The Value of Exchange: The Agora, the Flea Market, and eBay

Rob Walker is a journalist covering design, technology, business, the arts, and other subjects. He writes The Workologist for the Sunday Business section of The New York Times, and contributes to a variety of other publications and media outlets. His most recent book, co-edited with Joshua Glenn, is the collection Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things. He is on the faculty of the Products of Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York (USA).

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
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