Ruin Your Pennies While You Still Can
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Ruin Your Pennies While You Still Can

The Gladstone Hotel is offering “truly affordable works of art” for sale in their front lobby. For $2.01—two dollars for the art plus one sacrificial penny—you can choose from four different designs by Canadian artists Douglas Coupland, Marian Bantjes, Burton Kramer, and Paul Butler.
A hand-crank machine, called Pennysmash, takes your penny, flattens it, and uses the ruined coin as the medium for a miniature metal artwork. Yes, just like the kitschy gimmicks of tourist stops. It’s your actual penny, too, not a blank.

Pennysmash is the idea of Motherbrand, a semi-mysterious organization that seems to employ a rather unforgivable “under construction” online presence and enigmatic intentions to build a compelling identity. What is operable on Motherbrand’s site is an invitation to visit three of their projects; the Canadian Design Resource, a compilation of design from across the spectrums of both time and media; the Souvenir Shop, “a unique retail experience exploring the social and cultural function of souvenirs,” whose site is also under construction; and lastly Cabin, a design show that toured from 2003 to 2005, showcasing Canadian design that challenged the traditional icons of the Canadian wilderness and the place they hold in our national consciousness.
While exactly who Motherbrand is and what their motives are in the grand scheme remains fairly unclear (is the altruistic promotion of Canadian design really plausible?) Pennysmash is simultaneously art and simple fun, and the designs touch on nerves of our national identity.
Kramer’s Support the Right to Arm Bears is playful and hints at deeper issues of the second-amendment rights of our neighbours to the south.
Bantjes’s design features only the word Empathy. In a post last month to her website, she writes:

Todd Falkowsky of Motherbrand in Toronto approached me to design a … a … well, see, there’s this machine that squishes pennies, just like we used to do on the railroad tracks when we were kids (only it’s safer) and it has the ability to impress a new image into the penny, turning the penny into an oval copper thing. (…) I just liked the idea of squishing pennies … though, isn’t there a law against this? Doesn’t it come under “defacing the queen” or something?

Yes, there is a law against this. The Canadian Currency Act states, “No person shall, except in accordance with a licence granted by the Minister, melt down, break up or use otherwise than as currency any coin that is current and legal tender in Canada.”
It’s Coupland’s piece, however, that opens up the most interesting area of discourse. His text-only design reads “Governments want you to destroy money. Every penny destroyed is money they no longer have to account for.” This paranoid and most likely tongue-in-cheek statement makes the medium of the artwork part of the concept. It also involves the audience in a way that positions them as active destroyers of money and therefore co-creators of the art.
Destroying pennies may be illegal, and it may also be fun, but it carries a significance that many may be unaware of. The future is uncertain for the Canadian penny.
The Royal Canadian Mint, flirting with the idea of decommissioning the penny, released a study in 2007 considering The Future of the Penny in Canada [PDF]. The study surveyed Canadians sixteen years and older and reports “Small Retailers 3 to 1 in favour—63% in favour of removal, versus 19% against. Consumers more evenly split—42% in favour, versus 33% against—but one quarter neutral.” Surprisingly, it found “younger age groups more opposed to penny removal.” Not so surprisingly, 64% of respondents agreed with the statement “I wouldn’t go down the back of the sofa if I dropped a penny while watching TV.”
Among the ten most popular, and highly endearing, reasons given against the removal from consumers were: “Prices will go up/things cost more,” “Part of our heritage, sentimental,” and, simply, “Like the penny.” The ultimate recommendations of the study are unclear, but it does end with a section ominously titled “Managing the Penny Removal.”
Whether or not anyone will think about all of this when squeezing their least valuable coin through a printing press is questionable but certainly not necessary. Part of the proceeds go to charity, the result is a pocket-sized work of art, and you get to squish something, which is oddly rewarding.
Photos by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.