Stop me before I sell myself again

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My friend Terence just got written up in the Stranger as the first purchaser of Caleb Larsen's A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter (hereafter ATtDaS). Briefly, ATtDaS is a black cube with some electronics inside that, when connected to the Internet, attempts to sell itself on eBay. (Current auction here). The purchaser is (allegedly) required to provide an Internet connection (semi-absurd EULA can be found at the auction site. sample quote: "Any failure to follow these terms without prior consent of Artist will forfeit the status of the Artwork as a legitimate work of art. The item will no longer be considered a genuine work by the Artist and any value associated with it will be reduced to its value as a material object and not a work of art.") and has to kick back 15% of the profits from the sale to Larsen.

Terence paid a stupefying $6400 for the privilege of not-really owning this object. Here's what he has to say for himself:

It sort of uniformly falls into two categories: either, That's an enormously appealing, thought-provoking piece of art, or the other thing is, That's the most foolish thing I've ever seen. They're really defensive about it.

I hang out with a bunch of computer security people because I'm a computer security person myself, so they want to know, are you going to hack the box? Is there some way to put it behind a firewall to slow it down so it can't sell itself? Which really adds a whole other dimension because you buy the box and the box immediately starts trying to escape from you. So part of the impulse is, is there a way I can subvert the process of it trying to escape from me? By doing that, you'd in some ways be removing the reason it's interesting.

I'm (of course) one of the people who suggested that it be firewalled off. Obviously, just firewalling it off would be cheating and arguably violate the license agreement (not that I'm convinced it's actually binding). But the natural security guy reaction is to try to find some way to stop ATtDaS from selling itself in some way that complies with the agreement. My suggestion was to firewall off eBay alone, or just forge TCP RST packets. This seems to me the qualify with the relevant term:

Collector agrees that the Artwork will remain connected to a live Internet connection at all times, with disconnections allowed only for the transportation of the work from one venue to another.

Option 2 seems to be to "transport" it from its current venue in Seattle to a venue somewhere in the Himalayas via yak, Sherpa, or the like.

I tried to explain to Terence that this wasn't removing the interesting part but rather going taking an allegedly subversive piece and going meta-subversive, but he didn't bite. Some people just don't appreciate art.

7 Comments

Hats off to the artist for coming up with a brilliant solution to two of the toughest problems in modern art: improving on the basic "charge a fortune for flamboyant crap" model of service to the competitive conspicuous consumption class; and generating a recurring revenue stream from goods that have zero value except as ostentatious money-sinks for the CCCC.

Imagine all those deluded fools going into careers like law and investment banking when they could be sharing in all the wealth pouring into the lucrative field of conceptual art based scams. Our economy is certainly buckling under the stress created by the thousands of dollars stolen from deluded collectors every year by these devious villains.

If you really wanted to make some money on this, you would build an "adapter". A miniature version that could be attached to any piece of art. Then buy up some well known paintings and sculptures and attach adapters to them. Voila, you've turned a buy-and-hold asset into a cash stream. Financial engineering meets Internet technology meets art collecting. KPCB might even bankroll you.

Hmmm...*somebody's* sounding "really defensive"... :^)

Who said anything about "devious villains"? Modern artists are perfectly respectable purveyors to the carriage trade, just like, say, high-end fashion designers or restaurateurs--except that the latter are only *mostly* catering to their clients' desire to waste money ostentatiously.

The carriage trade has its pluses and minuses, of course. On the one hand, one gets to hobnob with the rich, famous and powerful, and if one's goods catch on, the profits are huge. On the other hand, the glamor and financial prospects lure a lot of hungry competitors, and the rich tend to be not only annoyingly self-important, but also notoriously fickle in their tastes. Any commercial success therefore has to be assumed to have an extremely short shelf life.

In most cases, though, one can still cash in by shifting downmarket. The margins decline--less wealthy people demand a greater ratio of value to conspicuous consumption--but the customer base expands exponentially, and tends to be less fickle. The marketplace is full of immensely lucrative mass-market products that started with, or trade upon, their creators' initial success at ultra-high-end marketing.

But modern artists can't really make this shift, since the market for pure conspicuous consumption goods is pretty much restricted to the very rich. Instead, they're trapped in the carriage trade, forced to top themselves again and again with more and more novel ways to generate the glamor of pure conspicuous consumption.

Larsen's first stroke of genius was to recognize that this treadmill is a by-product of an underlying flaw in the artist's business model: whatever an artwork's value to conspicuous consumers, the artist traditionally only gets to sell it once. Thereafter, even if lots of people want to blow a wad of cash on it, the artist gets no return, and must try to win the fickle hearts of rich collectors all over again with a new idea.

