Free things are usually shitty: corporate schwag, junk mail, the crap companies throw in when trying to sell barbecues on TV. If you’re in the art world however, it’s different—free is the ideological pillar which supports an entire professional field. Just take the New York art world, which is built on free labor (and a lot of it). Most of us know more people who are working on unpaid art projects than real paying jobs, and that’s not awesome. We believe that our world will be a little better for it, though, because we believe art has the power to effect change.
At least, that’s the feel good explanation for “free labor.” The practical one is a little less romantic. As Brad Troemel writes in the giveaway catalogue for NURTUREart’s show ...Is This Free? (through Sep 22), we often do things for free because no one will buy our labor. For those of us who like art enough, we will work unpaid with the hope that we can leverage that labor into a paying gig.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that a large amount of the ephemera in ...Is This Free? is in print, a cheap art form that no one will pay for. Various ephemera, videos, and audio works are scattered throughout the gallery as well, hammering home the point that we can only give away what we can afford. In this case, it’s unrealized fantasies and inexpensive objects.
By that description, you might think I’m damning the show, but those are just the harsh realities it exposes. Curated by Director Marco Antonini, and now in the third stage of its installation—the first stage was launched July 9, and the second August 3—this survey includes more than 30 artists and an array of work that speaks to the concept of free. The red dots placed near artworks aren’t an indication of what’s been sold but of what shouldn’t be taken home. Green gives audiences the go-ahead to take the work, while yellow means “free with conditions.”
Of the green-dotted swag, the takeaway flier "MONEY IS AN UNNECESSARY EVIL" represents one of the more radical interpretations of “free.” Written in 1966 by the San Francisco Diggers, it calls for all responsible citizens to turn in their money for free distribution. The rationale was this: money hoarding blocks the free flow of energy and causes explosive violence, therefore its redistribution will curb crime.
Crazy, right? But we see this kind of naivete all the time in art history, and it’s important because it inspires trying things we never would otherwise. Half of the art made by canonical performance artist Vito Acconci exists because he believed he could work outside the market. He later decided, like many Diggers, that that was an untenable position, but the documents are important nonetheless, if only because they offer a different way of thinking.
Of course, some failed experiments have more merit than others; I wouldn’t take everything home. Julie Torres’s painting asks viewers to write a secret they’ve never told anyone in a book she’s provided, in exchange for getting a chance to win the work. Unsurprisingly, the book shows humanity to be rather predictable: we have affairs, we witness people doing bad things, and we worry about our mothers. None of these secrets seem particularly special, and that’s not because they aren’t, but because we have no stake in the people sharing them or the art housing them. Giving the piece away won’t change that.
The true highlight of the show wasn’t a particularly high-minded project but an art experiment based on Cesare Pietroiusti’s “Non-Functional Thoughts” and executed by the students at Juan Morel Campos school in Williamsburg. They were asked, simply, what isn’t art. In answer, there was some crumpled trash on a pedestal, a Metrocard, a quarter, and a cut-up print out of an artwork. It all looked like pricey art.
Image Kaliflower By The Diggers, Courtesy NURTUREart