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Smashing Pennies to Protest Industrial Capitalism

After 10 years in the making, two Pittsburgh artists have created a penny machine that spits out coins with designs of endangered animals.

Mexican Grizzly Bear Fauna pressed penny, design by Shaun Slifer (all images courtesy of the artists)

The fact that defaced currency (and the act of defacing it) has become associated with American tourist traps and other environments of manufactured fun is among the many miracles of late capitalism. For a mere 51¢ (usually), the ubiquitous penny machine allows users to transform pocket change into a commemoration of their own passage through time and space. Once created primarily by hijacking the force of bypassing trains, the smashed penny — or elongated, to numismatists and other serious folk — is now a relatively commonplace form of souvenir kitsch.

Early pressed penny by Shaun Slifer and Stuart Anderson

For roughly the past 10 years, Pittsburgh-based artists Stuart Anderson and Shaun Slifer have been devising a far more punk rock penny machine: Fauna. Finding common ground in their desire to work against dominant progress narratives, the pair have subverted the standard penny machine to invite ideological questions about the nature of industry, memory, and ecological destruction and adaptation.

Described by its progenitors as an “interactive kinetic sculpture,” the third and most current iteration of Fauna is a functional, built-from-scratch machine that presses two-sided pennies via a crank mechanism (a handsome ship’s wheel). For one side of the coin, users choose from nine either extinct or critically endangered animals, like the jaguar, red wolf, or passenger pigeon. Available for the flip side are nine sets of tracks, each representing a species of adapted urban wildlife, such as coyotes, raccoons, and groundhogs — what Anderson and Slifer referred to as “faunal weeds” in a recent telephone interview.

Computer modeling of Fauna

“This is currency that’s mutilated in the service of some sort of memory,” Slifer said. “Using the machine becomes an experience, and the pennies you render with [it] suggest ideas.” How, for example, have industrialized, built environments (and, symbolically, the coinage/capital behind them) been predicated upon the eradication of certain species? To what extent does souvenir culture encourage or reinforce a salvage ethos? Does buying or making a souvenir mean you care?

Caribbean Monk Seal Fauna pressed penny, design by Katie Kaplan

In her book The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, Celeste Olalquiaga positions the unprecedented subordination of nature in the 1800s as critical to the birth of kitsch and souvenir culture. She writes, “the downfall of the natural order triggered an immediate longing for and glorification of what was lost.”

From a certain angle, then, Fauna bookends Olalquiaga’s premise on the other side of modernity. Anderson and Slifer have hacked a cheesy contemporary offshoot of kitsch to draw attention to how certain wildlife has fared so far under industrial capitalism — and how decimation and survival can be considered two sides of the same coin, as it were.

The initial concept for Fauna came from Slifer, who has collected souvenir elongated pennies for years. The project became reality by way of Anderson’s considerable mechanical abilities — constructing a hand-powered machine capable of repeatedly, accurately reproducing 81 possible image combinations, on metal, is no small task. Since the pair first met in 2003, Anderson has received his PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon, driven, he writes on his website, by an overarching fascination with the “turbulent boundaries between formal models and natural systems.” For Fauna, he innovated a set of two die carriages (modeled on the standard industrial rolling mill), each bearing three wheels of three designs each.

Fauna die carriages

Though the 18 image options are original designs that Slifer solicited from fellow members of the Justseeds activist arts collective, Fauna is not intended to be shown at galleries. Instead, Slifer and Anderson hope to place the work within its “natural” setting of zoos and natural history museums — places “where people are already interacting with animals, either live or taxidermied,” Slifer said.

Find Fauna pennies and keep up to date with the project here.

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