Gaia Tedone

On the 27th of April 2017, Google celebrated the end of NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn with an amusing Google Doodle featuring the spacecraft swooping between the planet and its rings. This is how the world’s most popular search engine paid homage to a thirteen year mission in outer space, which collected valuable information on Saturn and its rings while also advancing the search for alien life in the universe. As I am writing, the Cassini spacecraft has begun the twenty-two orbits around Saturn that constitutes its mission Grand Finale, leading to its self-destruction. In what follows, I will explain the relevance of this information for eBay and project #exstrange.

Cassini is not only a NASA spacecraft named after Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the famous Italian-born astronomer of the Seventeenth Century. Crucially, it is also the name of the eBay search algorithm, which was enhanced in 2013 to improve the platform’s overall performance, selling standards and costumer satisfaction. Whether the choice of renaming the algorithm after Cassini was the in-joke of a geeky eBay programmer or marked a new trend in algorithmic anthropomorphism is still to be determined. What is certain is that I knew little about Cassini’s human and machinic identity when I accepted the invitation to
participate as a guest curator of the project #exstrange. I suspect Marialaura and Rebekah ignored the relevance of Cassini too. Nonetheless, the project #exstrange appealed to me as a groundbreaking curatorial mission for its willingness to take up great risk and explore uncharted territory. I was eager to join the team and be launched into orbit.

As a guest curator, I was asked to select three artists and produce a curatorial statement. The invitation resonated with my research interests, previously concerned with the entanglements between image circulation, commodification and curation. I was keen to collaborate with three artists whose practices imaginatively responded to the challenge: Niko Princen, Eva and Franco Mattes and Garrett Lynch. However, I soon became perplexed about the kind of curatorial role I could have within this specific context. Clearly, the project was already overtly curated. Marialaura and Rebekah had carefully orchestrated its framework, timing and documentation. The other invited guest curators, spread across the globe, were also bringing their distinctive perspectives. On top of this, an extra curatorial layer was embedded in eBay’s technological infrastructure as its selling categories and standard operating protocols reveal. Such a state of affairs begged several pressing questions: What is left to curate here? And what kind of language is appropriate to frame my own curatorial statement and intervention?

Hence, I decided to dive deeper into eBay, starting from digging into my own email correspondence with the platform over the years while noticing the specific language it employed. I then moved onto the website, browsing through its history, glossary, forum, community, and customer service pages. EBay was officially born in 1997, a few years after founder Pierre Omidyar wrote its code. Soon after, the platform established itself as an honest and open marketplace dedicated to bringing together buyers and sellers and producing “an army of bubble wrap entrepreneurs.” [1] As evoked by the title of the #exstrange project, eBay was one of the first online communities where people were exposed to ‘strangers’ and mingled—all in a pre-Facebook and pre-Tinder era. Since the year 2000, eBay has even run its own University course teaching users how to become master sellers. As my investigation moved from the general to the particular, I focused on two specific elements: the role and currency of images on the one hand, and of online curating on the other. Images play a key role on eBay as they support the functioning of the whole marketplace, acting as interfaces among different users and enabling multiple economic and social transactions. Specific criteria determine what is a ‘good image’ according to eBay standards so that everyone can become a photographer if tips and instructions are followed to the letter. One could go as far as arguing that eBay contributed to the creation of the standards of digital stock photography: its detailed guidelines command the use of plain backdrops, diffuse lighting and close-ups in order to best frame, scale and optimise the depicted objects. On the other hand, the currency and role of curating seems more ambiguous on the platform, as different kinds of items materialise when the word ‘curator’ is typed into the search engine. Amongst many other items, these include: a vintage postcard addressed to the Photography Curator of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; protective oil for wood; humorous T-shirts; gadgets of Dr. Who TV series. Additionally, the whole spectrum of the literature on curating surfaces from the website, including books about art curating, new media curating and content curation. However, when it comes to the activity of curating on the platform, this seems to be associated, fairly conventionally yet predictably, with the creation of bespoke online collections. While easily available to all eBay users, members of staff strategically employ this function for marketing purposes. There is even an Office of the Chief Curator, which selects the most interesting, story-worthy and spectacular items on eBay. So, who is a curator online and what it means to curate on eBay and beyond?

The deeper I dove into my research, the more obvious it appeared that the project #exstrange itself had been swallowed up by the abyss of eBay’s stuff and the auctions were very often difficult to find. I could
encounter them only when following the links shared daily through social media and the #exstrange website. I began reflecting upon the actual visibility of #exstrange within the platform: Was it nil? Or was the project considered a potential threat by eBay, hence falling into the category of “breach of security” that appears in the company’s recent SWOT analysis–that is, its strategic business assessment based on market strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats? [2] I pondered how such analysis could assist in situating the value of curation within the platform. Above all, I was curious to discover who were the project’s audiences and participants and why the works were not appearing on top of my search. It is at this point that I started to explore eBay analytics, its “Best Match” system and search engine. I soon discovered that there is no golden rule to succeed on eBay today, but certain steps can be taken to “be competitive and stay competitive” in the market place.3 The arrival of the ‘intelligent’ Cassini marked a new era in the platform’s history: the system has become more difficult to ‘game’ and rewards those “best practices” that boost customer engagement and enhance image quality standards.

Thanks to Cassini, I was finally able to produce a curatorial statement—a hyperlinked text where the highlighted keywords refer back to a page or acronym within the eBay website and its vast glossary. I described eBay as a self-contained universe of data and meta-data, where countless images are governed by the ratio of visibility. Here, the connection with astronomy rescued me from the deep abyss of commodification and instead launched me into the exploration of space curation. Alongside the curatorial statement, I created an exhibition leaflet, which was produced solely by using the headings of the emails I had been receiving from eBay over the years. If I wanted to truly engage with the eBay universe, surely I had to start by speaking its own language—one that is humorous, intimate and reflexive of consumers’ behaviours. Not surprisingly, the quantity and quality of my correspondences with the platform has magnified since I embarked on the project, culminating on the 25th of April 2017 with an unsurpassable headline: “You are always on our mind Gaia.”

Because of my interest in exploring the value of curation on the platform, Marialaura and Rebekah invited me to produce an auction myself, which I saw as an opportunity to sell the curatorial expertise I had accumulated on eBay and become more ‘intimate’ with Cassini algorithm. With the support of the visually rich imageries associated with Cassini available from the NASA website, I drew together the languages of astronomy, search optimisation and curation. Thus I chose to sell a bespoke curatorial consultancy in partnership with Cassini for the bargain price of $15. I placed my auction, titled Curatorial Consultancy with Cassini on #exstrange, in the category “Specialty Services > eBay Auction Services > Appraisal &
Authentication”. This category of service only exists in the US website so I had to sign a special international agreement since my account is UK-based. My service mixed human and algorithmic curation. It was reliable, efficient and creative. Being immaterial, web-based and buyer-specific, it aimed at increasing the latter’s visibility within eBay universe of ‘Happy Transactions.’ Although available to all eBay users, the consultancy was particularly fitting for artists interested in exploring the currency of their name and work on the platform. My auction offered an online report, the co-creation with Cassini of an eBay collection tailored on the buyer’s listings and tastes, and a special mention during a public event entitled Posthuman curating: curating authenticity or the question of content online held at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, UK. On this occasion, I announced that my service had been purchased, warmly congratulating user Afaja, the buyer of my auction, for his winning offer.

As a result of my consultancy, user Afaja, who turned out to be the artist Alessandro Sambini, produced the successful listing entitled Portable Wildlife Image Instance, since it immediately appeared at the top of the eBay search. I suspect this was due to its original title, witty description and high quality photographs—three key features that Cassini is known to reward. The auction inventively played with the tropes of contemporary landscape photography and Dada ready-made. It sold an “image instance” in the form of half of a shopping bag of the multinational retailer Tesco. Sambini adopted the term “instance” from the software Adobe Flash to refer to an image that has been manipulated and thus differs from the original although remaining closely connected to it. A ‘Bugiardino’ (i.e. an index invoking, as per name and design, the fact sheet inside Italian drugs) accompanied the half-bag, tracing the genealogy of other instances of the same image. After fierce competition and thirty-two different bids, Portable Wildlife Image Instance was bought by user Temporama at the price of $44.00, for an increased market value of 40.5%. User Afaja greatly appreciated the bespoke online collection I co-created with Cassini, which explored the potential of the listing to be curated into a collection of sellable items. Being impressed with Cassini’s ability to capture his eclectic interests and hidden desires, Afaja compared the algorithm to Santa Claus in a conversation with me: “Mr. Cassini, you are better than Santa, next December I am going to ask you: what do I want for Christmas?” However, not all the items in the collection I co-created with Cassini were available in Afaja’s location–Italy, perhaps revealing some cyclical planetary misalignments that Cassini needs fixing. In fact, similar problems occurred before; for instance, when I sent a link to a test collection to Marialaura, who is based in Bangalore, India, and accessed it through eBay India. This was a crude realitycheck about the invisible side of the eBay Universe of global online transactions: the custom restrictions and
bans that block the free circulation of material goods between countries. Crucially, it was also a reminder of the falsity of the old myth cyberspace shares with outer space, that of being an environment which belongs to the whole of humanity, beyond national appropriation and control.

