#exstrange was an online curatorial project generating a collection of artworks conceived by contemporary artists and designers to be encountered, auction-style, by the users of one the largest marketplaces on the web, eBay. The artists creating artworks-as-auctions on #exstrange used the eBay interface and listing template as the tool of production for their work. As such, the chosen sale category—from Business & Industry and Consumer Electronics to Tickets & Experiences, for example—as well as title, descriptive text, accompanying images and pricing, all constituted the work. The interface of the e-commerce site became the space in which the artworks resided and were interpreted in consonance with the specificities determined by their design, notably the time-limited, one-to-one user engagement and sociolinguistic interactions pertaining to online commerce. Thus, #exstrange artworks-as-auctions existed as an ongoing configuration among the one billion items for sale across the various national eBay platforms.
Launched on 15 January 2017, #exstrange presented an artwork-as-auction a day until 8 April 2017. Connected by the tag #exstrange in the listing title, the works could be found in that vast archive of commodities online that is eBay. We began the project by inviting 21 artists whose practices resonated with the project. Some of them were concerned with issues related to digital production and creative labour (such as Silvio Lorusso, Geraldine Juárez, Tyler Denmead, and Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark), some with the commodification of objects and social dynamics (such as Fieldfaring, IOCOSE and Lloyd Corporation), while others with processes of technological historicisation and culture (such as Abhishek Hazra, Archana Hande and Tara Kelton). We also asked 11 curators living in different parts of the world to each invite three artists according to their own interpretation of our curatorial invitation. The guest curators wrote a statement accompanying their interventions and, in some instances, created their own tags to identify them; for instance Nora O’ Murchú adopted #wishingyouwell while Gaia Tedone used #veryhardtofind. Our intention was to open up the project to perspectives with diverse critical frameworks but also heterogeneous social and geographical contexts–setting up a process that, along with the project’s open call to participation, would go beyond our curatorial control.
Rather than initiating a new web platform, we sought to work with the properties and functionalities of an already existing online service, one governed by the logic and language of commerce. eBay was founded in 1996 by the Iranian-American entrepreneur Pierre Morad Omidyar to foster an interactive model of person-to-person auction. At that time, it proposed a socio-economic system that aimed to bypass the “inefficiencies” of trading in the “real world.” By subverting the logic of what Elen Lewis (2009) terms “efficiently hunting for the best buy” and further exploring one-to-one interaction, #exstrange explored the possibility of chance encounters in a space where people of different backgrounds and interests could easily ‘meet.’ We asked: while browsing through the eBay categories for items to buy, what types of encounters could happen between an artist and a buyer or ‘collector’ beyond the exchanges one is used
to on the web? If 1990s art on the web was, as Andreas Broeckmann (1998) noted, “difficult for outsiders to understand” because of the scarcity of platforms and unfamiliarity with Internet technology, a service like eBay has been incorporated into everyday habits of consumption that operate fluidly both online and offline. For these reasons, we think that #exstrange offered the opportunity to redefine what Broeckmann (1998) identified as “face-to-face rituals of participation” while taking advantage of the ordinariness of networked space.
We were also interested in exploring the politics of e-commerce space, as defined by the global market, without being a regulatory system ourselves. Significantly, eBay targets its audiences according to nationally defined governmental policies and social codes and does not offer service in many countries. In this regard, the work of artist Joana Moll, Google trackers in North Korea official webpage—commissioned by guest curator Bani Brusadin—brought up new issues for reflection. Moll’s ‘item’ was read by eBay as “an embargoed good” because the artist wanted to sell, as a souvenir, the Google tracker codes embedded in the official website of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. When Moll tried to circumvent the ban by selling the work from a range of other eBay national sites, the service kept ‘reading’ it as a North Korean (embargoed) good. The ways in which web services are regulated, specifically the enduring problems of digital access and the rights to privacy and freedom of speech that underlie such regulations, were revealed by the algorithmic inaccuracy of eBay’s ‘reading’ of the item up for auction.
