it was acceptable as payment, and accept it as face value (up to thousands of dollars) and give Boggs a receipt and cash back in change. That would have been a difficult situation depending if you were the shop employee, or one who knew and appreciated his works, while willing to take a risk.
Regardless of the outcome of the transaction, Boggs’s point laid in creating the interaction in itself, building the debate about art and value, like he was relentlessly trying to reproduce the conditions of the very first performance, sometime ago, in a Chicago cafe.
When Boggs and the merchant came to an agreement, Boggs then offered the receipt, change and transaction details to an art dealer, making them purchase from him and enticing them to track the merchant down in order to complete the transaction, so it could be framed with all its elements. The crowing accomplishment of the performance was to make the merchant and the art dealer start a discussion on the value of the artwork, whether they agreed on a sale or not was not important to Boggs.
For his New Yorker profile, Boggs told Lawrence Weschler: “‘Look at these things’ I try to say ‘They’re beautiful. But what the hell are they? What do they do? How do they do it?’”
Boggs’s ultimate happening was “Project Pittsburgh”. In 1992, he planned to photocopy one million Dollars in face value of laser printed Boggs Bills, to be released into the local economy. He told Associated Press: “I’ve been spending this money for eight years, I’ve learned so much. I wanted to share the experience.” However, for the US Secret Service it was unacceptable to let this go as planned. They raided his Carnegie Mellon University office and his apartment, also made it clear to local merchants that anyone using the bills as currency would face prosecution, therefore the experiment ceased.
A Selection of Boggs Bills
One hundred dollar note with “ONE FUNDRED DOLLAR” instead of “ONE HUNDRED DOLLAR”, reverse S in the word RESERVE, “BEDROOM I’S” below the portrait, “STEPHEN” instead of “SERIES”, and JSGBOGGS as a signature of Secretary of Art.
Twenty dollar note dated 1996, made up with a mix of styles of banknote designs, including a Cleveland portrait from the 1910’s and key features such as a green serial number as well as green Treasury seal from the design post 1929, with “DO YOU HEAR ANYTHING BEING SAID HERE, OR AM I EMPTY NOW? IS ANYBODY HOME? HELLO?” instead of “THIS IS NOTABLE TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS TO SOCIETY”, “TWENY” instead of “TWENTY under the Treasury seal, and signed “James Stephen George Boggs – The Individual”.
In 1994, Worth magazine asked him to design a note using the Treasury Department’s new guidelines, Mr. Boggs produced a $100 bill with the image of Harriet Tubman as a young girl. Anticipating by twenty years the announcement that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson as the new face of the $20 bill.
Ten British pound note with “I PROMISE TO PROMISE TO PROMISE TO PROMISE TO” instead of “I PROMISE TO PAY THE BEARER ON DEMAND THE SUM OF”, ’TIME IS MONEY”, and signed J.S.G.Boggs” as Chief Cashier.
Cent Francs banknote, without “EUGENE DELACROIX”, signed “JSGBOGGS” as “LE CONTROLEUR” and “LE CAISSIER”.
One hundred Deutsche mark note, with “BOGGGSBANK” instead of “BUNDESBANK”, twice signed “JSG BOGGS”.
One hundred Franc Swiss note, with Boggs portrait instead of Francesco Borromini’s, “J.S.G.BOGGS-BASLE-ART-19:88” instead of “Francesco Borromini 1599-1667”.
One thousand Lire note, where “MARCO POLO” is replaced by “BOGGS 1988”, signed JSGBoggs as “IL GOVERNATORE”.
Echoing artists in the 19th Century, giving away their paintings as a mean to pay their debts with merchants and suppliers, Boggs up scaled this to another level of bartering, where he offered his own created money for everyday transactions. Far from a counterfeiter, whose goal is to lure and deceive unknowing victims, Boggs never pretended that his money was real currency. Quite the contrary, he was offering his artwork, taking the time to explain his artistic process to the potential recipient, eventually leading to an honest and informed transaction.
Boggs took the liberty to diffuse his art to the population, to make it instantly available to anyone, outside the protected walls of museums and galleries. We can see his act as a reinterpretation of the market rules, the relation between supply and demand, the place of art and value in a society driven by consumerism.
His last appearance, reported by River Dakota Cutler for the Tampa Bay Times, confirms the performance part of his art: “At a party in Tampa Florida, after a high-energy discourse on art and money, he threw $100 000 in $100 bills – real ones – on the floor and encouraged guests to roll around in them.” Cutler adds “everyday was a performance for him.”
Considering the above, Boggs’s work falls not only into visual art with drawing and printing but also into performance art, due to the importance of the interaction between people in Boggs’s process, with the last act of it being the discussion between the merchant and the art dealer or art collector, leading to the Transaction to be recorded and assembled in one final artwork.
With certainty, J.S.G. Boggs’s work tick the Money Art boxes, more specifically Performance Money Art.