REBECCA GORDON NESBITT & N55 EXCHANGING


This is an edited version of conversations that took place between N55 and Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt while working on two different versions of the SHOP project. The first of these, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow (5 October - 11 November, 2002) was the first comprehensive version of SHOP and included a display area, clothes shop, kitchen, café, bathroom, bookshop, discussion area, workshop and kindergarten. N55 were based in Glasgow to run SHOP for the first half of the project. Five discussion sessions were held in the lecture area. They were: about art and reality, about specialization, about ownership of knowledge, about ownership of land, and about profit.
Following this, a version of SHOP was created for apexart in New York (15 March -12 April, 2003) centered on the use of the bookshop for the dissemination of a wide variety of literature that questioned the use of propaganda in the western economic system. N55 advised on the overall look of the bookshop but, consistent with the aims of SHOP, passed the day-to-day running of the initiative to apexart. This was part of a group project that also included artworks and publications by Ross Birrell, Jakob Boeskov, Steven Duval, Gardar Eide Einarsson & Oscar Tuazon, Regina Möller and documentaries by John Pilger.

Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt is an independent curator and writer based in Glasgow.
Based on conversations in December 2002 and June 2003.



Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt:
Can we talk a little about how SHOP came about at CCA?

N55:
Our proposal to make SHOP came about as a result of the CCA refusing our first proposal, which suggested implementing work in a very comprehensive way to try to make the institution more useful.
During our first visit it soon became clear that art seemed to be an excuse for the rest of the things that were going on at CCA: the big office, the café and all the other activities. We also heard about how it had grown from being a peoplesí place into a smooth, modern institution with more money. We read somewhere that they invested £10 million in restoring the place, and thatís a really expensive café. So, our starting point was to see how we could work with this place in a way that might make sense to people in the local environment. Make sense of what was going on there instead of just trying to profile a place internationally in the art world. Itís really crazy, but most institutions like that are working with the concept of the art world and see themselves as part of that. We donít see ourselves as part of any art world, but as part of the world. We think most people see themselves as part of the world. We wanted to try to break down this wall around the institution and make it useful in a sense that it could have a positive effect in the local environment, so that people would start to relate to the place and the concrete situation instead of supporting a very hierarchical, stupid way of thinking. The first proposal was discussed to death and instead we suggested SHOP. SHOP had already been issued in the form of a manual but it hadnít been implemented anywhere. When we arrived to start building up SHOP, we learned that the day before there had been a conference at CCA held by the Ministry of Defence and this had caused a lot of rage amongst the artists in the local environment. They had an email correspondence going on about boycotting the CCA and we landed just in the middle of that.

RGN:
Yes, it was a pretty tough time for you to arrive.

N55:
But it made sense to us to implement SHOP, as a kind of parallel system that grew through the rooms and mirrored the functions that were already there, introducing another kind of thinking and another kind of exchange.

RGN:
So, SHOP developed on two levels, the real and the metaphorical, as often happens in your projects. The real is the economic situation where people find themselves in CCA surrounded by the different elements of SHOP - the bookshop, the clothes shop or the workshop - and in many cases they can engage with the project by exchanging things or by using things. Maybe you can expand a little on the economic model you were trying to explore and its metaphorical significance.