Cassini, as NASA observed, “is a mission of firsts,” which, over time, has continued to surprise its planners with astounding observations, irrevocably changing ways of thinking about the universe.4 Within the operation mobilised by #exstrange, no other ‘mission’ has explored the mysterious synergies of human and algorithmic curation so close. This might at first appear peculiar, considering the wealth of contributors involved in the project and its experimental ambition. However, I deem this as revealing the art world’s diffused resistance towards imaginative forms of engagement with the commodification (and consequent demystification) of the curatorial function online. As my first collaboration with Cassini, the ‘Commodities Chief Curator,’ comes to an end, it leaves behind a rich visual imagery, documented interactions and some preliminary reflections on the value of curation on the platform and beyond. When artists and curators collaborate under the supervision of an ‘intelligent’ algorithm, roles are bound to hybridise and new magnetic fields are mapped. Reflexive methods might emerge whilst the machinic performances of online platforms are scrutinised from the inside. Hence, curation can be seen as an opportunity for daring discoveries, as it produces “disruptive innovation,” engages in “diversification,” and forms “strategic alliances.” [5] These are the kind of alliances that are needed today, as a new generation of algorithms mutate from being explorers to invaders. They are pioneered by Google, which after having appropriated all terrestrial forms of cultural value is swiftly moving into the colonisation of space curation too.


[1] Lewis, E. The eBay phenomenon: the story of a brand that taught millions of strangers to trust one another. London: Marshall Cavendish Business, 2008, 7.
[2] Dudovskiy, J. eBay SWOT Analysis. 2016.
[3] Alexander, T. eBay: Understanding eBay Search with Todd Alexander. 2013.
[4] Green, J. Cassini First Dive Video Transcript. April 26, 2017. 2017.
[5] Dudovskiy.

This text was written for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing, pp.180-185.
All rights reserved.

Renee Carmichael

▹. Setting the Stage

“When it’s on your mind, it’s on eBay” [1]. Or is eBay on your mind? When writing this, a rhythm of a song popped into my head, but I can’t quite remember the lyrics to go along with the vague notations bouncing from clarity to obscurity in on and off beats respectively. I move slightly to the tune anyway, but my performance is interrupted by an email from eBay (literally, I couldn’t make it up if I tried). It says “Congrats on your first purchase.” I entered into the dance piece, On My Miiind, through my desire to dance to the rhythm of a song that is completely my own internal choreography, to force external dance partners (in this case eBay) to follow my lead, and to occupy an altogether different stage—the stage of capitalism. But before I move again to discuss what is On My Miiind, what exactly is this stage and how am I performer here anyway?
In a social media saturated world, the stage becomes an omnipresent platform consisting of notify, notify, notify—capitalism and a well-mixed consistency of power flows. So well mixed, we can’t even see spec(k)s [2] from our birds-eye view, limbs gliding easily from corner to corner of the enigmatic surface of the platform but to no avail. We may recognise eBay for what it is, but can we really see the details lurking behind? Nearsightedness or not, however, the surface looks right back at us and becomes the audience to our life as performer: “Paolo Virno…has argued that post-Fordism turns us all into virtuoso performers, since the basis of labour is no longer the production of a commodity as end-product (as it was on the Fordist production line), but is now a communicational act, designed for an audience.” [3] So I am a performer, whether I acknowledge it or not, as I am communicating constantly with eBay. I am moving through the online eBay pages, and each movement is part of my performance in capitalism. But as I am entertained by the various stages, are they also being entertained by me? Who is actually viewing whom? Is my body as performer or the surface as eBay stage absorbing the shock of the movement of the performance? How did I learn the moves anyway? “Is my mind on eBay or is eBay on my mind?” says my mind swaying slightly…
On, off, on off—the On My Miiind earworm just doesn’t want to leave my head. I may be a performer who can follow the rules of platforms such as eBay, but surely I can also dance freely to my own on-off tune? I can choose to search eBay before logging in. Next time I open eBay I can log in first. I can scroll as fast or as slow as I want. I can move chaotically from page to page, item to item, or follow some sort of meticulous pattern. I am searching for what I want to buy on eBay. I am in control and I am making all the decisions through my own choreography of movements. These are my dreams and my desires—what I would call my On My Miiind dance. It is my internal will being danced and externalised on eBay. It is my mind that dances to its own rhythm, and my dance partner eBay needs to listen and follow my every move. I am more than a performer of a set choreography: I am a freely moving dancer.
Or am I? Does eBay dance my dance or am I merely performing what eBay has already laid out on the stage? Is my mind already filled with the eBay choreographic rules before I even lift a single finger to scroll? Do I dance to the tune of On My Miiind or perform the rules of My Mind On eBay? If I perform to My Mind On eBay, my internal thoughts are actually the external will of what eBay wants me to desire internalised. I am performing eBay as it wants to be performed, and eBay’s dictating choreography takes the lead. Does the design of eBay choreograph my movements? Do I feel like I am in control because eBay wants me to feel this way? Who is taking the lead, eBay or myself as dancer?
Whichever way I find myself on eBay, I am performing. The question then becomes, how free am I to improvise what is On My Miiiind? There is only one way to find out: I will strive to not just perform, but to dance, on eBay.


▹. Programme

∃. Performance concept: the conversation between On My Miiind and My Mind On eBay
The On My Miiind dance is a performance that attempts to see if I can really dance freely on eBay or if I am only able to perform the rules that eBay has set out for me. It is a dance of the communication between On My Miiind and My Mind On eBay—on to the off, dancing to performing—a performance in-between tunes. The performance entails going through the motions of buying an item on eBay based on my own desires, decisions and movements—a choreography of my free will on the eBay stage. Throughout the dance, the chemistry between my free movement and the choreographic rules of eBay, or the ability to mix them together, is an important theme of the performance. To the tune of a blinking cursor, I type “chemistry” into the search bar, and it becomes what I, as dancer, desire to search for and eventually buy on eBay—the motif of the dance.
The performance can be broken up into different phrases, or choreographic fragments that relate to their own patterns, rhythms and actions and are unique compared to the others. Phrase 1 is the search fragment and explores the rhythms of searching and scrutinising items in the search results page for “chemistry.” Phrase 2 is the rhythm of making a decision and deciding what to buy. And finally, phrase 3 is the buying process, filling in forms, adding credit card details and finally ending in the grand finale of a successfully bought chemistry item—applause and bow. In each of these phrases there is a clear change in the rhythm of the performance and in my own body, and these changes are key to the conversation between On My Miiind and My Mind On eBay.
Through struggles of body, will, power, movement and frustration, the performance is a testimony to the subjectivity of a user attempting to take the lead alongside their dancing partner of a multinational corporation.

∃. Performance Context: Movement Online
I started this performance with questions rather than answers. The performance brings together notions of the idea that movement is an important part of communication [4] and stems from my larger research into dance, code and performance online. [5] But if movement is part of exchange, and we are doing the exchange online where we hardly move, what does this mean for capitalism? What happens when we suddenly become aware of our training as performers? Can our movements actually be freeing and outside of the power of eBay as platform?
In order to answer these questions, I needed to be able to not just dance, but to also analyse my movements. To do so, I used techniques inspired from Laban Movement Analysis (LMA). LMA was started by Rudolf Laban (1879-1958) as a method for observing, describing and interpreting human movement. It positions us humans as active agents: “At the heart of LMA is a recognition that movement is a psycho-physical process, an outward expression of inner intent.” [6] Perfect, can I let free my inner boogie on eBay?
LMA is divided into five main categories: body, effort, shape, phrasing and space. I decided to focus on four of these and to exclude space for now. According to LMA, Effort is the type of moves I would do (scrolling, clicking, etc.) and how they could be described (flow, weight, time and space). Shape is about process and can be seen as a type of bridge between my body and screen. Directions (vertical, horizontal, sagittal) are important here as well as the flow (self motivated, environment motivated, or a co-carving of both). My body also becomes part of the analysis in LMA. It is the tool to understand the movements being analysed as systems. Here narratives are taken into account (buying something on eBay) and divisions of the body as well (breath, core-distal, head-tail, upper-lower, body-half, cross-lateral). And finally, we come to what I mentioned before: phrasing. Phrasing is the link to tie it all together, a sequence of movements that have a beginning and an end and can be traced through one single line of motion. I quickly learned that phrasing wasn’t at the tail-end but the core of it all. Each step contained many phrases, and each phrase created a sort of habitual action of my body to the rhythm of eBay. Within each phrase is a mix of the different elements found in body, shape and effort, and together we find a whole performance where I become a star and this text the acclamation of my labour. But does this star verily dance?


