Letting Space Essay: Visible and Actual – Heather Galbraith on Kim Patton’s Free Store
“While we may harbour a great desire and hope for art to be the space where new futures can be tested, what Paton seems to be exploring is where the prototype finishes and the road-tested model comes into its own.”
There is a certain luxury writing about an artwork after it was made. The effect and influence of a work can be more readily reflected upon, and consideration given to whether its potency extended into subsequent works, or faded as time passed.
With Free Store the ripples of impact have been tangible. An independent Free Store was established in late 2010 in Wellington inspired by Kim Paton’s work, and a second iteration of Paton’s Free Store took place in Auckland in 2011.
Art writer and curator Mika Hannula outlines her argument for the ‘politics of small gestures’ in her book of the same name as follows: “My value-laden proposition is to see contemporary art as a field within contemporary society that wants to be and is part of the whole fabric of which a given context is made. It is not in the vanguard, it is not conservative, and it is not nostalgic. It is active, right here, right now. It consists of acts and gestures that are available, accessible, self-reflective and self-critical. They are also, not to forget, highly enjoyable as challenges to our ways of understanding who we are and where we are the way we are”.
The Letting Space series is comprised of such “small gestures”: fleeting, inherently political, but eschewing a dogmatic stance. In the case of Free Store, the proposal was a new way of doing business, revealing a previously invisible aspect of food production and retailing. The project was highly accessible and it captured the imagination of Wellingtonians, the mainstream media, artists and contemporary art audiences.
Paton combined her fascination with economic systems with her art practice, her experience as a business owner (running a grocery store in Raglan for three years), and as a researcher (business studies at University of Waikato). As an artist she has long been captivated by patterns of production and consumption, and the inevitable by-product of a supply and demand culture – waste.
As curator at City Gallery Wellington I invited Paton to make a new work for Telecom Prospect 2007: New Art New Zealand, having previously been intrigued by Paton’s work at The Physics Room in 2005 (All We Have is Now) and her degree presentation at the School of Fine Arts, Massey University, Living Room (2006), a set of composite pieces of furniture that could be packed away or brought out to comprise an instant zone for socialising and conversing.
For the City Gallery show the Reading Room space had been identified as the site. We agreed that the space hadn’t really ever worked as an ‘interpretation zone’. Kim’s solution was to construct Everything Thought and Remembered, a building within the building, one that could be disassembled and adapted for other uses after the exhibition. It could be a shelter, an information kiosk, a mobile library or even a chicken shed. A primary stipulation of Paton’s was that it was to be made, wherever possible, from industrial building waste. Materials were also raided from the City Gallery store – where off cuts and components from previous exhibition builds get stockpiled, plus the odd piece of kit from other museum/gallery basements and storerooms.
Striking through the whole process was Paton’s incredible focus, not just on the formal qualities of the building and it’s ability to be mobile and ‘of use’ after the fact, but on the principles of the material sourcing. Paton produced a work that was a highlight of the exhibition.
The structure reappeared within Land Wars Part 2: Build at Te Tuhi, Pakuranga, where it housed documentation of the development of Manukau’s Flat Bush town centre. It revealed the evolving priorities for the Auckland Regional Council from the original concept of providing housing for low-income families, to build new housing for folk with above average incomes.
When I heard that curators Sophie Jerram and Mark Amery had invited Paton to be part of Letting Space there was great anticipation around the traps as to what the artist would do. Letting Space’s aspiration to generate critical discussion about contemporary urban space and community through forging relationships between artists and property owners/developers was an ideal context for Paton to mount a project that directly engaged with ‘real world’ rather than gallery-centric publics.
The Free Store concept was in some respects a ‘found’ structure. It has a lineage that extends back to San Francisco in the late 1960s, with multiple subsequent international iterations where surplus food is re-distributed to those in need, often employing some kind of barter system. The structure of Paton’s Free Store was somewhat different. I would argue its primary mission was more political. It sought to highlight the ludicrous degree of waste that occurs within contemporary food retailing, and to propose a different solution.
Paton spoke at a hearty public discussion After Supermarkets held at Downstage Theatre organised by Now Future [a podcast of the discussion can be found here]. The event focused on Paton’s project and the respondent was academic and activist Dr. M. Claire Dale from University of Auckland. Paton railed against the wisdom of mainstream economics that follow New Keynesian principles; where supply and demand exist in isolation, and the idea of need is absent from the discourse. Growth is good. Everyone gets what they deserve, and trade always makes the active participants better off. Paton stated that the “point of Free Store was to create a brief respite from the usual rules of trade”.
The basic tenet of supply and demand within a free-market, high capital society is premised on a few basic principles: turnover must result in profit, and a pricing structure incorporates a percentage of waste which results in surplus stock ceasing to have value once it is deemed to no longer being capable of being sold at a profit. It is pretty peculiar that a product has value only up to a pre-conceived expiry date, and then it becomes something to be disposed of. When in business herself Paton had increasingly balked at a range of standard business assumptions, particularly when people were struggling to feed themselves and their families.
