Miriam La Rosa talks to curators Marialaura Ghidini and Rebekah Modrak about their project #exstrange, an online exhibition space that uses eBay as a site for artistic and curatorial practice.
Miriam La Rosa: Let’s begin with a very basic question: why did you choose the hashtag #exstrange to name this project?
Marialaura Ghidini: #exstrange comes from a shortening of the title Rebekah and I gave to the project at the beginning of our discussions, Exchange with Stranger. With the hashtag, we wanted to suggest the idea of the online content search, and refer to the hashtag archives that are so entrenched in the culture of social media. Because the project relies so much on categories and the way goods are ‘catalogued’ for consumption—the whole eBay business is based on this—we wanted to propose our own category; one that is open to forming unexpected relationships, that breaks with the definitions implied by a commercial index, and that proposes a different way of making and engaging with art.
Rebekah Modrak: The idea of the “Stranger” came from our desire for artists and designers to engage with eBay communities. Georg Simmel described the “stranger” as someone who enters into a community with the ability to perceive entrenched dynamics with new eyes, and our initial discussions for the project recognised that artists and designers could enact this role within eBay’s categories. At the same time, we envisioned that bidders and browsers would also serve as “strangers,” confronting and commenting on art experiences.
MLR: How did the idea behind the project come about? How did it develop? And what was the most challenging aspect to realise?
MG: Rebekah and I —who had met virtually when I was doing research into curatorial projects online for my PhD— began to discuss the project in 2016, building on an exhibition she organised with Zack Denfeld and Aaron Ahuvia ten years ago, eBayaDay. We were interested in exploring the forms of encounter that could occur between an artwork and an audience in a space dedicated to e-commerce, and we became fascinated with the figure of the passer-by of one of the biggest marketplaces online. This figure is the ‘stranger’ who is located anywhere in the world but it is brought close to the artist by commerce on the web. While looking for items to buy, this stranger might stumble upon one of the #exstrange artworks-as-auctions and pause her search, perhaps because of a disruption of expectations during her browsing experience. In the project outline we sent to the invited artists, designers and guest curators, we asked them, ‘what would you offer to the passerby of this online marketplace? How would you talk to her?’ I also particularly interested in the idea of appropriating an existing online service, and in exploring another approach to curating—which ties in with some of my previous work.
From these reflections we moved onto thinking how to structure the project, from the frequency of the auctions to housing the them on a website that would function as an online repository. We started by inviting 21 artists and designers followed by 11 curators based in different parts of the world (from Bani Brusadin, Spain, and Domenico Quaranta, Italy, to Harrell Fletcher, US, and Yidi Tsao, Hong Kong), who in turn invited 3 to 4 artists each according to their own interpretation of the project. The artists, as well as the curators, were chosen according to how their practice resonated with #exstrange and our questions. We were interested in bring in the new aspects that their work would touch upon, from questioning digital labour and the ‘personal’ (as in the instance of Silvio Lorusso, Elisa Giardina Papa and Tara Kelton) to exploring consumer culture (as in the instance of Sophia Brueckner, KairUS and Fieldfaring), but also the possibilities of disrupting the ‘aura’ of the art object and the looking at the ‘status’ of art worker (as in the instance of Yogesh Barve, Geraldine Juárez and Out-of-Sync).
The most challenging part of the project, at least for me, was to keep up with the pace of #exstrange and updating and archiving it ‘live’. Presenting a new artwork-as-auction per day meant that that there were rolling deadlines to keep up with—we had over 100 people involved in the project since January—, and a continuous back-and-forth with artists and curators, as well as with the artists and designers that joined the project over the course of the three months. Our role changed completely into that of platform builders and organisers, inputting data into shared excel sheets and the website content management systems on a daily basis, for example. The ‘promotion’ of the auctions was another aspect that required us to rethink about the language we use to talk about art—we started to use a blurred mix of art and marketing speech. And Rebekah ended up mastering this aspect. She also collaborated with two statisticians and marketing researchers, Fred Feinberg and Lu Zhang, in the production of 7 auctions that were created for research purposes via analysing all the auctions posted during #exstrange. All of them are archived in the category Cell Phones & Accessories.
MLR: #exstrange presents many fascinating features. One is certainly the investigation into alternative and experimental approaches to curating, which you have previously explored with other activities. Here the curatorial act translates into a ‘curating as inviting’ type of action, where an international group of professionals is asked to put forward their own selection of artists and art practices. Ultimately, the goal is to expand ‘beyond curatorial control’. Could you elaborate on the curatorial remit of the project? And whether or not you feel such a goal was achieved?