N55:
Itís about re-introducing a broader understanding of exchange. In the current economic system that we live under, every human relation is something that can be capitalized on, and the reason one has friends is to make business in many places. Any kind of need - whether you need education or you need to sleep or go to the toilet - everything has become an opportunity to make a profit. This is increasingly so, even if it is very often disguised as hip or has all these symbolic levels that people feel attracted to. With SHOP there is no money involved. If you want something, you can swap it, borrow it or use it at the space. But you canít use money. And then again, the question is not really about money - itís more about removing the profit motive, because there can still be a profit motive, even if there is no money involved. If somebody wanted to swap something, there was no valuation system, so it was up to them if they wanted to profit from it by swapping a pencil for a DVD.
This works on different and very interesting levels. Overall, we try to work with aesthetics in a way that we try to find ways of existing with as small concentrations of power as possible. Thatís really important for us. We try to develop real, existing structures that work in this direction. Trying to find ways of exchanging things that already exist, or are being produced, without money, in local situations, is part of this effort. If you want to remove the interest of concentrations of power in a local situation, you can take away their ability to make a profit by making structures like this. Another level has to do with working with small group ethics in a larger situation. If you take a small group of persons, youíll find that they donít have to vote about things - they would normally be able to communicate in such a way that they would just solve problems, or do what they have to do to construct something. But, as soon as there is a larger group, you normally think that you have to introduce laws and rules in order to communicate, and that is wrong. It should be possible to expand smaller group ethics into larger situations if people are conscious about what they are doing, and if you are generous yourself. If you believe that persons are able to think for themselves and do the right thing in a situation, you donít need rules. And thatís one of the levels weíve been trying to work with in the SHOP situation.
Another thing we have had to deal with is that most of our institutions, that have been built up in the last 50 years in the western world, are being stolen at the moment by politicians and large corporations. This happens under what they call privatisation, but itís really about trying to make a profit out of situations where people have created institutions that take care of certain things - like hospitals, transport, education - in society. This whole concept of privatising is based on the misconception that itís cheaper for society to let a private company go in and take care of a certain function - even though they have to make a profit - than it is to solve things in a co-operative way. Thatís basically wrong and stupid, so, what do we do about it? At the moment it seems that people are not consciously aware that they should use their democratic power to stop things like that - that they should do things in order to minimize concentrations of power, and to stop privatising. Our suggestion in SHOP is to try to build new institutions. So, part of SHOP is a library or a workshop, trying to let people share means of production - thereís even a small hospital or emergency box that represents a hospital. One of the levels of SHOP is to try to reintroduce institutions that we share instead of letting someone try to make a profit on them; thatís very important.

RGN:
Thereís also a question of hierarchy. Youíve made a more uniform structure. Youíve replicated the functions that CCA has and made a parallel structure with the café and bookshop facilities, but on a much flatter basis.

N55:
In a very horizontal way, yes.

RGN:
One issue thatís very interesting for me is that of context - you as Scandinavian artists doing this in Glasgow. This is something we could maybe touch on. To me, it seems that Scandinavia has always dealt with issues around society and very consciously made decisions in certain directions. So, obviously someone is deciding to go in the direction of privatisation at the moment. Whereas, in Britain, things are perhaps further advanced down that route - partly because we had a Conservative government for so many years and weíve followed the American model: most of our public services, railways and utilities are privatised now.

N55:
And itís breaking down?

RGN:
Absolutely. Itís proven not to work. But, when you come and do something like this in Glasgow, I feel perhaps these kinds of systems of exchange do exist in Denmark already. I recently heard about systems for swapping clothes; there do seem to be these open models of exchange that people are conscious of. One point that was raised in Scotland was that of surplus. Glasgow is a post-industrial city, which doesnít have much money and there isnít a surplus. There are no spare things around. In certain situations, people will organize exchange systems based on the surplus that society has which may function in one context but not be relevant in another.

N55:
This small society, small-scale exchange can happen for different reasons. In Argentina, for example, the money system has broken down completely, so there are barter shops for work and food and things. In Scandinavia maybe there was a notion of sharing because of a consciousness that it was possible, or that other persons are important for your existence, and not only your career or the things you have to do in the next hour. But this is eroding very much in Scandinavia at the moment. It was maybe there ten years ago, but it is very hard to find now.

RGN:
And how did that awareness come about? Was that through education in schools or something your parents would speak to you about or just a general consciousness?

N55:
A general consciousness on most levels of society, and a very positive effort in order to change things, starting in the 50s with the whole welfare idea. By the way, itís wrong to say thereís no surplus in Glasgow because, of course, thereís a huge surplus; itís a matter of distribution. Great Britain is one of the greatest economies in the world. On this map of the world with different economies, where you have a larger area the bigger your Gross National Product, Great Britain was really really big. There are some really wealthy concentrations of power there.