Making visible a point in the supply chain normally unseen was a provocative act. Responses from food producers and retailers approached to take part in Free Store were initially guarded. A number of companies either donated but didn’t want to be profiled, or declined the invitation to participate because they felt it would be detrimental to their brand to be acknowledging they even had this degree of stock waste. Local artisan food producers such as Arobake, Brooklyn Bakery, Supreme Coffee and People’s Coffee came on board first. Then Progressive Supermarkets signed up as the largest supplier. There is a certain irony in that the vacant premises used by Free Store were owned by Foodstuffs, Progressive’s key competitor.
With Free Store a modest, but radically generous and ambiguous action by an artist and a support crew of volunteers took place. It strategically removed the presence of cash or barter from a retail environment, which made customers both unnerved and pleased. Paton was clear that this project was not trying to compete with nor undermine the role food banks and soup kitchens played in feeding those in desperate need. Free Store importantly required no proof of need or hardship from its users. The call as to whether you were ‘entitled to’ the produce was made completely by each individual.
While extensively conceptualised and planned in advance, when ‘live’ Paton described Free Store accurately as “unruly” and “organic”. Decisions were made, reassessed, and relationships were initiated and navigated continually through the run. On busy days Free Store distributed food to over 400 people.
Watching unedited documentary footage shot by filmmaker Jaime Cortez [an excerpt which can be seen here], I was intrigued by how flummoxed people were when they entered Free Store for the first time. They wondered how it worked, and whether there was any system of barter or exchange required. Volunteers staffing the store repeatedly explained that the stock was there for the taking: take what you want, take what you need. This was unfamiliar territory. We are conditioned to enter into a commercial exchange within a retail environment. Students or folk with health problems came in for fresh vegetables, mums topped up the weekly provisions to provide a more varied family diet, and some were on the bones of their arse out of work. Then there were simply the curious who found it all a bit novel.
When I visited I was overcome with middle class guilt. I found myself incapable of taking anything as comparatively my pantry was bursting. The experience of being in the shop, with its modest wooden shelves and stacks of plastic crates immediately placed you in a slightly alien space. Here normal consumer rules did not apply and the onus was directly placed back on you to make the call on your level of need.
While Paton was keen to focus on commercial suppliers, there were also gifts from home fruit trees, second hand books, homebaking and preserves – the stuff of charity fairs and cake stalls the world over. Free Store really touched a nerve. Rarely has an art project in New Zealand in recent times provoked such engagement and an almost completely positive response, well outside of art circles. The press coverage was voracious across all media platforms.
Directly inspired by Paton’s project, another Wellington Free Store has opened within a small kiosk in the Left Bank arcade off Cuba Mall, operated through the Zeal Education Trust [website here].
On Valentine’s Day 2011 in the Henderson shops, West Auckland the second iteration of Paton’s Free Store opened. As with the first store, everything was attained with as little fiscal outlay as possible. Also similar to the first iteration, there was modest seed funding from the public purse: in Henderson through Auckland Council.
The shop was secured for a one month free-rent period in exchange for a swift do-up. Similar to Wellington’s version it attracted significant media interest, but in contrast Henderson was not pitched or contextualised as an art project.
On the morning of opening the queue in Henderson was around the block. The possibility of getting free food without going through stringent eligibility testing (and its associated stress and social stigma) to attain food bank emergency parcels proved a significant motivator.
The same lack of rules existed. In a documentary on National Radio [podcasted here] Paton noted “we need to trust you that you are standing in this queue because you sincerely feel you need to be here. And that is the only contract we have, but what I think that does to anyone of us when we feel like we are implicitly trusted, given responsibility as a free thinking independent adult, is that that is empowering, that is uplifting, is the real heart of what is a real, real strength of what is the Free Store”.
Through the two iterations of Free Store Paton has become increasingly aware of the issues large-scale producers and distributors face when dealing with waste stock. While a percentage of wastage is factored into pricing, it is considerably cheaper to dispose of stock than to pay for the logistics support to transport surplus stock to outlets where it can be re-distributed. If a solution is presented, then producers are more inclined to sign up.
Paton is now scoping with Auckland Council as to whether a warehouse space can be sourced to be a hub where individuals or community groups can come to collect free food. It would serve as the missing link in the re-distribution cycle. The social aim of the project has expanded “to get the product to this big group of the population not currently accessing food banks”.
Free Store (3) would remain a philanthropic enterprise and a new business solution. But would it still have any affiliation to being an art project and would this matter?
In his text PostProduction French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud reflects upon his earlier description of a trend in art making in the 1990s towards ‘relational aesthetics’, where an art work can “consist of a formal arrangement that generates relationships between people, or be born of a social process… [where] the main feature is to consider inter-human exchange an aesthetic object in and of itself.”
He refines this idea: “Art tends to give shape and weight to the most invisible processes. When entire sections of our existence spiral into abstraction as a result of economic globalisation, when basic functions of our daily lives are slowly transformed into products of consumption (including human relations, which are becoming a full-fledged industrial concern), it seems highly logical that artists might seek to re-materialise these functions and processes, to give shape to what is disappearing before our eyes. Not as objects, which we would be able to fall into the trap of reification, but as mediums of experience: by striving to shatter the logic of the spectacle, art restores the world to us as an experience to be lived.”
