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Public art project 'Tender' explores the vulnerability of our economy and bodies

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

If you're someone who still uses cash, maybe you've noticed a penny or two that are a little different. They're inscribed along the edge. The pennies are part of a public art project called "Tender" by New York artist Jill Magid. The idea is to explore the vulnerability of both our economy and our bodies over the past two years. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco explains.

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: Brooklyn's Dime Savings Bank was once a cathedral of capitalism. Now it's empty, ravaged, but for a short time, it hosted Jill Magid's silent film. Eight musicians played the score. The film is a provocative set of images juxtaposing the refrigerated trucks that, during the pandemic, were filled with bodies with Brink's trucks filled with pennies. Magid inscribed her pennies with the phrase, the body was already so fragile. She took it from an article using the body as a metaphor to explain how sick the economy was in 2020.

JILL MAGID: And in that way, I was thinking of the human body but also the government body, financial bodies and our own fragility.

VANASCO: Eventually, Magid distributed 120,000 pennies in 2020. Those pennies circulate through our economy like the virus circulates - through contact. The film focuses closely on people's hands as they pass pennies from clerk to customer. It's both frightening and intimate - highlighting both how we're vulnerable to each other, but also how much we need each other. The idea behind having a physical experience, a gathering, was to allow people to reflect on the past two years.

MAGID: You feel the music. You see the musicians. You feel the subwoofer is, like, resonating in your body. And all of us together create a whole other kind of moment that you can't really put into words, nor could you get online or any other way.

VANASCO: The coins themselves have wound up across the country. Justine Ludwig is the executive director of Creative Time, the arts organization which supported the project. She received one from a coffee shop.

JUSTINE LUDWIG: Pennies signify something very specific in society. For many people, they're good luck. If you see a penny on the ground, it's something that you usually pick up and you carry with you in your pocket. It becomes this talisman for so many.

VANASCO: This is art that, if you're lucky, you can hold in your own hands before passing along to someone else - a loved one or a stranger at a bodega. Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.