From September, 2014 through June, 2015, Proteus Gowanus invited artists and workers in other disciplines to think about COMMERCE using art, artifacts, books, film, workshops and discussion. The year’s four exhibitions focused on money (in the exhibition Currency), work (in the Labor show), the movement of goods through physical and cultural space (in Trade Routes) and the individuals who make commercial goods in our very own backyard along the Gowanus Canal (Gowanus Marketplace).
The yearlong exploration provided a variety of opportunities to consider the effects of commerce on our own lives and circumstances. Here are some highlights:
At our opening exhibition, Currency, we exhibited art made from money, money made into art, goods for trade, a wall-sized installation and more. (view participants and images of their work) . But the piece that made the biggest bang, at the opening and several more times throughout the three months show, was Chris Hackett and Bronwen Densmore’s Coin Press, which dropped more than 1000 pounds of force onto a hard dollop of copper, producing a coin with an emblem and causing our walls to shiver and shake. Hackett’s guillotine-like structure, made from detritus found on the Gowanus, was the perfect herald for the COMMERCE year to come. It was gerrymandered, not unlike our financial system and it was engaging, in a physical way: you jumped, you backed away, you whooped. It was also provocative, evoking the hazards inherent to our capitalist system. Here’s more on Hackett.
More intuitively engaging was Tatiana Istomina’s participatory installation, the Mercantile Evaluation Statistical System or MESS inviting viewers to ascribe value to diverse objects arrayed on our wall-sized shelves. Visitors were invited to inspect the objects and evaluate them on a scale of zero to fifty. They were then offered instructions on how to determine the “accurate” value of the objects using Tatiana’s MESS tool: a simple questionnaire which systematically evaluates objects based on various parameters selected by the artist. Some objects were valued similarly by viewers, such as the can of Spam, while other values diverged widely, such as the clay animal shaped by a small child. It made the capitalist system of supply and demand (if you ignore how rigged it is) look elegant in comparison! At the end of the show, Tatiana performed a statistical analysis of viewer responses. One finding: participants tend to ascribe greater value to objects with symbolic qualities. More information on Tatiana’s project can be found at her website and on her blog.
Other Labor artists included Blake Fall-Conroy who exhibited his Minimum Wage Machine, a lucite box with a crank balanced on spindled wooden legs. When visitors turned the crank, the machine dispensed pennies at the rate of 800 per hour, adding up to the NYS minimum wage, $8/hour. It was hard work! Here’s Blake’s website. Phillip Chen’s elegant prints of equations using tools instead of numbers suggested the humility as well as the utility of objects in our daily life. Their precision images float in a dim, sepia light like waking dreams: both hyper-real and not real at all, suggesting half-suppressed memory in an atmosphere of loss and expectation. More of Phillip’s work can be found here.
Also for the Labor show, Meredith Degyanksy laid out her “life in debt” using objects, documents and mementos to trace the arc of her indebtedness as it bounded chronologically through the phases of her working life. She began in childhood when she received poker chips from her mother for jobs well done, through paper routes and waitressing to the post-college years when she conscientiously and subversively engaged with our economy to beat back the enormous debt she acquired in exchange for educational degrees. Meredith also conducted weekly workshops at Proteus advising others who live in debt or other economic hardship on alternate methods of economic survival (excluding criminal activity which is not her specialty). Meredith’s work on work continues.
In the Trade Routes exhibition, the sociologist-artist team David Schleifer and Tracy Gilman introduced the show’s focus on the pathways of commerce with the high concept/high craft piece Charged Textile SJOOW.v1. The Trade Routes show examined past and present infrastructures, from the winds and tides that were the first determinants of inter-cultural trade to the technological breakthroughs that drive global trade today. David and Tracy’s piece used weather-resistant electric cable to construct a navajo-style rug, thus weaving together the extensive intercultural trade history of the Navajo rug industry with the global technological breakthrough of transcontinental electric cables that connect cultures and localities across the globe.
Shari Mendelson and Venetia Dale also addressed the role of technology and product innovation in our daily lives, specifically the invention of plastic, on the movement of merchandise from country of origin to point of consumption. Shari forms replicas of commodities from the classical era, such as figurines and vessels, from the plastic remnants of today’s discarded goods. Venetia collects the woven plastic shopping bags used by street vendors worldwide to transport their wares and used them to create replicas of those wares as art.
These artists lent a playfulness and tactility to our elongated ponderings about the role commerce plays in our daily lives and in the global trends that affect us all so intimately. There were many others in these first three shows whose work gave food for thought: Holly Pitre’s Labor of Love, exploring her attempts to communicate with her imprisoned brother; Charlotte Lagarde’s slow, spare video of a cargo ship moving slowly across a horizon line; Tony Stanzione’s enigmatic presentation of knotted segments of fishing boat rope that he found as jetsam on the beaches; Audra Wolowiec’s audio segments of work songs; Makale Faber-Cullen’s handmade boxes containing the rapid fire sound of a professional cattle auctioneer and many more. Please visit the Commerce page on our website for more on the year’s participants.
The Commerce year ended with Gowanus Marketplace, an exhibition of works and products made by artisans and makers on the banks of the Gowanus Canal, filthy artery of industrial commerce from the last two centuries. The show was curated by Courtney Jordan. Please visit our website’s Commerce page for their names so you can visit their shops and websites to purchase their wares.
Commerce Workshops and Events
Opening Reception for Currency, the first exhibition of the COMMERCE year.
Faithful John, a story told by mythologist and storyteller Dr. Martin Shaw exploring the relationship between initiation, commerce and the living world in a traditional tall tale.
Art Market Speculating, a talk by attorney Franklin Boyd exploring the art market as a niche sector of high finance with a uniquely irrational character.
Commerce: The Greens, Water Wheel, and Bosco Mall, a pop-up exhibit and event by RISD artists developed in dialogue with the Currency show.
Reanimation Library: Gowanus Branch, Opening Reception, the 2nd show of the COMMERCE year.
TEDX Gowanus Viewing Party, an opportunity for community members without tickets to the TEDX event to see Proteus Gowanus presentation and installation at the nearby event.
When Labor Was Capital: The Slave-Breeding Industry, a lecture by Ned Sublette from his upcoming book on the domestic slave breeding industry in the US. The book, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry was published in October, 2015.
Labor of Love: True Stories by Real People, a story-telling event for the Labor exhibition.
Zapatista Coffee, Portraits and Advice for the Alienated, a gathering of projects creating alternative paths within our current economic system curated by Blade of Grass fellow Fran Ilich.
Opening Reception: Trade Routes exhibition, the third show of the COMMERCE year.
The Past Is The Future: Economic Alternatives from Contemporary Maya, anthropologist Kristina Baines lecture examining lessons learned from a traditional society about the impact of commerce on our communities.
Documentary Film Screening: In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, a film about the Korean adoption system.
Trace: A Civil Rights Journey, a photography, video, voice, and word program exploring the legacy of writer and activist Tom Dent by retracing parts of his 1990 journey visiting lesser-known sites of the Civil Rights struggle.
Art and Entrepreneurship in Mobile Vending, a discussion led by exhibitor Lauren Cannon of the Institute for Mobile Research.
Mobile Vending in the Underground Economy, a panel discussion led by the Institute for Mobile Research.
A Spice Trade Perfume Mixing Workshop with Julianne Zaleta of Alchemologie, an herbal alchemy apothecary.
Documentary film screening presented by Charlotte Lagarde: The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda, a film about people who scavenge the leavings of our consumerist society.
Gowanus Marketplace, Opening Reception, final opening of the COMMERCE year.