Manifesting the Inner Wirings of our Souls Through Art, Money & Internet with Travis Purrington
In his 2011 master’s thesis for the Basel School of Design, Travis Purrington designed new banknotes for the United States. The online press took notice, and the idea went viral. Gizmodo called the notes better than the current banknotes, and Mashable suggested the nation make the change to Purrington’s designs. In Slate, the new designs were called a hit. The new notes decorated Tumblr pages when they were released.
Purrington believes the change won’t happen, citing the fact that the current American banknotes have barely evolved over two centuries. The designs are, in part, all about “being able to look at ourselves as human beings outside of ourselves on a very large scale.”
This humanistic and secular take on US banknotes is rooted in the scientific outlook and based in the human capacity to reason. The mix of images, past and present, which decorate the banknotes reflect this. For instance, the $5 banknote shows a human neural network. “This currency is upheld by the integrity of its people,” read the notes. On all of the notes, a braille numeral is printed in raised dots on the bottom right corner.
“Putting people on money deifies them,” Purrington said at the time his USD proposal was in the spotlight. “You can’t take the presidents off the money because they’re gods.” On Purrington’s $5 note there is no Abraham, but, rather, symbols agricultural and technological progress. Whereas the current $10 bill features Alexander Hamilton, Purrington’s version demonstrates US engineering with the Sears Tower in Chicago. The gold lettering on the bill states: “Self-evident.”
Instead of Andrew Jackson, the $20 Purrington designed celebrates the “preciousness of our natural resources.” As well, the starry universe overlaid upon a crashing wave, with the gold lettering “The pursuit of.” Ansel Adams’ photograph of the Grand Tetons and the Snake River adorns Purrington’s $100 note.
Travis and I arranged for a written interview to be done in recent months, and I am just getting around to publishing it. In the following questions, Travis discusses much more than his USD proposal. He also delves into his personal philosophy and the inspirations for his artwork.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Originally from Pocatello, ID. Motivated by Visual and Audio explorations of dynamic progressive nature. Formally and personally trained in the US and Switzerland. The Avant Garde has always intrigued me. Pushing visual limits of understanding and visual communication whether as a conceptually aesthetic affair or relatable cognitive transmission.
Who are some of your favorite artists?
Among my favorite artists are El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich, Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Ryoji Ikeda, Andreas Gursky, Jared Purrington, Barnett Newman, Ralph Mcquarrie, and Zladislav Beksinski.
What got you into art and why do you feel art is important?
Well I grew up as one of 2 siblings and we are Identical twins. Our dad owned and operated a grocery store, but studied briefly at University to be a “commercial artist”. He dropped out to run the store, but drew for us on occasion to keep us engaged when we were being hyper or unruly. You could say that as twins growing up we battled fiercely for identity independence and were inclined to competitiveness. Artistic expression through drawing was one way we could both share an interest and display our own unique perspectives while simultaneously pushing each other to get better through brotherly competition and critique.
“Art” is a hard word to codify, but I think the importance of it lies in the process of creative insight, discovery and personal psychological evolution. Both creator and viewer can share in these moments, but according to fundamentally alternate contextualized experience. Art helps us advance as it manifests the inner wirings of our souls and the influence of surrounding stimuli. Art can be revealed in craftmanship, such as in a fine painting, or in perspective, the juxtaposition of ordinary “found” objects in a museum or highlighted space, or seemingly endless combinations of both. Everyone has a different inclination to what they may consider art of course, but I think the concept of art helps us answer fundamental personal questions concerning the quality and nature of our human interests and inquiries.
How has the Internet changed art?
Much in the same way the Internet has changed everything it touches. Without question, it has exponentially enhanced the distribution of images. 150 years ago scarcely a photograph existed on the earth. Today we can look through thousands a day without batting an eye. Self-publishing is a very real and very powerful tool afforded to anyone with an Internet connection. That is fantastic and scary. It has opened the avenues to experiment with interaction design and art. The art market itself moves slowly as a whole, but thrives upon dynamic nodes that acquire experimental pieces before they are financially proven.
Art collection is an art itself, which is also sped up significantly by online global connectivity. The real benefit from the Internet comes from artists being able to connect with many more viewers, much more quickly than traditional gallery/catalogue methods, but in the age of the virtual gallery and access to endless art genre databases, distinction can become aggravatingly elusive for even the best craftsman.
What inspired you about money so much to do your USD proposal?
