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Some Experiments in Art as Gift

Published in Ethics & the Environment, August, 2003 as Free Words to Free Manifesta: Some Experiments in Art as Gift. Thanks to Chris Cuomo, editor extraordinaire.

Free Words

It began this way. Standing nervously in a bookstore, in front of the section on literary theory, hidden from the eyes of the staff, I reached my hand into my bag like a thief and pulled out a slim, hot pink book. I looked up and down the aisle. No one was watching. O.K., now. I slipped it into the shelf among the F’s (file under “free”) and it was done.

So I started my career as in infiltrator of public spaces, a thief not of books but of shelf space, of access. A bypasser of gateways, permissions, and procedures.

The book was called Free Words, and was an art project of mine. Its content was a list of 13,000 words I had collected over 10 years. I had uncopyrighted the text, placing it in the public domain (“no rights reserved”) and labeled the book as free. No price tag, no barcode, no ISBN — the back cover said only “this book belongs to whoever finds it.” I had printed 1000 copies of it, and the idea was to create a kind of situation.

Someone who came across the book would have to decide what it was and who really owned it. If they wanted it, they would have to decide whether to walk out with it like a shoplifter, or whether to negotiate something with the sales clerk. Bookstores would have to either purge the book or harbor it. There was a brief explanation and a web address at the back of the book, and if anyone made it to the site there was an invitation to become a distributor of the book, to join in the process of placing it in bookstores and libraries.

I spent a few months like that as 2001 came to a close — October, November, December — walking through a New York stunned by September 11, developing the habit of nonobedience.[1.] This was the time when the media was telling us to shop, when we were being told to agree, as if agreement and shopping were the definition and extent of our citizenship.

At first I was nervous, afraid of being stopped, but after a couple hundred books I relaxed. I was never questioned. The more I did it, the more the commercial space of the city seemed like public space, my space. The city, recovering month by month, felt more like an ecology—a human social ecology, intricate and interdependent. There were more ways of living within it and of participating in it than I had supposed.

One of the questions raised by cities is who we are in them. How do we find ourselves as individuals, as agents? What kinds of citizenship are possible? Something about this project changed my relationship to the city from being a passive inhabitant of its structures, both social and architectural, to being more active, as I began to feel free to engage those structures more playfully, and to create new structures.

As the winter deepened, the Free Words project began to develop in a surprising way. On the website I invited people to become volunteer distributors of the book. I expected that a small number of people would find their way from the book to the website and an even smaller number of those might become distributors. What happened was something quite different: a few people did find the book and the website, but they weren’t all interested in simply becoming distributors themselves. Some of them told the story of Free Words on various online forums, journals and blogs, passing it on through their internet communities. Dozens of people who had never seen a copy of the book found their way to the site, and I began shipping batches of books to volunteers all over the country and the world. I printed more, and then more again.

For me the project became like a kind of dye, illuminating social networks that I had been entirely unaware of. I could also see how much people wanted to participate — how hungry they are to engage with art in a less passive way. Without intending to, I had set a gift economy in motion.

The Idea of a Free Biennial

As I walked the streets of the city and packed books for volunteer distributors I was also thinking about the structures of the art world. Coming up that spring was one of New York’s most powerful art events: the Whitney Biennial. Held every two years at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Whitney Biennial is a high-profile, always controversial statement about what is new and important on the American art scene. Almost all of the public discussion of this exhibition centers on the idea of selection — on who is choosing and who is chosen, and how, and why. Being selected for the show can make an artist’s career overnight.

It occurred to me that it might be possible to make use of this structure by appropriating it and reversing some of its polarities. Instead of a show based on careful selection it would be completely open. Instead of using the prestige of an institution it would harness the energy of a quickly created gift economy. How might an an economy of this kind try to hold its place alongside what is most likely the most vigorous luxury art market in human history?

