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Seven Years of Chaos

The Van

“At this moment the question remains; the struggle continues. What do artists want—a Lotto-like chance at making a fortune in a restricted market, with unbridled opportunities for a few winners, or a broad network of support for a larger number of artists working with limited to modest means?”

–Thomas Lawson, in “Attempting Community”, published in the catalog Cultural Economies: Histories from the Alternative Arts Movement (The Drawing Center, New York, 1996)

The beginning and the ending of my project Daytoday have been marked by two major economic crises. From the end of 2001 through the beginning of 2002, Argentina suffered from the culmination of the country’s financial decadence that started in 1998. Suddenly there was no cash flow. Argentineans had to resort to all kinds of imaginative strategies to make their “day to day” possible. A strong national barter network (based on local and community nodes) sprouted. This showed the rest of the world that grassroots collaborative efforts can generate autonomous solutions that benefit and dignify an entire population. Around 12,000,000 Argentineans were part of 6,000 barter nodes by the end of 2002!

Artists and art laborers who are not market savvy (like me) are juggling with the cuts of resources. I believe a lot of us see opportunities in the mishap of the economy: opportunities for reevaluating needs, discourses, methodologies, strategies and alternatives.

During 2008 and through 2009, the entire globe has felt the worst economic recession in decades. The president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez, called the recession the “Jazz Effect”, named for its origins in the burst of the United States’ subprime lending bubble. Communities worldwide that have been practicing alternative economy strategies (local currencies, time banking, free markets, community owned housing and trading networks) attain significance within this crisis. However the majority of humanity still depends on a market model that doesn’t give a penny for individuals.

Who was most affected by these crises? Middle and lower class—count me in, please. We are all still coping with the effects of the present collapse. Artists and art laborers who are not market savvy (like me) are juggling with the cuts of resources. I believe a lot of us see opportunities in the mishap of the economy: opportunities for reevaluating needs, discourses, methodologies, strategies and alternatives.

It is in this context, and after a five week intervention in Los Angeles last July, that I have decided to put an end to the Daytoday project. I believe that, probably more than ever, the art realm needs projects like these that intertwine economic, political, social and aesthetic aspects. Art is a cultural sphere from which marginal strategies for inhabiting this world can be discussed and even attempted. But as an artist, one has to be aware of the limits of a proposal and the dangers of formulaic intervention. In his essay, “Vernissage”, Hakim Bey puts it like this: “To heal, one first destroys—and political art which fails to destroy the target of its laughter ends by strengthening the very forces it sought to attack.”

It was in Los Angeles that I was inspired by the strong network of communities, non-profits, collectives, activists, artists and individuals working in support of autonomy and sustainability.

I’ll put it like this: Daytoday was like a soda pop that I shook and shook for the last seven years. Every time I shook it, some of the bubbles would pour out of the art context bottle onto the social strata of a determined city, affecting different individuals as well as my own life course. Well, the soda pop art container is empty now and all the bubbles have been spilt. No use in shaking an empty bottle, is there?

This doesn’t mean that barter is over for me. Oh no. Barter is part of me, and the swap boat has enabled a rich and satisfying navigation through early adulthood. But it was in Los Angeles that I was inspired by the strong network of communities, non-profits, collectives, activists, artists and individuals working in support of autonomy and sustainability. I understood that my swapping efforts could shift from a person-to-person exchange that was coming from and inserted in an artistic framework toward a communal exchange that may help build up and tighten community bonds in my own locality.

I recently found out that here in Puerto Rico, other individuals with similar concerns have been organizing. Two years ago, several people started the Red de Trueque Borinquen (Borinquen Barter Network). This network is mostly based on the Argentinean model of nodes, in which “prosumers” produce for themselves and for others—without charging or receiving goods and services in exchange. A prosumer is an evolved form that synthesizes the producer-consumer division into a single person. I think all this is great for Puerto Rico, where rampant consuming is part of the colonial cause and effect. Boricuas in return, and without much political intent but instead as a means of survival, have a huge “under the table” economy, where cash is moved to and fro without state or federal taxation. I feel that in Puerto Rico a Time Bank community, together with the prosumer barter network, would be successful in complementing this “submerged” economy. So, after more than a decade of swapping, I am ready to help build up this sidewalk, or at least promote it before my drifting habits take me somewhere else.

