Art project lights up Chinese-US currency war | Lifestyle.INQ

Art project lights up Chinese-US currency war

NEW YORK — Jonathon Keats finds the Chinese-US currency war electrifying — literally.

Fascinated by the virtual nature of modern finance and currency swings, the California-based artist decided to meditate on monetary instability by exploring different physical characteristics of competing coins.

The result is the “Electrochemical Currency Exchange Co,” an exhibition that opened Thursday and runs through the end of next week under New York’s famous Rockefeller Plaza, named for American tycoon John D. Rockefeller.

Mimicking, or perhaps mocking, the mechanics of international currency trading, Keats pits virtually worthless US and Chinese coins against each other so that they produce electricity — “electro-chemical arbitrage,” in Keats’s words.

The science is basic. An American cent is copper coated, while a Chinese fen is aluminum. Place the two in saltwater, link them, and the different metals begin to exchange ions, creating electric current.

By stringing a whole lot of coins in dishes of salt water, Keats can generate enough juice to power three small calculators.

The science may be straightforward, but Keats, whose previous projects include ballet for honeybees and cinema for plants, has zany — and serious — intentions.

Grandly calling the three machines that run on penny-fen ions a “currency exchange and data processing center,” he invites members of the public to crunch financial sums and reflect on the slippery meaning of monetary value.

“I wanted to put my money to work. It didn’t seem to be doing anything for me,” said Keats, 40, in a mad inventor outfit of corduroy suit, bow tie and surgical gloves.

“Processing data seemed like the most appropriate thing to do. Money is data at this stage in history. Coins are almost obsolete, notes too. This is a kind of purification process where we take the old money and take data out of it.”

One of the first to avail themselves was filmmaker Josephine Decker, 31, looking to calculate 2.5 percent of $250,000. That’s the amount a lawyer is demanding from the budget on her next movie.

“It was only something around $6,000,” she said, pleasantly surprised after checking the currency-powered calculator screen. “That wasn’t bad. I’ve been trying to get the budget down.”

Keats certainly kept his budget down for the “Electrochemical Currency Exchange Co” exhibit. He estimates that materials cost less than a dozen dollars, most of this going on the three calculators — Chinese-made, naturally.

Neither is the 20 Rockefeller Plaza gallery quite as fancy as the address suggests.

To enter, visitors must descend from the glamorous street level into a harshly lit basement corridor, near a subway station entrance. Here they find the “gallery” is actually a tiny alcove that formerly housed a drinking fountain before being colonized by local artists for guerrilla exhibitions.

“It’s the antithesis of the typical gallery,” organizer Zefrey Throwell said of the improbable, cupboard-sized space, which bears the title Engineers Office Gallery.

“When we started having shows here, the janitors would throw it away. We’d have another. Then after about three years they started to throw less away.”

The no-nonsense maintenance men inhabiting the concrete bowels of the central Manhattan building actually seemed cheered up by the scientific art piece.

“It’s a great idea!” enthused a passing chief deputy engineer. Casting an eye over the rather shaky electrical output from Keats’ contraption, he suggested using larger dishes of seawater to ensure better immersion of the coins. “I don’t want to criticize,” he added respectfully.

As befits a player on international money markets, Keats is ambitious. On May 16th he’ll open an “Asian bureau” in Hong Kong.

“In Hong Kong the exchange will be between Chinese Fen and Hong Kong cents. Data processing services will be available in English, Mandarin and Cantonese,” promised Keats.

Keats’s seawater comes from the Pacific, the pennies from loose change. Ironically, the sharpest operator in the offbeat currency game is probably the Utah dealer who sold Keats a roll of Chinese fen.

A fen’s worth about 0.6 percent of on US cent. Keats had to pay $4.50 for his roll.

“If you do the calculations, you’ll realize the dealer made quite a handsome profit,” Keats said.