Graphic Design Professor Tim Guthrie makes politically engaging work about alternative histories and speculative futures.
Images courtesy the artist
A graphic design professor at Omaha's Creighton University put his professional art practice on hold for an unlikely reason: to print socially conscious messages on dollar bills and airsickness bags. Designer Tim Guthrie often creates works that questions manipulated world views, but recently he's turned his attention to hijacking everyday paper goods to express his revulsion with political circumstances related to the Koch brothers and Donald Trump.
A few years ago Guthrie started The Museum of Alternative History (MOAH), a series of exhibitions and publications in reaction to legislation that allowed for revisions to be made to public school textbooks. "Some school boards want Intelligent Design to be taught as, or alongside, science. Even though 98 to 99 percent of scientists agree climate change is real and caused at least in part by man, some educators want 50 percent of the argument to come from climate skeptics. They want science to be taught as 'just a theory,'" says a statement on the project's website.
The MOAH project was put on hold when personal circumstances required him to focus on full time domestic caregiving. Guthrie tells Creators he decided to focus his energy on more socially engaged projects he could do on the side. "During that time, the main work that I was able to do was small mass-produced projects like stamping the Koch Cash or screen printing the barf bags," explains Guthrie.
Rather than rewriting history, Guthrie's Koch Cash project speculates on a potential future in which the vast financial contributions made by the famously conservative Koch brothers results in their faces replacing those of former Presidents on dollar bills. Guthrie says the Koch Cash project started in protest of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which allows for the Koch brothers to spend up to $900 million of their own money on upcoming elections. "I just created some stamps, and I stamp maybe a hundred, or so, at a time. I just do it when I have some spare time. Spending the cash and posting images online probably takes up as much time as stamping the bills," Guthrie says.
Koch Cash is distributed when Guthrie uses the modified money to pay for everyday expenses, like coffee or lunch. And despite the changes Guthrie makes, he says Koch Cash is still legal tender that can be used by the recipients like any other currency. "I've done a lot of research, and what I'm doing is legal," he explains.
Using the money often prompts social interactions that allow Guthrie to talk about the political issues on which the project is based. "Some people ask who it is on the bill, and I always say something like, 'It's one of the Koch brothers. They publicly stated they wanted to spend nearly a billion dollars on elections.' Most people laugh and look at the bills up close," says Guthrie. These interactions sometimes end up taking the bills out of circulation, however. "Often, if baristas or waiters notice the bills, they exchange the cash on the spot with their tips because they want to keep the bills for themselves."
Along with dollar bills, Guthrie prints airsickness bags that he then places in the seatback pockets on airplanes. Instead of stamping the bags, the imagery is screen printed, and instead of the Koch brothers, Guthrie prints Donald Trump's face on the bags with the hashtag #MakeAmericaBarfAgain, so that travelers can share pictures of the bags on social media. And if Guthrie's "barf bags" seem like an adolescent prank, that's no coincidence. "After Trump got elected, I decided to mass produce them. It was just a juvenile reaction, really," says Guthrie.
Guthrie says that the "barf bag" project started before Trump was elected, when he would doodle on airsickness bags during flights, because the notion of Trump as president made him queasy. But the project became more involved after the election. "Some of my projects are intentional, well thought out, and I suppose you could say intellectual, but not so much with the barf bags. Still, I was compelled to make them," Guthrie explains.
Although Guthrie's current projects evolved from personal circumstance, they echo past work. "The first socially conscious, or politically engaged work, was actually urinal cakes that I carved the word 'WAR' into and put in government buildings leading up to the Iraq War. I put them in the restrooms of the State Supreme Court, the Governor's Mansion, Senator's office, and so on. I was also doing some work related to nuclear testing at that time," says Guthrie.
No matter what his future projects may entail, Guthrie is sure to continue to improvise. "When it comes to production, medium, or style, I tend to either abandon or adopt media or style, as necessary," Guthrie says.