While conceiving the project, we considered the commercial infrastructure that dominates the contemporary art world and the role that curating online might play within it. The gatekeeping of the art market has, for decades, functioned according to a financial system that disregards the transparency and unbound distribution that the Internet has offered since its inception. Despite propositions offered by the interventionist gestures of artists, curators, and researchers who predominantly operated in the field of early new media enquiry (from UBERMORGEN and RTMark to Olia Lialina), the contemporary art system has normalised the potentials of the Internet. Rather than encouraging new modes of resilience, engagement and circulation, old assumptions and systems have been reinforced. Online auction houses and agencies selling editioned web-based work have sprung up all around the world–from Paddle8 to s[edition]–proposing out-dated rhetorics based on the uniqueness of the art object, the geniality of the individual, and the desirability of niche luxury culture. With #exstrange, we wanted to test a different mode for creating and engaging with art.
In many instances, artists offered services rather than objects. With Programmed Leisure, presented under the category Tickets & Experiences, Silvio Lorusso auctioned a bot-generated programme of self-care allowing the winning bidder to ‘receive’ scheduled time off; Tara Kelton’s Human Internal Memory Storage, listed within the category Computers/Tablets & Networking, offered her brain as a storage system to archive images—the winning bidder received a contract that contained a set of instructions to ‘upload’ and ‘retrieve’ the memory. Other artists questioned the very definitions of what constitutes an artwork, its ‘aura,’ often by using the eBay category Collectibles in a satirical manner. Replica of the Original (2017) by Archana Hande auctioned the personal items belonging to the upper-class Indian woman Archana Devi—a fictional character who is part of an ongoing project by the artist. Hande mythologized Devi’s lineage and life in the same way the contemporary art system often mythicizes authors, practices and objects. Geraldine Juárez’s Press Release (2017) looked at how editorialisation not only reframes and adds value to an artwork, but is also a sine qua non of the condition of the contemporary artist. Juárez asked writer Andy Sarafan to write a press release for her #exstrange work, which she then sold as a unique piece, thereby auctioning, in the artist’s words, “the clerical work required by curators, venues, publications, funding applications, etcetera.” The economic infrastructure that dominates the art world, where labour is very often valued according to unquantifiable terms—a practice that is alien to other fields of work—was in fact discussed by many #exstrange artists. With ART, LIMITED EDITION, PRINT | Auction action — commission an artwork, presented in the category Art, Garrett Lynch turned the winning buyer into a commissioner. Lynch, invited by guest curator Gaia Tedone, used the amount paid by the auction winner to, in his words, “employ other services sold on eBay to produce and customise items” that he then assembled as an artwork. One of the last auctions of #exstrange, Your Named Exhibit Within the Museum of Capitalism, by the art collective FICTILIS, offered buyers the opportunity to purchase the naming rights to an exhibit that would be designed and created by the artists themselves and whose budget would equal the amount of the winning bid. It was the context of eBay and the realm of e-commerce that allowed for this testing of different modes of production and engagement.
Because eBay pre-determined the organisational structure and the type of interaction between artist and viewer, we curators were also, in turn, ‘mediated’ by this medium. The curatorial narrative of #exstrange developed as new artworks went live and the audience/buyers responded to them, tangentially expanding upon our original curatorial intention. The artists’ choice of the eBay category for their works—whether humorous, literal or confrontational—required us to question assumptions related to such processes of categorisation. For example, Masimba Hwati’s (Kutengesa Nyika) Soil sample from Harare Kopje was presented under the category Real Estate to convey the significance of land in Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence. The artist initially posted the auction on the UK eBay site to reach ex-pats from Zimbabwe, the country having been colonised by the British from 1888-1980. Other #exstrange works proposed new forms of assigning value to a collectible, such as Anke Schuettler’s Kindheitserinnerung/Childhoodmemory, a series of highly perishable items that were posted under Collectibles. Guest curated by Harrell Fletcher, the series adopted a firstperson diarist narrative to communicate the meaning of the popsicle across time and cultures. Another instance is that of 1000 Rupees Indian Currency — Erased Currency. Matt Kenyon offered his erased 1,000 Indian Rupees note to the community of banknote and coin collectors that ‘gather’ around the category Coins & Paper Money. The work reflected on the contentious history of this banknote: in November 2016, the current Indian government suddenly withdrew the note, one of the most controversial processes of demonetization aimed at moving towards a digitized economy. Other #exstrange works theorized how digital circulation morphs users’ understanding of the real. Aysha Al Moayyed (aka Asia Fuse) auctioned iherd: Information on sale on the murder of Eman El Salehi under Books, Comics & Magazines as a web-collection of peoples’ accounts of an incident that occurred in Bahrain last December. #exstrange operated within a semi-automated system of artistic production as eBay categories reframed the reading of each work.
