An art collective made paintings from the medical bills of several Americans—and then sold them off to erase their combined $73,360 worth of debt.
MSCHF, the Brooklyn-based group of artists and designers who previously cut up a Damien Hirst print and sold off the pieces, painstakingly recreated three peoples’ medical invoices as large scale paintings, down to every line item, such as $4940.25 for a CT scan, $116 for urinalysis.
Each artworks was then sold at a price equal to the amount of each individual’s debt. The profits went back to the medical bill owners in full.
“The process of making art in the gallery ecosystem is the process of creating value,” the project’s description reads. “By making a bill into a painting, MSCHF sets two monetary forces equal and opposite one another, thereby nullifying the bill.”
In typical MSCHF fashion, the artwork toes the line between petty pasquinade and clever institutional critique. In this case, that balance is struck between a kind of Robin Hood do-goodism and a satire of the commercial art industrial complex.
“In our minds it is a combination of both,” MSCHF Kevin Wiesner tells Artnet News. “The vehicle is art, the public act is activism and the debt alleviation is direct action. It’s not a send-up of the gallery system as much as it is simply a recognition that the gallery-collector pipeline is what it is: a sales funnel.”
“We’re not necessarily critiquing this,” he continues, “but we are certainly acknowledging it, and then putting it to work for us. MSCHF’s practice as an art group is really rooted in identifying and exploiting systems in unorthodox ways.”
Earlier this year, the group placed an ad in its eponymous magazine seeking Americans with excessive medical debt. The response was substantial, Wiesner says, noting that—given the makeup of the MSCHF audience—many submissions came from high-school and college-age people. “Honestly it felt like being punched in the stomach to read our emails,” he says.
After prioritizing respondents with debt resulting from accident and illness, the group picked three bills at random.
The resulting paintings were intended to go on display in a gallery on New York’s Lower East Side—an effort to situate the project in the same system it lampoons. But the lockdown prevented that. For now, the works are currently installed in an exhibition space owned by Otis, an art investment platform which is not currently open to the public.
In addition to the Hirst project, which netted over $300,000, the collective has previously auctioned off a laptop infected with a half-dozen of the world’s most dangerous computer viruses. It sold for $1.3 million.