$mall Change: Testing a barter economy

Small Change installation shot
Artist Rebecca Chernow (center) shares her work with Henry guests. Photo credit: Dan Bennett

This post is written by Rebecca Chernow, exhibiting artist in the Test Site and UW School of Art MFA candidate.


$mall Change is a result of my curiosity in home-spun economics and the fiscal and social systems of value, worth, cost, and price that govern our lives and dictate many of the choices that are made by individuals and nations alike.

I wanted to make my own money and cut out all the middlemen, from the bosses to the bankers to the dollar and coin-makers at the Federal Reserve. I want to know if value is something innate or if it is based solely on belief and debate, and if my time can be measured out in small hand-wrought increments by asking what price my energies fetch at open market. Can a new, cohesive economic order emerge from raw material, applied skill, and open engagement?

It has taken me three months of 40+ hour weeks of performing an extremely specific process, many kilowatts of electrical energy, 400 pounds of plaster and silica, many gallons of water, 25 pounds of wax, 25 pounds of glass, and a few ounces of copper powder to mint roughly four thousand coins at the University of Washington’s ceramic and metal arts studio. The coins—called works—are made out of glass in the likeness of the American penny. Now that that portion of the project is over, the goal is to trade every last one of these works away through bartering and exchange of commodities in the Test Site at the Henry.

This is an open call for all interested participants to trade anything handmade, ready-made, perishable, or pocket-size with me until I run out of works to traffic with. The project cannot be fully realized without the willing involvement of strangers with candy, hats, shirts, artworks, knick-knacks, etc., along with an interest to barter and bargain in the name of reciprocity and exchange. All items will be displayed with their ultimate price in the Henry Test Site for the first three weeks of the exhibition. During the final week all items will be available to the public in exchange for a suggested nominal donation to benefit the Henry.

My economy has emerged from disparate bits and volumes of resources, and so too will it disperse through the hands of every person who wishes to buy into this micro-market. There is not much time and very few limitations on this process, so please don’t be shy.

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