Aaron Lish.  Installation view.  Untitled (Retail Pricing).  2012.

Title:  Untitled (Retail Pricing)

For the show Seeds of Capitalism, PoetHouse Art, May 4-May 28, 2012.

Description:  Create a “theater set” consisting of a 3-D line drawing which houses the wall text “By entering the space defined by this drawing, and for the period you remain there, you will be charged for the air you breathe.  The rate of exchange is to be mutually agreed upon by the viewer and the attendant prior to entry.” Text color: black; constructed in Blue Highway font.  The drawing will be constructed using black tape that nearly matches the thickness of the letters.  Dimensions of the block of wall text: 24 in high X 82 in wide.  Dimensions of line drawing: variable, but must be larger than the block of text and must include at least one inside corner between two walls so as to allow the drawing to translate a space or volume in three dimensions. 

Offer the viewer the unique opportunity of getting to stand inside of a drawing.  Then engage in conversation about the price they are willing to pay to enter the drawing and why they chose that amount.  Bring the conversation to the fact that the fee is for breathing the air, which is much more important to one's health, not for entering the drawing. In negotiating the price, offer to barter for items they have or are wearing.  The rate of exchange per minute could be negotiated as being at a progressively higher rate every minute as the importance of oxygen goes up the longer you are without it.

Notes from the opening night:

- I was referred to as a "Fascist capitalist" by a serious-looking middle-aged gentleman. 

- A woman shared that she had lost her job and her field of work to capitalist practices so she didn't have much good to say about capitalism.

- "It makes you think about something we take for granted" was what another viewer shared.

- Most viewers who engaged in conversation tried to come up with something creative to offer in trade for the air in the space.  This was probably, in part, due to the fact that they did not have much on them to give up, but also due to the illogic of the scenario.  They wanted to play along, but were caught between the huge value that air has for survival and the hilarity of me trying to charge for air in an open space connected to the rest of the room.

- One gentleman stepped into the space before he finished reading, or comprehending the text.  As what he had just read registered in his brain I turned from my conversation with another visitor and told him I would have to charge him for the air.  He immediately emptied his pockets, spilling change and a $1 on the floor as he tried to step out of the space and collect  his money at the same time!  We settled on a dollar.  

- Some viewers engaged in conversation, but then could not come up with an offer and left.  Of these, most returned with either an offer, or to chat more to get a feel for what I might accept.

The stilt-walkers got in for free (she almost wasn't tall enough though!).

- "What is the going rate?" was asked a lot.  My response was that "I had been offered lots of different things from cash, to goods, to services, some of which had been accepted and some of which had not."  And to make an offer based on what you thought the air was worth to you.
- A number of guys, and one girl, offered me a hug as payment to enter the space.  I questioned the value of the hug for me as I was already getting lots of great social interaction.  I received various responses to this comment; none were able to convince me that a hug was worth the air.  However, these conversations did bring up the interesting question of how people perceive giving and receiving physical acts of affection in our culture, as well as how much people value meaningful physical contact.  Are we starved for such meaningful contact?  Social grooming is an activity that primates spend as much as 25% of their day consumed with.  It is theorized that language was developed to replace the need for social grooming as a way to develop and maintain alliances in a troop or tribe; however, we still need physical touch.  Human babies who do not receive enough touch will suffer from development issues; or in the extreme will die!

- "We buy water already" was a statement that came up a number of times.

- I also had a couple of people comment on how great it was to have the social interaction, especially as it was so unexpected, yet so thought provoking.

Those who entered commented on a heightened awareness of their breath and of the space within the drawing.

- One woman asked me how much to enter the space and I told her to make an offer based on how valuable air was to her.  She thought, and then pulled a photo out of her purse and said "Here's a photo of my child, the most precious thing to me."  I asked her how many seconds she thought it was worth to her, to which she said she wasn't sure, but if she could just enter the space that would be fine.  I decided that she wasn't asking for much, and that kids, or even photos of a child, are indeed precious to a parent, so it seemed like a fair deal.  She grinned widely at her friends from in the space and stepped back out.  I hope she shares her experience with her family!

- A grandmother thanked me profusely for doing such work.  As she said "it is up to people of my generation, and of her grand-kids' generation to do something about protecting the environment." 

- I was told that the wall text was the "funniest and most thought provoking think I have read in a year!"  We then continued to discuss how everything is for sale.  She said that after reading the text it immediately made her think of how corporations are buying air rights [to build taller buildings in NY City], and how absurd that is, as well as things like buying bottled water, or the fact that it was not long ago that everyone believed that timber was an infinite resource.

