Sunday, April 4, 2010

What We Want Is Free, or is it?

Published in 2005 by State University of New York Press

Five years ago, when the book What We Want is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art was published, its goal by the editor Ted Purves was to start a conversation about particular practices that began emerging in the late 90s; the act of giving, or gifting that began disrupting the cult of commodity that had dominated the art world for-almost-ever. Having come across this book now, in 2010, the material is not dated at all. The continued move by many artists to explore the ideas in this book continue to expand into even more defined practices. However, one irony that I found was that the cover price for this thin hardback was $50.

Artists have been dabbling in alternate ways to interact or engage with their audience, but the somewhat lofty notions of a roving audience that was eager for a chance to eat for free or get a free poster was in some ways a fantasy that was never realized in the same way that the artists dreamed. Not to dismiss the success or ambition by any projects like this, but there is an expectation that people will want something, and be grateful when they get it. I recall stories of one of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996) works that was at the American Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007; the series of stacked posters that were free to roll up and take with you. Patrons who had rolled them up and had them sticking out of backpacks and back pockets like cumbersome fishing poles were either asked to not bring them into other pavilions because they might harm the works by accident, or they simply got tired of carrying them around. People that I talked to said that it was kind of funny to see them littered around the Biennale grounds, or stuffed into garbage cans haphazardly.

I mention this because there seems to be a difference in the intention of the artists, and the outcome that is a result of a kind of naive artist ego; where they never meet expectations. This being said, there are some projects that do truly connect and fulfill the hopes that the artists had when they began to dream them up. Mary Jane Jacob, former cheif curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the MOCA in Los Angeles, starts the book off with the essay 'Reciprocal Generosity' that truly addresses many of my concerns when thinking about generosity as a mode of operating in the art world. For her starting point–once getting beyond some of the historical trend setters in the field, going as far back as the early 70s with artists like Gordon Matta-Clark–she admits, " engagement with this concept is a critique of the arts institution's relationship to its audience." If, as I would assume we all agree, that an arts institution–and more than that of a school, but rather that of a museum–operates from a position of privilege and power, Jacobs recognizes the essential equation that must be negotiated. If these privileged institutions,"'Charged with giving, the receiver–their audiences–is seen as being in need, lacking, or deficient," than what Jacobs so perfectly acknowledged is that for the act of generosity to perhaps be most successful, it must enter into public space and away from an institutional setting that constructs scarcity. Later in the book, what I see to be the most inventive works by the many artists that this book covers take place in the most non-art environments imaginable, giving the works the greatest chance at having an impact and living up to the concept of generosity.

Other essays really dial in a deeper critical engagement with the concepts of exchange and generosity. The idea of surplus and the construction of scarcity get addressed by Kate Fowle and Lars Bang Larsen. Tackling the notion of public space by unpacking the planning codes in San Francisco–which implement mandatory public space–is revealed to be what is described as 'institutionalized generosity.' Now, in the past few years after San Francisco re-fashioned Union Square–once an epi-center for assembly, where such legendary anarchist voices in labor and immigrant rights movements like Emma Goldman spoke to crowds–Union Square has been turned into a corporate staging grounds. On any given day if you try and cut through the square, or attempt to go have lunch and people watch, you are confronted by steel barricades at all entry points as teams of workers take down or put up massive climate controlled tents for corporate pow-wows. The 'institutionalized generosity' that is spoken of in this section of the book is directed at individual entities like the CNET building, which even though it is open to the public, it is still controlled by access and surveillance. The 'exchange' of space here is far from free. The farther we get from the urban center, we start to see that darlings of the 'relational aesthetics' brood like Rirkrit Tiravanija and his free curry lunches provided at Jack Hanley gallery back in the day get eclipsed by larger projects like THE LAND (1998-ongoing), where Tiravanija along with the collective Superflex and many local artists in Thailand initiated a project that developed artist residencies and also a kind of free open space where people could come and live, experiment and work the rice fields (this was not mentioned in the book.)

Jens Hanning Foreigners Free

In the second half of the book we are introduced to dozens of amazing artist projects that take on different facets of generosity and exchange. A favorite of mine was Danish artist Jens Haaning and his work FOREIGNERS FREE (1997-2001), where he simply placed text at the window of the museums that had invited him, reading-Foreigners Free, allowing any individual who was not a local in the country in question free admittance.