From Object To Subject

Doris Lessing writes at the end of The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five:

“There was a lightness, a freshness, and an enquiry and a remaking and an inspiration where there had been only stagnation.
And closed frontiers.

For this is how we all see it now.

The movement is not all one way—not by any means.”

During the last twelve years, I have been swapping and bartering objects, services and knowledge. Though Daytoday started in 2002, my praxis of barter started collectively with the group Cambalache Collective and the Street Museum in Bogota, back in 1997. This gesture of swapping and barter was born from a three-way liaison between social and public aesthetic practices, ideals of autonomy and an intuitive interest in alternative and gift economies. Both the Street Museum and Daytoday projects allowed me to visit and learn about different cities and to interact with the most incredible array of people. Places and individuals became layers of experience and knowledge that construe my swapping baggage. But my baggage is not only made out of what I gave and what I obtained. It is mostly heavy with the unique situations that we constructed together with other swapping enthusiasts. With some people, this “complementing” situation based on trust would be a once in a lifetime, or even a once upon a time. But with others, it is the foundation for a longer interaction.

How can we value something based upon a set of circumstances like memory, love or attraction, nutrition, ideology, personal preferences, spiritual significance amongst others, instead of valuing things for their monetary value, or the time we spent with them.

I consider all these people I exchanged with, and with whom relationships developed post our initial swap, allies in space and time. These relations to my allies perpetuate the intention of immediacy, and elongate the primal swap into a myriad of possibilities and realities. I like to compare it to the hxaro gift exchange, practiced by the !Kung people in southern Africa. This system is primarily about social relations and the goods themselves are of secondary importance.

Basically, hxaro is a delayed form of nonequivalent exchange: I give you something today, and you give me something in return much later, when you find an object that you know may please me. Once you exchange with someone you are bonded, and you pass the years together exchanging gifts. Any two people, regardless of age or sex, may do hxaro. Each item in the !Kung material culture may be put into hxaro, and you can pass on something that you received through hxaro to someone else. This way the most valued or useful goods are always in circulation, and potentially every one can enjoy them for a period of time at some point. The delayed aspect of the exchange is crucial to the !Kung. One person or another is always waiting to see what comes back.

What Daytoday basically proposes is that we rethink the way we value things and situations. How can we value something based upon a set of circumstances like memory, love or attraction, nutrition, ideology, personal preferences, spiritual significance amongst others, instead of valuing things for their monetary value, or the time we spent with them. It’s this shift in the way we value things that I ultimately ask people to share with me. While I am very interested in understanding how others react to this proposition, I must confess that Daytoday was mostly about me. It was a continual personal testing site. How do I relate to strangers? How do I move in a new city? How do I feel about this or that situation or exchange? Do I want to take a position? Do my emotions affect my social skills? How am I going to engage with the public?

Communication Strategies

In every city I devised different strategies that would allow interaction. The van was a constant in all the cities, as it allowed mobility and also provided an intimate space where I could host and receive people. It was my mobile living room, our magic carpet, and my hideout when I was exhausted. The other constants would be the interactive website, where people could propose a barter, as well as flyers and posters distributed around the city.

In Vienna, Daytoday was launched with an outdoor party in the back garden of the Secession building. A lot of passer-bys got news of the project because of the party. Mostly it worked by word of mouth. People who exchanged would refer me to friends and family and so the swapping kept rolling. Also, an online computer with direct access to the webpage was installed in the bookstore. This way I lived in Vienna for three weeks without using money.

At the beginning of the project, I would say yes to everything and get used a lot. But then I sharpened my negotiation abilities and would turn down proposals and people that didn’t interest me.