Fig:1 A summary of the different steps (counts) it took to search for and decide which item to on eBay and their analyses based on LMA. For each count, you can find what phrase (either 1 or 2) it belongs too and a short summary of how body, effort and shape were noted down during the process.]


Fig:2 A summary of the different steps (counts) it took to complete the buying process on eBay and their analyses based on LMA. Each count is related to phrase 3 and has a short summary of how body, effort and shape were noted down during the process.]


▹. Performers

∃. Performer 1: eBay
It takes two to tango and the first dance performer is the multinational corporation of eBay. I won’t describe here its bodily characteristics or styles as a dancer. The point is, you know them. Whether you have ever typed from muscle memory e-b-a-y in your browser search bar or it is your first visit, eBay moves in a familiar way. Its dance style is common, standardised and often, inflexible. As such, it is easy to follow eBay’s moves.

∃. Performer 2: User (Me)
The second dancer is the general website user, or in this case, me. The word “platform” is defined as both a raised surface on which people or things stand and a place for expressing your own point of view. I come to eBay trying to do just that: express my unique dance style that comes from On My Miiind within the raised surface of eBay. For this, I bring my own biases of wanting to critically analyse eBay’s design in regards to my own movement. And I am also coming creatively, as a participant in the project #exstrange, a platform itself that appropriates another platform (the set designer of my performance?). But regardless of what my unique body brings, my style has to manifest itself, like any user’s would, as one of struggle. I must communicate my moves well enough so that my inflexible dance partner eBay is able to interpret them and dance alongside me. My subjectivity must not only be strong, but clear, so that I can force eBay to move my way. And here is where the notion of chemistry also appears. According to Deleuze, our subjectivity is an extraction and separation of various (chemical) entities that then create new harmonies and rhythms. [7] To be able to take the lead in the dance and exert my subjectivity, I first must extract and display my own unique moves. The struggle then is in getting eBay to follow. The chemistry between us is possible; we can move together as I can easily perform the standardised choreography of eBay, but am I able to create a chemistry with my own subjective dance styles? Can I separate the array of substances to get to the poetics of my own subjective moves and still be able to perform with eBay?


▹. Phrases

∃. Phrase One: Searching for chemistry
I could probably describe in more detail the process of searching on eBay step by step, but it is a whole lot more complicated than the rhythm of an essay allows. It is obscured in the on off beats of On My Miiind and of my moving body—try it out for yourself. What is important here is that, during my search for a chemistry item to buy on eBay, and based on my analysis of body, effort and shape, I found that in all of the three phrases, or clear changes in the way my body moved, this phrase of searching is the most relevant to the questions of my subjectivity as dancer. Phrase one I hereby deem The Free Flowing A-sync Beat Assertion Scroll (ridiculous name intended).
I’ll start with an analysis of the body. My body is making up my own site map of the site. I scrolled and checked out the search items to my own rhythm, pausing when I wanted and going as fast or slow as I wanted. My scrolling hand and eyes were free to move asynchronously with each other and with the page. My body posture was grounded and relaxed, yet my presence was clear and strong. I even leaned in closer to the screen, head on hand on knee—I’m here, and I’m looking for what’s on my mind. I was going with the flow of my own intentions. Or so I thought.
Hello eBay my false partner…are you putting a spell on me? I was free to move but my partner was still there. The search bar at the top drew my attention. I was encouraged to find my own site map and ignore eBay’s. I was free to scroll and jump around as I wished, but the pattern of the design drew my focus to the photos on the left. I felt relaxed and free, but eBay had me right where it wanted: “…labor itself is now play, just as play becomes more and more laborious. Or consider the model of the market, in which the invisible hand of play intervenes to assess and resolve all contradiction, and is thought to model all phenomena, from energy futures markets, to the ‘market’ of representational democracy, to haggling over pollution credits, to auctions of the electromagnetic spectrum, to all manner of supercharged speculation in the art world. Play is the thing that overcomes systemic contradiction but always via recourse to that special, ineffable thing that makes us most human.” [8] I was an engaged human going with eBay’s flow disguised as my own.
There was no need to become aware of my habits, which would allow me to rupture into a dancing body instead of a performing one, [9] since I was tricked that I was doing just that. My effort also served the eBay game at play. I wring: light and flexible movement on the page (outside), strong and forceful body presence (inside). I was de-skilled in my ability to assert my rhythms freely, and I let down my guard to eBay. Why? Because I was on eBay’s time: “The practical rationale for de-skilling today seems to be the accommodation of performance to exhibition time: the need for a low-waged body to be continually present in the space…” [10] Replace exhibition time for eBay Official Time (a real concept that exists and is the timeframe for each auction closing and opening) [11] and you will see the value of my efforts.
Scrolling, looking at the images on the left—humming my own tune. Clicking and opening. Going back to the search results, and a sudden appearance of some eBay columns on the right gives some constraint to my play and reminds me that eBay, my partner, is there to help—“When we learn to expect playfulness from mundane tasks like ordering food or finding a pharmacy, or when we won’t go swimming without a Pokéchaperone, the result is a state of unsuspecting childlikeness, while adults wait in the woods to take their profits.” [12]—take my money; I’m a child playing in your garden. “But I’m buying the toys I want” says my mind as I lean forward, head on hand on knee presence.
With my intentions alongside eBay as babysitter, it all starts to take shape. I am allowed to be asynchronous as long as the more complex advancing and retreating movement of page (space) changes and the right column suggestions fades are handled by eBay. But even during this analysis, my body posture and rhythms are creatures of habit. I cannot seem to escape them no matter how hard I try: “…the membership of the family do not call what they are doing a ritual, or do not recognise the orderly nature of the verbal interaction as regulated…” [13] Is eBay preying on just that in its choice of classic design template? We may never know, but regardless, eBay is about selling and buying and money money money—efficiency in the cloak of community: “Society is that way in which behaviour is calibrated so that existence is not a process of continuous and wasteful trial and error.” [14] I can only be kept on a leash long enough to fail limbs in fresh air but short enough to be reeled in, or, break a leg, off beat flailing bye bye goes the nicely designed system on stage.

∃. Phrase Two: Making a decision
With each wring that I do, I communicate with eBay, and in turn, it communicates with me. Even if I appear to be On My Miiiind, I can’t escape the feedback loop. Eventually I must decide which item that I want to buy from the search result pages for “chemistry.” This little phrase I like to call the In-between Shuffle.
At the moment when I say the most “I am the dancer. I am not the performer.” and choose what chemistry item to buy, ironically my body changes pose to something a bit in-between my previous strong presence and a submissive performer ready to act. I sit up, tall but at a diagonal, always waiting for the contra move. My efforts are strong and forceful, point and click to change rhythm, but my posture is hesitant and waiting, ready at every blink of the cursor. Does eBay actually understand my free-flowing move and dance along? The answer: no, of course not, eBay only speaks in the strict steps of data tongues and not in free flowing limbs. It is only what happens after the click of the “Buy Now” button, when I actually establish my identity, form filling, passwords and usernames, that it gets me: “But the naked or “free” worker of capitalism takes subjection to its most radical expression since the processes of subjectification no longer even enter into partial conjunctions that interrupt flow.”[15] Regardless, we still flow. But do I get it?
I sometimes reflect back to phrase one, free flowing and examining the item closely in my own rhythm, but the shape is more static, the vertical of my hand scroll and the horizontal of my eyes moving in unison—the page moves more than me. When I muscle memory type my search term “chemistry,” a box appears below with suggestions. I escape. Moving the mouse chaotically, swerving to the search button. Click. I win the game. But the static creeps into my flow and as my in-between body posture shows, I am somewhat defeated anyway. I built my subjectivity in phrase one. My On My Miiind determining rhythm of decision-making is exactly where eBay wants me, fighting internally with my own internal ability to dance freely on eBay: “We might say that these virtual centres of power are our own subjectivities, and thus that the battle ground against this power is in some sense ourselves.” [16] I’m not fighting eBay for the power to dance, I’m fighting myself instead. It’s the age-old tale of bottom line selling [17], it’s just that I’ve done all the labour for them from the habitual free flow of my muscle memory finger scrolls.