Because #exstrange necessitated response to the interactive, modular and variable characteristics of the web that Christiane Paul (2006) outlined as its main features, our curatorial roles expanded to include tasks pertaining to the work of digital archivists and social communicators. As #exstrange unfolded over time—as new artworks-as-auctions posted daily on eBay, we designed the website to expansively present the exhibition material as a whole, archiving as the show grew. Recording documentation of the artworksas-auctions, when live on eBay and afterwards, turned us into meticulous data gatherers. We collected and published conversations between artists and buyers, financial data, and the geographical exchanges at the end of each auction. We communicated this live-ness with our audience on a day-to-day basis through social media, and through our weekly newsletter that resembled a marketing email. Needless to say, the language we used to speak to our audience differed radically from that of a gallery press release: we encompassed the vernaculars of both social media and commerce, creating a mix between them to ‘give a voice’ to the project.
The curatorial site-specificity of eBay required us to reconsider the relationship between the container (the exhibition), the contained (the artworks), and the audience. We, as curators of #exstrange, along with the participating artists, guest-curators, and viewers, engaged in what Paul (2009) called “a continuous process of creating contexts and re-contextualising.” For example, a ‘disappointed’ winning bidder returned the items that Lloyd Corporation sold as part of the work Bankrupt. Bulk Buy. Liquidation. Repossession. Although Lloyd Corporation’s auction description mimicked the vernacular of e-commerce by warning that the displayed products were merely representative of what the buyer might actually receive, a misunderstanding in expectation occurred due to intercultural differences and lapses between textual and pictorial description. In the case of Ann Bartges’s shadow, middle-aged, the United States-based artist was eager to sell her shadow to an Australian bidder, only to find that her husband—in a romantically motivated move—outbid the Australian at the last minute. Another unexpected action involved an artist responding to #exstrange as a system with potential for a causal chain of events. Guido Segni, invited by guest-curator Domenico Quaranta, bought the limited edition paper bag auctioned by JODI, EBAY shopping bag (#exstrange edition) to sell as a double ‘authored’ artwork: BESTBUY JODI ON EBAY (from #exstrange auction).
These diverse types of interactions asked users to negotiate various interpretative contexts from the field of commerce to the personal, the public sphere, and the art world. Using this platform for our curatorial work differentiated our approach from that of curating in the gallery, the museum, or in public space. The artists and the audience of #exstrange became actively involved in the process of creating the exhibition, entering into a collaborative conversation with each other that moved away from our intentions. Likewise, they escaped the contours of most contemporary art criticism to encounter the questions of eBay browsers. Our position became what Trebor Scholz (2006) called “cultural context providers,” those who operate in an expanded field that is strongly embedded in quotidian life.
– Broeckmann, Andreas (2001), ‘Are You Online? Presence and Participation in Network Art,’ in Timothy Druckrey (ed.), Ars Electronica: Facing the Future – A Survey of Two Decades, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 59–69.
– Lewis, Elen (2009), The eBay Phenomenon: The Story of a Brand That Taught Millions of Strangers to Trust One Another, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.
– Paul, Christiane (2006), ‘Flexible Contexts, Democratic Filtering, and Computer Aided Curating – Models for Online
Curatorial Practice’, in Joasia Krysa (ed.), Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, New York: Autonomedia Press, pp. 85–105.
– Paul, Christiane (2009), ‘Online Curatorial Practice – Flexible Contexts and “Democratic” Filtering’, Art Pulse
Magazine, http://artpulsemagazine.com/online-curatorial-practice-flexible-contexts-and-democratic-filtering. Accessed 25 February 2017.
– Scholz, Trebor (2006), The Participatory Challenge, in Joasia Krysa (ed.), Curating Immateriality: The Work of the
Curator in the Age of Network Systems, New York: Autonomedia Press, pp. 195–213.
This text was written for the Journal of Curatorial Studies and was published in Volume 6, Number 1, April 2017. It has been slightly edited to introduce a wider examples of artworks produced during the exhibition for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing. The text can be found at pages 2-6.
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