In New York, a table with an online computer was installed in the lobby of the Whitney Museum. Visitors could access the webpage without paying (as museum visitors only need to pay for a ticket once they pass the lobby to go into the exhibition spaces). A vintage-looking red telephone was also installed beside the computer. This red phone was a direct line to my cell phone. There was no dialing disc and as soon as you lifted the handset, you would be calling me. I received an average of twenty calls a day. When the museum had free entrance, I was called around fifty times!!!! Beside the table was a small, colorful chalkboard inviting people to use the computer and the phone, with some examples of the possible barters. A lot of people missed the table, because of its location. I was lucky that it wasn’t more visible. I can’t imagine coping with a higher calling average!

In North Adams, Massachusetts, I merged with the Trading Post, a project by Daniel Pineda. There we crashed different outdoor spaces in the small town, like the public library and the MASS MoCA museum’s parking lots. It was summer and we looked for areas with a lot of human traffic. We also hosted a barter space at the Contemporary Artists Center, where we were both in residence.

In San José, Costa Rica, I was interviewed on the radio as soon as I arrived. A lot of people heard the program, and contacted me afterwards. It was only a week, but it was very intense. At the end, I decided not to take any photos or document the barters in any way. There is no trace of the San José exchanges, except for the objects and memories I retain, and those retained by the inhabitants there.

In Berlin, I edited a video that was displayed in a window shop gallery called SOX 36. The video offered my home in Puerto Rico for a month in summer while I was away, in exchange for a used laptop, or HD video camera. This offer comes from a personal conviction that all private property should be available to anyone if empty but also from an intimate desire of having someone occupying my space and kind of stepping into my shoes. The trade never actually took place, however, people all over the globe inquiring about the possibility contacted me.

In Los Angeles, we didn’t build a proper webpage, but instead took advantage of Internet social networks and blogs like Wordpress, Facebook and Twitter, creating pages that were interconnected and constantly updated. We also relied upon the rich email list of the gallery, and its huge network of regular visitors, fans, collaborators and friends. I was also reviewed on a couple of local blogs. With the van, I crashed some exhibition openings, and a popular cumbia night called “Mas Exitos”.

Every single person I encountered in these diverse cities gave me their unique insight on the urban layout, architecture, private and social gathering spaces and codes of their territory. Daytoday became a strategy for learning about a city through the eyes of insiders. Routes, gardens, living rooms, swimming pools, parks, restaurants, murals, bars, plazas, monuments, ruins, theaters, stairwells. . . places and things off the beaten path that I would have never visited or attempted if it weren’t for these encounters.

FAQ

Did I ever get in trouble? No, fortunately I am a woman. A woman with acute intuition, and since I grew up in the tough streets of Bogotenaz (local slang for Bogotá: Bogotenacious), I know how to dodge myself out of uncomfortable situations. And I did have to dodge out a couple of times, but I never really felt threatened.

Did I turn down barter proposals? Yes. At the beginning of the project, I would say yes to everything and get used a lot. But then I sharpened my negotiation abilities and would turn down proposals and people that didn’t interest me.

The best barter I did? What I learned and obtained from different individuals through barter, or post-barter, is invaluable and illogical to compare or look for the best. However, I want to mention taking care of a two-year-old baby in New York. I enjoyed so much the trust deposited in me, as a stranger, by her parents. It was very special.

The weirdest barter I did? Follow someone for a week, in exchange for a couple of exquisite bottles of wine. The requester asked me to follow his brother’s fiancé previous to their marriage. It was like penetrating this woman’s privacy without her asking. I felt close to her, but she didn’t know. After the years, I ask myself if they were just testing me. Was it all a setup?

How did barter work within an art institution? I used the institution as a key to open doors. It would be my credibility card. But seldom exchanges took place in the museum or gallery. We would meet in other public spaces or privately.

Do I have a bank account? Yes, and I own a debit MasterCard.

What have I got after seven years of chaos? The ability to trust, immense confidence in my own social skills, no fear of zero cash flow, a string of allies dotted around the globe, and overall hope.

Isabela, September 2009.


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