PSPJ ISSUE 1
Portland State University Social Practice Journal
ISSUE 1, JANUARY 2012
PSPJ ISSUE 1
On August 28, 2011 the “Social Practice” entry on Wikipedia was tagged for deletion. The Wikipedia community suggested that the term provided nothing more than “a vague method of describing a number of practices that are covered elsewhere” as the primary rationale for the removal. It is true enough that the term Social Practice has been applied to an incredible diversity of artworks that traverse multiple disciplines, from community farming projects to activist organizing initiatives, and from antagonistic public interventions to alternative education models. The common threads that are often cited as linking these practices include: engaging with or collaborating with a public, working across a variety of disciplines, and instigating works that have relevance to both an art and a variety of non-art audiences.
While these criteria may appear hazy, the value of the term comes into focus when we think about art and social practice in the context of art education. In fact, the term “Social Practice” (in relation to art) emerged in an educational context. The California College of the Arts (CCA) was the first institution to launch a Social Practice program in 2005. This program formed as a way to develop an arts curriculum around collaborative practices and work in the public realm, without the weight of association with terms such as “community practice,” or “relational practice.” The term was adopted from Marxist and social theory, and took on slightly different connotations in the context of art education.
Shortly after the development of the CCA program, Harrell Fletcher began the Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. And a similar graduate program under the leadership of Suzanne Lacy, with the title Public Practices, arose at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. All of these programs strived to offer an alternative model of art education that privileged qualities such as community collaboration, cross-disciplinary research & decentralized practices of artistic engagement.
The designation of Social Practice within the art academy attempts to create a space to frame out an alternative discourse around art production & reception. We hope that this journal will function as an extension of this space, as a site of dialogue for issues and themes pertinent to the students and faculty of the Art & Social Practice program at PSU. As Rick Lowe noted in his concluding remarks at the Open Engagement Conference closing panel of 2011, when socially engaged art is written about solely within the bounds of artistic discipline, it loses a great measure of it’s value, which is located in the transgression of these boundaries. Through the frame of Art & Social Practice, a work may never enter a gallery or receive acclaim from international art publications, but may instead find an enthusiastic audience of obscure sports enthusiasts or environmental activists.
For the purposes of this journal we concieve of art and social practice as a just loose enough framing device to shift our evaluative focus towards the cross-disciplinary intersections and encounters of art works, drawing out it’s value across multiple fields of knowledge.
The PSPJ Editorial Committee consists of Katy Asher, Crystal Baxley, Ariana Jacob & Helen Reed.
 Wikipedia contributers, "Social Practice," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_practice (Accessed August 29, 2011).
 Lydia Matthews, email to author, November 20, 2011.
 Ted Purves, telephone call to author, November 26, 2011.
In 2008, I had the opportunity to speak in Mark Elliot’s art class “Collaboration Commons” at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia, about my work with the art group, The M.O.S.T. Since that time, I’ve kept an eye on Mark’s work as he began to meld his PhD research on collaboration and the internet with the realities of city planning with Future Melbourne, a participatory 10-year planning process for the city of Melbourne, Australia. Below, Mark fills me in on what he has been doing over the past couple of years, discusses the more subtle implications of collaborative city planning, and describes how the ability to participate doesn’t always equal an opportunity to be heard.
Katy Asher (KA): I’m working with some other artists in town who are interested in starting up a bi-monthly or quarterly publication based on themes of interest to us. The first theme is collaboration. I studied your work during my MFA program and thought it was really interesting, so I wanted to include something that had to do with you in this issue. When I first met you, you were just finishing your dissertation, Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration. I wanted to ask how you got to the place where you decided you were going to develop a dissertation on collaboration itself.
Mark Elliot (ME): Sure. The project started with an interest in what I call “composing collaboration,” in other words, treating collaboration as a medium, whereas it’s typically treated as a method or a means to an end. How can the process of collaboration, the consideration of people’s involvement and the tools that often support collaboration be pulled together to ensure a good outcome, and often, a very specific outcome? I found a lot of gaps in knowledge. Specifically, I couldn’t find a general theory of collaboration. It just didn’t exist. That spurred me to build my own conception of it via reviewing existing literature around collaboration. What I found was a little bit of information in art, a little bit in education, a little bit in science, a little bit here and there. They were all fairly limited in their scope of consideration and thus their application because they were all so focused on their subject matter. I began asking what, in the context of this existing literature and my experience, does collaboration really mean and how can I build some sort of theoretical framework that would be useful in implementing it in the future?