∃. Phrase Three: Buying process
The item I had decided to buy in phrase two is a miniature chemistry beaker being sent all the way from China. It’s as small as the palm of the hand and as cute as my Miiiind wants it to be. There is no option for bidding, decisions must be as strong and present as my body in the beginning. I click “Buy It Now.” The real (as in eBay’s data speak) rhythm of communicating streams of subjectivity begins. I label this phrase the Suspense of the Buy Scurry.
My body is more chaotic than strong. It jumps to life. Shifting back and forth—will the form accept my details? Another error. I must find my credit card. What are my login details? I forgot my password. I have to open my email. I have to leave the screen to get my card—actually use my legs. I’m never quite sure that it will work. My breath is changing. Sigh of relief. Holding while loading. Swishing of searching. I live in fear of the error, of not being able to move forward, while I ironically move any way I wish in front of my screen: “…we might argue that the predominant production of subjectivity today is based on fear.” [18] eBay has me hooked as I must complete the buy to create peace for that vague rhythm On My Miiind. I made my decision, and my subjectivity scurries to catch up. I call it my chaotic moving without thinking dance, and I am rupturing outside to get back inside. I finally have my own chemistry (of subjectivity), but the outside is now my mind and the inside my eBay account: “We might also think about the use of music to create a territory…A simpler example is bird song, understood as a territorialising refrain, producing a kind of home—and thus a kind of ‘subjectivity’ —for the bird.” [19] I can flap my legs in frustration around the room all I want, but maybe, eBay, partner, you’re holding on just a bit too tight?
The territory of eBay must be internalised if I am to move forward. I forgot to put my phone number. Red error. Stuck on the same page as I freely pace outside in my room. In terms of shape, I can no longer scroll. The rhythm of the page is horizontal centre, symbolic of the core of my body that is now inside eBay through the tongue of passwords and usernames. I continually must use effort—strong, with the typing, clicking, formatting of the habits of filling out forms. Flow is often put to a bodily freeze of page—error. On My Miiiind is still moving forward but now only as the rhythm of the sound of my footprints in the space—outside. The inside is stuck in the pickiness of the eBay tongue. Ironically when my body is moving the most to its own tune, I am controlled even more. In this phrase, I am no longer dancing but performing the My Mind On eBay rhythm of advancing and retreating to success (you still always seem to have force there, eBay, my partner).
But I can still use my legs, can’t I? I am sure that the next time I pay, my dance will be different. Could I consider this a success of free improvisation in its own right? But alas no, tricking us again, eBay old partner. It is merely the suspense that keeps drawing me back in, all for the sake of the efficiency of forward progression and the determination of moving full circle. My contra tempo stirs something inside of me. We feel the beauty of the (mis-communication) glitch: “Nervousness shows us they are here. We do not like to be made nervous because nervousness is a desire to get to a different speed, to correct the discrepancies we feel between our experiences of the world. It reminds us that we are functioning in difference. It maintains relation despite discomfort and forces an acknowledgement that we are out of sync, operating in inequity.” [20] Somewhere, deep down, my mind always had a mind of its own, no matter the designed demands and tricks of the eBay stage. I was desiring a primal moment to miscommunicate, to break the flow, to fight back, to assert myself—to ground myself in the subjectivity of a half remembered password tune beating on to the off and off to the on for a climatic finale of wow for the ever present audience. But in the end, who do I trust? Is it my eBay power to buy, or myself dancing in the corner? I hate to be the one who turns the music off in the morning hours of a party, but it is irrelevant again: eBay is on my mind and my mind is on eBay, no matter which way I move, I can’t define myself without the other while performing on the eBay stage.
The beauty of a glitch keeps us there again and again. The need to communicate our subjectivity, indeed the desire to, is the key to the On My Miiind limits. The error (glitch) reassures us we are still there—in-between—right in the open arms of the dance partner eBay, the cerebrum of the beast. And so I must trust the system because I have no other option and I don’t know any other way. I came here with my own biases, I clearly wanted to be critical, but I quickly realised the game was bigger than that. I couldn’t help my leaning forward head on hand on knee no matter how much I was aware—autotune. On My Miiiind leaves a bitter taste in the gaps between known lyrics. So can we never really be free anyway?


▹. Cool Down: Conclusion
After all of that, the On My Miiind rhythm seems a bit depressing. The chemistry of my subjectivity bounces back into a single liquid. Even the lyrics that I did remember have faded into the obscure mixture. Body, effort and shape come to the deafening presence of stillness. But still, and still or not, we can’t help but dance slightly anyway. And as the word ‘habit’ originally comes from the meaning of dress or attire, could simply becoming aware been seen as a sort of rupture that begins a new rhythm, that puts on a new adornment of key that takes us to the bridge?
We may never have the (eye) power strength to see the spec(k)s on the stage. But no matter which way we look, movement follows and we always leave a trail of our communication to be absorbed by the power waves of capitalism and its ever performing subjects. There might be one small dance of hope left. What if the key to the freedom of improvisation is not in a duality of internal, On My Miiiind, and external, My Mind On eBay, (or vice versa in The Suspense of Buy Scurry) but in the conversation between the two? It is not so much about seeing but about listening to the rhythms that pull us from one obscure beat to the other. Platforms like #exstrange, and art in general, can be argued to help facilitate these new conversations. But in the two day rhythm of writing this essay, I have (literally) received three other eBay emails—notify, notify, notify, this time let’s just not leave all the talking to the off beats. What do your On Your Miiiind beats notify to the rhythm flow?
We end both the performance and this analysis with a new question and a new conversation piece. And as questions lead to more questions in order to keep a conversation alive, the only way we have to move forward is to keep dancing in new phrases, no matter what off beat we find our body needing to perform to next. The game is on. Let’s notify them we aren’t going to skip a beat.


[1] eBay Inc. Staff, “eBay Unveils “When it’s on your mind, it’s on eBay” Advertising Campaign”, 14 Sep. 2001, eBay, accessed 13 Apr. 2017.
[2] “Spec(k)s” is my own play on words. It is a combination of “specks”, as in small spots or particles and “specs”, as in a particular specification. It also plays of its second meaning, related to the notion of vision here, of being a shortened form of spectacles (eye glasses).
[3] Bishop, Claire. Black Box, White Cube, Public Space, Accessed 13 April 2017.
[4] Birdwhistell, Ray. Kinesics and Context: Essays on Body Motion Communication (Conduct and Communication). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.
[5] See:,,
[6] Konie, Robin. A Brief Overview of Laban Movement Analysis. 2011. Accessed 13 April 2017.
[7] Guattari quoted in O’Sullivan, Simon. Academy: ‘The Production of Subjectivity’. Accessed 13 April 2017. Pp. 6.
[8] Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. Polity Press, 2012. Pp 29.
[9] O’Sullivan. Pp 5.
[10] Bishop.
[12] Barron, Jesse. “The Babysitters Club”. Real Life Mag, 27 July 2016. Acessed 13 April 2017.
[13] Birdwhistall, Pp 57.
[14] Birdwhistell, Pp 74.
[15] Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix. A Thousand Plateaus. University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Pp 457.
[16] O’Sullivan. Pp 1.
[18] O’Sullivan, Pp 5.
[19] O’Sullivan, Pp 6.
[20] Dunlop, Jane Frances. “Nervous? We Should Be.” Real Life Mag. 19 July 2016. Accessed 13 April 2017.

Rob Walker

The sweet dream of a commercial marketplace doubling as a space for community and connection is an old one. We imagine the Ancient Agora of Athens, for instance, as a place where merchants peddled goods and citizens swapped political ideas. Perhaps this was even true.

By comparison, eBay seems more coldly mercantile. Its creation story, which involved the founder wanting to help his fiancée trade Pez dispensers with likeminded collectors, has only the flimsiest link to human connection—and is in any case a myth invented by publicists. The real goal of eBay’s inventors was to devise a “perfect market,” in the pure and uncluttered sense of matching buyers and sellers with zero friction. [1] The Pez yarn may have contributed to somewhat
condescending early assessments of eBay as little more than a digital flea market. Today, of course, it is a multinational e-commerce giant, facilitating all manner of transactions in dozens of countries.

But either way, why not take the flea market seriously? The fifth episode of Robert Hughes’s famous 1980 documentary series The Shock of the New memorably sees the critic striding through one in Paris, bellowing about the Surrealists who had found inspiration in such settings and their “endless profusion of battling objects” in the early 20th century.2 “The flea market was like the unconscious mind of capitalism,” Hughes booms; artists prowled the sales stalls to mine connections from the seemingly impersonal goods on offer, revealing “secret affinities” discovered within a world that their work “declassified.” And then the curators of #exstrange, Marialaura Ghidini and Rebekah Modrak, showed up in eBay’s infinite flea market with a different, but not unrelated, intent: to set up shop.

The selling of goods and services, in this context, would serve as a “pretense,” as Modrak put it, for facilitating exchanges among strangers—borrowing sociologist Georg Simmel’s take on the “stranger” as a “mobile figure who circulates goods.” [3] And thus, through more than 100 auctions, involving dozens of artists (and nonartists), #exstrange joined and added to the commodity conversation, simultaneously cacophonous and silent, happening on one of our most familiar online agoras.

To take one example of what this looked like, consider STICK—WITH HISTORY OF AFFORDANCE, listed by Fieldfaring, the collaborative name used by artists Susanne Cockrell and Ted Purves. Like many #exstrange listings, it inspires a second look at the familiar eBay format, suddenly made noteworthy. For all its slick, global might, eBay’s aesthetic remains a bit of a mess. Pre-formatted text is cluttered by logos for paymentservice options and social-media tools to promote whatever is for sale. The designated photo box is the main wildcard: the sales image, whether seductively professional or alarmingly amateur, sets the visual tone. In this case, it’s a workaday picture of three sticks.

