Experiments in (Anti-)Capitalism, Part I

Almost nothing bores me more than the idea of writing my own blog posts for this site – as is obvious from those that have come before (the writing within them, by and large, not exactly crackling with necessity): I’m more interested in others’ experiences with regard to this project, and the most important “site” for SWAG for Hard Times stuff is out of my hands, away from me, in your hands (and not even here, on the internets).

But sometimes, something happens with this project that seems worth writing about.  De-installation of the UCLA show last week provided just such an experience.  I knew this moment would come: the emptying of the “bank” built into the honor-system pedestal.  How much money would be there?  Would other things have been inserted into the slot as payment?  What would I find?  How would that bank-dump serve as a record of the project’s reception in that show, an indication of people’s reactions to and (future) use of SWAG?

My good friend Kari tilted the pedestal for me, and as I scooted beneath the box, a zippered black leather pouch in hand to catch (and, thereafter, hide) the takings, I felt as though I was stealing from my own project.  Very strange.  Like what I was doing was not allowed even for me.  Maybe it’s the leather “heist” pouch, or maybe it’s that I never have the opportunity to upend a piggy bank full of my own earnings, anymore (living on federal student loans, receiving that check every 5 months, just isn’t the same as counting money you’ve made from working).  I do keep the prices for this stuff as non-capitalizing as possible, attempting to just cover my costs (which, to date, has never happened).  So why did I feel like I was stealing?

I’ve thought about this, and partly it’s because it’s an honor to have this work, this participatory project, be recognized and used by others.  Yes, I paid to have the SWAG manufactured, and yes, I seem to always go into debt to do so, but to create something that people want to honor by using it, somehow, in their daily lives – or even by just having it around, or passing it on to a friend – still feels like such an honor that being paid feels extraordinary.  It’s humbling.  It’s hard to feel like I’ve earned it.  That’s part of the stealing feeling.  Each carefully-folded dollar bill that I recovered from the bank box felt like an especially sincere exchange, almost a thank-you note, particularly because this was an exchange dictated entirely by the honor system.  Some people said thanks with their money quite literally:

Thank-you Dollar

Sweet dollar-bill thank-you note

Other stand-out exchanges included the following:

Parking refund ticket

A parking ticket refund - unuseable by the time I opened the bank, but I like the effort

Spare change payments

Spare change - no real correlation with the prices of SWAG - and a $2 coin from Hong Kong!


An extremely sincere IOU, complete with phone number and email of SWAG exchanger

This last was somehow especially “honorable,” almost moreso than the actual payments received, if only because she made it so personal, breaking the barrier of anonymity inherent in the installation (though I think I’ll hit up the note’s author not for $3 but for her SWAG-related story, right here on this site….)

I’ve “performed” this project as a salesperson many times, and the risks of doing so are the usual embarrassments of showing up in costume, sometimes uninvited, to sell small things to people who are likely to be disinterested.  But I have not before taken the risk of “selling” based purely on the honor system.  Would I get completely fleeced?  True, part of how we sited the project in the exhibition space revolved around how various sightlines would enable others to see you when you were at the SWAG pedestal: I’m interested in how potential surveillance alters our behavior.  Clearly, that’s part of my interest in creating wearable political statements for “you,” in the first place – how will it be for you once you wear it in public, in view of others and their unpredictable reactions?  But regardless of social mores against stealing, it turns out I did, quite likely, lose some money in this installation of the project  – I may have miscalculated my initial inventory, or I may, indeed, have “earned” double what was left in the bank box, based on how much SWAG seems to have been taken.  But I’ve been thinking about the outcome this way: if some people took SWAG without paying for it, because they valued it, then that, too, is a form of exchange, and it’s a form I can even support, philosophically-speaking.  I guess it means I unwittingly gave those people a gift, and they accepted it.  What goes around comes around….

Operating any monetary exchange based on “honor” probably reads as saccharine idealism to many people; that it worked at all still surprises me.  To each of you who folded a dollar or two to support the project, thank you.  Your honesty redoubles your investment.  As always, report back about how you used your SWAG – and what happened then….

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