- One viewer told me that he had paid for air before when he went to an oxygen bar.  His girlfriend asked how it made him feel, and I asked if he thought it was worth it or not, and whether he thought the feeling was the result of a placebo-effect or not (since below 5000 feet we are able to fully saturate the hemoglobin in the blood by breathing atmospheric air!).  His girlfriend really wanted to enter the space, but all she had to offer was a strawberry-flavored piece of candy.  We discussed the value of oxygen vs. the value of sugar in the basics of human survival, and in the end she admitted that the candy wasn't worth very much compared to the air.  We settled on a half-breath, or as much as she could breath in during the time it took to step in and immediately step back out.  After that he really wanted to enter the space, but he couldn't come up with anything to offer beyond his sincere gratitude for allowing him to have the experience.  I said that I would need more than just the gratitude, so we agreed that since he was focused on the experience that if he was to post a comment on a social media site about his experience that I would allow him to take one breath in the space.  He posted on his facebook page, as well as on this site (comments below).

- A viewer commented "Everything is for sale, isn't it?" as he passed through the gallery quickly.

- And later someone said "That's what's coming next, huh?"

-One gentleman asked how much for the entire piece, not just to stand in it.  I told him that if we could settle on a space that worked for both his and my visual interest that I would install it in his home for $1000, but he would have to provide the air.  He said he would think about it.

- Another viewer overheard me bartering with someone, and when there was a pause in the bartering she asked if I would take plain cash because that was all she had.  I said yes, but that she would have to make an offer based on how valuable the air was to her.  She remarked "I don't have that much money with me."

- A gentleman, a painter himself he announced, was convinced that I must have designed the space on a computer (I didn't).  He went on and on about how well I created a sense of a closed three dimensional space through the use of the line, the text, and the lighting.  He spent a long time looking at the space from various angles.  He said he thought the message was great, but that the design of the space was what he was most interested in.

- A young man presented me with an autographed guitar pick from Los Lonely Boys.  He said the bass player gave it to him after the concert they played at the Les Schwab Amphitheater last summer.  He said that he too plays the bass, so it was a very meaningful experience, and a very precious object to him.  I remarked that I could see why it was valuable to him, but that as I am not a guitar player, and not much of a music person, that it really had very little value to me.  He asked what would be of value to me that he could do for me as he had nothing else to offer.  To this I said that if he was to recount his experience to five different strangers on the street, plus give me the guitar pick that I would allow him five seconds in the space, and we shook on it!!  I later had a couple tell me that a man on the street looked at them very seriously as he told them about his experience bartering for air and trading away his Los Lonely Boys guitar pick!

- I had a few people ask if they could enter if they just didn't breathe any of the air.  I told them to ensure that they did not accidentally take any of the air I would have to grab my plastic bag and duct-tape which we could use to make sure they could not breath.  One girl jokingly said okay, but then decided not to.  Another said that she didn't think she could hold her breath that well.  And a third said she didn't want to scare the kids.

- A couple of people brought up supply and demand, and that as there is a limitless supply of air it did not matter that air is essential to life, I still could not charge for it.  To this I responded that 100 years ago people thought that timber was a limitless resource, or that the supply of fish in the ocean could never be depleted.  They agreed and walked away puzzled over whether paying for air will be next?! 

Context for Untitled (Retail Pricing):  As involving viewer participation in the completion of an artwork is considered a response to the capitalist society we live in, I have created Untitled (Retail Pricing) in which the physical work is used as a framework, or theater set, to allow for an impromptu “skit” or dialog to occur between the viewer and myself (or gallery attendant).  This borrows from Tino Sehgal’s conversation-based pieces which create an opportunity for the viewer to be respected as an integral part of the art experience.  Further, as there is no “correct” interpretation of the work, it embraces Eco’s thinking on “works in movement” and results in the viewer questioning whether they experienced the work correctly.  There is also the opportunity for the viewer to use their imagination, or creativity, in how they respond to the challenge of negotiating the price of air which builds on Gustaf Almenberg’s philosophy that art should be about giving the viewer the opportunity to experience the creative moment for himself or herself.  Further, by putting both the viewer and the artist at the same level as equals in the conversation, or by removing the artist completely and allowing a gallery attendant to stand in for the artist, there is an aligning with Barthes writing in “The Death of the Author” where he suggests that the great importance placed on the “person” of the author / artist is a capitalist way of thinking.

Thus, not only does Untitled (Retail Pricing) bring up questions about capitalism and the value of things, but through empowering the viewer and creating a relational aesthetic this piece creates an experience which counters the isolation and de-humanizing effects of the spectacle in capitalist society (Debord).  The irony, however, is that although the conversation created between viewer and artist / attendant will likely be in some way about how the value of the air should be determined or how one can charge for air in a space that is open to the rest of the room, which will be more philosophical or abstract in nature, the basis of the conversation will still be transactional in that there is likely to be a negotiation of the price of the air.  As a result, although there is a strong relational element to the piece as a result of the conversation-based form, the conversation will still in a way be about a financial transaction, or a capitalist activity, of which relational activities are counter to!  This borrows from Santiago Sierra’s standard practice of setting up oppositional forces in his work.