The nature of this blog is to share the process of conceptualizing and designing the (yet unnamed) Public Artwork for Delta Garden on the South Bank of the Peace Bridge. In keeping with that thought, we want to share a secret: our first idea for the Delta Garden was unsuccessful, for a whole series of logistical and social reasons. While we like the direction our current artwork has taken, as artists, we can’t help but feel some nostalgia for what could have been…
Our first Delta Garden concept was to use a paradoxically dazzling and mundane material: the Canadian Penny.
In Canada, Pennies were removed from circulation in 2013 (incidentally, the year of the Calgary Flood).The production of each penny cost approximately 1.6¢, making the coin officially worth less than the raw material. The Royal Canadian Mint says “the decision to phase out the penny was due to its excessive and rising cost of production relative to face value.” It was estimated that phasing out the penny would save Canadian taxpayers upwards of $11-million per annum. (Ironically, if we had been able to use pennies for this Public Artwork, it would have been the cheapest material we considered – by far!)
For us, the elimination of the penny brought to light a larger conversation about value, worth, materiality, flow, exchange, and economy. Canadians were reminded that money, in its most essential form, is only valuable when we collectively decide it is so. Although the penny can still be used as legal tender, it is already commonly recognized as a non-monetary object, and treated with growing symbolic and nostalgic value. Canadians allowed the penny to disappear from circulation, but it will be many decades before it disappears from common vernacular.
So, what is the relationship between pennies and the river? It it based on wordplay (current + currency)? The relationship between the flow of economic systems and river systems? Is there an analogy to be made between an exchange of copper disks and the movement of water? Is the relationship primarily visual? Or is it wishful thinking? (probably…)
In the daylight, pennie are bright, shiny, and warm, ranging in colour from dark brown to metallic orange (depending on the year of issue, the newness, and weathering). When placed in a variety of dense and sparse formations, sunlight plays off the pennies as it would off the surface of water, glittering and rippling. The night aesthetic of the coins is mutually beautiful, almost cosmic in certain lighting. We imagined he light of a sunset over water, or moonlight on the river.
In 2013 in the United States, people threw $1.2 million worth of pennies in the garbage. Many more people hoard pennies in piggy banks and between couch cushions, effectively removing them from circulation. Statistically speaking, most Calgarians probably have a small treasure trove of pennies somewhere in their living space. Imagine if we could re-direct those pennies into one place?
The social element of creating an artwork out of pennies was perhaps the main appeal. We imagined collecting pennies from Calgarians. We wanted to speak to the value of material, especially the people who value spare change: the homeless. For every 1¢ donated, we would give the material value of the penny (1.6¢) to the Drop-In Centre, spending our project budget on the people who, arguably, experience our public spaces most intensely. We would literally be asking Calgarians to invest in their City, artistically and socially, and building new relationships between various populations.
As artists working in Calgary, there was a secondary conversation we hoped to have: we wanted to speak to the value of art in public space, especially the 1% for Public Art. Currently, 1¢ out of every dollar invested in large Capital Projects (ie. roads, bridges, interchanges, etc) is set aside to fund Calgary Public Artworks. While these cents amount to very little spread around in pockets all over the city, their cumulative aesthetic effect could be gigantic, and the artwork itself would become a visual icon for that impact.
… of course, realistically, there would have been some pretty significant backlash against this artwork (we can see the headlines in the Calgary Sun now! “Calgary Artists Pave the Streets in Gold!”) Additionally, copper is a fairly volatile material, and would have tarnished quickly. The Royal Canadian Mint would have needed to approve the artwork (we e-mailed them. They said to “contact the Department of Finance” – ha!) We would have needed to braise hooks to each penny to embed them in the pavement. Vandals would inevitably dig up the pennies, hoping to spend them elsewhere. The whole thing, while optimistic in nature, might backfire in traditional Calgary-style, becoming another public artwork damning Calgary Public Art to perpetual City Council review for ever, and ever, and ever…
And so we ditched this idea, moving laterally into a more focused line of research: the Bow River System.
(Still, if you look closely, there are similarities between our current Delta Garden artwork design and our original penny pattern. We still love the glimmer of light off water, the warmth of coppery/brassy material… And we still daydream about building a significant artwork from Canadian pennies, just in a more experimental capacity, not as a “permanent” public piece, commissioned for Calgary as a City).