Free Things at Set The Controls For the Heart Of The Sun in Leeds was an exhibition orchestrated primarily through Facebook Messenger. Visitors could bring, take, and exchange art objects in place of those on display. Derek Horton talks to the exhibition’s curator Jack Fisher about the value of art as a commodity, notions of ownership, and the collaborative possibilities generated by social media:
Jack Fisher’s Free Things was ambivalently situated somewhere between an exhibition, the relational aesthetics of an interactive event in which the audience were performers, and a bring-and-buy sale. Its title was at once an accurate description and a faux-naïve over-simplification of an art-action that, consciously or not, had its roots in Fluxus gestures and in the adoption of the Native American concept of potlatch by theorists including Marcel Mauss, Georges Bataille and Guy Debord. I talked to Jack about the project…
Derek Horton: Tell me about the starting point for this project and the multiple layers of its documentation on the web before, during and after the exhibition.
Jack Fisher: The project began as an open call whilst also inviting as many artists as I could through Facebook Messenger – with its ability to instantly connect with international artists and create a wider range of ‘value’ in the works on show. Artworks transmitted online immediately become reproducible, and I chose to document the show as a tagged YouTube video. The collation of things in the space was a way of rendering certain works that might be downloaded or broadcast online for others to interact with and reproduce.
DH: Is the work mostly about the idea of value and the commodification of artworks? Or perhaps your intention was more to transform the audience into active participants and make the exhibition itself a kind of spectacle of communal performance?
JF: I wanted to create an event where anyone can take on the role of the art collector. I made it difficult to distinguish which works belonged to which artist. In this way artists were asked to donate and show works or ideas as part of a greater whole, and the gallery space became an accumulation of ideas or resources that could essentially be edited by anyone. There was a really good turn out for the opening night and that was essential to what happened. The idea that all the work was being installed, then made available to trade and potentially be de-installed again, straight away created a dynamic in which people were essentially given freedom to do as they pleased. The physical exhibition only existed in full in its original form for just over an hour. My intention was to test an ‘anything-anywhere’ aesthetic, where a diverse range of artists could be shown together in an attempt to democratise the usual notion of selecting compatible works or group shows of ‘connected’ artists. Maybe if anything there weren’t enough artists involved or works for people to swap or take away.
DH: So given that there was no apparent equivalence in value between the things people took away and the things they replaced them with, do you think you were critiquing economic assumptions, or perhaps challenging perceptions about collecting and ownership?
JF: I was interested in creating a context in which everything was as valuable as everything else. By taking the financial value away from everything I tried to turn the viewer into a collector and enable them to select or exchange works that they thought were more valuable in other ways. There were obviously some artists who were more prestigious than others who had work in the show, but essentially people seemed to choose work that had a function or an aesthetic appeal for them over any speculation on the possibility of a financial gain. I was interested in the extent to which artists were willing, or not, to ‘sacrifice’ a work and how this sometimes didn’t necessarily relate to their status as artists or the possible financial worth of their work. I like the fact that people were given a moment of freedom to take or replace artworks in the show or not as they wished. I think the dominant hierarchical art market is an outdated elitist framework that has to adapt to new ways that people might be able to collect works. This was as much as anything an investigation of the altruism of artists and their ideas, based on seeing what I might receive simply from sending a digital request.
DH: I wonder how much you’re familiar with other artists work using the idea of the gift? Carlolee Schneemann’s Gift Science (1965) for example. Or the Spanish artists that Roger Sansi writes about in his recently published Art, Anthropology and the Gift? Sansi opens the introduction to that book with an account of a galley opening in Barcelona in which the whole gallery store was opened and given away in return for whatever objects people wanted to bring in exchange. I wondered if you knew about that project or had been inspired by it?
JF: A few weeks before the show opened I heard about Jonathon Horowitz’s ‘Free Store’, but I hadn’t come across Roger Sansi. I’m more interested in the idea of gifting and art as a means of exchanging ideas rather than as commodities. For this show I fabricated a lot of the works in Leeds on behalf of the artists from their instructions. More often than not artists were willing to donate a digital work rather than a physical thing.
DH: I also wonder how much your ideas are based in researching the theory and politics of the gift in anthropology and critical theory writing? Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, for example, or Marcel Mauss, The Gift?
JF: I think its interesting that you see the show relating to the notion of the gift – I’d propose that a gift’s aim is to receive nothing in return – we don’t give to receive. I think the entire premise has come much more from my understanding of the writing of David Joselit and his ideas on art images as currency in his book After Art and articles like Art Flow.
DH: How do you see this project informing future work? Has it changed the way you think about showing work?
JF: I always make work with the knowledge that I will not keep the object, so I never get too precious with the things I make. If the image becomes the only documentation of the idea I think that’s a much more efficient way of archiving, potentially becoming reproducible anywhere, at any time by anyone.
Documentation of the show can be viewed here.
Image: Free Things, 2015, Image Harry Meadley, Courtesy STCFTHOTS.
Jack Fisher is an artist who lives and works in Leeds. Forthcoming projects include Mindlessness, I CANT AFFORD A REAL GALLERY, Online / Toronto; It’s The Last Night On Earth Again (Other People Are Also You), Portland; and Moving Image Montage, ZEPPELIN Film, Melbourne.
Derek Horton is an artist, writer and curator. He co-founded the online magazine ‘Soanyway’ with Lisa Stansbie in 2009. He is co-director of &Model, an international contemporary art gallery in Leeds, and Visiting Professor at the School of Art, Birmingham City University.