The intolerable space of exchange

x3 exhibition and sale of multiples @
December 5 – December 9, 2000

a response to the event by Philip Hugo Koch

We’re not used to seeing the inner workings of the exchange of art objects. Artworks are usually held with a special regard, their presentation restricted to well-prepared settings and occasions where proper relations to their audience may be effected. A certain purity is expected of the experience of art, and awareness of the transactions necessary to achieve its presentation would seem to interfere with that purity.

Normally, then, the circulation of artworks is arranged in quiet enclaves – small private galleries; the administrative offices of art institutions; or covert deals that effect the transfer of purloined objects. In sharp contrast, Ace Art Inc.’s X3 (times three) brings the very exchange of art objects under the bright lights of the gallery. In doing so, the annual event highlights the impurity of exchange itself, even – perhaps especially – those exchanges carried out within the space of the artist-run centre.

From the beginning, the space of public art institutions has been coextensive with the space of modern democracy – the character of the public’s encounter with ‘art’ has been determined along with the articulation of democratic principles. In 1793, on the anniversary of the fall of the monarchy and in the former palace of the kings of France, the doors opened on the first museum intended solely for the benefit and edification of the general public.1 A museum such as the Louvre formed an integral element of democracy’s program: the sharing of the collected wealth of a nation with all its citizens, and the preparation of those citizens to partake of the avails of society.

Museums in particular were intended both for the enjoyment of citizens and as a tool to be used in the elevation of the masses. Not only was the encounter with art to be transacted under ideal conditions, but that encounter was itself to be a purifying experience. In one of his contributions to the Critical Dictionary – meant more to provoke than to define – Georges Bataille comments that “a museum is comparable to the lung of a great city: every Sunday the throng flows into the museum, like blood, and leaves it fresh and purified.”2

While the objects put on display in the Louvre had been ‘liberated’ from the collections of the King, the church, and other aristocrats (many of those objects, and many more to come, having been plundered from far-off lands or taken as spoils of war), the crude exchanges involved in their acquisition were to occur only outside or behind the spaces set aside for their contemplation. Modern democracy was forming itself as a space in which the vulgarity of exchange would be wiped from the register, and the public gallery was to house the symbols of its newly formed culture.

In the same article, Bataille reminds us that this most pristine of democratic institutions was founded by a bloody act that once and for all transformed French society: “The origin of the museum would thus be linked to the development of the guillotine.”3

This act of cleavage marked a doing away with the past that both allowed the space of democracy – of equal and presumably autonomous individuals – and determined the character of the exchanges that would be conducted between and among these democratic actors. Their essential autonomy, it turns out, could only be guaranteed by transactions that echoed the swiftness and muteness of the guillotine’s chop.

As Jean-François Lyotard describes it, “the democratic principle and its constitutional implementation, of whatever variety, is indissociable from a representation of space and sizes in space such that this space … is assumed to be homogenous and isomorphic in all its points, and that all sizes found in it are judged to be commensurable.”4 In modern democracies, then, public space is dominated by its representation as a homogenous space. Insofar as citizen’s equality seems to depend upon there being a ‘level playing field’ – that there should be only one type of public space, the same everywhere, for everyone – effecting and maintaining that homogeneity becomes one of the defining tasks of democratic societies. Through projects enacted in many different locales and by many different means, the idea of an effectively homogenous space comes to govern democratic notions of justice.

At the same time, each individual in democratic societies receives her or his own personal project, a project that reinforces the commensurability of all that may be found in public space. When a single autonomous monarch – indebted only before God – was replaced by countless democratic actors, each was expected to be similarly autonomous in her or his own right. Such an ideal autonomy has been promoted as much by the rhetoric of consumerism as by that of democracy, and thus the elimination and avoidance of indebtedness came to appear as fundamental for individuals in modern democracies.

As much as debt tempers any individual’s practical autonomy, incalculable – and hence irredeemable – debt poses the greatest threat to one’s ideal autonomy. Yet traditionally exchange ran the risk of incurring just such lingering, uncertain indebtedness. The variable uses of the objects to be exchanged, the manifold character of the profits to be derived, and the always unpredictable circumstances into which transactions may lead all kept the circuit of exchange open to contaminating adjustments or revisions.