RM: I agree with Marialaura — this was a project that, once brought to life, required tending and operation on a daily basis. The #exstrange site often felt like a railway station, with trains continually entering and leaving the station. Meanwhile, the project/train branched out into the world of social media where the post’s language and tagging choices offered insights into each work’s relevant passengers. For example, Crisia Miroiu’s series of rephotographed works led us to a group of philosophers using #TheoryOfForms to have conversations about reality; Chinar Shah, Surabhi Vaya, and Ajit Bhadoriya’s Apology for Sale introduced us, via Twitter, to exchanges from pro-nationalists in favor of Amazon’s apology to India or from citizens and journalists deeply troubled by the rising narrow and commercial vision of patriotism. Elisa Giardina Papa’s sale of her browsing history took us into the world of the surveillance and privacy communities; AILADI’s 0.2m³ of Space kit connected us with urban planners; Jiaru Wu’s century egg led us to the intersections of history, politics and foodie culture; Xi Jie’s grandma souvenir introduced us to the off-modern movement; Huaqian Zhang’s silver ring engraved with Google’s terms of service brought us to the the fascinating junctions between tech, law, culture and jewelry design; and Angela Glanzmann’s A Doll Most Haunted sent us on a search that led to the Paranormal Underground Magazine, the Crime Museum, and #doll #collectors.
MG: I would speak of curating as an act of setting of actions; disparate and dispersed actions aimed at disrupting the status quo of a marketplace—eBay in this case. Perhaps a better word would be interventions that dislocate expectations, or confuse frameworks of interpretation, creating a merging of what is usually differentiated into hi-culture—the Arts for example—and popular culture and its vernacular—what we experience in the everyday, online experiences included.
The most interesting aspect of curating #exstrange—if I compare it with my previous projects— lies in its openness, in the fact that what you call the remit of the project—besides what we wrote at its inception— resides in the sum of actions of the participants, as well as in the responses of the viewers-buyers. The very same trajectories the project took after our initial idea of exploring what types of exchange might happen when using eBay as a site of artist production and engagement with art, can only be fully grasped by us too only by exploring the #exstrange Auction Archive, which has generated by using the original eBay categories. Along with this, the platform we appropriated for #exstrange—eBay—’controlled’ us, providing us a fixed interface through which to ‘perform’ our curatorial tasks.
#exstrange did generate some unexpected exchanges, and this is what we accomplished in my opinion. We had quite a few unforeseen reactions: the disappointment of the person who bid on Lloyd Corporation’s Bankrupt. Bulk Buy. Liquidation. Repossession.; the discussion about passions and love triggered by Natalie Boterman’s making it; the widespread commission of ‘protest’ slogans sparked by the work Instant Protest by IOCOSE . We also had some unexpected actions. There was the appropriation of a work by JODI (presented by curator Bani Brusadin) by artist Guido Segni (presented by curator Domenico Quaranta) who bought JODI’s EBAY shopping bag from a previous #exstrange auction for resale, turning it into the work BESTBUY JODI ON EBAY (from #exstrange auction). There was the love gesture of a husband who bought the shadow of his wife, Ann Bartges, shadow, middle-aged; the snippet into the daily work life of a still-recovering-from-an-illness artist/curator, with Robert Sakrowski’s work video – webwork as web.pilgrimage for #exstrange; and Eno Laget’s Porch Jesus, which seemed like a critical, slightly ironic statement about the state of spirituality post-Trump until purchased by a family whose deep Christian faith is helping in their struggle with the young father’s diagnosis with ALS. Few are also the instances in which we and the participants dealt with the ‘partiality’ of the eBay algorithm, from Joana Moll’s Google trackers in North Korea official webpage to Ajit Bhadoriya, Chinar Shah, Surabhi Vaya’s An Apology for Sale, whose work where banned from being auctioned on the platform. Too many stories to be recounted in this interview…
MLR: What type of audience reaction did you hope for? What type of engagement did you encounter instead?
MG: I described this a bit above but would add that we were hoping in a reaction in the broadest sense possible, and the artworks generated different types of engagement. They depended on the expectations of the viewers, who were not only those normally engaged in viewing contemporary art but also those who were browsing eBay looking for something to buy. In the instance of Sophia Brueckner’s Captured by an Algorithm, Romance Novel Commemorative Plate, 1st Edition, an artist who later on participated in #exstrange by joining the open call, Gagan Singh, engaged Brueckner in a conversation about the role of the artist in making a work in which it is the algorithm which performs. Brueckner took a conceptual and financial risk by selling the plate at the price for which collectible plates are usually sell on eBay, and received many bids by commemorative plate collectors. Eventually, they were all outbid by another artist who, knowing that the real cost of making the plate was much higher than the auction’s selling price, offered Brueckner one of her drawings to compensate the ‘economic loss’ the artist endured with the auction.
Not all the works received the ‘active’ attention we were hoping for—meaning the questions and answers part. But this was foreseeable..
MLR: In a more pragmatic sense: how many works did get sold; and who receive the money once something is sold? Who sets the prices? Is this entirely left for the artists to choose?