I guess the inspiration came from the medium and the fact that paper money is, well, paper, and essentially wallet sized flyers that represent value. There are approximately 35 Billion US dollar notes being circulated in the world. That represents a significant amount of real estate to present a brand and/or message (for better or worse). To pass up an opportunity to utilize such an avenue to share relevant practical and intellectual information in lieu of elementary patriotic establishments seems unwise.
I love the term “currency” because it mimics with its title the blood of modernity and the trade wind of progress. It flows in patterns from central control points to limbs sustaining and invigorating culture, communication, livelihood, art, science, infrastructure. It moves and shapes whatever it touches. The idea of money is the greatest common abstract thought conferred throughout civilization, it is the idea of proxy and symbolism. We agree that when obtained appropriately money alchemizes stones, or metal, or shells, or whales teeth, or paper to time, energy, effort and intent. It is therefore the storage device of our combined specialized thoughts and movements. To play a hand in such a large, volatile game that helps determine the direction of coming tides in the future is worth some thought.
Why did you do the USD proposal?
Many reasons: I wanted to try my hand at designing something big and challenging, something that would be seen and questioned. Something intended to expand conventional national boundaries by sharing a particular vision of the future. I wanted to work in print, but design something of sustainable value that would not end up discarded or in a landfill, something that could transmit educational themes through modern visual composition.
In the end I tried to think about what singular piece of design could potentially enact widespread positive change…and the USD just was just an obvious choice. The US influences the spending habits of so many more economies than it’s own. I liked the idea of attempting a theoretical change by bringing the question of heuristic value back to the banknotes so many of us have taken for granted, upset the system, and give the greater population a reason to ask “why?”
The symbolism of a banknote overhaul is that it represents a widespread agreement of change or resolution, and the notes indicate potential subjects to focus strengths upon. The greatest unknown variable of this project for me was whether or not I had the skills to make a truly believable concept…It was also the most exciting prospect.
Is your USD proposal art project activism?
Surprisingly, this is the first time I’ve ever been asked this question. I noticed previously that you have picked up on details in the notes that most people miss. I’m not so sure I would call it activism as much as detailing hopes or dreaming publicly, but you could say they are based upon socio-behavioral progress so perhaps it qualifies in that regard.
That said there is one important revival concept that occurs within the project. It came about during the processing phase while I was trying to get my bearings on the direction I wanted to go originally.
I veered from concept-to-concept for several months, but from the beginning I was reluctant to depict presidents or specific personages though it was constantly requested by others in experiments. I then became aware in researching USD history that George Washington was attributed with saying that “no man, living or dead” should grace the portraiture of the US currency and cemented my stand on the matter.
This seemed wise direction from General Washington which is exactly the opposite of where we are today with the US dollar design. The opportunity to design a non- “monarchal” dollar became my focus…and I began to separate the note family into themes of principled advancement and philosophy. I also played with altering reality by inferring our central bank system could exist as a nationally owned bank instead of the privately owned Federal Reserve or changing “In God we trust” to “of God and man”.
Other details highlight areas where I envision the true value of money credited, a look at ourselves as a species from a variety of vantage points and a call to action for the aggregation of our powers to be used wisely.
A currency is designed to promote productive collaboration between it’s subscribers. I tried to update that sentiment for the 21st century while adhering to the original wishes of the founding fathers as I understood them.
How do you feel about the quote, “the love of money is the root of all evil”?
I feel it’s not the money. It’s the plan devised to obtain it…or reasoning behind its stockpiles.
Are you surprised by the response?
I would say I am that. The project was always intended to be seen and vetted, but Master Thesis projects aren’t typically thrust into the public spotlight let alone given an article in Wired or Foreign Policy magazine. Along with being surprised I am also very grateful to everyone that has written, researched, posted, shared, tagged, reblogged, liked, commented, or contacted me about the project. The community at Reddit helped it’s initial push and the design/technology blogs/magazines did the rest.
I also have to thank the New Norwegian banknote by Snøetta and The Metric System as their recent proposals helped my concept to resurface.
How is life in Switzerland?
Nice. A bit expensive, but culturally civilized and the water is clear. It’s wintertime so I spend as much time riding (skiing) in the Alps as possible (actually writing this on my way home from the mountains now).
What are your plans for now?
Interestingly enough, at the moment I am working on a magazine commission for a new British Pound banknote concept. I’m developing a limited edition “collectors” print run of the USD proposal for those interested to own their own bills (anyone interested in updates concerning this can join the mailing list at travispurrington.com) and next month I’ve been invited to visit and speak to the R&D department at De La Rue, the world’s largest banknote design and printing facility…I’m definitely excited for that.
Besides that, I’ll continue working my day job and looking for new projects (and time) to design, expand and create.
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