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Legal tender

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published — translated into Spanish as “Moneda de curso legal”, by David Puig — in ONTO #2: Arte y Capital, 2021



5 December, 2019: a new work by the Italian artist Maurizio Catalan debuts at Art Basel Miami Beach, and the international art press have found their pleasingly outrageous story of the season. Comedian is a banana — purchased at a Miami supermarket, we’re told, and carefully selected for its size and shape — duct-taped to a bare wall, and priced at US$120,000. Within hours, two editions of the work are sold, both to private collectors based in France. There is talk of artist’s proofs, a further edition to be sold to a museum. Fairgoers flock to see the piece in such numbers that special arrangements must be made to manage the crowd. Then a performance artist turns up, removes the banana from the wall, and eats it (despite later claiming to actually dislike bananas). No one stops him, and there is a spare banana at the ready, so Comedian is soon restored. As Catalan’s gallerist explains, it is the artist’s certificate of authenticity that makes the work. The specific banana is both necessary and inessential. (No one seems to have asked about the brand of duct tape.) The gallerist goes on to say: “A work like that, if you don’t sell the work, it’s not a work of art” — thereby confirming that if Comedian is nothing without banana, tape, and wall, it’s also nothing without its price tag.





7 December, 2019: a Saturday morning two and a half weeks to Christmas, and citizens busy with their errands find themselves stuck in gridlocked traffic across Port of Spain. It’s not the usual seasonal traffic. The streets around the Central Bank towers downtown have been closed off, blocked by military vehicles and uniformed men with guns, while army helicopters circle overhead. Alarmist rumours about the reason for this military exercise are quickly overtaken by the actual explanation: a very large shipment of new banknotes is being delivered to the Central Bank vaults, and security is at maximum. A very large shipment, specifically, of $100 bills.

Two days before, at a post-Cabinet press conference, Trinidad and Tobago’s minister of national security had made an unexpected announcement: the TT$100 bill — the country’s highest-denomination banknote, often called a blue note for its distinctive palette — was to be abruptly withdrawn and replaced with a new polymer banknote. And whereas in the past superseded banknote designs had remained legal tender, to be gradually removed from circulation, the government intended to pass special legislation to demonetise the current paper $100 bill, with a deadline of barely three weeks for the public to exchange old bills for new.

The new banknotes were a surprise for everyone but a few officials of high rank. The press office staff at the Central Bank had not even been briefed. The minister of national security explained the rationale: the new polymer notes would stymie a recent wave of counterfeiting, and the required exchange of banknotes would flush cash out of the “black economy” of money laundering and tax evasion. With eighty million $100 bills in circulation, and the demonetisation deadline falling a week after Christmas, a degree of chaos was guaranteed. Soon the press was full of reports of hours-long queues at bank branches, inoperable ATMs, persons attempting to change hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash — the figure who truly tickled the public imagination was the (unnamed) barber who apparently turned up at a bank with a million dollars in $100 bills — while off- and online conversations tended towards conspiracy theories.





21 August, 2019: this block of Pembroke Street in downtown Port of Spain is usually all but deserted after dark, the various lawyers’ offices closed at the end of the workday. But tonight there is a steelband procession heading from Woodford Square to the Queen’s Park Savannah, and thousands of revellers are streaming past, dancing and chipping to the music.

Many of them pause for a moment at the glass doors propped open at 27 Pembroke Street, to peer into this mostly unremarkable office building. Some, curiosity piqued, step inside. They find a popup art installation underway, with works by eight young artists scattered through a series of rooms and spilling out into a small backyard — from sculpture to photography to a mural drawing, plus a performance with models in couture. But to explore the other works, visitors must first walk past a simple pedestal where at chest height there lies, unprotected, a single $100 bill.

A label pasted on a nearby wall reads: “Money is a man-made concept to determine value. There is no argument that a physical one-hundred-dollar bill is worth more than the prints on its faces…. However, A One Hundred Dollar Bill is not a one-hundred-dollar bill.” With this fiat, artist Cass’Mosha A. Centeno has declared the banknote — unpristine, with a crease down the centre, and “64” scribbled on the obverse in red ballpoint ink — a work of art.

“What happens when the value of the artwork itself is a value? … There is no ambiguity or mystification — the value is printed on its faces. Taken out of its original purpose and context, I have re-established this one-hundred-dollar bill as a readymade art object, and I have determined the price at $200.”

Some of my favourite artworks have a punchline, and some jokes require no elaboration. But if A One Hundred Dollar Bill nudges us to ponder the arbitrariness of an art object’s exchange value, it also raises the more vexing question of its idea value, which in this instance can be quite clearly quantified. As a $100 bill, A One Hundred Dollar Bill is worth $100. Its declaration as an artwork, says the artist, is worth exactly an additional $100. (If your bent is theological rather than economic, consider this an example of transubstantiation: the physical senses say the banknote is only money, but faith — in the artist’s conceptual powers — says no, it’s art.)