“When our son was in primary school,” the listing reads in part, “he would often have these sticks with him when we picked him up after school. He found them in the trees by the schoolyard and played with them at recesstime as make-believe firearms.” And yes, now that you say it, they do look sorta kinda like guns, particularly through the imagined eyes of an imaginative child. Bidders are invited to choose one stick, accompanied by “the memory of its original affordance,” as well as an acknowledgment that the buyer may add his or her own. The stick attracted 26 bids and sold for $71.

Possibly the winner was familiar with psychologist James J. Gibson’s “Theory of Affordances,” defining them as “action possibilities” in an object or environment; or Donald Norman’s subsequent adoption of that term in the context of human-object interaction in the book The Design of Everyday Things; or contemporary philosophical discussions of objectoriented ontology, where it’s not unheard of to encounter the affordance idea applied specifically to the action possibilities of a humble stick as an illustrative example.

But possibly not. EBay sellers slot their auctions into eBay’s category schema, to make them easier for shoppers to discover, and in this case the artists listed their object under “Entertainment Memorabilia,” more typically represented by movie-prop replicas, concert T-shirts, and all manner of celebrity-autographed objects.

It’s a good example of the multiple ways that #exstrange aims to disrupt—to use a word popular among Internet capitalists—assumptions about commercial exchange, virtual connection, and the contexts in which art can live, among other familiar paradigms. Characterizing their enterprise as a “curatorial project,” the organizers of #exstrange used eBay to obliterate the physical, geographic, and ideological norms that define, for instance, a gallery exhibition. Participants contributed listings/works from Austria, India, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico City, North Carolina, Brooklyn, Rome, Amsterdam, Ann Arbor, and so on. Some were recruited by Ghidini and Modrak, others by curators they brought into the project; still more joined in after the auctions got underway, building on an open call for engagement. (“Any artist, designer or eBay account holder may post an auction using the tag #exstrange and following the set of instructions posted here,” the project’s home site explained. [4]) The volume of contributions demonstrated the appeal of sidestepping traditional gallery or art-world settings for a playful and possibility-filled alternative—but the works themselves demonstrated the value in acting on that appeal.

For all the freedom it offers from gallery strictures, eBay comes with its own constraints—a conceptual (as opposed to material) piece still needs to be framed to function in, or respond to, a sales setting. Lanfranco Aceti listed One Unit of Slap (Slap in the Face, Medium …), for instance, as a $500 gift certificate that would entitle the buyer “to own a slap in the face,” dealt by Aceti to a collaborator; this would entail a numbered and signed receipt, as well as the opportunity to witness the slap via Skype or FaceTime. Ann Bartges sold shadow, middle-aged, listed under “Other Women’s Accessories,” for $2.25. Megan Hildebrandt offered Anxiety Disorder (listed under “Tickets & Experiences”) without any clear explanation of how this would be delivered. When a potential bidder raised a concern about whether whatever it was could be shipped to India, Hildebrandt replied she would ship for free, “as I am really looking to get rid of it.” It sold for $1.99. Meanwhile, she solved the problem of providing potential buyers with a depiction of her wares by filling eBay’s image box with the familiar red slash-in-a-circle “no” or “do not” symbol.

Obviously this sort of listing reframes eBay itself, converting the potential transaction into something a lot more complicated than the neat, near-mindless fusion of supply and demand. So did #exstrange listings that involved material objects. Sreshta Rit Premnath offered A Flimsy Alibi, in the form of a hunk of cardboard, pictured on a subway-station floor, with a poem as the official item description; someone bought it for a penny. Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, operating as the collaborative practice Out-of-Sync, listed clear bags of paper shreds, positioned as the result of an “endurance performance”—a year spent shredding “every piece of text” associated with Neumark’s lost teaching position; listed as art, under “mixed media, collage,” Shreds sold for $5.50.

Some artists addressed Internet or tech-defined culture directly. In an extension of her ongoing Archive Fever project, Elisa Giardina Papa offered one month of her browser history on a pink thumb drive for 99 cents, describing it as a de facto “unedited narrative” of her personal and professional life, as mediated by the traces of her web wandering. JODI’s EBAY shopping bag, a physical shopping bag decorated with the digital store’s logo, listed under “Equipment & Material Stores,” sold for €60. Given the variety suggested here, it’s worth pausing over how #exstrange contributors resolved the challenge, or exploited the opportunity, of eBay’s image box: a no-frills photo of a bag of paper shreds actually makes a perverse kind of sense among all the amateur photography on the site, while the shopping bag quietly mimics the slick, professional merch pic that’s really just as common. The visual quality of the sales image usually communicates something about the nature of the seller and his or her goods—and #exstrange artists seemed to both play to and play with that expectation.

Others turned the eBay listing into a site for political provocation. Masimba Hwati, based in Harare, Zimbabwe, sold a “soil sample” taken from a hill in that city where “the First Colonialist settlers planted the British flag” in 1890. (Here the sales image is a tasteful vase, full of dirt.) Listed under “Land” on, then relisted on, where the closest available category was “Real Estate,” it sold for $36. Speaking more bluntly to current events, UK-based artist collective IOCOSE offered Instant Protest!, described as “photos of people from all over the world demonstrating in the streets with your favourite slogan” and allegedly useful for news articles or social-media campaigns. The listing’s promo images showed anonymous demonstrators with signs marked “LOREM IPSUM.” Offered in an edition of 10 at the “Buy It Now” price of $10, it sold out.

While this sampling covers only a small fraction of #exstrange, it should hint at the border-hopping sweep of the project, the sheer variety and firepower of the provocations—and, it’s important to note, the entertainment—on offer. One can only speculate as to the time and effort it would take to match it with an exhibition in art-world-suitable physical space(s). But whatever this may say about the challenges the project offers to standard gallery practice, the way it engages with eBay and the intersections of capitalism and technology that we’ve slowly come to take for granted is even more significant.

Toward the end of its run, #exstrange explored these intersections through a batch of auctions devised in collaboration with consumer-culture researchers. Eight listings offered unusual “products” that commented on contemporary notions of “networked” society—and, to further complicate matters, offered duplicates that simply positioned the exact same items in different ways. For instance, an iPhone EarthX–4.7 was described as brand new, unlocked, and biodegradable, among other features; with no battery or memory limits, an “analog” operating system and compatible only with an “Earth to Earth” network, it “dramatically improves the most important aspects of the iPhone experience.” The body material: “cast clay (unfired) and earth.” It was listed for 1 cent. An essentially identical version of the object and its accompanying sales text, with different promotional images and auction titles, was listed for $10. Through a series of direct interactions with the shopping public, the researchers borrowed #exstrange’s conversion of a shopping space into an art space, and further converted it into a laboratory space.

Whatever the results, it’s the fact of the experiment that matters. At the time eBay first made its way into the public mind, optimistic self-styled experts on the coming web-connected world declared that a new utopian marketplace of ideas was upon us; tired and stultifying gatekeepers would be swept aside, previously marginal or idiosyncratic thought could compete fairly with the hidebound and the elite, and the people would form our own more perfect polis. One popular metaphor for describing this suddenly inevitable new world pitted the cathedral against the bazaar—one model suggesting the the many are forced to listen to and obey the few, the other reflecting the agora-like ideal of unlimited conversation and debate and exchange.

Perhaps this has even turned out to be true, although we have since learned that the unlimited marketplace of ideas offers peddlers of the ugly and the shoddy fresh opportunity to expand their audiences, too. But more to the point, this wild new world often turns out to feel surprisingly stultified and regimented and formatted and controlled, filtered through prefab structures like Facebook and Google and, yes, eBay. What replaced the cathedral often feels less like a bazaar than a mall.

#exstrange reveals that there are some cracks and corners in these virtual structures, hidden in plain sight and waiting to be exploited. It takes just one encounter with a truly unexpected eBay listing to reframe what eBay is, and what (and who) the wider technoculture it now represents is really for—to complicate, if only momentarily, whatever’s going through “the unconscious mind of capitalism.” This is the real transaction, and this is the real exchange. It doesn’t cost a penny, and you couldn’t own it if you wanted to. There is nothing more valuable.


[1] Berkun, Scott. “The Myths of Innovation.” O’Reilly Media, 2010.
[2] “The Shock of The New, Episode Five: The Threshold of Liberty,” British Broadcasting Corporation, 1980.
[3] “U-M professor’s project encourages artists, curators to intervene in capitalism using eBay,” Michigan News, February 9, 2017., accessed May 11, 2017

This text was written for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing, pp.108-113
All rights reserved.

