What if you found a dollar bill on the street? Would you pick it up? What if it was taped to a window in a grid with 99 more of its friends? Would you pull it off? What if I told you it was Art?
At the recent 2014 DUMBO Arts Festival, that "free money" was the artwork of North Carolina–based artist and educator Jody Servon. In her "I _ _ _ _ a dollar" installation piece, on the storefront window of a building on Plymouth Street between Washington and Main streets, she offered up 100 one-dollar bills for all to see or take.
Next to the display, Servon posted a short statement:
There was a time when a single dollar made a difference in the quality of my day. It either bought me food or kept me from walking a few miles to school in the rain. Viewers are invited to contemplate their situation and decide if they want or need a dollar. If you want the dollar, consider if it is better left for someone who may need it. If in need, you are invited to take one of the 100 one-dollar bills hanging on the wall to make a difference in your day.
"I _ _ _ _ a dollar" was originally created in 2012, for the exhibition "Poor Quality: Inequality" at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. Noted behavioral economist Dan Ariely offered artists an honorarium of $100 to create work based on the topic of social and economic inequality. Servon, the sole recipient of the money, went ahead to do the most daring thing an emerging artist can do: She gave it all away. As Servon recounts:
The honorarium to create the work was $100, and I used the entire amount to fund the dollar bills for the project. I came upon this idea when I thought about my socio-economic background and different times in my life when I had less money and how this lack of funds impacted by daily existence. I wanted to open up a situation for others to consider the economics of their situation at the moment they experienced my project.
Festival-goers who saw it in the six-plus hours that the piece remained on the window in DUMBO had many reactions. Some took pictures of the dollars tacked to the glass or posing with money they had taken, others were touching the bills and lifting them to check if they was real. Servon recounted a red-haired woman who shook her finger at two young adults who pulled money from the wall, lecturing to all who would listen, "Do you really need the money? If you don't need it, don't take it." The same lady returned to the installation many times to check on the status of the dollars. Servon told me:
There were all sorts of interventions that took place—people added money (dollar bills and a five-dollar bill). There is a photo I took of a woman getting a high five after adding a dollar and telling her friend that 'Someone needs it more than I do, and now I feel part of the project.' For the first few hours, whenever someone took a dollar, someone soon replaced it so the total didn't go below the original 100 dollars. At times, the amount was greater than 100 with people continuing to add money. I particularly enjoyed hearing people talk about the value of a dollar and whether or not it made a difference to them at that moment or if it could make a difference to someone else.
With inflation, a single dollar clearly does not have the same value and the impact it once did. For example, in the mid-1990s the vending machines in my high school sold a package of M&M's for 50 cents; the same colorful chocolate candies cost $1.00 in the machines in the Time Inc. kitchen today. And though photographer Jonathan Blaustein included a double cheeseburger from McDonald's in his project "The Value of a Dollar" (which documented what could be purchased for that amount in 2010), they are now listed on the 2014 "Dollar Menu & More" for $1.49.
Still, sometimes a dollar can make a difference in the life of someone who is carrying no cash and just wants a drink or a snack or to pay for parking. Or the emotional lift that comes from finding "lucky money." As Servon explained, the value of the dollar is not really the point:
I am not really asking if a dollar will change peoples' lives, but rather could it make a difference in that moment for that person encountering the work or for someone else in the future. The work is about asking people to consider their want versus need in relation to others in their community.
In a past installation of the project in downtown Greensboro, N.C., she installed a hidden surveillance camera aimed at the grid from across the street to document the results with shots taken every five seconds for the six hours during which money still remained. The resulting video of time-lapse stills shows various reactions to the installation.
I asked Servon what she thought would happen if her concept existed on a larger scale. What if, instead of asking people to consider the one-dollar bills, they were hundreds or thousands? What if an ATM machine or a bank vault were just left open? Her guess was that the higher the denomination, the more quickly the money would disappear and the piece would end. The smaller denomination, she says, makes people consider "want" and "need" more actively.
Just months ago, Jason Buzi and Yan Budman, founders of the @HiddenCash phenomenon, created a Twitter-based scavenger hunt for envelopes containing up to $140 in cash. They invited the world to show up to various locations, follow their clues, and locate the money they left for would-be treasure hunters. A frenzy ensued, with @HiddenCash giving away more than $15,000. In this case, the reward was enough to cover people's groceries or provide free plane tickets "to connect loved ones." Buzi and Budman's social media experiment was philanthropic, with the goal of inspiring people to "pay it forward."
Jody Servon's work is different. While she acknowledges that giving someone a dollar could be an act of kindness, she is more interested in starting a discussion. That's why an invitation to fill in the blank in the phrase "I ----a dollar" is posted beside the installation of the work. She has been intrigued by the many ways in which people have responded to the challenge.
She's also interested in catching viewers off guard. While she posts about the work on social media—and a second installation, "Dreams For Free," in which she gives away lottery tickets in exchange for the recipients' telling her their dreams of what they would do with the money—she never gives away the exact location. "I enjoy the element of surprise from people that happen upon the hanging dollars."
So the next time you come across a grid of dollar bills on the street, know that there's free money to be had—if you _ _ _ _ it.
This is part of The Photo Bank, a new section of Money.com dedicated to conceptually-driven photography. From images that document the broader economy to ones that explore more personal concerns like paying for college, travel, retirement, advancing your career, or even buying groceries, The Photo Bank will showcase a spectrum of the best work being produced by emerging and established artists. Submissions are encouraged and should be sent to Sarina Finkelstein, Online Photo Editor for Money.com: firstname.lastname@example.org.