gift economy

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Weymouths / Day 1

This was one of those days that I’ll remember for a long while. I woke up at the Dead House feeling nervous, thinking about today’s public book encounters. I’m comfortable as a quiet observer, especially in public. Knowing that most of today would be spent gathering attention and making a spectacle of myself (however benign) made me anxious, for sure. I knew this would be difficult. At various times I thought about how I could just drop the entire thing, throw out all the books, etc.

I was due at Bev’s house to pick up her bicycle at 9 a.m. On the esplanade along the way I was spotted by Julie, an artist I’d met in London at BookLive. She’d told me that she might drive to Weymouth to get one of the books on the first day, as research for her Ph.D. dissertation on archives (“Archive as Activity”). Julie, who had slept in her car on her trip down from Sheffield, was sitting on a bench and called out to me, and we exchanged a few serendipitous screams and laughs. Was wonderful to sit with her and talk about our journeys and the excitement of being in this fantastic place, and the circumstances that brought us there. Hers was exactly the beautiful burst of energy I needed to get me going this morning.

A bit later at Bev’s house I listened to her talk about her life in Weymouth while she made us coffee. Bev is a friend of Jane’s, who features prominently in volume 1, and through this connection I was generously offered Bev’s bicycle — absolutely perfect in an old-fashioned, big-wicker-basket kind of way.

Back at the bakery, I loaded up with today’s edition (Volume 1: River / The Interviews) and made my way to the northern end of the promenade (the “prom”). I set up in front of Aunty Vi’s snack shack, right on the sea, at exactly 10:45 a.m. By 11 a.m. all of the books were gone. It happened so fast but I spoke to everyone — Olympic ambassadors, students and their teacher from Peru (several copies of volume 1 are on their way there now). A family who vowed to take one to give to a friend who would appreciate it. Someone who said they would be back every morning to collect the entire set, making me promise I would be in the same spot every day. Somehow, 20 copies were suddenly gone, just like that.

Everyone seemed genuinely interested. Enthusiastic, even. The spontaneity of each encounter fed the energy for other people who came by, and each moment rolled into the next. Was such a great feeling.

Peter, the owner of Aunty Vi’s, was the most enthusiastic. He was the first to approach me, within 30 seconds of setting up, offering me free tea and coffee and calling out to everyone passing by to go get a book because “they’re rare and you’ll be one of the twenty!” Our temporarily shared territory created a bond and I was reminded of Lewis Hyde’s “territorial gifts” (exchanging a mint with someone sitting next to you on an airplane, for example).

Later, at Phoenix Bakery, I set up the reading room for the afternoon and had visits from an Italian language club. I gave them an extra copy of volume 1 that I found, and they vowed to pass it around and share it. Fellow b-side artists Frances Scott and Niels Post and friends came by, and an Irish family who had traveled to Weymouth, MA to visit relatives there. And Joff Winterhart drew me and the books and the visitors for a good part of the afternoon.

Jane and I shared a marvelous conversation about generosity and the giving/gift part of the project. She reminded me that the connections coming out of and into this project are human. That this exchange keeps us alive.

Meanwhile, Aidan the master baker was busy making delicious things downstairs.

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Publishing outside of publishing

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to give books away.

I am a designer who sometimes creates book-related artwork. This means that I navigate different content packaging and book-making terrains, trying to make sense of what’s commonly called “publishing.”

For clients, I might advise them on how to bring a publication to market. This could be brand-related work (crafting the right message) or production-based activity (designing a book or magazine or website), or understanding new publishing platforms. I work on behalf of corporate and non-profit clients alike, but in the end it’s always cultural production (making stuff) mounted upon the commercial market (selling stuff). Even as it radically transforms itself, the publishing industry continues to match audience with message via commercial exchange (or some kind of potential for economic gain). Hence, “industry”—the production of goods.

Even when content delivery appears to be non-monetized (e.g., newsletters, blogs), the drive to justify in terms of profitability is strong. We’ve learned to define everything in terms of commodification—even attention, knowledge and personal data (eyeballs, clicks, engagement). As their audiences grow, we expect our favorite blog authors to introduce advertising or sponsorship into the delivery of their content. Writers and artists ask us to fund the creation of their work—in advance. We willingly self-publish on social media platforms that leverage our content for profit. While it can be argued that these are inevitable models of exchange in late-capitalist society, monetizing the creation and delivery of work fundamentally changes the author-audience dynamic, no matter how relevant or elegant the ask.

Our need to commodify content is a consumerist urge, a natural extension of the work of art in the mechanical age of reproduction. As the idea of browsing disappears, along with physical bookstores and all kinds of libraries, the book—as physical object or virtual data—is becoming primarily a purchased experience, a mass-produced (mass-downloadable) work without unique attributes; the purchased book is without aura.

