From the booth I sat in at the Columbus Circle Holiday Market, I watched the eddies and flows of the bodies moving past. Eyes flicked and scanned, individuals glossed over the variety of potential gifts with something or someone in mind. Often the gaze stopped on the wares displayed in my particular booth, a weird double vision, where it was clear that they were looking at objects for sale, but saw someone very specific while taking that object in. This time I was selling someone else's handcrafted items, instead of my own, and in the lack of fear about my own value as an artist, I was able to participate in the gift buying business in a completely different way. All of the emotional space I might have held for things I gave birth to was instead available to hold the customers needs and desire as they considered their loved one's needs and desires. It was no less intimate than having my own things handled, but I was invited into their sense of love or care for an individual, I was a way to express that in the future ritual of gift giving. I felt like a Sphinx, like my job was to ask the kinds of questions that gave me clues to this invisible person, to guide me as I offered different items to my audience. Oracular in my booth, the days I worked ended up being big money days for my friend who had hired me, as I took in mirrored gestures and matching laugh lines suggesting the similarity of structure gifted genetically, as I witnessed mothers and daughters confer, the unsure and the confident gift givers, as I silently showed children the inner structures of the hand built Book Clocks, while their parents perused the selection surrounding me.
In the booths around me were mostly mass produced home goods and jewelry, much farther along in their transition from handmade art-thing to full fledged capitalist venture. My friend's process by necessity gets more streamlined, when faced with the kind of volume that the market's proximity to Times Square had to offer, but his particular product still lived in the space of being novel and somehow familiar, being crafted from books that so many grandmas paused to consider because they recognized titles from their youth. I've come across Craigslist ads during slow season that are explicitly asking for skilled fabricators to work in shops that create the things that famous artists are known for. People like Jeff Koons send their specs in and teams of highly skilled, underpaid craftsmen build the things that sell for so much money, with that man's name on it, that 'artist'. There are entire towns in Italy filled with mold makers and bronze masters that spend their whole lives reproducing other people's work, but it is Rodin's name that is spoken in hushed tones in the antique show booth I just finished constructing, for a tiny copy of a copy of a copy that will sell for $45,000.
What is the difference between being an artist and a slave? Between being a Subject and an Object? What does Ownership really mean? When you buy a reproduction, or something fabricated by individuals being paid to produce someone else's ideas, what now belongs to you? The sweat and sensitivities of those unknown hands? The shape of an experience born out of a context of which you may know nothing? A feeling you had when you first looked at that thing? Part of me wonders if antique shows aren't a product of age trying to prove it still has value.
I watched an ancient man spew unkind words and an attitude of such superiority towards me as I sat in a scissor lift waiting for my crew to get back from their union specified break. 'You are going to move this 'contraption'.' he informed me. I explained that we needed to finish building the wall it was parked under, to which he replied 'Not right now, you are not.' He was an appraiser of antiques, there were about 50 of them let in before the build was complete. I finally stopped working for Fashion Week events, the divide between 'worker' and the Production team is so clearly delineated by those who touch things and those who don't, and Designers won't even respond to you if they have seen you lay hands on something. The last Alexander Wang gig that I worked I received excited comments from someone I went to grade school with, who still lives in my home town. I didn't mean to dump my darkness on her romantic associations of the fashion world, but this divide between people with ideas and money, and those who actually have the skills to craft it but are paid to make someone else's art are held in the kind of regard we might associate servants and slaves with. I have found this attitude to be pervasive. And no one seems to know that we treat the builders of our physical and cultural reality this way. There is only so much of ourselves that we can give away in obscurity before we are merely selling the effort of our bodies for money, and they too become simply objects to be filled with other people's desires, and we in turn become numb to our own cravings and creative impulses.
When I had the pleasure of working on a massive project with Marina Abramovich, we all were participants in the creation of what was essentially a piece of art. When I asked her how she felt about the way the director had translated her life, she responded with 'I don't know, I give him my story and he make slapstick.' Its impossible to describe the herculean effort of constructing the space for this performance, and I worked on almost every crew that installed and then ran the show, I was backstage surrounded by performance artists from all over the world who have devoted their lives and physical bodies to becoming an object of expression to be consumed by an audience. And when I rode the train home every night, I was surrounded by that audience, most of them the older wealthy patrons of the Armory. All I heard was one vicious dismissal after another. They didn't care how hard any of us worked to give that experience to them.