Mark Dery

I. EBay Meets the Political Economy of the Sign

On January 15, 2017, the first in a series of head-scratching listings popped up on eBay. Offered by a seller identified only as IOCOSE, Instant Protest promised to mount a street protest whose participants would carry signs bearing “your favorite slogan.” For the bargain-basement price of 10 bucks, a “global protest will be instantly crowdsourced and buyer will receive the photo in a few days.” The service was perfect, IOCOSE helpfully suggested, for social-media campaigns, political movements, and pseudo-events staged for the unsuspecting media. A sample picture showed a knot of protestors in what looks like an African or Indian village; faces covered with bandanas or swaddled in shawls, they brandish placards reading, “Stop Lorem Ipsum.” (Lorem Ipsum is the Latinate gobbledygook graphic designers use as dummy text when conceptualizing layouts.)

In a time of political unrest, fake news, and grassroots movements that turn out to be astroturf operations stage-managed by P.R. companies, Instant Protest hits that epistemological sweet spot between prankish and plausible. If it’s a media hoax, a work of conceptual art, or a social sculpture, as Joseph Beuys would call it, it’s one the buyers turned on the seller by taking it at face value: 15 buyers took the seller up on his offer.

Instant Protest was followed by other, equally offbeat auctions. Between January 15 and April 8, they cropped up in various categories, most of them unrelated. Yet they were linked by the mysterious hashtag in their titles, “#exstrange.” There were interactive performances in the Dada, Fluxus, or punk vein: a gift certificate retailed by Lanfranco Aceti that entitled the owner to witness, via FaceTime or Skype, a slap in the face delivered by the seller to a willing victim—a transaction that recalls the depraved slapstick of the performance art duo, The Kipper Kids, as well as the psychopathology of everyday life in the age of social media, when smartphone videos of murders, by murderers, go viral. [1] There were poetic items reminiscent of Surrealist objects—an Uncomfortable Wine Glass, globular in nature, with an awkward bunghole for sipping [2] —and reified ideas in the conceptual-art tradition: Nicolás Lamas, an artist who lives in Ghent, offered “the sweet smell of success,” stoppered up in a bottle. [3] Ann Bartges’s auction consisted of a gently used “middleaged shadow,” feet missing but otherwise “fully intact,” with the tongue-in-cheek caveat that its “appearance and/or color may vary…depending on [the] light.” [4] Martin Lang, “a very unlucky person,” was selling a bag of pennies, which had absorbed all of his good luck and were now infused with 10 years’ worth of the stuff, yours for the opening bid of £0.99. [5] “You will be doing me a favor,” he wrote, “as once the pennies are gone I expect to be able to build up my good luck stores once more.” No such luck: the auction didn’t attract a single bidder.

Some of the offerings commented on the ever more mediated nature of postmodern life. Up for auction on Tara Kelton’s page was “a single image’s worth of space in my brain, where my mind will function as a memory card,” [6] a parodic inversion of McLuhan’s pronouncement that Homo cyber is outsourcing his cognitive functions to his cerebral prosthesis, the computer. The Bangalorebased seller Yashaswini was peddling a photographic print of a single pixel from one of your selfies, which might (or might not) make “visible the unseen [aspect] of one’s being.” [7] Inspired by the tragicomic absurdity that India led the world, in 2016, in selfie-related deaths, Yashaswini wondered if “in that brief moment of a click and fall” the victim’s soul is “encapsulated as a pixel” in the fateful image—a bit of occult whimsy that calls to mind Victorian spiritualists’ belief that ghosts could be captured by the photographic plate. One seller, Megan Hildebrandt, even managed to commodify angst by putting her anxiety disorder up for sale. “Worry about the future excessively and experience intense fear regarding current events!” she wrote, in a description that would make Munch’s Screamer reach for the Lorazepam. ANXIETY DISORDER FOR SALE rebrands the psychic disease of the 20th century for our new Age of Anxiety, when ISIS, Kim Jong-un’s nukes, Trump’s unhinged brinkmanship, and the paycheck-to-paycheck worries of the precariat are the night terrors of the mass unconscious. [8]

Unsurprisingly, given the context, a significant number of the #exstrange listings commented on consumer culture, postmodern capitalism, the commodity in the age of digital reproduction, and, not incidentally, the economics of the art world. There was an auction that promised Your Named Exhibit in the soon-to-be-built Museum of Capitalism, in Oakland; the exhibit’s theme will be “the amount of money required for its namesake to earn this distinction”—the apotheosis of the cash nexus, and the logical conclusion of the trend toward pharaonic philanthropy that has given us the Metropolitan Museum’s David H. Koch Plaza and The David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. [9] Also open for bidding was Press Release, 2017, Geraldine Juárez’s self-reflexive meditation on the dematerialization of the art object (part of a larger cultural dynamic, the virtualization of goods and services): a signed, laminated copy of a typescript statement that began, “Like all knowledge workers, the artists continued to labor; they just stopped laboring on actual art. Instead of artworks, they shifted attention towards ideas and the mediums associated with the production of ideas.” [10]

Baudrillard’s ghost smiles. Hadn’t our foremost diagnostician of the postmodern condition declared, in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, that “the auction, this crucible of the interchange of values, where economic value, sign value, and symbolic value transfuse according to the rules of the game, can be considered as an ideological matrix—one of the shrines of the political economy of the sign”? What could be more Baudrillardian than a conceptual art auction in cyberspace? [11]

That, in fact, is what #exstrange was. It was also a covert exhibition, a guerrilla-media parody of the site it
hijacked, and an anti-capitalist intervention in the e-tail economy. The brainchild of Marialaura Ghidini, a curator who teaches at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, and Rebekah Modrak, an artist and professor in the Stamps School of Art & Design at the University of Michigan, #exstrange—hashtag shorthand for “Exchange with Stranger”—was inspired, says Modrak, by the sociologist Georg Simmel’s “understanding of the ‘stranger,’ which he described as a ‘mobile figure who circulates goods.’” [12] She and Ghidini told an interviewer, “in our exhibition, artists circulate ideas through the pretense of selling goods or services. We, the curators, see eBay as an opportunity to enable artists/designers to reach out to members of online communities clustered around object experiences…. We are interested in opening up discussions that might challenge the uses we make of technology in our everyday activities, and all of the assumptions we make about it. EBay represents a business model of the era, and through the years has tried to propagate a kind of person-to-person trade. What we have now is a culture of commodity that is primarily circulated online through platforms that are not just dedicated to e-commerce but also to interpersonal communication. … The personal relationship that can be established between a seller and buyer is what we are interested in, especially in a time in which our personal communication is so much mediated by interfaces created by companies for business purposes—we still very rarely think about this proactively.

#Exstrange, as Modrak describes it, is an attempt to reweave the social fabric “pitilessly torn asunder” by the bourgeoisie, as Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto. [13] Capitalism “has left remaining no other
nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment,’” the old bearded devil thundered, a judgment that rings truer than ever at a time when Facebook and Twitter have not only monetized our personal data but transformed the social self into Brand Me, quantifying popularity with the unforgiving precision of a high-school cafeteria and conducting a mass experiment in operant conditioning—positive or negative reinforcement—with every post and tweet. Inverting that cultural logic, #exstrange interposes, in the social space colonized by capitalism, a more human interaction.

II. “Becoming A Brand Name Is An Important Part Of Life”

Yet #exstrange is equally a critique of the freakonomics of the art world, where the Shock of the New—Modernism’s battle-tested strategy for outraging the bourgeoisie—only ‘inflates’ a work’s market value, and every hedge-fund billionaire is on the hunt for status totems that will inspire paroxysms of envy in his dinner guests. It’s this cultural climate that has pushed the hammer price of monumental kitsch like Balloon Dog (Orange), a 10-foot-tall stainless-steel sculpture of a balloon dog by the former commodities broker Jeff Koons, to $58.4 million.

In his 2008 study of “the curious economics of contemporary art,” The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Don Thompson, a professor of marketing and economics, lays bare the importance of branding in the making of a $58.4 million balloon animal—the branding of the celebrity dealer and of prestige auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and to a lesser degree of the artist and the museums that have exhibited him (almost always him). “Becoming a brand name is an important part of life,” says Damien Hirst. “It’s the world we live in.” [14] Hirst ought to know: his is the shark of Thompson’s title. The pickled fish was inexpertly preserved, it turned out; even so, with a suitably portentous title (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) and the seductive patter of power dealer Larry Gagosian, it won the heart of the hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen, who ponied up the legendary $12 million. (Five days’ income for Cohen, who at the time was making $16 million a week.)