RGN:
Yes, but very little of the wealth flows to Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular.

N55:
There is a lot of economic surplus in western societies at least, and it is possible to educate people in such a way that they start distributing it properly. Of course thereís a surplus. But Britain is in a more radical situation than Scandinavia; there is of course more equality of income and living conditions in Scandinavia. However, that equality is disappearing at the speed of light. At the moment we are adopting the American model for society. Thatís incredible, because in high school we would look at statistics and understand that the American hospital system was very expensive and didnít cover more than 20% of the population. The Scandinavian health care system was cheaper, public and it covered the whole population. Ever since we left high school, Scandinavia has been approaching the American model and thatís interesting. Why are we doing this? Why is the Western world changing to the American system when everyone knows that itís undemocratic, itís insane and itís perverted. Why do we do this?

RGN:
So, what is your ultimate aim? Your interventions into situations like the CCA in Glasgow will have an impact on a local level and do you see that, as long as you manage to engage with a few people in that situation, something worthwhile has happened?

N55:
Yes, of course.

RGN:
Youíre not so interested in operating on a macro level and being evangelists for a new way of thinking?

N55:
One of the problems that you have if you want to change things is that you caní t work with ideologies. You really have to believe that people are able to understand for themselves. Thatís the only way of avoiding ideologies. Religions and ideologies are proven to always end up being repressive. So, how do we avoid that? How do we make real changes? One of the things we have to start with is not to form new ideologies or re-introduce old ideologies or religions. So, you canít work with "the masses" using mass media or whatever, because you will become part of an ideological thinking and then the whole reason why you started this has gone. Thatís one of the problems that you have if you want to communicate. You have to believe in persons, basically, in order to change things.
At the moment, the world is so fixated in mass communication. In this situation, it is satisfactory if you can have something that makes sense for maybe ten people, or five, or two. Our experience is that if you think that what you are doing makes sense and that you are in the center of the world, the center is not everywhere else, it can create a meaning that can extend beyond that situation and mean something for others somehow, in time maybe, or by different means. But, of course, it is also a choice to say that and to believe in that.

RGN:
There are two sides to that - one is that mass communication has been so co-opted by big business that there is no easy way to use it, the sort of media that you are talking about, like television and film. But then I get frustrated that artists can only reach a small number of people because the message that you are trying to put across should be communicated to more people. I suppose one way of doing this is via the internet (as with your YTEICOS project) but that relies on people seeking out the information that you are providing.

The project in New York, which included SHOP coincided with the war on Iraq and was intended to provide access to information not normally represented in the American media, across all platforms - newspapers, books, magazines, television documentaries, the internet - to steer people in certain directions. Subjects ranged from the environment to biotechnology and the media industry itself, who controls it, the extent to which it is led by advertising and the interests of big business. This touches on the idea of ownership to knowledge - by providing access to certain information - that you have discussed. Perhaps inevitably, the illusion of freedom of information that persists in the States meant that very few people sought out this information. How do you get around this kind of apathy?

N55:
The situation in the US illustrates the dangers of believing in and supporting huge concentrations of power. A few people controlling the government, the arms industry and the media create an apparatus able to identify a foreign dictator oppressing his people and thereby justify attacking Iraq. At the same time they propagate the illusion that they represent "freedom". They donít openly kill political opponents, but keep people at a level of fear and poverty where they commit what are defined as crimes, then put them in prison and get rid of them in that way. So, there are more subtle ways of oppressing people. It becomes very easy to create grotesque figures of oppression and at the same time disguise your own oppression.
You quoted 1984 in your text for the exhibition and in that book, Winston Smith writes in his diary "freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4" and that is pretty much the same as when we say "persons have bodies, persons have rights, concentrations of power do not always respect the rights of persons".