In a circle of conversation the other day, there arose a distinction between heart and intellect that someone was seeing as important, but something about it really rubbed me wrong. I tried to explain how my crews and I communicate in and around a spatial plane that involves a bodily understanding that supersedes that distinction, and she quickly blew me off 'that's an object. I'm talking about an idea.' she said, flipping her hand vaguely in my direction without making eye contact. I thought about one of my best friends, from the first shop I worked in. He had almost a superstitious reaction to drawings, and had really intense fears of feeling stupid, something that was beat into him in the public education system. He wouldn't even come near the drawings at first, it took me months to make him feel comfortable enough to be confused or unsure in my presence to finally talk him through the symbols we use to indicate shapes in space and relate that to the time of building a thing and the organization of what comes first and how abstract numbers relate to physical markings in the room. And in the midst of this conversation with these educated women, I suddenly felt, for the first time like I shouldn't be there. There was no space for my reality in her dismissive gesture, in the words she was trying to find to describe some specific internal feeling about having an Idea. Like objects aren't inherently a manifestation of ideas, like material and immaterial aren't deeply intertwined expressions of each other. Like these men aren't having ideas while they discuss how to build something.
Objects are often things that we fill, with memories, with symbolic weight, with fear or desire, but not as much with their own sense of history, of being born, of being filled with something before or outside of our interactions with it. I wonder how a baby experiences an object, as they grapple with organizing and coordinating their own seemingly disparate parts. Do they feel that object possessing its own selfness the way they themselves do? Is having that little bit of dominion in an alien landscape that they are initially helpless in an important piece in distinguishing themselves from other things? Is it something to wrap the sense of experiencing around, a container of sorts for their growing awareness? How does the way we handle objects when engaging with a baby help define the way in which they will handle objects or other people later?
I wonder if I lost my mother in a sense, when she met my stepfather. I was 3 and suddenly she was pregnant and in love, when they eventually married she asked him to dress in the same white tux with a red rose in the pocket, like her favorite potential option from the board game Mystery Date. I'm sure in some fractured vacuum in myself, there was a desire for some animal affection that I saw in the face and the soft triangular body of a stuffed bear I found at a garage sale with my Grandmother. Digging through other people's things was a regular weekend event, whether it was driving around looking for handwritten poster board signs with arrows, or riding from one thrift store to another to another. My Grandmother was born in the middle of the great depression, and grew up during a war time era, a rationed society, so store bought gifts and school clothes were a once or twice a year kind of event for us when I was growing up. I don't know anything about that bear's previous name or life, but I cried so many tears into Brownie's fake fur over the years. When I was 11, I knew it was time, that I was too old for stuffed animals and tucked him away in a box in my closet. In the 7th grade our Labrador puppy dug him out and chewed off his nose, so I moved him to a high shelf in the closet. When I came home from college every once in awhile, I would apologize, not with words, but the feelings in my body when I saw his dark eyes up there in a forgotten cardboard box.
Once when I was a tarot reader for an event, I asked that payment be some form of exchange, whatever the receiver of the reading chose to give in return for my energetic focus on their question. People laughed and cried, there were intense pauses, and furtive glances towards partners who were out of earshot, and I was an anonymous vessel, to be filled with their burning questions about a looming decision, about something they were second guessing, things they didn't even want to admit they hoped for, things they admitted to me but wouldn't even admit to their spouse. I took it all, wrapping them in my steady presence, listening without judgement, paying attention to what rose to the surface in them during our session. Things that went into my cup included a lock of hair, a poem written in lipstick on a piece of trash, two small silver rings that the girl told me later had been made with someone who had died, the person who ended up being a major part of her reading.
Out of respect, I wore those rings on my pinky finger, every day for an entire year. I still have them. It seems strange to me now, that I would treat someone else's memory filled objects with such reverence, when I have vehemently refused to keep pieces of my own history.
"Movements are born in the moments when abstract principles become concrete concerns."