For years now, I’ve collected a peculiarly American subspecies of handbill, one which seems to bring out the obsessive best in the designers of the material. It’s been a popular subgenre for years, probably longer than I have been alive, and sits right on the border of illegality.
Friends, I am discussing the fake-bill advertising handbill, in which the size, shape, and markings of genuine American currency are imitated, with varying degrees of acuity and detail. The reason for the popularity of the device is not hard to fathom. First, as a handbill, if the fake money is casually discarded in the street, it’s very difficult for a passerby to ignore as it reposes on the sidewalk.
Second, one’s impulse is to immediately pull a bill from your wallet to compare the two works. This impulse toward comparison means that the handbill designers have the liberty of going to town on each discrete element of the design, re-imagining each part of the currency’s iconography in support of their own goals.
Here are some. Click the images to see the bill at 640 pixels wide; from there, click again to see it at 1000 pixels wide.
Additionally, refashioning currency is a recurrent meme in art as well, irresitably merging art and commerce into a reflective unity. I’ll begin with the front and back of such a bill I’ve have for about 15 years, probably the work of a zine artist who now lives in San Francisco. I also have a bill that is unquestionably by this person, but not reproducible here, as rather than employing degenerated xerox imagery on green cardstock, the bill was photocopied on to black cardstock. It’s eerie.
Occupying a middle ground is this $100 playing card:
This bill combines an unusual bluntness with the peculiar typographical choice of a kind of Olde Germanic font, probably intended to convey a message of impending fascist danger. The artist’s urgency of comittment here apparently led them to eschew both the use of color reproduction and the more customary obsessive detailing. Curiously, particularly on the back of the piece, these two tendencies come together to create a note whch bears a distinct resemblance to a Weimar Republic inflation-era mark. Personally, I suspect this to be an accident rather than an intentional reference.
I’m concluding this little show-and-tell with my two favorites in the collection. For balance, I’ll interject this remarkable born-again Christian bill between the 9-11/anti-Bush pieces. This bill is one of my older pieces, and is marked “copyright 1980(?) by Robert H. Hill.” I can’t tell if the date is 1990 or 1980. It’s entirely hand drawn, and really rewards careful scrutiny. Olive branches become loaves and fishes, “One Dollar” becomes “One Savior” and “One Way”, and so on. The hand-drawn nature of the rendering accentuates the act of creation itself as an act of faith and devotion.
The artist has also simplified the design of the bill itself, eliminating the anti-countefeiting measures such as intricate engraving and so forth. Again, this has the effect of increasing the effectiveness of the piece: there’s no way to misunderstand the simple message the artist is interested in communicating.
Finally, we come to what must be regarded as the undisputed masterwork among the collection. It’s so incredibly detailed, so carefully printed, that a doubletake is almost always required to really grasp what it is you’re looking at. The publishers of the work undoubtedly realized this, and upsized the bill from a standard U. S. currency size by about 20%. This is not reflected in these thumbnails, but if you check out the large images, you can see the sizing difference there.
The bill itself is festooned with URLs, none of which I’ve checked out, and it picks up the thread of the N30 bill and runs with it. In fact, it runs to the ends of the earth, to the moon, and back. It’s by far the most obsessively detailed phony bill I’ve ever seen.
Where Robert H. Hill’s simple message was enhanced by a stripped-down presentation, the 9-11 artist’s work is interested in conveying the idea of a sinister, complex world of interlocking interests, cynically exploiting the events of that terrible day to move their international corporate agenda forward. The design of the bill reflects this in every detail, from the spiderwebs in the corners of the front of the bill to the hidden corporate logos that appear throughout the surface of the detailed engraving.
Having a hard time spotting them? Here’s a couple. On the back of the bill, to the left and the right of the circular seals, a leafy decorative element curls up and over the thin white rule separating the central cartouche of the design from the border. Click into the very largest view of the bill, which will be 1250 pixels wide. Look in the center of that curling foliage. It’s the Gulf Oil logo!
Now look in the lower border band, still on the back. Look directly to the left and also above the large word “ONE”. In order, from left to above the white band, moving clockwse, we see: “HALLIBURTON”, the masonic order symbol, the Lockheed-Martin logo, and neslting under foliage again and in the shade of an oil derrick, the ARCO logo.
On the front of the bill, the internal decorative fringe atop the central cartouche border at the bottom of the space is a repeated motif of oil derrick and oilfield pump. In the numerals “9-11” on the back of the bill, the letters “C I A” are faintly visible. This is only a sampling of the incredble amount of semi-hidden material visible on the bill.
Clearly, the objective is to provide a kind of miniature training ground for the sort of perceptual experience the designers and publishers of the bill hope that people will have upon encountering it, the experience of looking around at the world and forever seeing new and sinister patterns. Whatever your opinion of the world-view expressed in the bill, it’s a tour-de-force of this particular school of design.