I Became a Millionaire for 10 Minutes, Thanks to Jonathan Schipper

If asked, “What would you do with one million dollars cash?” an unlikely response would be, “I’d put it in a suitcase and walk around an art fair for 10 minutes”—but, when the opportunity to do just that arose, I jumped at it. That’s right, for 10 minutes at The Armory Show, I was a millionaire—and you can be too.

  • Jonathan Schipper, Million Dollar Walk (2015) at Pierogi Gallery, The Armory Show 2015. Photo by Christophe Tedjasukmana for Artsy.

Fairgoers who wander by Brooklyn-based Pierogi Gallery’s booth will stop in their tracks by Andrew Ohanesian’s slot machines that foreground the booth and the John O’Connor word drawings that line the walls, but the booth’s real prize, quite literally, is an armored suitcase filled with one million dollars in cash. This is the physical component of Jonathan Schipper’s performative, interactive work, Million Dollar Walk (2015). This Friday, Armory Show visitors are welcome to sign up to walk around Pier 94 with the suitcase handcuffed to their wrists for 10 minutes, accompanied by a guard. 

I arrive at the booth early and Joe Amrhein, one part of the emphatic and affable couple behind Pierogi, tells me the piece “is coming.” Due to the latest east coast snowstorm, I find out that Schipper is stuck in Texas where he’s been working on a new installation—but the show must go on. Minutes later Amrhein’s counterpart, Susan Swenson, arrives with Keith Sirchio, a photographer friend of the artist who is the million’s guardian for the duration for the performance—and soon, my compatriot during a grueling walk around the fair. He uncuffs himself from the giant silver suitcase, places it on a low table, and opens it; we behold one million dollars cash in neat stacks, vacuum-packed in plastic. He shuts it and Amrhein pins a hand-drawn sign to the wall; soon I’m signing my name and leaving a thumbprint, along with my photo ID. I ask if there’s a specific route around the fair that we must take and I’m told there isn’t, but that we must avoid the exits

  • Jonathan Schipper, Million Dollar Walk (2015) at Pierogi Gallery, The Armory Show 2015. Photo by Christophe Tedjasukmana for Artsy.

I pick up the suitcase and, while I was warned, I’m shocked at its physical weight. This burden dictates my trajectory around the fair and quickly I’m holding it with both hands, lugging it along as I go for a loop through the north side of the pier. I’m immediately embarrassed and avoid eye contact with onlookers, and I take to asking Keith questions—about himself, whether he’s being paid (he is), and remarking that it really wouldn’t be too difficult to make a run for it. I learn that he’s been given very little instruction and that fair security has been made aware of the project; I’m being watched. I (barely) make it back to the booth and I’m greeted by Amrhein, Swenson, and a handful of new fairgoers who take interest. A burly man is quickly taken by the prospect and signs up to go next. 

  • Jonathan Schipper, Million Dollar Walk (2015) at Pierogi Gallery, The Armory Show 2015. Photo by Christophe Tedjasukmana for Artsy.

When asked about the motivations behind the work, Schipper (who’s still waiting at the airport at the time) explains via text: “Art fairs are meeting points of art and money. I have noticed most articles about them seem to talk about the money first and art second. The show is made for people with money. I wanted to even the playing field, if only for 10 minutes per person.” It’s for this reason that the work is happening during public viewing hours, rather than during the VIP preview—which draws an audience that, frankly, is likely to be unfazed by the million dollar sum. The work was performed once before, Swenson tells me, in Abu Dhabi with Jennifer and Kevin McCoy: “They said that the people ‘…were unimpressed, their watches were worth more money.’”

Schipper is perhaps best known for his car crash installation, The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle (2007-09), in which two actual cars are propelled into a collision over such a long period of time that their movement is barely noticeable to the eye. Pierogi’s relationship with the artist dates back to 2005, but the couple first discovered him around the time of the artist’s Skowhegan residence; Swenson and Amrhein have found several artists through their friendship with artist Fred Tomaselli, who is a professor there. At their Williamsburg gallery and nearby project space, The Boiler, they’ve hosted several ambitious Schipper works, from the iconic car crash to several participatory works, including Detritus (2013), which filled The Boiler’s space with two tons of salt, a robotic mechanism that created sculptures from it, and a hot tub where visitors could take a dip and watch.

  • Jonathan Schipper, Million Dollar Walk (2015) at Pierogi Gallery, The Armory Show 2015. Photo by Christophe Tedjasukmana for Artsy.

You’re probably thinking, “Where did the million come from?” It technically belongs to Schipper. Skilled at fabrication techniques, the artist realized he had the tools and materials to create extremely effective iPhone cases (Swenson and Amrhein swear by them), so he started a side business. The million is borrowed from that side business for the duration of the performance. 

Million Dollar Walk was initially only planned to take place yesterday, but given the artist’s travel predicaments it was extended to take place for a second day—running through Friday, with Schipper (hopefully) present. It turns out the snowstorm was a blessing in disguise: now even more individuals will be able to experience what it’s like to be a millionaire. 

  • Jonathan Schipper, Million Dollar Walk (2015) at Pierogi Gallery, The Armory Show 2015. Photo by Christophe Tedjasukmana for Artsy.

Casey Lesser 

Explore The Armory Show 2015 on Artsy.

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