Branding greatly aids the gulling of the dizzily rich, who’ve been known to plunk down staggering sums for works by brand-name artists, sight unseen, based solely on their dealer’s advice. “The motivation that drives the consumer to bid at a branded auction house, or to purchase from a branded dealer, or to prefer art that has been certified by having a show at a branded museum, is the same motivation that drives the purchase of luxury consumer goods,” writes Thompson. [15] “Money itself has little meaning in the upper echelons of the art world—everyone has it. What impresses is the ownership of a rare and treasured work… What the rich seem to want to acquire is what economists call positional goods; things that prove to the rest of the world that they really are rich.” [16]

III. What’s Your Story?

Channeling culture jammers and the Situationists, Modrak and Ghidini hoped #exstrange would “empower [artists] with a spirit of self-determination,” as Modrak put it. “Artists are not obligated to high-end niche luxury art markets and gatekeeping gallery systems. #Exstrange fosters play as part of an alternative form of distribution and critique.” [17]

The trouble is that play isn’t immune to appropriation by capitalism, and that consumer culture eats critique for breakfast. Marketing gurus, motivational speakers, corporate managers: all extol the merits of creativity — as long as it turns a profit. In Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, the science writer Steven Johnson spins TED-friendly historical parables about the interrelationship of playfulness and innovation; the book is intended to be read by aspiring industry “disruptors,” yellow highlighters in hand. In The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin, an evangelist for zany marketing and corporate nonconformity, argues that the Digital Revolution has killed off the Organization Man and made artists of us all. Godin thinks of himself as an artist. He’s a triumph of self-branding, a walking advertisement for himself whose cue-ball dome and nerd-cool glasses—his “facelogo,” he calls them, a little too cutely—let his corporate audiences know just how brilliantly out-of-thebox he is. “Who is the artist?” he asks. “The painter in front of a blank canvas. The architect changing the rules of construction. The playwright who makes us cry. The doctor who cares enough to call. The detective who cracks a cold case. The diva with a new interpretation of a classic. The customer service rep who, despite the distance and the rush, makes an honest connection. The entrepreneur who dares to start without permission or authority. The middle manager who transforms the key meeting with a single comment. [18]

Ironically, corporate America’s celebration of creativity comes at the very moment that the economic shock waves of the Great Recession, the tsunami of change wrought by the Web, and the upward redistribution of wealth facilitated by the free-market fundamentalism of Republicans and Democrats alike are carving the epitaph of the creative class.

Adding insult to irony, millionaire artists like Hirst and Koons are, at the same time, indistinguishable from advertising “creatives,” marketers, or branding experts, the only difference being that the product they’re promoting is themselves. “Damien Hirst is making Damien Hirsts,” the art critic Jerry Saltz has said, of Hirst’s work. “The paintings themselves are labels—carriers of the Hirst brand. They’re like Prada or Gucci.” [19] Concepts—can we really call them ideas?—are their stock in trade; neither of them actually makes his art, the dreary gruntwork of actually making the stuff is left to wage slaves, following the model of Warhol’s Factory. (Warhol, in hindsight, is the art world’s answer to Henry Ford.)

Irony squared: all the while, actual marketing, branding, and advertising are becoming more and more like art; products take a back seat to the narratives that give them, and our dream lives as consumers, meaning. “What’s your story?” asks the opening spread of the Lucky Brand catalog that arrived in today’s mail. I’m encouraged to tell mine, via Twitter, using the hashtag #MyLuckyBrand, which is confusing to those of us who are literal-minded. Are we supposed to tell stories about epiphanic encounters with the Lucky brand, a force that gives our lives meaning? Or are we being encouraged to lay our lives—our stories—on the altar of the L.A.-based brand, in the hope that this Golden Calf from the Golden State—this laid-back Mammon from the land of endless summer—will shower its blessings on us?

“On this side of the map, there’s a richness to our lifestyle that is reflected in our wardrobe,” muses the dreamy blurb that opens the catalog, a brand poet’s meditation on the deeper meanings of Lucky. This, too, is perplexing: this richness is more than merely material, the poet implies, yet this mysterious, quasi-spiritual richness is sufficiently tangible that it can be reflected in Lucky’s jeans and tees, whose “handcrafted style” is “inspired by the West Coast.” Then it hits us: the writer is talking not about the mythic richness of West Coast lives, deepened by the questing we associate with the land of New Age spirituality; he’s talking about the richness of the L.A. lifestyle—that is, life reduced to style, or personal branding (a very L.A. notion, if you think about it, which Lucky would rather you didn’t).

A few pages later, the catalog tells us, “We took our blue jean favorites and applied unexpected embroidery, low-key destruction, and overworked shredding to give them a life that tells a thousand tales.” In the Mecca of the makeover, where the self is an object to be remade by cosmetic surgery, the human-potential cult, or the CrossFit regimen, objects have selves, born of the fabricated wear and tear that simulates hard-won experience.

In large part, the story ‘is’ the commodity. It’s the difference between an aestheticized pair of beat-up jeans that are, after all, just jeans and an aestheticized pair of beat-up jeans that whispers “the L.A. Story,” as Lucky calls it, in the mind’s ear. “Because at the end of the day, denim isn’t only something you wear,” the brand poet declaims. “It’s a lifestyle. And California isn’t just a place. It’s a state of mind.” It’s Lucky’s narrative that makes its jeans worth $119, in the same way that Hirst’s shark, without its title, is just a carcass floating in formaldehyde. With it, however, it’s art—a “brutally honest and confrontational” statement that, according to a curator at Tate Modern, shoves our faces into “the paranoiac denial of death that permeates our culture.” [20]

Of course, the goods and services in #exstrange’s auctions came with readymade narratives, too; stories that transformed them into art. But the exhibition’s curators, and the artists who participated in it, were launching an insurgency—a fusillade of counternarratives in the war of stories we call culture. Unlike the brand poetry intended to close the deal on multimillion-dollar artworks or distressed jeans, #exstrange’s stories were intended to estrange; to instill a Frankfurt-Marxist alienation, a Situationist irony, or a Dada absurdism that makes us think critically about capitalism, commodity fetishism, the branded life. “Since he is not rooted in the particularities and biases of the community, [the stranger] stands apart from it, in an attitude of objectivity,” wrote Georg Simmel, in his essay, “The Stranger.” “This is not an aloofness that lacks involvement but rather a curious combination of closeness and distance, of detachment and engagement.” [21] To be sure, the stuff in #exstrange’s auctions is, like everything on eBay, for sale. [22] But what #exstrange’s sellers are really selling is estrangement, the prerequisite for what Damien Hirst might call The Possibility of a Better Life in the Mind of Someone Shopping.


[1] Lanfranco Aceti, One Unit of a Slap (Slap in the Face, Medium to Strong, Colorful), Auction Archive, #exstrange website
[2] Katerina Kamprani, The Uncomfortable Wine Glass, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[3] Nicolás Lamas, Genius, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[4] Ann Bartges, Shadow, middle-aged, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[5] Martin Lang, Lucky Pennies, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[6] Tara Kelton, Human Internal Memory Storage, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[7] Yashaswini, Pixel of a Selfie, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[8] Megan Hildebrandt, ANXIETY DISORDER FOR SALE, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[9] FICTILIS, Your Own Named Exhibit within the Museum of Capitalism, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[10] Geraldine Juárez, Press Release, 2017, Auction Archive, #exstrange website.
[11] Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Mo: Telos Press, 1981), 112.
[12] Sydney Hawkins, U-M professor’s project encourages artists, curators to intervene in capitalism using eBay, Michigan News, February 9, 2017,
[13] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Chapter 1, archived at,
[14] Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 13.
[15] Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, 13.
[16] Thompson, 16.
[17] Hawkins, U-M professor’s project encourages artists, ibid.
[18] Seth Godin, THE ICARUS DECEPTION: WHY MAKE ART? New from Seth Godin, Kickstarter,
[19] Quoted in Thompson, 66.
[20] Quoted in Thompson, 68.
[21] Georg Simmel, The Stranger (1921), archived at The Baffler website,
[22] The question of which auctions sold, and how brisk the bidding was, though not a verdict on the value of the work in question, is worth raising. According to the curators, 50 of the 88 artworks/auctions sold; many attracted multiple bids. It bears pointing out that most of the goods and services that sold were purchased, as Modrak informed in an e-mail, by people connected to artists. (Rebekah Modrak, e-mail to the author, May 11, 2017)
In an interview for the arts and technology publication Arshake, she stressed that she and Ghidini “were primarily interested in the work’s presence as a live auction. While the sale and future engagements are of interest and enter into the realm of social practice, we were more focused on the work’s engagement with the eBay audience.” (Elena Giulia Abbiatici, Interview: Marialaura Ghidini and Rebekah Modrak,”Arshake, May 10, 2017,
#Exstrange’s participants varied in their approach to the question of whether or not their auctions were successful. “Individual artists had their own perspective on ‘the sale,’” Modrak notes, in Arshake. “For some, selling the work was integral to the work; others attempted to thwart sales. For example, Maximilian Goldfarb set his price of Access to Tools in Outer Space to the appropriate futuristic space odyssey price of $2001.00. And Natalie Boterman [Making It] and her winning bidder had lengthy conversations and debates about the meaning, hierarchy and value of her work. These discussions began during the auction, with Boterman’s candid responses more concerned with describing her relationship with her work than in trying to make the sale.”