KA: Something I noticed and was surprised about when I read through some of your research were multiple references to research about drone software and/or people trying to make flying armies, information that was super militaristic.
KA: That was a surprise to me, because often times you have collaboration coming across in this more touchy-feely, humanistic fashion. It shouldn’t have been so surprising, maybe.
ME: Right, especially if you consider that the military complex of most nations is typically the most funded, has the most well developed R&D programs and is fundamentally about coordinating and organizing people, even if it is in their destruction. (Laughter)
KA: Since the time of publishing your dissertation, you’ve started Collabforge. How did you get started with your first project, Future Melbourne?
ME: I got a phone call from the manager of strategic planning for the city. He said, “I’m in charge of the city’s ten year planning process. As part of my duties, I need to ensure it’s collaborative and builds upon the best tools and knowledge we have available today. I’m trying to find a collaboration expert. I can’t find any body except for you, and you’re in town – would you like to have lunch?” That’s really where it started. To his great credit, he was really inspired by Wikipedia and wanted to do something like that, or draw up on that.
We developed a project with the City that had four main stages. The first was mapping their existing planning process, then reengineering that process from the perspective of my research on how to make it more collaborative, and identify what tools to use. The next stage was an internal collaboration phase where we brought together the city planners and all of their internal stakeholders around an internal drafting phase. The third phase was opening up that same approach to the public and the final phase was an evaluation of the entire project. I started a company so that the corporate veil protected my personal interests and that evolved into Collabforge.
KA: I have been looking at some of Collabforge’s clients, and am interested in trying to link them to various projects taking place in Portland. For example, in Portland we have something called Civicapps.org. People can use it to geo-tag potholes and send pictures of them to the city for repair, or find bus maps, food carts or bike parking across the city. Do any of Collabforge’s projects work this way?
ME: I think that would fall under our general area of expertise. That whole area is increasingly being called Gov 2.0 – the Web 2.0 thing being applied to government. Most of our clients are government, and when they come to us, they might be thinking, “Yes, we need a website,” or, “We need an App. We need something.”
There’s a bit of a tension in there in that typically our clients are thinking with a “tools” focus, which could be an app or a website, or what have you, whereas we’re thinking about the underlying principles. Whenever we’re figuring out how to go into a project, we have a standard approach of thinking: people, then process, and then tools. We acknowledge that tools are very important. They’re our big levers in society, typically, but no tool really gets properly implemented or implemented at all unless there’s an underlying process in which we engage in articulating that tool. Often the tool and the process tend to blur in our minds when we use it. We don’t realize that they’re actually separate. If people don’t value those processes or don’t understand them or don’t see how they fit into their lives, they’re never going adopt them and the tool isn’t going to be used.
KA: So, what did Future Melbourne look like to a citizen who wanted to participate? Did it look like Wikipedia?
ME: If you go to http://www.futuremelbourne.com.au, the site looks like it did during the first phases. The main sections of the site are People, Creative, Prosperous, Knowledge, Ecocity, and Connected. If you’re a registered member, you can click on any of those pages. An important aspect to keep in mind with the City of Melbourne project is that there weren’t any public engagement opportunities taken away from the standard 10-year planning process – the wiki website process was just added to it.
KA: So there were also typical town hall meetings…
ME: Definitely. The reason for Melbourne’s focus on the online component was that the major demographic of the city was Gen-X or even a young Gen-Y bracket. They had research showing that the group of people that who lived and worked in the city were much less likely to turn up to town hall meetings and were more interested in engaging via online channels. That was a big impetus for it, but they didn’t want to expose themselves to criticism for excluding people, so they didn’t take anything away. They also trained key people for teaching citizens how to use the site, set aside dedicated work stations at the public libraries, engaged community groups to come in for working sessions where they learned how to use the site and engage the subject matter, and had facilitators who could go straight into the site and enter the feedback. There was a bit of a mix.
KA: I was talking with a friend earlier today about your work. We talked about community conversations around the future of an abandoned high school in his neighborhood. He noted that received paper flyers for town hall meetings and also had access to a blog and email surveys. He remarked that the town hall meetings were mostly attended by people of an older demographic who owed homes. On the other hand, the blog and email surveys were widely used by younger folks who were renters and wanted different outcomes. He thought that using the Internet was a great way to get more information and community engagement.