Why not, then, simply create a work and rent it out to collectors for limited time periods? Here was Larsen's second stroke of genius: to satisfy the conspicuous consumption requirement, a revenue stream-generating transaction must appear more like the traditional lighting-money-on-fire/paying-a-fortune-for-crap bravado of a wealthy patron than the subservient posture of a gallery ticket-buyer or museum curator receiving a work on loan from a collection. "Slaughter" isn't really being sold so much as rented, since the purchaser's "ownership" rights quickly disappear. But the transaction is designed to *resemble* a purchase--the consumption aspect is, as it were, intentionally conspicuous.

Now that Larsen has made his breakthrough, one can imagine similar follow-up works, either by him or by enterprising imitators. For example, an artwork could be created that evolved over time--say, transforming itself in some way at random intervals--and sold on the condition that it be returned to the artist (as a "new" artwork) each time such a transformation occurs. Or an artwork could connect up to a bank Website and verify a monthly payment to the artist's account, destroying itself (or altering itself into a new work whose ownership reverts back to the artist by contract) if the payment isn't verified. The possibilities are endless, I suppose, as long as there are people with money to burn ostentatiously, and ambitious artists willing to cater to them.

I think it's a mistake to class art in general as a conspicuous consumption good. I know that you tend to think of equities as something that only the truly capricious purchase, but art seems to perform approximately as well as stocks. (http://www.slate.com/id/2144303/.) There's a high barrier to entry, but your definition of "carriage trade" good would then seem to also encompass hedge funds and municipal bonds. (Yes, munis are ownable in small denominations through a fund, but bond fund performance is different than pure ownership of the underlying asset.)

Outside of the "wastefulness" aspect of the argument, I guess there's not a lot else to discuss, since there's no real objective measure of aesthetics. You seem to want to dispense with any argumentation about that by ascribing insincerity or worse to anyone that's foolish enough assert some value other than purely financial.


The index you cite tracks "museum-quality art". I would expect that to be heavily weighted in favor of older, more established artworks by deceased artists who obviously can no longer erode the rarity-based value of their existing works. I can certainly see how those might be plausible investment vehicles. But I think it's safe to say that the overwhelming majority of new art is, by objective standards, a terrible investment.

As for aesthetics, who's to say that conspicuous consumption isn't an aesthetic in its own right? If "aesthetics" is broad enough to cover purchasing a black cube you've never seen and are obligated to quickly resell, then why can't it include the gold foil baked onto fancy Indian pastries, or Land Rovers, or that New York restaurant where a "pen steward" helps you select a writing implement with which to sign your credit card slip?

Now, I have no idea what motivated you to buy "Slaughter", and it would be extremely rude of me to claim to have more insight than you into that question. But Caleb Larsen wasn't creating a made-to-order artwork for you--he was creating an object to be sold into a market with observable customer expectations--a certain customer "aesthetic", if you will. And from his point of view, not only was it empirically sound to assume that the driving customer motivation/aesthetic is conspicuous consumption, but as I explained in my previous comment, his design really does appear to have exploited the implications of that assumption quite effectively.

As to your first point, I'd guess that a random sampling of art from any period is pretty lumpy in terms of investment potential. There's a healthy selection of living artists that seem to have a primary market consisting of hedge fund managers buying it to squirrel away in warehouses (Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Anish Kapoor, etc.) Charles Saatchi turned a fortune into an even bigger fortune by selectively buying works from recent art school graduates.

Outside of people buying contemporary art (at least partially) for investment purposes, the methodology by which most high end art sort of undermines the conspicuous consumption hypothesis. A significant fraction of the buying done at a Sotheby's or Christie's auction is done via anonymous phone bidding, or through agents that attend the auction. Many high end collectors will have dealers purchase pictures for them so as to protect their identity. Some collectors will show their collections, but just as many keep them completely private.

As to aesthetics, I couldn't agree with your assertion that anything can be aesthetically repurposed. You might or might not be engaged by a particular work, but there's certainly a wide universe of taste. I don't know about indian pastries, but even if we restrict ourselves to your "museum quality" bar, we have Rikrit Tiravanija, who had a show that consisted of him cooking Thai food for gallery visitors (http://nymag.com/arts/art/reviews/31511/) and the series of BMW art cars (http://www.bmwdrives.com/bmw-artcars.php). The Guggenheim cleared every single item off the gallery floor on January 29th to show three works by Tino Sehgal (http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/exhibitions/on-view-now/tino-sehgal), works that consist entirely of staged performances that interact in some scripted way with the viewer. Sehgal doesn't allow any recording of the works, or produce any certificate to transfer ownership. They can be sold, but only via a binding oral contract. (Again, passes your museum-quality bar. His work is currently owned by the Guggenheim and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)

In terms of the Larsen piece, it is about consumption in some way (the catalog for the show is entitled "The Price of Nothing"), and that's exactly why I find it interesting. There's no need for it to be about conspicuous consumption, since the transactions could be conducted entirely behind more or less anonymous eBay ids. Maybe my willingness to talk about it is an indicator of my own shallow vanity, but that seems like a knock on me, not on the art. Saying that "it's about consumption" seems more like an endorsement of the work, not a condemnation.

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