If the certain autonomy expected by and of individuals in modern democracies was to be attainable, transactions needed to be forced through a narrow aperture: any doubts about the equivalency of what is exchanged had to be foreclosed, the commensurability and simple convertibility of all objects accepted, and exchange itself reduced from a process of reconciliation to a point of transfer.

The silence and tact expected in great public art galleries – where the messiness of competing claims, disputed lineages and challenged interpretations is hidden – both repeats and models the hygienic transactions of an idealized democratic space. Yet unlike typical exhibitions, X3 is conceived less around the presentation of art and the experiences to be derived from it than as an exchange-machine that circulates objects through the premises of Ace Art. What it makes present is a drawn-out process of exchange that includes all the participants.

The idea is straightforward: each of a number of artists (120 in the most recent installment) fashions and presents a set of three items, receiving in return a numbered ticket. Additional tickets are available to the public for $35 each, with the total number of tickets not to exceed the number of items offered by artists (i.e., two tickets may be sold for each participating artist). The overarching objective – the sustenance of Ace Art – is met most directly by the monetary profit derived from the sale of tickets, and if each artwork was also assigned a number, a simple draw of tickets could be arranged and the holders would be free to pick up the corresponding items at their convenience. As in most art transactions, the proceedings would be a hushed and proper affair.

Instead, in a move that is perhaps playful, perhaps mischievous, items are left unnumbered and literally put up for grabs: on the evening of the event, the premises are jammed with ticket holders (or their designates); a ticket is drawn and a number called every 30 seconds (with only one extended intermission) and after each draw, a scramble ensues as the holder tries to determine and obtain the most desirable remaining item. In this manner, a community of artists, their friends and supporters, and even holiday gift shoppers or art speculators are brought together to endure the dispersal of some 360 items over the course of four hours.

What’s taxing about this process is not simply that art objects are ripped down, paraded, and generally reduced to the crude equivalencies of the marketplace. Nor is it that those in attendance must continuously attend to the calling of numbers, some anxiously hoping to gain particular items for their interest, attraction, or possible value, and others eventually just wanting to get it over and done with. It’s not even that the artists in attendance have to deal with all of that while waiting to see whether their own creations are claimed quickly or left to the end of the evening like some sort of debris.

All of this could no doubt be difficult to tolerate. But what’s perhaps most difficult is that X3 shows up exchange for what it is, and does so within the confines of the gallery – the very space set aside by democracy for an especial purity. The process tips us off, and the longer the transaction is held open the more we become very aware that participants haven’t all come with the same objectives, that various parties are far from equal, and that they haven’t all gotten there by the same means. X3 is a machine that lets the incommensurability of exchange be felt.

If even seasoned gallery-goers felt slightly dizzied or put off by the event of X3, their experiences in some ways reflect those of a public told to value the encounter with art. Indeed, the very relation of the public to works of art has required continued attention.

Over the decades that followed the French Revolution, it took great efforts to convince the people that the museum’s objects were actually tools for their own enlightenment. Freshly liberated from the tyrannies of hereditary aristocracies, the masses were as likely to seek the destruction of any and all symbols of those regimes as to see in those very symbols the roots of their own nationhood and a means of sustenance for their hard-won sovereignty. While protectors of newly accessible treasures sometimes had to go as far as dissuading mobs from sacking the buildings in which they were housed, nineteenth-century art and literature report mainly the incredulity of working-class onlookers when faced with the disparity, foreignness, and general opulence presented in public museums.5

Much more recently, in the late 1960’s, people surveyed on both sides of the Atlantic regarded galleries as barely approachable spaces. While a Canadian study reported a general distaste for modern art and a large degree of resentment toward what people took as “deliberate efforts on the part of artists to confuse them,” French researchers found that comfort in art surroundings was still dependent on visitors’ social class. Working-class visitors reported feeling “literally lost in a museum, vaguely dizzy, unable to find their way, fearful of making a false move.”6

There’s little reason to think that much has changed today, despite recurrent efforts. After nearly two centuries, the space of the gallery remains implicated in democracy’s projects. But while large collecting galleries are expected to protect the smooth and continuous character of the public realm, along with the apparent purity of exchanges, the artist-run centre is relatively free to perform experiments – even those that might seem distasteful in their demonstration of a world full of incommensurable desires.