ME: That makes me think of something else. One of the underlying outcomes of from Future Melbourne is that the input that we received through the wiki as opposed to town hall style input or email submissions was that the wiki input was prioritized much much more anything else. There’s probably a fairly simple reason for that. If you imagine editing an article in Wikipedia, the article changes, but you don’t really see who changed it. You don’t even necessarily see the change unless you are the town planners who were checking the revisions. So, suddenly you are really focusing on the materials’ merit, not who contributed it or why they contributed it.
There are even more subtle impacts. For example, let’s say some material got changed, and is sitting there for a while, then somebody reads through that material and it gets moved to somewhere later on the page - or even gets deleted. Even if it gets deleted, it impacts the flow of the content.
One of the biggest prevailing attitudes for planners out there is that public consultation is just a pain in the ass. It’s a box they need to tic and then they move on. The traditional approach of submission is almost designed so that it can be ignored. (Mimicking a planner) “Ah yes, I’ve received that and accounted for receiving your submission and it’s in my spreadsheet. I’ve ticked the box that said I have considered it.” That doesn’t mean it’s ever going to be integrated. It probably isn’t going to be integrated.
KA: And that’s something you noticed as it was coming about?
ME: The opportunity is really for something more akin to participatory democracy as opposed to representative democracy. You can participate in the stuff that governance is really made of: policies, strategies, plans, written stuff that people have to be held accountable against.
Have you come across the work we’re doing with Southern California Association of Governments, SCAG? Here’s a link: http://scag.ca.gov/. It’s the redevelopment of Southern California’s transportation plan, starting with bicycles and pedestrian lanes. We developed a site and a process for how to engage the community. I think it will be launched in the next couple of months. Their hope is that this will go well on the bike and pedestrian front, and then they’ll continue the approach throughout the entire transportation plan.
KA: That’s totally exciting!
ME: In my mind the value proposition is so high for this type of community consultation because it’s not just about, (laughs), what they call in the business ‘voluntary compliance,’ which is that if people are involved in the planning process and feel like they have a stake in it, shared ownership, they won’t be enforced or coerced to comply. It also means that it’s much less costly to implement.
There’s also what we demonstrated with Future Melbourne, which is that you just get better outcomes. Subject matter experts from all over the world contribute who have motives in promoting their own interests and identity, adding lots of value. The town planners never conceived that they would ever even have wanted that value or could have ever afforded that value – they’re getting it all for free.
For example, on Future Melbourne, if you go to the search page, and search “Helsinki,” you’ll come across “bicycle lanes in Helsinki.” Somebody, we don’t know who this person even is, said, “Oh, you want to address bicycle lanes in Melbourne? Here is a submission about how they did it in Helsinki.” It’s extraordinary! Nobody asked for that. Nobody even would have realized that a report on how Helsinki did it would have been valuable to Melbourne, let alone could have afforded to commission that report. So, it has an amazing value and it’s in context. So when you read through the bicycle section, there’s a link that takes you to the submission.
Sooner or later, this approach has got to become more widely adopted but how long will it take?
KA: Right. Just a few seconds ago, I was wondering if you get examples of the opposite of this? Do you run across people spamming or trolling the site who want to remain anonymous and keep returning for their own agenda?
ME: Not yet. There are two main dynamics at play, the nature of engagement and the maturity required for this type of engagement. The nature of engagement has to do with who will even find out about one of these kinds of planning projects to begin with. Once they do, they have to be motivated to read through a site like Future Melbourne, find the best point of entry, the ideas that they want to express in relation to the existing ideas and then engage the technology. That filters out a lot of people. The only people participating were, by and large, the people who had a lot of motivation to do so.
In terms of maturity, as this approach becomes more widespread, I expect to see something akin to swarm lobbying taking place, or lobbying transforming to capture the opportunities presented. People with lobbying-oriented interests as opposed to, say, community welfare interests haven’t yet grasped the power of being able to go and edit the plan. Once they realize that if they just did that consistently and effectively from lots of different perspectives and getting lots of different people involved, the system will need to develop immunity against that. This hasn’t arisen yet.
KA: Speaking of filters, it seems to me that the format of commenting on blogs is less complex in terms of filtering people out and encouraging them to figure out where to put their viewpoints in context.