Artist’s books are no exception. Printed Matter, one of the artist book community’s greatest institutions, operates as a retail store. Print-on-demand operations like Blurb or Lulu bring tremendous ease to book production, especially for the artist, but siphon all of our creative output through digital storefronts. Profit potential pervades, but $11,000 books aside, getting rich in self-publishing is extremely rare.

And yet this remains the default position. Screen, paper or otherwise — we sell the stuff we make. Why?

In the last few years I’ve self-published print books that I’ve displayed, exhibited and given away. They’ve never been for sale. That the work exists outside of any commercial art or publishing market isn’t easily reconciled; questions about the work’s economic value (can I buy it? how much is it?) are common. My response that the work isn’t for sale—that is, that my motivation for creating it was completely non-financial—is confusing to some, and even manages, in some contexts, to diminish the work.

It’s more challenging to define value when the work is entirely removed from its economic worth.

What if—in the transfer of book to recipient—we were free to examine other kinds of value exchange? Might it be possible to develop a viable art practice that produces book works outside of financial motivation? Are there alternative positions?

Is it possible to publish outside of publishing?

Recently, I’ve started to think about how my work might function more purely within other kinds of economic systems—mainly, the gift economy.

Last fall I exhibited a limited edition of ten printed books at a gallery at the University of North Carolina. Within a few hours of installing the piece, one of the books had disappeared. I’m not sure if it was willfully stolen or if someone misunderstood the nature of the artwork. Perhaps they thought the books were meant to be taken. My initial reaction was disappointment, of course, but I quickly recovered and began thinking about the missing book’s new life. By introducing indeterminacy into the work, the book’s disappearance subverted whatever market value it had gained while in my possession. The book “escaped.” It was out of my control; if I could release the book, instead of mourning and wishing for its return, the narrative would become richer (i.e., i could imagine that it was taken as an emotional response to the show, or that the new owner wanted to sell it, or simply make trouble, etc.). Its value was opened up, and the new owner became a kind of collaborator in my work of art, helping to extend its meaning outside of my own creative intent.

This was in itself a kind of transaction. The new owner “got” the book from me, and I got a new story, even if imagined. If it had been a cash exchange, the book would have retained its market value, and in my accepting the money, its meaning, for me, would have collapsed into the cash. Instead, the book passed into circulation and I was left with a new, changed artwork—unwillingly so, perhaps—but a new narrative: uncertain, imagined or otherwise.

This was such a revelation for me. So much so that I decided to embrace the taking (or giving) of books for my next project.

In Weymouths, a twelve-volume work commissioned by the b-side Arts Festival and funded by Arts Council England, I created a limited edition of 420 books. None will be sold. Except for a few sets that I will keep for my own records, all of them will be given away in a series of public book encounters designed to encourage a gift-giving transaction, not unlike the kind I discovered in North Carolina. By remaining in circulation, I’m hoping that the book-gifts can take on other, more ephemeral values (emotional, nostalgic, spiritual, souvenir). I won’t know exactly what these values are until the work is “performed.”

I can’t totally deny the work’s entry into a for-profit commercial market (in theory, someone could choose to sell a book that they receive from me), but I can resist this by initially setting the book into motion as a gift.

In Weymouths, the “publishing” of the books is the very act of my giving them away. I would argue that the books themselves are not the finished product; rather, these public book encounters—the event itself—is the work.

My hope, however futile, is to create value by using the books to engage in real-time encounters. At best, I’ll build up a community around the work, and look for a kind of aura released in the artist-audience engagement—something everlasting and unreproducible (Aura—the divine personification of the breeze in Greek and Roman mythology; refreshing, exterior, ephemeral, uncontrolled). At worst, the books will be gone, emptied of meaning, released from my responsibility.

What kind of practice is this? Is it even publishing? If we think of book-giving in terms of these performative gestures, might it be possible to re-imagine publishing more as performance art? I think of Félix Gonzáles-Torres’ endless supplies of posters (ink on paper, printed, “published”), waiting on gallery floors, rolled up by visitors and dispersed.

I yearn for ways to subvert traditional publishing by disrupting all of its assumptions, including its default economic models. I would like to see an art-making practice that encourages the intimacy of in-person, one-on-one exchange, removed from commercial obligation, with all debt carried over in emotional or spiritual terms. I believe in the creation of community wealth via the circulation of the gift.

Someone will say: but who will pay for these books? That there are costs associated with content creation and distribution is undeniable. Sometimes these costs are substantial. Can we look for ways to transfer the financial burden away from the audience? In doing so, can we free up the artist to engage with his audience without framing the work in profit-making terms?