I am hosting my first ever Random Acts of Generosity this Saturday at Fabrica. It’s an experiment, part of the brief of being resident artist, and I am not sure how it will play out. Pre-booked participants will get 15 minutes of one-to-one with me, at the end of which I will give them a gift. And the rest is up to them. I won’t say much more, as that would constitute a spoiler! But am taking delight in the long list of potential ‘gifts’ I have and working out which ones to wrap, bring and label for the purpose. I think there are a few places left; you can book in via eventbrite or the Fabrica site.
So, am I just a generous person who loves giving things away – or I am using others to further the ideas in my work?
I was struck at the ‘There’s an ‘I’ in Altruism’ event I took part in at Fabrica in February – co-hosted by Science writer Marek Kohn, and alongside speakers from scientific, anthropological, tech and faith backgrounds – by one of the ideas that came up around the commodification of altruism, and how we have as a society turned altruism into a product like any other, for the profit and self aggrandizement of the ego and capital in general – subsuming our middle class guilt into direct debit payments to charities for example, who behave more like corporate institutions than representatives of the truly needy. The rotting effects of capitalism, exacerbating inequality and perverting the very idea of gift and charity into something meaningless and ineffective.
Although I don’t share this view completely – as it seemed to write off in disdain most of the people in the room and the way they probably live their lives (a personal response on my part) – it did get me reflecting once again on how giving has become more associated with loss and profit than it has with connection and collective well-being, its apparent original purpose. And also these two of self –interest and generosity are supposedly opposing notions, when they eclipse and become interdependent; it is only then that a system of reciprocal altruism can really function.
For example, although much of my own arts practice could be labeled as operating in the social, and encoded with the desire to connect and impact others in some way, I do projects like Burning the Books for dual reasons which are simultaneously about me and about impact on another/society.
The first is stemmed in self-interest – I had an extreme experience around debt which shook my life up, then got curious about the social, moral and philosophical questions it raised and found a ‘tool’ (the idea of the project) to explore this more. Secondly, Interaction with others was contingent on making that idea work. I felt instrumentalised by the idea and compelled to share it further, based on the powerful response from those who were part of the first Burning the Books through Giving into Gift and then at Blank Gallery last year for Volume II.
This is a form of creative interdependence and I think there are many arts practices which can be a model for what Charles Eisenstein calls ‘ the age of interbeing’ as opposed to ‘the age of separation’ which he believes we are moving through, discussed in his most recent book. (More on that later). In terms of making art that is dependent on an encounter or exchange with another, over which I only have a modicum of control, the main currency is attention and trust.
Will those who come on Saturday trust me enough to receive in full what I have to give them and will I resist the temptation to offer them something that really has no strings attached ?