ME: Sure, and the blog format, an online forum or discussion forum, would, from my framework, fall under cooperation instead of a collaboration process. The traditional consultation process also falls into a cooperative process. They’re aligned, which means that people can only submit disparate, individualized, fragmented little bits and pieces that aren’t actually integrated with anything other than the conversation. All of those conversations can be ignored in some respect. The only significant change is the “open” factor, in that those comments have come out of the black box of sending an email or sending a letter, or, even a town hall can be a black box, ultimately. That is a significant change, but at the end of the day…
KA: …Who’s going to do anything with that, really?
ME: Yeah, exactly.
KA: I have one last question. If everything you are working on came to fruition better than you can imagine it, how would you see this work changing the architecture of our city structures, our governments? How do you see this changing the structure of public participation in our society?
ME: One of the main things that this work does is make ideas and information more accessible. It connects ideas, information, people and opportunities to one another in a much more agile and dense fashion. As humanity evolves, we have more and more ideas and information to make sense of in our heads. We also have many more people and opportunities to engage with than 100 or 250 years ago. What does that mean? I hope that it means increasing our overall intelligence, really. To make it a bit more concrete, what I would expect to happen if, say, city planning was increasingly drawing upon this approach, is that, suddenly you’d have this ecosystem of ideas that would be common across a variety of planning sites. Someone promoting his or her nifty carpool idea in New Zealand could contribute to Future Melbourne. You’d have transnational swarms contributing to the city plans all over the world where they’ve never done that before.
I’d extend that by way of asking how people and communities share information and collaborate together. I think we’re seeing a really extraordinary thing with recommendation systems, for example “you’ve purchased A, B and C, so you might be interested in purchasing D.” Imagine that you had 50 planning wikis across the US with some common standards the plans could fall into. Your city plan could recommend things to you! Or, if you were contributing to Future Melbourne, you might get an email saying, “This particular city is doing planning around carpooling. Maybe you’d be interested in contributing there.” From a city planner perspective, the message would be, “We can see that you are redeveloping bike lanes in your city. Here are the articles that have already been drafted in other city plans around bike lanes that you might be interested in drawing upon.” This is simple stuff, but a logical conclusion that means increased awareness, intelligence and capacity.
*Originally published May 2010
Since attending the panel discussion you participated in at apexart for the Incidental Person, I have wanted to write you. Actually, I have probably wanted to contact you since discussing your article “Antagonism & Relational Aesthetics” with my peers in the Art & Social Practice MFA concentration at Portland State University.
During my time in this MFA program your writing has often been a guide for how to articulate the uncomfortable gloss of idealism radiating from much of the work that can be classified as social practice art. Your arguments have been useful for helping to think through some of the problems that this kind of work produces, including work claiming to be open for everyone but then denying it’s real exclusivities. I have also really appreciated your critique that judging an artwork’s merit based on whether it has “good ethics” reduces art’s ability to make important, accurate statements about society and sanctions a lot of bad art.
I end up having many questions which I refer to you in my mind and I have wondered what it would be like to just ask you them, so that is what I am doing here with this letter. While I am approaching these questions from a different angle than I imagine you would take, I hope there will be some areas where my considerations relate to yours.
I admit I am more interested in art’s ability to make articulate statements than in its purely aesthetic qualities, and more interested in art that is about life than art that is about art. I also have some hope in art’s ability to be a testing ground for new social structures. These sensibilities put me very close to you might call the ethical/micro-utopic camp. But this makes your writing even more important to me to help discern where to draw the lines of critique and where to question my own tendencies.
One of my perseverating questions has to do with how to conceptualize art as both an academic discipline and also something beyond academia. Along with that question comes another: where does art education play in to this expanded “academic” field?
I came into graduate school with a desire to improve my work and to learn about other people who make art that deals with similar social and relational ideas and practices. I had no allegiance to the academic discipline of art and little relationship to the history of art. As I near the end of my degree I continue to want to make work that exists outside a purely art arena and to make work that addresses it’s content not to art history but to contemporary society and “everyday life”. I now also realize that as a person with an MFA I am accountable to the academic discipline of art. While I may not be fully upholding that responsibility, I acknowledge that many of the serious conversations about ideas that matter to me are taking place within the sanctioned art discourses, and if I want to take part in any of these conversations I may need to become more accountable to the history of art.
On the Community Art Network blog you claimed that all art should be held to PHD standards. To me that implies that art should be an exclusive conversation where you have to be educated into its realm to have a valid opinion or to have a means to share your opinion. I am not pro ignorance, but I am against the professionalization of all fields which reflect on the experience of living. I think that art deserves to be more than a specialized professional arena.