There’s a longish history of artists designating unlikely objects and substances as artworks, from a piece of tropical fruit taped to a wall to the artist’s own excrement (what is it with these Italians?). Centeno’s rubric for A One Hundred Dollar Bill cites Duchamp — who, of course, coined the term readymade, even if he didn’t actually create his reputed first example of the genre. We’ve had over a century to reflect that sometimes a banana is just a banana, and sometimes it’s something else. In the case of A One Hundred Dollar Bill, the artist’s medium is, ostensibly, money, but the medium is also and actually our sense of what money is worth. Object is inextricable from idea. (And let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge the efficiency, which is also to say the wit, of the gesture. Catalan had to go to a supermarket and exchange money for his banana. Centeno went straight for the pure manifestation of value in our capitalist reality: cold, hard cash.)

I’m reminded of another artwork with a monetary basis. Proyecto Capital was a collaboration among Trinidadian Michelle Isava and Colombians Alejandro Mina and Mar Molano. Visiting Port of Spain in 2009, the Colombians were astonished to see numerous small-denomination coins dropped in the streets of the city: money thrown away, as it were, of insufficient value to justify the brief labour of stooping to pick it up. The three artists began collecting discarded coins, eventually amassing almost two thousand, which they assiduously catalogued —


500 5-cent coins

987 25-cent coins

498 10-cent coins

7 50-cent coins


— with a total value of $325.05. These were presented to the public in an installation at the art space Alice Yard, where visitors were invited to take as many coins as they chose, thereby returning them to circulation. Most people politely pocketed a coin or two, until the late artist Richard Bolai, a known provocateur, burst in with an empty briefcase to snatch the entire hoard, while bystanders snapped photos. Later the backyard larcenist would boast online of having disrupted the artwork, when in fact he had brought it to an unanticipated but perfectly apt culmination.

Don’t forget that while a banknote is money, a banknote is also always a work of art, literally: defined by images engraved upon a special medium, requiring the mastery of complicated techniques and design conventions, almost always bearing a signature, and subject to tests of authenticity as stringent as those applied to Old Master paintings. Banknotes are prints of unlimited edition which we carry in our pockets and purses, so familiar that although we scrutinise them daily we only infrequently interrogate their visual imagery (the TT$100 bill includes depictions of the Central Bank headquarters, an oil rig, and a greater bird-of-paradise, Paradisaea apoda, a species indigenous to Papua New Guinea and associated with Tobago thanks to a historical misapprehension). Unlike almost every other kind of artwork, banknotes enjoy legal protection of their physical integrity. Trinidad and Tobago’s Central Bank Act makes it a summary offence to mutilate, cut, tear, perforate, or write, print, draw, or stamp upon any currency note, with a mandated six-month prison term. But as far as I can make out, the Act has no opinion about a private citizen assigning an unauthorised value to a banknote, whether the motive is art or something less insidious.





Reader, I bought it.

I didn’t rationalise it like this at the time, but in retrospect I think I was intrigued enough by the artwork that I wanted it to be — for want of a better word — complete, and I felt that completion depended on the artist’s gesture of offering the banknote for sale being met by a buyer’s gesture of handing over payment. Perhaps when I say complete what I mean is that the transaction transformed A One Hundred Dollar Bill from a kind of prank to a serious kind of prank, which may be one way of defining a conceptual artwork.

Besides which, $200 seemed an eminently affordable investment in the very early work of a young artist with a presumably long career ahead — an investment, too, with a guaranteed minimal value. Because at worst, should I fall on hard times, I could always spend A One Hundred Dollar Bill at face value.

As it turns out, that particular security was short-lived. A third party entered the collaboration between artist and buyer: the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago, declaring that as of 1 January, 2020, the $100 bill in A One Hundred Dollar Bill would cease to be, in legal terms, a $100 bill (and thus revealing the work as unexpectedly durational). A One Hundred Dollar Bill would then be — the punchline to the punchline — merely a work of art, and worth only as much as anyone might value its artist’s idea.




Proyecto Capital, a collaboration among Michelle Isava, Alejandro Mina, and Mar Molano, was presented in a one-night event at Alice Yard, 80 Roberts Street, Woodbrook, Port of Spain, on 6 November, 2009. The project is documented at proyectocapital09.blogspot.com.


Cass’Mosha A. Centeno’s A One Hundred Dollar Bill was shown as part of the popup exhibition #ayardexchange, co-curated by Christopher Cozier, at the temporary art space 27 Pembroke Street, Port of Spain, on 21 and 23 August, 2019. For a broader account of #ayardexchange, see the review by Kaneesha Cherelle Parsad published online at aliceyard.blogspot.com/2019/09/squatting-review-of-yard-exchange.html.


Maurizio Catalan’s Comedian was offered for sale by the art gallery Perrotin at Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2019. +