RGN:
So, what do you do if people are so convinced that their government is providing them with all the information that they donít bother to seek out anything extra?

N55:
What you have to do is not become like that yourself and keep on saying the things you think are right. What we see is also how habitual conceptions are dominating everything and how they condition and form everyoneís behaviour. So it is important to try and resist that.

RGN:
Another key issue in SHOP, which touches on a number of your other projects, is ownership. In Glasgow, we organized discussions that people took an active part in, about issues like ownership of land and ownership of knowledge. Perhaps you can explain some of the thinking behind that.

N55:
The SHOP system has something in common with the LAND project. The manual for LAND describes how people can add land to LAND by including land and guaranteeing that everybody can come there and stay and use it. So, itís something that invites people to act and do things - they can start their own SHOP, they can also add land to LAND, or start a similar system. Both projects are about sharing things and resources rather than excluding others. In relation to LAND, we talk explicitly about ownership. Ownership of land cannot be defended in a logical way; it can only be defended using power and force. This is what our laws are geared up to do, because our economic system is based on private ownership. This is the basic assumption of almost anybody who talks about economy and exchange: they donít challenge this notion of ownership. The notion of ownership was justified by philosophers. Current ownership thinking has its roots in (among others) John Locke who is frequently quoted as saying "if you have sown, you also have the right to harvest". This kind of thinking is also at the core of capitalism: you have the right to use land if you can make the land profitable. If you only have title to it, you donít automatically have the right to it. On some occasions, this argument could have made sense. For example, when it was used in the fight against the feudal lords. People questioned why the lords should have all this land when people were starving. But the same argument was also used to drive out the native population from America: a European settler could get more profit out of a plot of land than a native American could. If you look at it from the point of view of logical relations, which we talk about all the time, you canít argue that some persons have the right to exclude other persons from access to land. We know that persons have rights. If you try to say that this person doesnít have rights, it doesnít make sense. If you say that this person has rights, but has no right to stay on the surface of the earth, it makes no sense. This is a very basic thing that you can derive from language and language is what we have in common. You donít need ideologies or religions to find out what is right.

How does one avoid ideologies or religions? Our starting point is to look at language because language is what we have in common. Until recently, nobody has tried to claim ownership to language. That is, however, happening at the moment, because when you claim patents to different things, you are claiming ownership of objective knowledge. So, language, which is generally understood as something that you canít own, is also becoming owned at the moment. Ownership implies power over others and that is how it ought to be viewed. Looking away from logic, and what we have in common, we are left with power and force, and that seems to be the case at the moment.

RGN:
This kind of discussion is very pertinent in Scotland at the moment, where the Scottish Socialist Party made big gains in the recent elections and is explicitly opposed to this kind of private ownership. As you know, Andy Wightman, who took part in our discussion about ownership of land, has articulated this in his book "Who Owns Scotland?"1

N55:
There seems to be a strong sense of local meaning and history in Scotland and thatís a good basis in this situation. This feeling of local democracy is very important in order to resist market forces and the interests of large concentrations of power. We are now making a version of SHOP in Romania, where, like in New York, we provide the system and we will collaborate with people there who have collected a lot of things. It is taking place in a particularly poor area, with many Roma people who are excluded from having a part in a Ďnormalí economy in an already completely desperately poor country. So, it will be interesting to see how it works out. The eastern European countries are in a difficult position at the moment - there is an extreme pressure to conform to the free market economic model and there is little time or possibility to establish other economic systems. There are attempts to draw on local experience and socialist models, but they get overrun by privatisation and western companies. On the same occasion, LAND will be expanded with a plot of land in Romania. Because of the transition from the old system, they have many types of land legislation that contradict each other and which seemingly all apply at the same time.

RGN:
It is possible to distinguish between LAND and SHOP on the basis that SHOP is much more concrete in that you are undermining the value of commodities.
N55:
LAND is very concrete as well.