In that same interview you said of these works that are branching beyond the domain of art, “ If these claims of transdiciplinarity are to be taken seriously then these projects need to function within other discourses too.”
This assumes that when art pushes out beyond the art world it will necessarily operate in other established discourses related to other academic disciplines. But what if this kind of work is reaching for a territory that does not yet have an established discourse, that doesn’t belong in any academic category? Can there be a non-academic discourse around this work that still has intellectual substance? Can there be an arena for cultural reflection and analysis that uses language and mediums that are accessible to people who are not specifically educated into any discipline? Is that desire of mine based on fictional ideals of accessibility?
In mid-March Mark Dion came to Portland to teach a week long workshop about museums to our program. At one point during his visit he gave me a gracious but firm talking to about my responsibility to know the history of Art as my own history. It was appropriate to have this call for accountability to academic traditions coming from Mark Dion, whose artistic persona is so classically scholarly. I believe he has found a way to successfully meet your criteria for transdisciplinarity, but this works for him because his interests lie within the history of academic discourses, both of art and of natural sciences.
There are other subjects and skills that do not have academic equivalents but are worth seriously thinking about, like my own particular interest in conversation, manners and social dynamics. Of course there are academic ways of thinking about these topics but they only barely apply to what actually interests me about them. I want forums to think carefully about subjects as we experience them in our daily lives. And I think using language and mediums that stay true to those everyday experiences can make for demanding, insightful and accurate reflection.
We know this drive to apply art outside of the art world and its academic discipline runs strong within contemporary art, both at present and historically. The panel discussion at the Incidental Person exhibition re-examined some examples of this ongoing history as it was embodied by APG and with EAT. But it also brought out evidence of how art can stop functioning well when it gets too close to everyday life. This failure was evident in your bold, accurate statement that APG produced “bad art”, and in Stephen Wright’s unconvincing but curious example of the artist who had entirely assumed the role of housepainter. The underside of this ideal was also present in Wright’s snarky idea that all the MFA graduates who disappear back into the non-art work force are at the forefront of applying art to real life contexts. My goal is not to make work that blends seamlessly into the non-art world because, as these examples show, this offers no friction on which to catch reflective thought.
That panel discussion helped me continue questioning the implication of my desire to make art that exists and can be thoughtfully discussed in an everyday arena. My questions however are certainly not resolved. I am still working on how to answer these questions and more:
Where is there a place to discuss social practice art outside of the art academy? Is it possible for there to be work that is not directly accountable to any established academic knowledge body but still has an intellectual strength? How can I make work and have discussions about art that take place in language that is not an art professional dialect?
I acknowledge that much of this conversation is several years old for you, and that you may very well have moved on by now to other discussions, whereas I am currently trying to orient myself in relation to it. If you have the time, I would be very interested to know how my framing of these questions appears to you, and to hear what questions you currently consider pertinent in relation contemporary art practice and discourse reaching outside of academia and art institutions.
Thank you for writing clear, insightful critiques of this “social turn” in art. I consider you to be a useful guide in my thinking about this kind of work.
 Anthony Hudek.“The Incidental Person.” apexart.org
 Claire Bishop. “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”, October Magazine, MIT, Fall 2004, No. 110, Pages 51-79
 Jennifer Roche. “Socially Engaged Art, Critics and Discontents: An Interview with Claire Bishop.” Community Arts Network Reading Room.
 Artist Placement Group, active in England from 1966-1989
 Experiments in Art and Technology, active in the USA from 1967-early 1970’s
Hey. Oh, is that a label maker?
Yes it is. I got it as a gift, it's a Label Baby Junior.
Love the Label Baby, baby.
You know those things make great gifts, I just got one of those for Tim Whatley for Christmas.
Yeah. Who sent you that one?
One Tim Whatley!
No, my Tim Whatley?
The same, he sent it as a thank you for my Super Bowl tickets.
I think this is the same one I gave him. He recycled this gift. He's a regifter!
In the Seinfeld episode “The Labelmaker,” the practice of regifting is the foundation for the social anxiety and satirical humor that is so distinctive of the show. Wikipedia even credits this particular episode with the popularization of the term “regift.” By accusing Tim Whately of regifting, Elaine conveys a particular cultural understanding of generosity and gift giving.