The Free Biennial began in late January, 2002, with a call to artists offering a few simple parameters: the work should be nonmonetary, meaning that no money changes hands (no admission is charged, nothing is bought or sold), the work should take place in public space (very widely defined as anyplace a stranger can enter, including the broadcast airwaves, telephone system, and the internet), and it should be perceptible to someone in New York City during the month of April, 2002. Any artwork meeting these criteria could be in the Free Biennial.

Part of my motivation was curiosity about what it would be like to work with artists in a way that did not edit or filter their work according to my tastes and preferences. The Free Biennial was free both in the sense that no money changed hands and in the sense that any artist could enter. I was fairly sure that an unedited show would be more alive and interesting than anything curated could be, but I actually expected a great deal of the work in the Free Biennial to be “bad,” and to be personally challenging to me in that way.

In fact, I was surprised to discover that overall level of the work was very high. It seemed that artists selected themselves for the show based on something like curatorial criteria — affinity with the ideas & participants, a desire to work in a different kind of context, and an interest in freedom and experimentation. But this self-selection produced a different kind of result from ordinary curatorship. I was continually surprised by what was happening. No part of the experience was predictable.

The Free Biennial was an experiment in creating a gift economy among a fairly large group of people. I put in my time and organizational work, artists contributed their artwork. Everyone acted independently, but in ways that created a whole. It was a month-long infiltration of public spaces, an alternative to the commercial and the institutional dominance of city life.

I found that it is indeed possible for a single individual, acting outside of any institution and working largely alone, with about two months of full time labor and enough money to throw a party and print some stickers and flyers, to create a frame for an astonishing amount of artistic activity. By the end of the project over 300 artists had contributed their work to the Free Biennial.

As the Free Biennial developed, I began to wonder how it would be to take this uncurated space inside of an institution. The more I worked with this live and complex array of artists and projects, the more controlled traditional art spaces seemed. From this point of view, commercial and institutional spaces are almost identical in their desire to control the viewing context. The fear of “bad art” felt by museums and galleries began to seem a bit hysterical (and in that way, of course, interesting). The idea of selecting or curating based on “excellence” seemed suddenly narrow. What was being left out? What weren’t we seeing? The hush of museums and galleries began to seem like a silencing.

Amazingly, an email invitation that seemed to present the perfect opportunity to explore these questions appeared in my inbox.

Free Manifesta

One of the artists chosen to be in Manifesta 4, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art, was selling his place in the show. Like the Whitney Biennial, Manifesta is a large exhibition held every two years, an attempt to map out what’s new and important on the scene—in this case with a focus on younger European artists.

The three curators chosen to shape Manifesta 4 spent two years flying around Europe visiting studios and examining the work of 700 artists. From these they chose ninety, one of which was the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, known for his complex and showy installation work. But instead of an installation, he offered a conceptual piece to the curators: an intervention into the fabric of Manifesta. He proposed, as his artwork, to sell his invitation and participation rights in Manifesta on ebay. And they agreed. So one day in February an announcement arrived in my email inbox. “Invite Yourself,” it said:


Christoph Büchel, officially invited artist for Manifesta 4, European Biennial of Contemporary Art hosted in Frankfurt/Main, is auctioning his invitation and participation rights.

Bidding starts on the 19th of March at www.ebay.com. Lowest possible offer is 1 $ (€ 1,15). Bids can be made until the 29th of March and will be accepted from any persons.

The winner of the auction i.e. the buyer of the participation rights will be fully accepted and treated as any other invited artist in the exhibition by the curators and organizers of Manifesta 4 and will be subject to the same rules and regulations.

It was a strange idea, but thrilling: the possibility of choosing to participate without needing anyone’s permission. If artists are often like sleeping beauties waiting for some curator princess or prince to kiss them on the lips, here was the chance to wake up from that passivity, the chance to parachute into the kingdom without passing the proper gates. And by that time I had gotten into the habit of nonobedience. The world looked a little different to me. The systems of exclusion and inclusion had lost some of their glamour and power—they had come to seem a bit ridiculous, like the wizard of Oz without his machinery.

If I could buy the rights to be in the show, I realized I could turn around and give them away to anyone who wanted them, turning “invite yourself” into “invite everybody,” “Manifesta” into “Free Manifesta.” I could take the idea of a wild, uncurated biennial into a real, carefully organized biennial, and see what happened.

And so on March 19 I joined a small throng of ebay bidders watching the price of Christoph Büchel’s invitation spiral upwards and wondering what the market value of a spot in a biennial might be. As it turns out it was quite a lot, close to the price of a small new car or a few months of higher education at a private institution: $15,099. On March 29, I was the high bidder. I had recently sold a house, and made some profit on it which I used to finance the venture. (Through various forms of support from the Manifesta organization, I have received back about half that amount as production budget and infrastructure for the project.)

The curators and staff of Manifesta did exactly what they agreed to do: they treated Free Manifesta as essentially the same as every other Manifesta project, providing it with a budget, exhibition space, pages in the catalog, etc. When I told them what I wanted to do, they didn’t flinch. I showed up in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, where the show was taking place (home of the European Central Bank, birthplace of the Euro) and settled in for a stay of several months.

225 artists and groups entered their work in Free Manifesta, altogether over 300 participants. By the end of the exhibition, more than forty artists from the US, Canada, and across Europe had traveled to Frankfurt to do projects in public spaces. Others contributed work accessible through the internet, telephone, and mail, and over 4000 individual art objects were given away at the Free Manifesta headquarters.

Art Outside of the Market

I found that both the Free Biennial and Free Manifesta attracted a kind of artwork rarely seen or discussed in the art world today. From the work represented in art magazines and shown in galleries and museums, it would seem that ideas from the 1960s and 1970s of nonobject and noncommercial forms of art had evaporated in the eighties and nineties. But it is my belief that a strong tradition of artistic practice has continued unbroken, hidden in the studios of artists who only show their more conventionally material work, and located among groups who have abandoned the art world to its own devices. It is perhaps not surprising that the internet and mail art communities participated so enthusiastically in these free projects—they are used to operating and sharing their work through independent networks. Though work from these communities (especially net art) is sometimes shown in museums, their vast energy and productivity still operates largely outside of the art system.

A number of works in both shows were fragile, ephemeral, and in other ways unsellable. Poet Aram Saroyan contributed a single word, “though.” British artist Simon Morris placed a book in a plastic bag and tied it to a tree in Central Park, creating “The Free Urban Library in Central Park, New York.” By the time I went to look for the library it had been removed by park authorities. Brooklyn-based street artist Swoon created an illegal street party in DUMBO involving dozens of other artists and musicians, and then carried out postering and ad replacement campaigns in Berlin and Frankfurt. Michael Cunningham divided a specially written short story in 30 parts and put one part into the street each day. Sharilyn Neidhardt gave chess lessons. Will Pappenheimer and Gregory Ulmer created a monument of tiny pompoms across several blocks of lower Manhattan, the “Soft Wishing Y Monument,” linked to a website of postmodern theory and conversation. Kenneth Goldsmith and David Wondrich made a catalog of dings and dents that would most likely never be fixed in “Broken New York.”

There was also a substantial number of pieces where the art was experienced by participating in it rather than looking at it, pieces with no audience in the traditional sense. These included “psychogeographic” walks and investigations, one-to-one interactions, and culture jamming interventions.

Psychogeographic walks take their inspiration from the Situationist tradition of the 1960s, and use various methods to defamiliarize and re-enliven movement through an urban landscape. One method, generative psychogeography, practiced by artist Christina Ray in her piece “Virus on Foot” (in collaboration with Wilfred Hou Je Bek and socialfiction.org), gives each participant an algorithm of a series of turns (for instance, take the first right, then the second left, then the second right, repeatedly). Another method, used by Nick Grindell in “Frankfurt by Boat,” superimposes a map and destination from one city onto another, causing participants to struggle to locate displaced paths and landmarks. Systems like these psychogeographic walks create a pattern of movement through the city which is disjunctive and unfamiliar, purposeless in the ordinary sense, but with another kind of purpose: allowing the participants to observe freshly. Anyone can join these walks, and in this way become a kind of audience for the work, but to experience the artwork you have to be present and participating.

Interpersonal works like Kathe Izzo’s “True Love” created a one-on-one interaction as the art experience; she offered to fall in love with you for a day, a day which would be exclusively yours. Circorama de la Nostalgia Opéristica’s “Intimate Moments at the Guggenheim” gave one-on-one tours of the hidden areas of the Guggenheim museum—a guided view of the loading dock where art comes in and trash goes out, the administrative offices, the files, the guard’s changing room, the Frank Lloyd Wright rooftop. Craig Dworkin created “discourse networks” in his piece “Streifen Blauer Lilien” by telephoning people in Frankfurt who lived on streets named after poets, reading them a few lines of the poet’s work, and giving them the telephone number of someone else who had received one of his calls. Susan Mendes Silva’s “Artphone” invited people to phone her and talk about contemporary art.

Another group of works were structured as interventions. Peter Coffin’s “Barcode Piece” for the Free Biennial turned commercial transactions into a kind of poetry. Anyone could download and print special barcode labels and use them to cover the price stickers in supermarkets and stores. When scanned they would produce a word instead of a price: “want,” “have,” “give,” or “need.” For Free Manifesta he made 1,271 hits of placebo blotter acid which we distributed (“Placebo Acid Project”). Heribert Friedl created a multiple of 1000 shopping bags that said “You cannot buy art, art cannot be sold.” These were given away at the Free Manifesta Headquarters during the time of the Frankfurt Art Fair, whose slogan was “Buy Art.” Robin Kahn & Kirby Gookin gave away 100%-off coupons, worth 100 euros each, ostensibly from the most famous department store in Frankfurt (“TAKE THIS (100% Off Merchandise Event”). Sze Lin Pang made free transparent flags (“Untitled: Flag Pieces #022 and Up”).

The Economy of the Gift.

Doing these projects I have come to feel that there is an enormous pent-up energy in areas of our society dominated by the market—a desire to give and be given to, a desire to participate on the basis of who we are rather than what we can buy or sell. Marketers try to tap into these desires all the time. In a way, that’s what branding is. Thinking about gift economies and how they function illuminates something about why this works for marketers, at least to some extent, and why it fails us by turning our need to be active, engaged, and personal into something essentially passive and impersonal, and turning us into consumers.

Despite the name, gift economies are somewhat different from what we think of as “economies.” Material goods can and do change hands, but gift economies are not barter economies. Their purpose is not that of market trade, profit, or subsistence. Though there may be “economic” benefits in the traditional sense, the reasons for entering into gift exchanges are primarily social.

In other words, gift economies are fundamentally relational. A large part of the purpose of the gift is to establish and further relations between persons and groups. Part of what makes this possible, as Marcel Mauss points out in his wonderful Essai sur le Don (in English, The Gift), is that gifts demand reciprocation.

Gifts are inherently unbalanced—they cause a kind of rocking motion, a social momentum which is the basis of relationships. I might tell my friend a little story which I know will interest him. He then goes out of his way to walk me to the subway. I help him fix something on his computer. In turn he invites me to a dinner party with his famous chili. Our own pleasure and the pleasure of others is intermingled. The line between gift to the other and pleasure for the self is always blurred and shifting. The gift goes back and forth a thousand times a day. It’s a kind of game.

The relational nature of the gift economy is both its strength and its constraint. It both establishes relationship and requires relationship. On the other hand, the market economy works on the principle of even exchange. Every transaction is complete in itself, balanced, leaving the participants free of each other.

The gift economy is free in terms of money, of course, but constrained by the qualities and requirements of human social relationships. The market economy requires a constant flow of goods or money from the individual, a flow which may be difficult or impossible to produce, but it leaves the individual free to engage or not to engage. In this way, the two systems offer contrasting models of “free” and freedom.

In modern life, gift and market economies intermingle. Someone may go to her job every day for market reasons, but very often the way in which she does that job is a kind of gift. People bring more than is required to their work. Systems of social prestige are a sign that the gift economy is at work. We are gift-givers to gain the love, admiration, or respect of those around us, consciously or not. Given how intermingled gift and market economies are, is peculiar that almost all of our collective conversation is about the market economy, and the ubiquitous presence of the gift economy in our lives has become a kind of secret.

Perhaps because of this, there is a tendency to romanticize the idea of the gift. It’s easy to imagine that a world based on an exchange of gifts would be better, more humanistic, more intimate, even more beautiful. This notion is not entirely false, but it leaves out the problematics of the gift. Think of receiving a gift that you don’t want. Or the sense of obligation that an excessive gift can engender. Think of wanting or needing something but having to wait to find out if or when it might be given to you. There’s a dependency, and a loss of control inherent in the gift situation. If your relationship with those around you is going well, you may receive everything you need, materially and emotionally—but what if it doesn’t go well? What about the coercion inherent in the need to please others to receive what you need for your survival? And in the case of the gift economy, these others are traditionally a small, fixed group, specific individuals who are subject to the full range of human social emotions, hate as well as love, jealousy as well as desire, indifference as well as attentiveness.

Although the various free projects I worked on were certainly subject to the full range of human emotions (and were definitely not problem-free), there were several factors which I believe acted to mitigate some of the difficulties of traditional gift systems. If we examine the Free Biennial and Free Manifesta in particular, and look at the gift in question as the invitation to participate in the show, we can see some specific qualities worth considering.

The gift was open — the invitation was spread through the internet by email and website. Anyone could choose to take it. Most traditional gift economies involve relatively closed groups. This strengthens the incentive to give, but can also act to amplify the burdensome qualities of the gift. Open systems may struggle to achieve a sufficient degree of reciprocity, but they allow for more individual choice.

The gift was refusable — there were of course people who felt that participating in the Free Biennial or Free Manifesta would not be beneficial to them: perhaps they felt that it was important to them to be making money from their work, or that participating in an uncurated show was detrimental to their reputation. They were able to refuse the invitation with no penalty.

The exchange was balanced — because the projects were time-limited, no lengthy future obligation was entailed.

The projects were also intentionally designed to be what I think of as transparent: the idea here was to create an architecture which transmitted or even amplified the efforts of its participants rather than absorbed them. In other words, very little of the energy of the participants was directed toward the organization as a whole — instead, by working to produce and promote their own projects they automatically enhanced the value of the whole system. Instead of requiring a disinterested (altruistic) gift, the projects were driven by a synergy of self-interests.

These qualities of openness, refusability, balance, and transparency are qualities usually associated market systems rather than gift economies. They suggest the possibility for a newer model of the gift, something that might be called the broadcast gift.

The gift economies of academic knowledge-sharing and of the open source software development movement can be seen as examples of communities built around systems of broadcast gifts. I think it is not accidental that both of these communities are organized in part through forms of publishing (the academic journal [2.], the internet). Publishing is what allows the gift (the work) to be broadcast. The underlying linguistic analogy of spreading seeds is quite salient here. Once spread, the gift can be taken up and used or enhanced by anyone.

A system of broadcast gifts automatically fosters the qualities of openness and refusability. They are part of the structural nature of broadcasting. Transparency is not inherent in the structure, but is perhaps easier to achieve in a more open system. How and whether balance occurs is particular to each specific situation. Broadcast gift systems combine some of the impersonality of the marketplace with the relationship building qualities of traditional gift economies. This makes them seem a bit paradoxical, but perhaps this paradox holds something useful.

As David Bollier and Lawrence Lessig point out in their recent work on the concept of the commons (Bollier 2002; Lessig 2001), the development of the internet has been closely tied to an increased vitality and breadth of new gift economies. Some, like the open source software movement, have produced huge economic as well as social value. This recent history, in conjunction with the experiences described above suggest that broadcast gift systems might be a promising model for developing new kinds of organizations.

Social Architectures

As artworks, The Free Biennial and Free Manifesta are idea structures, forms of social architecture. While working on these projects I have been meditating on the strange, almost magical qualities of social architectures, of organization and organizations. These entities are all around us: social objects that are made primarily by the consensus that they exist. To some extent governments function in this way, and we live in a century when it has arguably been demonstrated that no small group of people can fully govern a large group without their consent, no matter how violent and repressive their methods of governing.

All social structures require our acceptance in order to operate. The Internal Revenue Service can intimidate individuals, but the system would be impossible to maintain if everyone simply refused to pay. The fact that we don’t refuse implies that over all, and in practice, a majority of U.S. citizens accept the basic workings of their government. This is not to deny that the government and the IRS have real power, but to some extent that power is created, as if by magic, by our belief that it is so. Part of that belief is created by the fear of punishment — governments consciously deploy that fear as a means of control — but this only demonstrates more clearly that the main powers of governments and organizations are psychosocial.

Another way of thinking about this is that the power of the social structures around us is created by a kind of gift, our gift of belief and participation. We give movie stars their fame and art stars theirs. We give critics their voice of authority. We give products their desirability. We give fashion its chic.

Social structures are therefore collective acts of creation. This is interestingly different, I think, from the idea of collaboration. Collaboration is an intentional attempt to work together, a struggle to turn differences into creativity. Social structures work instead by participation, and are most often created without conscious intent.

The power of institutions can seem immutable. And especially if those institutions are housed in massive buildings (which imply permanence by their aesthetics) we can forget that their power is basically social, and that social power is something much more fluid and quick-moving. But gigantic structures like the Soviet Union or apartheid can dissipate almost overnight. This was an amazing thing for people in our time to have witnessed: the consensual power that created these empires suddenly weakening.

I believe that the idea of art as a luxury object is one such consensual social structure, and that we might bring into question whether or not this existing and powerful consensus is in our best interests as artists, and as people who want to experience art.

Sal Randolph, March, 2003


1. I borrow the term nonobedience from the poet Olga Broumas (personal communication) who uses it to describe an attitude distinct from disobedience. Where disobedience resists or acts directly counter to particular norms or rules, nonobedience disregards those rules entirely in favor of self-directed action. The act of placing unauthorized books on shelves (sometimes referred to as ‘reverse shoplifting’) might arguably be perceived as specifically disobedient, however the project was intended to be more importantly ‘nonobedient’ in relation to the structure of publishing, cultural institutions, and the commercialization of public space. From a political perspective, there are times when disobedience has a particular strategic resonance (as in civil disobedience), and other times when nonobedience can be an aspect of creating alternative structures.

2. It is perhaps a bit romantic to imply that academic publishing fosters a gift economy. Given the nature of my work and the content of this paper, I had wished to place this essay into the public domain. The publisher refused. Every contributor to the journal Ethics & the Environment (published by Indiana University Press) is required to “grant and assign exclusively to the Press the rights to the entirely literary property . . . for the full term of copyright in the United States and elsewhere.” In return for the prestige of publication (and, as it likely goes without saying, no payment to the author whatsoever), the press becomes the moral and legal copyright holder, and the author becomes a copyright outlaw if she wishes to give her work away.


Bollier, David. Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of our Common Wealth. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Perigree, 1980.

Godbout, Jaques T., and Alain Caillé. The World of the Gift. Trans. Donald Winkler. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998.

Graeber, David. “Give it Away.” In These Times. August 21, 2000. In These Times.
May 22, 2001 . Currently available at .

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage, 1983.

Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001.

Maraniello, Gianfranco, Sergio Risaliti, and Antonio Somaini, eds. Il Dono. Offerta, Ospitalità, Insidia. The Gift. Generous Offerings, Threatening Hospitality. Milan: Charta, 2002.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W.D. Halls. New York: Norton, 1990.

Moody, Glyn. Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source Revolution. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.