The crowds rolled back, like a breakers receding into the sea, and in the ensuing silence I declared:
“Look amongst you! In thy desperation to reach the hundrednote, ye have laid waste to a thousand ones!”
And behold, they looked upon their plunder, and were ashamed.
This project that I undertook in February of 2013 was a social experiment with very interesting results. Physically, it was an ice sculpture containing half a hundred single dollar bills, but the true piece was the destruction caused by my experiment. This experiment was meant to examine the destructiveness of human greed and the way that the possibility of great gains can influence the emergence of our savage nature. The results of my experiment were fascinating, confirming some of my original predictions while upending others.
In the beginning, the sculpture took a simple, dome-like form. Visible on the surface of the sculpture is a coating of about 40 dollar bills. I told my piece’s participants that there was a grand total of 240 dollars within the sculpture, 140 singles and a single hundred-dollar bill. The participants could do whatever they wished to extract these bills from the structure, and were free to keep any currency they received.
Almost immediately after receiving these instructions, my participants fell into chaos. One member of the group bodily thrust the entirety of the sculpture from its ledge to the ground. The initial impact failed to shatter the piece, but another surprisingly skinny individual lifted the structure with a strength I would have not thought possible from his physical appearance, and cast it against the corner of the ledge. The impact successfully broke open the structure, and each participant scrambled to find a chunk from which they could extract currency.
One individual found a broken hammer that had been discarded in a gutter, and used the rejective end to pry open his chunk. Another used a cinderblock, which he rammed against several shards at once. Many simply cast their chunks against the pavement again and again. All the while, frantic participants shouted to one another, attempting to divine who had acquired the hundred-dollar bill. In the fray, one participant cut his hand on a shard of ice. Another accidentally stepped on another project. No one took the time to care.
There was no answer, and the frantic search continued. The possibility of earning a hundred dollar bill caused the participants to become reckless with the ones, until unusable remnants of single bills littered the ground. Over time, some participants forsook the larger chunks, instead searching the ground for damaged bills that might be salvaged and repaired.
Something I observed through this social experiment was that there was almost no deceleration of enthusiasm throughout the desperate search. The almost inhuman fervor with which the participants searched through the ruins of my ice sculpture stayed consistently high for about five minutes, then suddenly deflated, as if the fuel of the vigor had been expended. I could see shame and embarrassment in the eyes of my participants as their gazes rolled over the results of their destructive foraging. It was as if the inhuman element that allowed them to lower their self-regard and rummage through the dirt had been dispelled, and civilization had been resumed.
It was then that I revealed that there had no hundred-dollar bill, only ones. I did not receive the indignant resentment I had anticipated, just a dull acceptance as if every participant had come to their own individual realization, and I only confirmed their doubts.
The total casualty count of the experiment was twenty-three of the forty-nine bills. Almost half of the currency had been destroyed in the search for the nonexistent hundred. A nearby art piece was also damaged in the search, perhaps the most unfortunate casualty of all. There were several injuries as well, including a hand cut from a stray ice shard. I asked all participants to raise the bills they had earned in the air for a photo, and they did so halfheartedly, as if ashamed by their plunder.
Dozens of downtrodden scraps of dollar bills remained scattered throughout the courtyard long after everyone had gone. They were only trash to them, utterly worthless, destroyed in the haste to find the hundred.