However, if we look at research related to alternative economies, the practice of recirculating gifts is fundamental. In fact, the practice that Elaine refers to as “regifting” is the initial point of inquiry for Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983).
When the Puritans first landed in Massachussetts, they discovered a thing so curious about the Indians’ feelings for property that they felt called upon to give it a name. In 1764, when Thomas Hutchinson wrote his history of the colony, the term was already an old saying: “An Indian gift,” he told his readers, is ‘a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.’…
Imagine a scene. An Englishman comes into an Indian lodge, and his hosts, wishing to make their guest feel welcome, ask him to share a pipe of tobacco. Carved from a soft red stone, the pipe itself is a peace offering that has traditionally circulated among the local tribes, staying in each lodge for a time but always given away again sooner or later. And so the Indians, as is only polite among their people, give the pipe to their guest when he leaves. The Englishman is tickled pink. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum! He takes it home and sets it on the mantelpiece. A time passes and the leaders of a neighboring tribe come to visit the colonists’ home. To his surprise he finds his guests have some expectation in regard to his pipe, and his translator finally explains to him that if he wishes to show his goodwill he should offer them a smoke and give them the pipe. In consternation the Englishman invents a phrase to describe these people with such a limited sense of private property. The opposite of “Indian giver” would be something like “white man keeper” (or maybe ‘capitalist’), that is, a person whose instinct is to remove property from circulation, to put it in a warehouse or museum…
Hyde uses this example to point to the bonds that gifts create, what he calls “feeling bonds.” He suggests that the act of giving and receiving gifts creates links between people throughout time. These bonds of exchange create a complex and intricate social fabric, in contrast to the monetary value that would accumulate by removing the pipe from circulation.
In slight contrast to Lewis Hyde (and predating him by 50 years) is French sociologist Marcel Mauss. In a volume also titled The Gift, Mauss takes up the obligatory and antagonistic nature of the gift, through anthropological study of a number of indigenous cultures. Mauss makes an argument that gift-giving forms came first, whereas barter/currency exchange were secondary distortions for many indigenous tribes. In his own words, “western colonial powers have been assuming on the basis of their own forms of barter and currency exchange that theses forms are primary.”3
Mauss comes to an interesting conclusion, whereas for Hyde there is something outside or beyond the market in his conception of gifting, for Mauss gifting is a form of a market. He views giving as a combination of generosity and self interest; when you gift something you create a power differential between yourself and the person to whom you are giving. The gift must be reciprocated; otherwise your social status will suffer. However, this reciprocity could happen at a time near or far into the future. In other words, a gift economy is not like a Secret Santa where everything is exchanged at the same time, and everything is of relative value.
This exchange sustained over time is, according to lawyer-activist-author Lawrence Lessig, the very definition of an economy. Lessig breaks the term “economy” down to this simple formula;
In Lessig’s book Remix, he distinguishes between two kinds of simultaneously existing economies. One he terms a commercial economy, and the other he calls a sharing economy, which is somewhat like a gift economy; it exists outside of monetary exchange and is regulated by social conventions.
To adapt an example from Lessig of a commercial economy, if I go to Walgreens and buy toothpaste for 3.99, I give the cashier 3.99 & take my toothpaste. I feel no obligation to go back to Walgreens the next day to let them know how the toothpaste was working out, nor to check back in with the cashier to see how they are doing. There is simplicity to this kind of market relationship. It is based on an abstraction, and I am left with no obligations to Walgreens after we make our exchange.
Obviously not all of our interactions are governed by a commercial economy. But, according to Lessig, even friendship can be explored in economic terms. For example, if I had a friend who never invited me out and never called me back, the friendship would feel unbalanced, and probably the friendship would end. It would be considered pretty strange if I called up this friend and offered to give her $50 if she came for a drink with me. This is because the economy of our friendship exists outside of a commercial context. However, the reason that our friendship did not work can be framed as a failed economy, in which there was a lack of reciprocity and exchange.
