Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He has been a professor of journalism at NYU (New York, USA), a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at UC Irvine, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. Dery’s books include The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink and Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. His latest book is the University of Minnesota essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is associated with the concept of “culture jamming,” the guerrilla media criticism movement he popularized through his 1993 essay “Culture Jamming,” and “Afrofuturism,” a term he coined in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future” (in the Duke University anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, which he edited).

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 dot.com 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, http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/24569-u-m-professor-s-project-encourages-artistscurators-to-intervene-in-capitalism-using-ebay.
[13] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Chapter 1, archived at Marxists.org, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm..
[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, https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/297519465/the-icarus-deception-why-make-art-new-from-seth-go.
[19] Quoted in Thompson, 66.
[20] Quoted in Thompson, 68.
[21] Georg Simmel, The Stranger (1921), archived at The Baffler website, https://thebaffler.com/ancestors/stranger.
[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, http://www.arshake.com/en/intervista-marialaura-ghidini-e-rebekah-modrak/)
#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.