RGN:
But, in a much wider sphere. In a sense, SHOP is very focused and concentrated on one place and people donít question the value of commodities as readily (no matter how much they might agree with you) in the LAND project. Almost everybody universally agreed in our discussions in Glasgow that land ownership was wrong, but if we think about the value of the books in the SHOP, people might argue that they had a tangible value. What was your experience of that?

N55:
It was very positive, we had some very nice experiences with children, because it seemed that the children had no profit motive. They really loved to barter but they didnít aim to get a profit. What they really liked was that they were able to change things - we would see a toy disappear and then come back again. What they enjoyed was to have new stuff. That was interesting, but, of course, with grown ups it was different - one out of twenty was an asshole - but most people respected the SHOP situation when they exchanged things. Most of them actually brought more things in than they took out, and thatís a way of showing that they appreciated the situation. And then you have the assholes, but you will never get rid of that factor and thatís part of the situation. There have been cultures where they had no experience of theft or rape but it seems that these things are part of Western culture. But, it also seems that the more generous you are with people, the more you can trust them. Maybe some of the bad experiences we had have to do with the situation at CCA and the disrespect there.

RGN:
You began by talking about the Ministry of Defence Conference and that there was a big resistance within the artistic community to coming to CCA, but I think during the time that you were there, we managed to counteract that, not only through people coming to the discussions that you had organized and saying that this was the first time they had been to CCA since it re-opened, but also to actually be able to host a protest dinner against the fact that this conference had happened, within SHOP.

N55:
Yes, the dinner was initiated by Gair, a local person who invited a group of people to dinner (cooked in the SHOP kitchen) because he said "if the Defense Ministry can use these premises, we can as well". Thatís a constructive attitude. Itís a really interesting way of approaching institutional critique, to say that these art buildings exist all over the world, they are multiplying faster than rats and if we can find a useful purpose for them, letís do it. Thatís basically the reason we work with curators as well.
You had some ambitions for this project too. Were they realized?

RGN:
Yes, I think my main ambition for this project was to address the local artistic community in Glasgow - firstly through the content of the work - and I think you did that really successfully through the discussions. However, I have to say the audience that attended the discussions wasnít maybe the one I thought would attend - there is a strong "school" of artists in Glasgow using architecture and design in their work and I thought there might be some discussion around that. But, what actually happened was that the discussion operated on a more theoretical level. Also, the pure act of engaging people in the institution and making it a success on that level was a really important aim and one that we have achieved.

I want to elaborate on a discussion about commodities - because the objects in SHOP can all be considered as commodities (apart from the facilities provided in the workshop). Weíve talked about the profit motive and in SHOP this functions in a very tangible way because people are really asked to question the mechanism of exchange that youíve set up. I wondered what your thoughts were on this specifically and, in relation to your own practice, I think itís important to discuss how you view art and art objects in terms of commodities and how you resist that.

N55:
By saying that the work is not for sale generally we try to shift the emphasis from art that can be sold - and therefore art as commodities - into art as belonging to and being dependent on a social situation. And you canít buy a social situation. For us, itís important to maintain the emphasis on the social situation and therefore it is problematic to sell things. However, we do sell things to public institutions that promise to keep them accessible to the public, and not use them for any commercial purposes.

RGN:
You mentioned that itís not possible to commodify a social exchange, but in a sense, what the institutions do when they invite you in to undertake a social exchange could be seen as a form of commodification.

N55:
Yes, but then itís a situation where other people have access too, not just us and the people who invite us. Itís open to the public and thatís an important aspect. So, itís not an optimal situation, but we try to make it as collaborative as possible.
Whatís very important for us is that it doesnít stop here - SHOP will mutate into new situations and come alive again, and some of the stuff from Glasgow that people exchanged traveled on. Somebody will start a SHOP in Dundee, they just wrote and told us, and we got a lot of stuff from a similar project in Edinburgh. This summer we will make a MINISHOP in a small French village.


Notes:

1Andy Wightman: Who Owns Scotland, Canongate Books Ltd., 1997
www.whoownsscotland.org.uk



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