We can deduce that the major difference between these two models – commercial & sharing –is directionality. The commercial model creates a relationship to an abstract market, a vertical relationship. The sharing or feeling-based model is comprised of a series of horizontal relationships, between individuals, as Hyde states “[b]ecause of the bonding power of gifts and the detached nature of commodity exchange, gifts have become associated with community and with being obliged to others, while commoditites are associated with alienation and freedom.” But this does not take into account the ways that these two conceptions of economy are entangled with one another – This entanglement is well articulated by Kate Fowle and Lars Bang Larsen’s article “Lunch Hour”:
…[I]t has become almost impossible to distinguish between symbolic and economic value, intertwined as they are in an often-inscrutable manner, particularly with the advent of the service industry. Market forces make full use of the gift economy and vice versa… The escalating speed and level of consumption renders almost every activity and terrain productive in economic terms – communication is big business and even virtual space can now be owned.
Within this, the issue perhaps is still art’s collusion with power and the use (or misuse) of generosity, as the Danish artist Henrik Plenge Jakobsen suggested in commenting on the structural similarities between the modes of reception and production in contemporary art and the new economy, “Giving it all away for free, such as when Rirkrit Tiravanija hands out soup to the audience, is another important new economy principle. It is the same generosity that the company Netscape was into when they launched their browser Netscape 1 for the Internet, and made the Internet a platform for free exchange. Investors from the ‘market economy’ saw the interest in passing on services and products for free. As a consequence both Rirkrit Tirivanija and Netscape have become rather wealthy and thus rewarded for their generosity.”
This article was written just under a decade ago, and in the years since it’s publication, there has been a veritable engagement boom in both the fields of marketing and contemporary art. In the above quote, Jakobsen explores the instrumentalization of gifting to both consumers & art audiences, but what about when we ask an audience to give to us?
Those people who were formerly known as the audience (now referred to as participants, users, prod-users, etc.) are asked to take an increasingly active and creative role in production, they are asked to gift their creative labor. And their “produsage”, their social production, is what Law Professor Yochai Benkler refers to as “…the dark matter of our economic production universe.” That is to say, it frequently goes unacknowledged, unattributed, and definitely unpaid, while amounting to a substantial measure of market production.
It is easy to make tidy comparisons between current marketing practices and participatory art projects. At first glance Superflex’s launch of a web-based television station for community dialogue shares a few qualities with the “Toyota Stories” campaign in which consumers are invited to share their memorable everyday moments of Toyota ownership. Adidas’ launch of a web application for designing your own sneakers sounds a little bit like the myriad art projects were the work is produced with the aesthetic input of the “community”. And as we recall Tom Marioni’s roguish act of inviting gallery attendees to share a beer, we can’t help but think of the abundance of marketing efforts like “Free Budweiser Day.”
Where these practices converge is at their understanding of the economy of the gift, and how these gifts create “feeling bonds.” Through giving creative energy to a project or product, the user/consumer/prod-user cannot help but feel some stake or investment in the enterprise. Alan Moore, the CEO of SMLXL, the Cambridge based engagement marketing firm sums up the impetus to invite the creative input of the consumer as “the insight that human beings are highly social animals, and have an innate need to communicate and interact…We believe people embrace what they create.” Which begs the question, how will this gift of creative input be returned?
Moore’s comments point to an intention of repackaging the consumer contribution to be taken up again in the consumptive cycle; the gift transforms into a commodity. As cultural producers, working with gift economies provides fertile ground to play with new kinds of artist/audience economic relations. However, an essential aspect of a gift economy is the return of a gift - the art of the regift. If we ask collaborators & interlocuters to invest in our practices, and to grant us gifts of creative labor, then how do we evaluate our return of these gestures? Lewis Hyde identifies three main obligations, which are shared by those who participate in a gift economy: “the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate.”
What is the art of the regift? If we, like Mauss, consider a gift economy to be motivated by both altruism & self interest, what kinds of balances are we interested in generating between our own needs and desires as artists, and the return of audience investment? Working with gift economies involves not only courting an audience by asking for their creative input, but also exploring the reciprocal potential of this particular kind of economic relation.
 Seinfeld. 1995. Directed by Andy Ackerman. DVD. NBC.
 Lewis Hyde. The Gift (Vintage Books: 1979), 2 – 4.
 Hyde, The Gift, 86.
 Kate Fowle and Lars Bang Larson. “Lunch Hour.” What We Want is Free. Ed. Ted Purves. (Suny Press: 2004), 112.
 Yochai Benkler. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. (Yale University Press: 2006), 62.
 Alan Moore quoted in interview with Henry Jenkins, “Engagement Marketing,” Confessions of an AcaFan, January 19, 2007. http://www.henryjenkins.org/2007/01/an_interview_with_alan_moore_p.html
 Hyde, The Gift, xxi.