This text was written for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing, pp.96-103
All rights reserved.

Marialaura Ghidini + Rebekah Modrak

#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, 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.
All rights reserved.

Padma Chirumamilla

Are we apps, or are we bodies filled with apparitions? Operating applications, stuck inside an Apple prison, Chicken hack, and download updates that lack religion. Or are we more… –Lupe Fiasco, “Mural” (from Tetsuo & Youth)

Technology—tools, apps, devices, wires—has a way of sneaking up on us, winding in and through the rhythms of our everyday practices. The power cuts out, the microwave beeps its inscrutable errors insistently, and the ferocious fragility we do our best to tamp down into manageable, mundane moments breaks free, forcing itself to the forefront of our consciousness. Things break. They break unexpectedly. And then what? Are we newly afraid? Exposed to latent fear? To possibility?

The sociologist Susan Leigh Star suggests that we stop thinking about computers as “information highways” and instead envision them as “symbolic sewers.” [1] The imagery here is deliberately evocative: we move into a realm that envisions technology not as the promised road that takes us out of ourselves and our earthbound reality, but as the sewer–the thing we dare not look at lest we be forced to confront the muddy truth of our everyday life. The truth being that our very sense of sleepy normalcy is a messy thing, in need of upkeep, of constant care that goes unacknowledged. It is hard to be, and remain, boring and consistent. Ordinariness is a quality that needs to be fought for, a quality that needs to be created and maintained, against the ravages of time, of weather, against the unwavering tide of breakdown.

The familiar modes of exchange are all over #exstrange: delivery in a reasonable time for the right price, PayPal, credit cards accepted, we ship free to the contiguous United States (additional charges for Hawaii and Alaska). Guarantees of all sorts, from fraud protection to payment processing, color the possible ways one can interact with art and imagination both. Certainty—the Sisyphean pushback against fragility and breakdown—is on clear, consistent display throughout eBay’s frame, the frame that envelopes and unites all these diverse and divergent pieces. Buying from eBay will not hurt. Indeed, you, dear buyer, will be safely ensconced within all the protections eBay (and PayPal, and their underlying system of secure servers and trust certificates) can offer you.

And yet, pushing through these familiar frames, there are other modes of being, other kinds of ordinariness: walking, missing socks, paper shreds, shadows, old (once-and-no-longer valued) currency notes. Two kinds of ordinariness intertwine in the exhibition, as in life: the exchange, and the experience. PayPal meets devalued currency; shadows meet delivery guarantee dates. What can we make of this, of the strangeness that results from this twining?

Thinking about the work of repair and the “broken world” it intervenes in, the scholar Steve Jackson has written that “broken world thinking draws our attention around the sociality of objects forward, into the ongoing forms of labor, power, and interest—neither dead nor congealed—that underpin the ongoing survival of things as objects in the world .” [2] This tense and tenuous connection—this ongoing push-and-pull between the sociality that underpins everyday moments of life and the frozen transactionality that characterizes an encounter on the eBay interface—lies at the center of the #exstrange artworks.

When I spent time in a television repair shop in South India, this tension between exchange and experience wound its way through workaday life: blasting music from a customer’s particularly expensive speaker system after keeping it in the shop for an extra day, enjoying videos on televisions too expensive for any of us, turning the volume up for music videos and clips of fast motorbikes. With the customers, the façade of regulated transaction: the tags, the careful notation of model and serial numbers, the follow-up calls, the logging of problems on a “job sheet” in English (in duplicate), all for the maintenance of a stern face of knowledge. Explanations were brief analogies: none of the repairmen ever seemed to think the customers would understand, or care for, the technical details of repair too much.

With each other, as fellow workers who saw enjoyment in fixing up the television and watching the thing work—evidence of labor tangibly rewarded—there were films, there was a spliced cable trying to feed programming into three sets for the price of one. There was music, there was camaraderie, and this was how knowledge about work, about the sets themselves, was transmitted (through YouTube videos, not necessarily in English or Telugu, playing on the big screen of a customer’s expensively smart TV).

The few trappings of official work-order that decorated the workshop—the whiteboard with mysterious initials and numbers (that never was explained to me, in eight months), the clock (which was mostly ignored for the mobile phone)—mattered far less to the constitution of the working day than tasting each other’s lunches, or gossiping about the bosses, or escaping the confines of the workshop to trawl the bazaar for parts. (Until and unless visitors from regional HQ were due in shop, and then the rules took on a more severe form—the floors swept of months-old dust, the cannibalized circuit boards of old sets stashed away from sight and mind, the cut-up plastic cups of water to test microwaves thrown out with their moldy inhabitants. Everyone in name-tags and uniform, for a moment, grumbling under duress.)

Looking at South Asian mobile phone repair shops, the anthropologist Assa Doron noted the symbolic value of the receipt (and its more abstracted cousin, the contract): “With the receipt in hand, customers feel endorsed and relieved, guaranteed of Nokia’s international value and confirmed in their own participation in what Herzfeld called ‘the global economy of value.’ ” [3] And yet it is precisely this constancy, this confirmation and reliability that the #exstrange works pull into question, and cast into doubt. The frame of PayPal and the eBay guarantee, plastered all over the exhibits, should—if they perform as intended—give us clarity and a sense of protection, as relatively anonymous buyers trawling the seas of the Internet’s offerings. And yet here these very guarantees are rendered unfamiliar, ripped from their anodyne non-presence and placed into glaring contrast with the quietly ordinary experiences on display.

Consider John Freyer’s Seven Left Socks, now residing in Ohio. [4] Sock loss (to washing machines and gym lockers, to vigorous pets, to imaginative children) is probably that most mundane of Monday morning problems, colored with a humorous irony all its own. Placed within the frame of the eBay auction, with its need for a named price and its admission that “seller does not accept returns,” are the (comical, horrifying) algorithmically generated items of interest that encompass the actual experience laid out in the “seller’s description”—an experience of quiet memory, a story of the haunting that suffuses the rhythms of mundane life.

This contrast forces us to confront the question, the question that Doron politely asks of South Asia, but that is perhaps a more fundamental inquiry for those of us living in the world of transactional exchange: Why are the contract and the guarantee the planks that undergird our sense of normalcy, of ordinariness and boredom?

There are other ways to be and to exchange, after all: Doron’s contrast is the street-selling mobile phone repairmen, who work in a mode guaranteed not by contract, but by dialogue and sociality. You, as a customer desirous of making a transaction, talk with a (very human) repairman, constructing a sense of certainty in the repair and the repairman as you speak, back and forth, about prices and parts. It is a fundamentally social and not-entirely objective guarantee, unlike the printed-down, always-same and endlessly-reproducible promise of the contract. Maintenance, in this mode of transaction, is a promise between parties who can contend with the musky reality of each other’s presence. You talk, and are convinced (or not). You agree to a price (or walk away). The terms are fluid, moving.

The Internet, with all its posthuman promise, cannot quite bring itself to replicate the fundamentally and intimately contestable nature of this sort of transaction. And so our sense of what constitutes the ordinary sense of our lives is upturned, defamiliarized. The contract, the guarantee, is rendered alien to the altogether familiar experiences (of loss, of Sunday morning walks [5] , of old video game systems and diaries once beloved [6]) placed within its confines. How to come to terms with this? With our desire for clarity, with the diffuse flexibility of our everyday experiences in the world?

This is not to say that there is no place in the world for the clarity which enforcement and guarantee can provide: as Michael Idov notes in New York magazine, Russian “life after trust” was marked “less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge.” [7] But it’s that amorphous principle itself– trust –and the varying ways in which it embeds itself within our everyday experience that is worth paying attention to.

As Idov notes, it’s an act of conjuration, an act of magicking up faith in street-side vendor or a printed contract that renders a guarantee a believable entity and transforms it into an underpinning of our everyday life. And is that not in and of itself an enduringly strange thing? In #exstrange, we confront the ghost and the guarantee both: the fragile experiences woven together to form our everyday lives, the loudly-proclaimed certitudes that we hope underpin them, and the constant work of belief (in printed word, in vendors encountered, in friends and in strangers) necessary to bind the two together.


[1] Star, Susan L. “The Ethnography of Infrastructure.” American Behavioral Scientist 43 (1999), 377-391.
[2] Jackson, Steven J. “Rethinking Repair.” In Media technologies: Essays on communication, materiality, and
society, eds. Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski and Kirsten A. Foot (2014): 221-240. Cambridge: MIT Press.
[3] Doron, Assa. “Consumption, Technology and Adaptation: Care and Repair Economies of Mobile Phones in North India.” Pacific Affairs 85, no. 3 (2012): 563-85.
[7] Idov, Michael. “Russia: Life after Trust.” New York (January 22, 2017). Accessed April 17, 2017.

This text was written for the book #exstrange: A Curatorial Intervention on eBay (2017) published Maize Books, an imprint of Michigan Publishing, pp.104-107
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