The future of public spaces – including the space of the public gallery – depends upon the ability to foster a taste for new types of exchanges. Where idealizations of democratic principles have produced a tightening and a levelling of public space and a considerable degree of intolerance for the public representation of exchange itself, the challenge is to raise questions regarding the supposed homogeneity and commensurability of democratic space, to create spaces where different orders of value confront and must reckon with each other.

notes:

1. See Linda Nochlin, “Museums and radicals: A history of emergencies,” Art in America, vol. 59, no. 4, July-August 1971, pp. 27-39.
2. Georges Bataille, “Museum,” in Bataille et al., Encyclopedia Acephalica (London: Atlas Press, 1995), p. 64.
3. Ibid. See also Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille, trans. Betsy Wing (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989), p. xiii, where he notes, “The museum is what the Terror invented to replace the King, to replace the irreplaceable.”
4. Jean-François Lyotard, “Incongruences,” in Duchamp’s TRANS/ formers (Venice, California: The Lapis Press, 1990), p. 27.
5. See Nochlin, op. cit.
6. A. Zacks, D.F. Cameron, D.S. Abbey, et al., “Public Attitudes toward Modern Art,” Museum, vol. 22, no. 3/4 (1969), pp. 125-80, and P. Bourdieu and A. Darbel, L’Amour de L’Art: Les Musées et Leur Public (Paris, 1966), as cited in Nochlin, op. cit.

Philip Hugo Koch lives in Winnipeg and co-edits the intermittently-appearing tart magazine.

x3 PARTICIPATING ARTISTS (2000): KC Adams, Sara Angelucci, Cindy Baker, Jo-Anne Balcaen, Daniel Barrow, Susan Barton Tait, Florence Basilevska, Lilian Bonin, Roland Bouchard, Sylvie Boulet, Joyce Bowden, Judy Bowyer, Shirley Brown, Mike Browning, Katharine Bruce, Derek Brueckner, Marian Butler, Paul Butler, Fiona Carruthers, Cecile Clayton-Gouthro, Connie Cohen, Roger Crait, Sarah Crawley, Dena Decter, Leah Decter, Brigitte Dion, Caroline Dukes, Michael Dumontier, Aganetha Dyck, Richard Dyck, Marcel Dzama, William Eakin, Heidi Eigenkind, Tom Elliott, Daniel Erban, Cliff Eyland, Linda Fairfield, Neil Farber, Barbara Flemington, Lori Fontaine, Shawn Frosst, Liz Garlicki, Cindy Garrioch, Karen Geist, Gomo George, Scott Gilliam, Ken Gregory, Grant Guy, Scott Hadaller, Lois Hogg, Simon Hughes, Pearl Hunter, Donna Jones, Lisa Kakoski, Fiona Kinsella, Dana Kletke, Jean Klimack, Craig Koshyk, Alan Lacovetsky, Aurora Landin, Drue Langlois, Winston Leathers, Jung Lee-Marles, Diane Lemieux, Doug Lewis, Erika Lincoln, Paul Lisson, Jen Loewen, Maria Lopez-Dabdoub, Craig Love, Annette Lowe, Justin Ludwar, Angela Luvera, Bonnie Marin, Blair Marten, Kevin Matthews, Mariianne Mays, Linda McGarva-Cohen, Carla Meckling, Doug Melnyk, Susan Mills, Jake Moore, Debra Mosher, Jennie O’Keefe, Louis Ogemah, Kim Ouelette, Robert Pasternak, Hope Peterson, Jason Petroff, Tim Philipps, Bev Pike, Tamara Rae, Heinrich Rempel, Paul Robles, Gabriela Rodrigues, Elaine Rounds, Royal Art Lodge, Shelley Rusen, Michele Sarna, Tim Schouten, Lynne Schulz, Rob Shaw, Nicole Shimonek, Tyler Sneesby, Angela Somerset, Sheila Spence, Gaetanne Sylvester, Harry Symons, Patrick Treacy, Myron Turner, Susan Turner, Andrew Valko, Liv Valmestad, Andrea Vanryckeghem-Reeks, Megan Vun Wong, Karen Wardle, Esther Warkov, Tricia Wasney, Wendy Wersch, Wayne Wortman.

Thank you!