Pass It On: Connecting Contemporary Do-It-Yourself Culture

WHEN Through 4/14: Tue-Sat 11-5

WHERE Columbia College A+D Gallery, 619 S. Wabash

INFO 312-344-8687

It’s All About Things

WHEN Through 3/31: Tue-Sat noon-6

WHERE Three Walls, 119 N. Peoria, 2A

INFO 312-432-3972

The Micromentalists

WHEN Through 3/31: Tue-Fri noon-6, Sat 1-6

WHERE Fifty50, 1017 W. Lake, and BSD, 1319 W. Lake, 3rd floor

INFO 773-208-6477

What’s your idea of utopia and how to reach it? If you agree with Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” idea, that capitalism and liberal democracy have triumphed, we’re there. If you’re a fan of Bruce Mau, the designer guru behind last fall’s “Massive Change” exhibit/trade show at the Museum of Contemporary Art and a participant in the corporate-visionary C6 Symposium at the Pritzker Pavilion in April, then we’re well on our way. But if you have some sympathy with the Diggers, the 1960s San Francisco interventionists, we’ve got a long way to go. Their name came from a 17th-century British collective that opposed private property, farming common land and giving away the harvest. The modern Diggers began as a guerrilla street-theater group but later made use of volunteer labor, donated money, and scavenged goods to create free stores, bakeries, banks, hospitals, and the like. Since then other activists and artists, notably those in the Fluxus movement, have taken on similar projects intended to challenge the concept of global capitalism generally and the inflated commercial art market in particular.

This winter local galleries Roots & Culture, Lloyd Dobler, and Vonzweck hosted shows offering group activities, bartering, or giveaways. The show that came closest to the Digger tradition was “The Free Store,” which ran for a few weeks in February at Gosia Koscielak Gallery and will reappear for one-day events in public parks and at Mess Hall. This group project included Salem Collo-Julin of Temporary Services, a local art collective that’s been giving away goods and services ever since a big “Free for All” event they hosted in February 2000.

Now Temporary Services has contributed a plastic-bag installation to “Pass It On: Connecting Contemporary Do-It-Yourself Culture” at Columbia College’s A+D Gallery, a show geared toward showing viewers projects they can do. A multiplatform exhibit like the MCA’s “Massive Change,” it also shares that show’s emphasis on slick design, abundant texts, and the value of entrepreneurial microenterprise. But where technology and large corporations were the focus of “Massive Change,” these aren’t central to “Pass It On” (Apple being a notable exception). There’s far greater emphasis on sharing information with producers than enticing consumers, and it also includes activist art, like Area magazine’s participatory mapmaking project. Even artists probably more interested in selling than sharing give how-to instructions designed to empower every circuit-bending indie-craft aficionado out there. Hipster-boutique items include Mouna Andraos’s display on wiring an iPod into a sock, Leah Culver’s diagrams on integrating a universal remote into a stuffed animal, and Sam Wirshup’s instructions for creating a messenger bag out of floppy disks. Empty public gestures abound too: the hardworking “scientists” of Graffiti Research Laboratories spell out words on metallic public surfaces with magnetic LEDs, for instance. But the show as a whole is inviting and absorbing. Free workshops and events are planned through April.

Luis Maldonado’s installation “It’s All About Things” at Three Walls doesn’t offer anything for free, but you can barter or bargain for his small, tasteful paintings, drawings, and sculptural objects. Maldonado has substantially built out the modest space, creating a lounge, video room, research area, collectors’ viewing room, and auction floor around which he circulates with a microphone, part sales associate, part emcee, part Antiques Roadshow expert. People bartering here have tended to offer pieces with sentimental rather than market value. The night of the opening Maldonado eventually traded a tiny landscape painting for an eyeglass strap that allegedly came with a story. During the strenuous haggling he demanded to be told the tale, but the customer insisted he provide a story in return. When Maldonado complied, the sale went through. He also considers trades for live performances, which he documents on video. His schedule this month includes dates with performance themes, such as dance, karaoke, and instrumental performance, and he’s available to consider trades during all gallery hours.

An exhibit called “The Micromentalists,” now at both BSD and Fifty50, actually traffics in U.S. currency. Organized by painter Patrick Welch, this show never slips into craft-fair banality; instead you’ll find small, well-crafted, provocative works. Prices are set by how many hours–ranging from one to 30–the artist put into the piece; buyers pay their hourly wage for each hour of the artist’s labor. Both opening nights were resoundingly successful in terms of sales. A posted faux-modernist “Micromentalist Manifesto,” tongue wedged painfully in cheek, formalizes the group’s principles: the artists, most or all commercially represented, claim to “reject the lure of the commercial galleries” but also say “WE CELEBRATE OUR EXQUISITE HYPOCRISY.” My favorite pieces were linocuts by Paul Nudd, whose abstractions evoke boogers, mold, bacteria, vomit, and other grotesque things. Welch’s attractive buttons bear such unforgettable messages as “I like colors that I can fuck.”

All these shows propose new systems, at least in the universe of art–free or shared resources, negotiated barter, and sliding-scale pricing. There’s no reason these experiments can’t coexist, but as Marcel Mauss and Georges Bataille have pointed out, gifts can have psychological and economic consequences, incurring a nebulous debt or entailing displays of expenditure and waste. Sometimes you just want to make a fair exchange for a pretty product. Still, it’s good to be challenged to think about artworks as something other than fashion accessories, luxury items, or marketing gambits.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “It’s All About Things”.