MG: The idea of the artwork-as-auction meant that any element of the eBay auction—from the category to the title and the descriptive text—constituted the work. Therefore, the price was intrinsic to the work and each artist chose how to ‘value’ their work independently—like in the Brueckner’s example. Some artists played with this element, for example by aligning themselves to the eBay prices. For example, Kim Beck priced her panorama of images made of “found” photographs in eBay listings for the cumulative Buy It Now cost of all twelve photographs, although you could also experience the work for free by jumping from link to link to view the horizon line virtually. Many artists created their own economies of value that put a price on nostalgia and emotional investment. For example, Stephanie LaFreniere’s broken gameboy would be worth little to nothing on the used toy market, but accrues value (at least to her) when placed in a collection documenting her childhood. Other artists worked with or against the logic of the art market, for example by highlighting the complexities of ‘getting paid’ or being valued for the actual time spent ‘making art’. The work of Carlo Zanni, Life Is A Delicate negotiation, referred to this directly in the form of a stamped and signed letter. It went unsold.
The artists received the total amount of their sales—minus the fees that eBay and Paypal or the likes ask for each transaction—which for us was the most logical thing to do, also considering we did not have funding for paying artists’ fees. At the moment of writing—some auctions are still ongoing—60% of the artworks were sold.
MLR: To what extent does this mechanism challenge the conventional establishment of the art market, where the major galleries and auction houses regulate the economic value of art?
MG: On the one side it bypasses it, cutting out ‘middlemen’. On the other side, and I think most importantly, it questions the necessity to rely on the art system for ‘legitimising’ one’s own work or artistic practice. The other aspect that I find interesting is that, amongst the realm of commodities online, at times it was difficult to tell apart not only artistic from design-oriented ideas and objects, but also what art might be and might not. We came across a few listings that could have as well been #extrange auctions.
MLR: Could you tell me something about the funding structure behind the project? How did you make it possible financially?
MG: The project was made possible first and foremost by enthusiasm and hard work and the fact that Rebekah and I have full time jobs, which might ‘contradict’ our point of wanting to disrupt the conventions of the art system. Not having enough funding is quite conventional afterall. We did receive funding from the University of Michigan’s Center for South Asian Studies and Stamps School of Art & Design, which allowed us to produce the #exstrange website, and to design the book. The project could have not happened without the time, creativity, enthusiasm and willingness of all the participants—artists, designers, guest curators, and also the designers. For a project of this nature, which also indirectly involves a commercial platform, and the fact that Rebekah and I live almost at the opposite side of the world (US and India) it was quite difficult to find a funding body or organisation willing to support the project financially.
MLR: Will the project take any physical manifestations in the near future?
MG: We don’t know yet. #exstrange was selected to be included in Project Anywhere 2017 and this will lead to a conference and a journal article in 2018. At the moment, we are concentrating on the book with contributing essays by Padma Chirumamilla, Mark Dery, Lawrence Liang, Gaia Tedone, Rob Walker, and possibly other writers.
MLR: To conclude, I would like to appropriate one of the questions the project itself intended to raise: in the light of your experience with #exstrange, ‘What are the relationships that can take place in the realm of digital commerce beyond the seller-to-buyer transaction, the fundraiser-to-backer association, or the peer-to-peer swap?’
MG: Ha! The question comes back to the curators! Fortuitous encounters that become conversational moments. Collaborative actions that might touch upon the personal and/or the political. Communicative exchanges about the quotidian. All situations, I feel, that take art off the pedestal and move it back into the everyday.
Miriam La Rosa
Rebekah Modrak is an artist and writer who uses photography, the internet, and critical design to explore commerce, identity, and class. She is the lead author of Reframing Photography (Routledge 2011), a book of theory and process that reconsiders photography’s omnipresence throughout the arts and other disciplines. She is the creator of Re Made Company, an artwork that uses recreation to parody the rhetoric around designer tools and the urban woodsman, which includes the language of authenticity, appropriation of working class identities, and a revitalization of traditional male roles. At the heart of Rebekah’s work is a concern with representation and visual culture. She’s explored these questions in written works, such as “Bougie Crap,” an article (published in the Detroit-based journal infinite mile, 2015) analyzing the links between design, education, corporate culture and the appropriation of images and symbols of labor and blackness by luxury producers. Her most recent writing, calling for critical artistic interventions to reclaim meaning by undermining brand rhetoric, will be published in The Routledge Companion to Criticality in Art, Architecture and Design (Routledge 2017). She is an Associate Professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan.
Marialaura Ghidini is a contemporary art curator and researcher. She was founder director of the web-based curatorial platform or-bits.com (2009-2015), and organised projects ranging from online and gallery exhibitions to site-specific interventions in public spaces, radio broadcasts and AiR programmes. With a background in the humanities and a practice-based Ph.D in Curating After New Media (CRUMB at the University of Sunderland, UK), her expertise lies in curatorial studies and contemporary art reflecting on the role of the technological. Her interests lie in working with different formats of artistic and curatorial production and display through using contexts of engagement beyond the gallery and the museum.
Marialaura is faculty and course leader for the Bachelor in Creative Arts in Experimental Media Arts at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, India.