Michael Swaine Reap What You Sew

Other great projects that utilized the urban terrain were Michael Swaine's REAP WHAT YOU SEW (2002), where the artist walked the streets of San Francisco's Tenderloin district with a cart that had a sewing machine, offering to mend the clothes of anyone that needed his service. I was privileged enough to have seen Michael on many occasions doing this, and the way this work transformed the people on the streets was remarkable. Small crowds would hang out, socializing and having a moment that would brighten their day. Occasionally, I hear that Michael still rolls out his cart when he feels the need to. Jon Rubin, who is mentioned more then once in the book, has done such amazing works like The Hillman City FREEmobile in 2003, where a modified ice cream truck, of which Jon did all the modifications himself, was tricked out and offered to the community of a residential neighborhood in Seattle for the summer. Individuals, groups and families used the truck to distribute free goods and services to their fellow community members. Everything from homemade candle giveaways, free bicycle repair and line-dancing lessons were given out that summer. Jon Rubin is also the founder of the now legendary, but defunct Independent School of Art (ISA) which was a free art school started in San Francisco after an ambivalent stint as a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute. He now teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

Jon Rubin The Hillman City FREEmobile

New practices have emerged in the years after this book came out, and new projects have been inspired by some classic works, like Joseph Beuys 700 Oaks project at Documenta 7 in 1982, where the process or sowing oak trees continues till this day under the auspices of the FIU (Free International University). Artist Pedro Reyes developed the project PARA POR PISTOLAS (Guns for Spades) in 2007, where, through a campaign of television commercials and public outreach, had members of one of the most gun totting communities in Mexico trade in guns for credit at local businesses for food or appliances. The guns were then crushed, melted down and turned into shovels at a local fabrication site, then distributed all over the city so that school children could plant trees with them. The project was, more than just steeped in an inventive strategy of exchange, but also became a kind of artist initiated alchemy. In the post-relational aesthetics art world, almost like the art worlds own little Post-Fordist moment, many artists are now involved in what is being called 'service-aesthetics', " the Whitney Biennial in New York [...] artist Bert Rodriguez presented In the Beginning . . . , 2008. The piece consisted of a simulacrum of a generic psychologist’s office—complete with de rigueur stuffed leather chairs and potted plant—in which the artist (although he is not a trained therapist) held forty-five-minute personal consultations."*

Exchange is now becoming an activity that, although still largely run by gallerist bloated events like Art Basel in Miami, or by auction houses all over Europe and Asia (Hong Kong is home to a new branch of Sotheby's which is becoming a huge player in the art market in Asia of the works of artists from the west) – yet the work covered in this book, as well as the other works I have mentioned, are harder to weave into the traditional methods of economic exchange embedded in the art worlds mechanisms. There are still ways that these artists mentioned above make money, but they survive more so off of grants, and funds earned through becoming educators as well as getting involved in social concerns in a variety of locales. The idea of the artist as commodity maker is starting to fade as we move into the twenty-first century, and as far as I am concerned, this has been a long time coming.

Stay tuned to this blog for my look at the published exhibition series CHARLEY by curators Massimiliano Gioni, Ali Subotnick and artist Maurizio Cattelan.

*From the Steven Henry Madoff article on Personal Transactions in Art, September 2008 issue of ARTFORUM.



  1. What an informative, compelling subject about which to write and review.

    For me, there is probably no more fascinating concept than the "giving and getting" of art..."Art As A Service", so to speak.

    One example popped into my mind...decades ago, my husband & I were driving through a small town in NorCal. There was a telephone pole along the roadside at the edge of a filed of tomatoes. Strapped around the pole and lavishly stuffed with hay was a large-sized brassiere, a pink, lacy affair with a mint-green bow sewn between the bra cups.

    I will never forget that piece of self-expression, there on a pole in the middle of nowhere.

    Thank you, Violet, for sharing your review of "What We Want is Free." Much appreciated!

  2. I also want to add that this post is SO bring the spiritual gesture of GIVING, meeting the individual expression of ART...I cannot think of a greater service to enrich the soul(s) of humanity.

  3. It is so funny violet, because I just got that book (it was a very late christmas present) on Friday, right when Ted Purves told the 2nd year MAs that he is interested in participating in our panel. So, I'm really happy that you had a chance to review the book.

    I definitely agree that the idea of artist as commodity maker is changing (especially in our time of economic uncertainty), but I unfortunately doubt that it will ever truly go away. As you mentioned, Sotheby's having a new office in Hong Kong, as well as a the continual trend of galleries selling incredibly expensive artworks is cause for us to know that the market will dictate a lot of the art that is continued to be pursued. However, it is interesting that at the time you wrote this review, the major museums in NYC have performance shows, and are more about the interaction than about the physical piece. It seems to all be wrapped up together.

    Also, there is a great article in the new york observer about the bullshit artists that are coming out of the woodwork. see it here: