Power in the Gift Shop
by Matthew Offenbacher
The collaborative groups of The Gift Shop took very different approaches to making their exhibitions. Yet they all positioned themselves in relation to authority in interesting ways. Why this particular interest in power? I have two books here I hope will suggest some answers. One is an elegant cloth-covered hardback with nice thick paper. The front board has the monogram J K G discreetly embossed in gold italic. The other is a ragged yellowing paperback. On its cover is a drawing of a muscular man in a black leather vest and pants, showing off his swollen pecs and erect nipples.
The hardback is economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Anatomy of Power. Galbraith begins his dissection of power by quoting Max Webber, who says power is “the possibility of imposing one’s will on the behavior of other persons.” Power is what makes things happen, Galbraith explains, but its sources and the instruments through which it is exerted are often obscure. What separates those who exercise power from those who are subject to it? Galbraith identifies three sources from which all power arises, the power of personality, property, and organization. These will serve as guideposts in the discussion below.
The paperback is Larry Townsend’s classic guide to SM sex, The Leatherman’s Handbook II. Townsend’s approach to power is simultaneously more pragmatic and more fantastic than Galbraith’s. He details the practicalities of fetish, fantasy, and role play in consensual SM exchanges, interspersed with short fiction. Townsend is concerned with the fulfillment of the desire to exert or be subject to power. “In our very complex society,” he writes, “it is not always possible for a man to work himself into the professional or social situations where his dominant-submissive needs are fulfilled.” Erotic play with power can be a way to fulfill these needs: “everything within an SM exchange is done with the intent of producing physical or emotional pleasure.”
The first Gift Shop exhibition was Jenny Zwick and Joe Park’s I know I know Jenny and Joe. Their installation was magically, cheaply romantic. In a darkened room, beneath a night-light moon, a looping video of Jenny and Joe standing side-by-side was projected onto two life-size cardboard cutouts. They stood in a long metal canoe propped crookedly on sawhorses; a fan, a strand of tinsel, and a blue-filtered florescent tube suggested water below. Wearing similar outfits (glasses, dark blue jeans, black vests, white shirts) they sang the old love song You Belong to Me, accompanying themselves on guitar and melodica: “I know I know / you belong / to somebody new / but tonight / you belong to me.”
Artists are often asked to perform, to sing for their supper, to be a “colorful” presence at parties, receptions, dinners. This relationship to an audience, or to patrons, is very much like a romantic one; it rewards skill in seduction, persuasion, and reassurance. Although it is common to think of these performances as separate from the creation of artwork—as “career” stuff, as opposed to “work”—Jenny and Joe’s exhibition suggests these might not be extricable. What binds together “career” and “work” is personality. Artists, like art objects, are valued by the force of their charisma, beauty, charm, and conviction. The romantic view of art depends on the idea that artists invest their work with the unique power of their personality.
Galbraith identifies personality as the first of three sources from which all power originates. Anciently, and still in many situations, the power of personality meant “the ability to inflict punishment of a physical nature on the recalcitrant or nonconformist.” This is the kind of power Jenny and Joe display in a second video, which showed them holding a variety of threatening poses while spinning slowly on turntables. They look like video game characters, or merchandise on the Home Shopping Network. However, this was a spoof; the power of personality in art rarely takes the form of a physical threat directed towards an audience.
Art is more closely associated with what Galbraith calls “conditioned power”. Conditioned power is a method of winning submission by changing belief, by “persuasion, education, or the social commitment to what seems natural, proper, or right.” When people speak of the power of art they most often mean conditioned power. Seduction is a kind of conditioned power that creates desire. What is the relationship between artists, artwork and an audience? I know I know played on the desire to acquire art and artist both.
The Gift Shop’s largest group (Gretchen Bennett, Leo Saul Berk, Ben Chickadel, Tyler Cufley, Eric Fredericksen, and Joe Plummer) created a loud and complex exhibition they called Work Song. “I understood it to be a symposium on improvisation with a guest lecture by a bad-ass drummer,” was Leo’s succinct summary. In Plato’s Symposium, seven drunken Athenians spend an evening debating the topic of love. Socrates declares “Love is the son of Resource and Poverty.” By this he means love is unbalanced and deceptive, because it never obtains what it desires. However, love is also balanced and truthful, because desire is what motivates the search for wisdom.
The “bad-ass” Leo mentions is Joe Plummer, drummer for Modest Mouse and other well-known indie rock bands. Work Song turned the Gift Shop into something like a recording studio built around Joe’s drum set. The group spent a day making and inhabiting the installation. There were colorful sound-baffling panels, balancing sculptures improvised from glass and wood shelves, clip lights, Plexiglas cubes, sheet music, florescent bulbs, a Karaoke machine, corrugated fiberglass, and many other things. At one point, a sort of Socratic call and response lesson took place between Joe at his set and Eric at a practice pad. Everyone took pictures, filmed video, and recorded sound. Later in the week, an elaborate round-robin editing process resulting in two looping videos and a soundtrack.
The drumming in the Gift Shop was audible throughout the museum, disrupting the typical serenity of the galleries. This move—undermining authority within a framework of authority—is often found when overt expressions of opposition are difficult, dangerous, or (as perhaps in this case) impolitic. Galbraith observes that “the power originating in personality is ordinarily answered by strong personality.” While symmetrical exchanges of power are the rule, they are not inevitable. Asymmetric power can be “a far less obvious but more formidable tactic.” This is the mode of work songs, which originated in African agricultural music adapted by African Americans under slavery. Work songs say one thing while meaning something else. The rhythms of call and response synchronize workers, while, at the same time, the lyrics transmit seditious ideas about freedom and resistance. This is rock music’s heritage: regimentation and rebellion, balance and unbalance, compliancy and resistance.
“We gave love a bad name,” is how the e-mail announcement for Work Song put it. The love a fan feels for a star, or a student for a teacher, can become unbalanced. The craving for love which drives some to amass personal power is often unfulfilled. Work Song was a philosophical debate on love, art, and the power of speech. It brought to mind the highly personal relationships between artists, curators, and collectors. Are artists fans or rock stars?
Galbraith’s second source of power is property. This is the power vested in any tangible thing in which value accrues, along with abstractions of tangible things such as money. The possession of money, Galbraith writes, “gives access to the most commonplace exercise of power, which is the bending of the will of one person to another by straightforward purchase.” This “compensatory power” is what, for example, compels people to show up day-after-day to a job they dislike. Property also provides access to conditioned power, by the prestige accorded wealth and the ownership of things—and, indirectly, by the ability to purchase means of persuasion such as advertising. Art is a powerful form of property because of the way it uses multiple instruments for exerting power. Acquiring art, or even being associated with it, increases prestige. The monetary value of art is often susceptible to manipulation by exertions of conditioned power. This makes the value of artwork unusually contentious.
This conflicted territory is what Claire Cowie, Jason Hirata, and Sol Hashemi took up with their exhibition The Gift Shop Presents Presents. They created a literal “gift shop”, stocking the existing shelves and pedestals of the museum store with enticingly wrapped gifts, many of which were small works of art that they had made or solicited from friends. An announcement explained: “During the three weeks of the exhibition anyone is invited to make a gift, bring it in, and exchange it for one they find. In the spirit of ‘white elephant’ and ‘secret Santa’ games, this encourages speculation, anticipation, excitement (or disappointment?)”
There was a gift-wrapping station, and some scattered sculptural vignettes using ribbons, bows, and wrapping paper. As gifts were opened, the exhibition floor was littered with discarding wrappings. The effect was festive, celebratory, and strange. A gift exchange usually takes place within a defined community—a family, a group of friends, an office—where anonymity is balanced with a sense of responsibility. One way to understand Presents Presents is as an attempt to explore the limits of a community.
Presents Presents was also a shop, but with dramatically reversed conditions. Usually, where you shop is segregated from where you make the transaction. This gives the impression, if not always the actual experience, of efficient, anonymous, straightforward purchase. In Presents Presents, however, wrapped gifts provided unreliable information about their contents. The means of exchange were direct, indeterminate, and personal.
It was awkward. Some people declared that the gift was the thing itself; that what they were acquiring was the wrapped bundle they could see regardless of what was inside. Others tried to game the system by bringing in what they perceived to be low-value things (cheap mass-produced items) to exchange for what they hoped to be higher-value things (hand-made artwork). When the opposite happened—when someone exchanged something valuable to them for something they perceived as cheap or thoughtless—they were often hurt or angry. Conversely, when someone picked out something they valued highly, there were expressions of joy. Some people were entirely unaffected; others just generally amused. Some made multiple exchanges during the three weeks of the exhibition, others could never settle on a single gift. Some went to great effort to find out who their gift was from, others were greatly interested in knowing who acquired the gift they had left.
The Gift Shop proved to be an oxymoron. “Gift” and “shop” are part of two incompatible systems of exchange. Are art objects more like merchandise, or more like gifts? The second part of the exhibition’s witty title, Presents Presents, suggests why this question might be interesting. By juxtaposing the verb and the plural noun form of the same word, it points to some confusion between actions and things. Which is the stronger foundation for a community? Or, as the exhibition announcement put it: “What are you willing to give? What do you expect and hope for in return?”
Deb Baxter, Margot Quan Knight and I put a large enamel sink in the center of the Gift Shop for our exhibition Moonlight Requisition. It was the round yellowish sort of communal sink you find in a school or factory bathroom, designed so that multiple people can wash their hands at the same time. The sink came from a women’s bathroom in an old South Seattle factory building owned by the U.S. General Services Administration. Deb had her studio there along with about forty other artists. For ten years, space had been inexpensively leased to artists, thanks to an unusual arrangement made by an art-loving federal administrator.
Deb, Margot and I “requisitioned” the sink on the evening before the building was closed and demolished for redevelopment. We removed the foot pedal and hid a pump in the base so that it took the form of a continuously flowing fountain. We made a decorative floor for it, using industrial tiles to form a quilt pattern sent to us by Deb’s mom. The fountain created a serene atmosphere in the Gift Shop, with the subdued lighting, the sound of water splashing, and the extra humid air. Although clearly identifiable as a bathroom fixture, the rejiggered sink also suggested a public fountain, like one you might stumble on in a dusty European square and decide to throw a few coins in for good luck, or drink from to cure an ailment.
While money is one of the most important forms of property, anything which can be given or lent to other people in exchange for their submission can be considered property. This includes a large number of concrete and abstract things. The instrument of power Galbraith most closely aligns with property is compensatory power. If I have something you want or need, I can give or lend it to you on the condition that you do something in exchange.
Artists often dream of utopian economies, of exchanges that don’t require the submission of one party or another, that wrest some measure of independence from the small portion of society which controls the greatest share of property. The Gift Shop was utopian in this sense. Money was firmly removed from the equation; no one received payment. All labor was donated in-kind by the artists and the Henry staff, and all materials had to be scavenged, borrowed, or donated by individuals. As a result, The Gift Shop as a whole saw many “moonlight requisitions”: overlooked things that were sought out, secured, and then taken during a moment when they would be least missed.
This larcenous skill is exactly what many consider the most important contribution of artists to society. Artists create value by finding and adopting under-utilized, forgotten, or hidden property. Then, by taking up residence in run-down parts of town, or in unfashionable ideas, artists secure territory for further colonization. However, artists are not the ones who usually profit from this. Most artists have to patch together day jobs, grants and teaching gigs, visit free healthcare clinics, scramble for space and time to work. This results in difficult ethical questions. Is theft a reasonable response to scarcity? Who does this cycle of “requisitioning” serve? What about the original owners of “found” property?
Good luck coins did indeed accrue in our fountain during the two weeks of the exhibition. “What moves water uphill?” Margot asked rhetorically while we were standing around the hardware store, trying to decide what pump we could afford. Just as Moonlight Requisition expressed a longing for a communal, utopian artist community, it returned to the Gift Shop a specter of the Gift Shop’s most repressed other, that swirling, circulating, most elusive of elixirs: money.
Galbraith argues that the three sources of power (personality, property, and organization) represent distinct stages in the development of human culture. Our current stage, he writes, is dominated by the power of organization. This is the power that arises when “participants, in one degree or another, have submitted to the purposes of organization in pursuit of some common purpose, which then normally involves the winning of the submission of people or groups external to the organization.”
In the call for submissions to their exhibition, The Atlas of Gifted Ideas, Heide Hinrichs and Shaw Osha contrast the roles of two ancient Greek gods:
Atlas is the brother of Prometheus. Prometheus plays with fire and Atlas has to hold up the skies; he creates space and separates the divine from everyday experience; his duty is not to mix up things and to keep the overview. We would encourage you to play with both of them: to burn your fingers and to walk out towards the divine.
The Atlas of Gifted Ideas took the form of a collection of black and white drawings, images and poems, e-mailed in by over forty artists from around the world. The darkened Gift Shop first gave an impression of noise, heat, and light. This came from an array of projection devices (overhead, slide, and LCD computer) that threw the gifted ideas onto a variety of surfaces. The walls, ceiling, existing shelving grid, and fabric sheets were used as improvised screens. Additional pictures and poems were printed onto single sheets of letter-size paper, placed on glass shelves, stuck to the cabinets and the floor, and—most strikingly—pasted on several thin wood panels which approximated the dimensions and posture of a slouching body. The panels were cantilevered out from the walls, held under tension by a string at the top and a nail at the bottom. They submitted to this tension by forming elegant curves.
Why do people submit? Individuals have a variety of desires, motivations, and interests. What “burns your fingers” does not necessarily burn mine. When individuals submit to a common purpose, they do so provisionally, thoughtfully, unconsciously, rashly, wholeheartedly, or any number of other ways. Some might offer their submission as a gift, without any expectation of compensation; others might submit because of what they expect or hope to receive in return. Oppressed people are compelled to submit because of explicit or implied retribution.
The Atlas of Gifted Ideas echoed the final eccentric work of early twentieth-century German art historian Aby Warburg. Warburg created what he called a Mnemosyne-Atlas by gluing a wide variety of art reproductions, newspaper clippings, photographs and other printed matter onto large boards. The arrangements were not determined by historical proximity, visual similarity, or style, but rather—as Martin Warnke writes in a commentary on this work—“through relationships caused by an ‘affinity for one another’ and the principle of ‘good company’.” When Heide and Shaw invited a wide circle of friends and colleagues to “please send us your drawing, image or poem to pass on, to position, to communicate, to travel and join” they were similarly organizing a space for affinity and good company. You submit because you like something or someone involved, or because you feel sympathetic towards the project. “Liking” is spontaneous and unpredictable, and so organization by affinity can result in diverse and surprising groups. On the other hand, affinity can collapse into insularity. A circle of friends may end up excluding opposing viewpoints.
Institutions often require artists to submit. Those who ask for submission are faced with difficult choices. On what basis do you make judgments? In the process of compiling their Atlas, Shaw and Heide decided to exhibit only a subset of the submissions they received. Most art exhibitions are organized in this way. A curator makes selections from a field which is circumscribed by a group of friends and colleagues. They will then usually choose work they believe will bend in such a way to increase the persuasiveness of their exhibition. Work which falls outside this circle, or which does not easily submit (because it is difficult, strange, or new), may be excluded. Meanwhile, those who submit or have signaled a willingness to submit, but are not chosen, can feel resentment, anger, or humiliation. The Atlas of Gifted Ideas grappled with these difficulties, trying to find balance between selectivity and affinity, or, as Heide and Shaw put it, between Atlas and Prometheus. How can you create clarity and purpose—“not mix things up”—while, at the same time, remain open to those who “play with fire”?
The final Gift Shop group humorously framed this question as the difference between dogs and cats. In the process of making their exhibition Champagne Truffles, Jennifer Campbell, Nicholas Nyland, Saya Moriyasu, Maki Tamura, and Ian Toms gathered an incredible amount of stuff from their homes: ceramic mushrooms, thrift-store paintings, fine china, autographed celebrity photos, living-room furniture, tourist souvenirs, lamps, thrift-store paintings, postcards, patterned fabrics, Christmas lights, drawing, magazines, watercolor paintings, letters, broken plates, jewelry, stickers, raw wool, Art Nouveau vases, photo albums, and so on. Hand-painted Chinoiserie wallpaper was hung over the existing shelving to form false walls. These walls were then artfully perforated to reveal still-life arrangements. Even more stuff was piled in the display case facing the Henry’s lobby, which also displayed two video monitors playing short loops of Maki and Jenn walking their dogs. Other videos played on monitors behind the wallpaper (swimming goldfish, cats), and yet another video was projected on an entire wall. This video was a live feed from a camera pointed at Saya’s backyard. In the center of the view was a wooden shelter Saya and her partner Jeff McGrath built for a colony of semi-feral cats. If you looked closely, you would notice that the cat shelter was papered with a scaled-down version of the wallpaper featured in the Gift Shop.
Galbraith writes that “almost any manifestation of power will induce an opposite, not necessarily equal, manifestation of power.” There is typically a symmetry between the manner in which power is extended and the manner with which it is resisted: “the usual and most effective response to an unwelcome exercise of power is to build a countering position of power.” Champagne Truffles built a counter position to some aspects of how the Henry extends its power. As Saya put it afterwards, “I felt like we played against the Henry ‘type’ of art. If there is a type?....It felt very naughty to make that piece.”
Does the Henry have a type? Most artists can make a pretty good guess whether a particular artwork would or would not show up in a particular museum. The taste of an institution reflects a dynamic range of factors: historical legacies, leaders’ individual predilections, appetites of different audiences. Then, there are the fashions, interests, and tastes of the larger organizations within which the institution is embedded. In the Henry’s case, this includes the University of Washington, various city, state, national, and private funding sources, a voluble international art community. These factors (and undoubtedly many others) must be continually synthesized to form the Henry’s taste. In fact, one way to understand the function of the Henry is to perform precisely this work of synthesis; the Henry exists in order to discover its own taste in art, and then to exert this conditioned power in the form of programming.
How did Champagne Truffles seek to subvert the program? By a series of inversions: clean white galleries were countered with ripped wallpaper, meticulously displayed artworks were countered with messy accumulations, cool overhead lights with warm lamp-shades, critical thinking with tender sentiment, circulation with “hanging out”, aristocracy with bourgeoisie, conservation with deterioration, scarcity with abundance, art with kitsch, experience with innocence, moral seriousness with frivolity. These reversals expressed a tendency towards what Susan Sontag, in her essay on camp, identifies as tenderness. Tenderness is a deep affection for people and their foibles, an emotion which “relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of ‘character.’” This is the feeling of affinity that binds together a family, and makes it possible to create a home. Where do artists feel at home? Jenn, Nicholas, Saya, Maki and Ian made themselves at home in the Henry in a profound way—in the same way, actually, a colony of semi-feral cats might make their home in someone’s backyard: provisionally, messily, skeptically, gratefully.
The Gift Shop exhibitions had many of the features of the kind of art I would like to see more of. They were open-ended, idea-driven, experimental, spontaneous, collaborative, provocative, joyful. They were sensitive to the context in which they were made, paid attention to their audiences, tackled complex themes.
I have been making some lists of factors which made this possible. On the side of the Henry, there was: 1) an awkwardly vacant space, 2) a difficult budgetary time, 3) low morale in the organization, 4) a known artist as an organizer, 5) a desire to program more local artists, 6) a talented and supportive staff, and 7) an inclination to lend the project a great deal of autonomy. On the side of the artists, there was: 1) a deep pool of local talent, 2) the safety of shared authorship, 3) the challenges of no budget, 4) a rapid rate of production, 5) a known artist as an organizer, 6) a prestigious venue with an interestingly liminal space, and 7) a desire to build community and enjoy relationships old and new.
It strikes me that many of these factors are unsustainable or serendipitous. Artists can not always work for free; the Henry does not usually have fallow space. This might seem discouraging. If it was a combination of luck, good timing, and an unlikely convergence of interests that made The Gift Shop possible, what lessons can we draw? One answer I have tried to suggest here is that the energy and pleasure The Gift Shop generated was, in part, the result of a particular kind of relationship to power. The Gift Shop created safe space to explore power relationships between artists, an institution (and the people who make up that institution), and audiences. This sense of “betweeness” was an important characteristic of The Gift Shop. Much was left unresolved; questions led to more questions; attitudes both resistant and complicit were expressed, but always with attention to the pleasure to be found in the friction in between.
This is what Townsend is talking about in The Leatherman’s Handbook. “In life we are frequently cast in our socioeconomic states by forces beyond our control and end up behaving in the manner prescribed by these circumstances. In the blackroom, we act exactly the emotions, and attempt to fulfill the fantasies, that society will not permit us to experience.” Substitute “studio” or “gallery” or “museum” for “blackroom”, and I think we are getting close to the ethos of The Gift Shop. Pleasure is a goal, in the form of catharsis at the service of empathy and connection. Everyone should know themselves well, know what their kinks are, and be honest about them. Good communication, mutual trust, and respect is essential. Everyone should be invested in the success of the scene; no single person’s ambition or needs should predominate. Your partner’s pleasure is more important than your own. Roles should be clearly delimited, well-defined—but also flexible, and subject to renegotiation at any time.
There is an additional source of power which eludes Galbraith. Audre Lorde calls this erotic power. “The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings....It is not just a question of what we do, but a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” This is power which comes from sharing any pursuit deeply with another person, from sharing joy “physical, psychic, or intellectual”, from love in all of its aspects.
This essay is an exercise in what Claude Zervas has called “retroactive conceptualization”, which is the “retroactive application of a conceptual framework derived (post-creation) through a process of contemplating the generative process ....” These interpretations of the six Gift Shop exhibitions are my own highly idiosyncratic views of an intensely pluralistic project. I offer it with a deep sense of gratitude to everyone who collaborated on and supported The Gift Shop, and in particular the brilliant participating artists. ¶ Works cited: John Kenneth Galbraith, The Anatomy of Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company), 1983; Larry Townsend, The Leatherman’s Handbook II (New York: Carlyle Communications Ltd.), 1989; Aby Warburg, Der Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE, edited by Martin Warnke, (Berlin: Akademie Verlag GmbH), 2003; Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp”, Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1966; Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, a paper delivered at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978; reprinted in Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press), 1984. ¶ A portion of this essay was originally published in La Norda Specialo #7 in October, 2010, supported by a generous grant from 4Culture.