Paton’s project consciously makes visible an aspect of commodity culture and does this very successfully, but it doesn’t stop there. Initially Paton’s project may strike a chord with gestures by international artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija. Over the last decade or more Tiravanija has temporally transformed public or dealer gallery spaces into social spaces for cooking and sharing food. Most recently, a component of Fear Eats The Soul at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York saw the front wall of the gallery removed, and a t-shirt factory installed producing $20 t-shirts screen printed with playful, pseudo political statements e.g. Free China From Tibet, No No America, Rich Bastards Beware.
Where Paton’s work departs from art trends to “make visible” systems of production or consumption and then move on, is through her investment in developing Free Store as a hybrid commercial and philanthropic model. The fact that it doesn’t just perform hospitality or gifting but demonstrates and articulates a viable model (albeit one still reliant on a degree of civic/state underpinning) is crucial to its success.
I have had multiple conversations with art world colleagues about whether its art status, and Paton’s ongoing visibility as an artist leading the project is significant or desirable. Opinions vary. For some, that the project was born through an art commissioning series, a forum where propositions could be tested and trialled is enough. The potency of the project as an agent for actual change in real life is seen as its strength. Free Store has teeth, and clear penetration of ‘the everyday’.
Other colleagues have felt more uncomfortable with the growing distance between the initial propositional “small (art) gesture” and the more concrete, large-scale social service initiative. If Free Store is taken up, formalised, and made part of an official service delivery – does the subsuming or the lowering of visibility of the provocational impulse and ethical/philosophical investigations of the project lessen its cultural value?
The value of Free Store as a social service is evident. What makes, or doesn’t make this project good art? I have chewed over this repeatedly, oscillating between excitement about the blurriness or ‘undecidability’, to use a term coined by French theorist Jacques Rancière of the project’s taxonomy and concern over where the criticality of the project resides when it is not considered to be ‘art’. How do we ‘value’ the affect of socially engaged art works if not through their resonance, the way they make visible aspects of inequity and propose possible actions/solutions? It becomes clear that there are different systems of evaluation of success and efficacy at play – not always aligned, or even using the same language.
In Problems and Transformation in Critical Art Rancière wrangles with the tension inherent in art works that seek to occupy a political realm with agency and an intent to be critical of the status quo:
“In this vicious circle of critical art,” he writes, “we generally see proof that aesthetics and politics can’t go together. It would be more fair, however, to recognise the plurality of ways in which they are linked.
“On the one hand, politics is not a simple sphere of action that comes after the ‘aesthetic’ revelation of the state of things. It has its own aesthetic: its ways of dissensually inventing scenes and characters, of manifestations and statements different from the inventions of art and sometimes even opposed to them. On the other hand, aesthetics has its own politics, or rather its own tension between two opposed politics: between the logic of art that becomes life at the price of abolishing itself as art, and the logic of art that does politics on the explicit condition of not doing it at all…
“Critical art must negotiate the tension that pushes art towards ‘life’ and which conversely, separates aesthetic sensorality from other forms of sensible experience. It must borrow the connections that provoke political intelligibility from the blurry zone between art and other spheres. And it must borrow the sense of sensible heterogeneity that feeds political energies of refusal from the isolation of the work of art. It’s this negotiation between the forms of art and those of non-art that permits the formation of combinations of elements capable of speaking twice: from their readability and from their unreadibility.”
This idea of a project being capable of “speaking twice” seems spot on when considering Paton’s project, in particular the subtle translation that occurred between Free Store (1) and Free Store (2), where the framing as an art work, faded from view. It is an important part of Paton’s Free Store that its inception was through an art in public space commissioning series, where she was given the freedom and support to initiate the model she wanted to. That it could at this early stage be a philosophical proposition, a provocation – with practical outcomes – is vital to the development of the project.
Through the project’s survival the artist’s role as change agent, activist and new model-economy entrepreneur can be more resonant. While we may harbour a great desire and hope for art to be the space where new futures can be tested, what Paton seems to be exploring is where the prototype finishes and the road-tested model comes into its own.
Whether Free Store is perceived as art or something else doesn’t seem the point of primary import. It is more salient to ask how it can be most effective, how can it initiate sustained benefits for those in need and shift how we as consumers, and food producers/distributors think about waste? An anxiety I do have is if it continues to be supported directly through a local authority what security does it have in regards to sea-changes in funding prioritisation, and what degree can the project retain flexibility to adapt and change? And finally, can Paton retain her lead role in the project (if she desires it)? Her conviction, and her ability to cut through barriers and blockages and be a compelling and convincing advocate seems so central to the project’s future.
by Heather Galbraith
Heather Galbraith is currently the Associate Professor and Head of Massey University School of Fine Arts. Prior to this Heather has been a practicing artist, as well as Senior Curator of Art at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Senior Curator of City Gallery Wellington and inaugural Director/Curator of St. Paul St Gallery, AUT University, Auckland. Heather gained her BFA from Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland, and spent twelve years based in London where she undertook postgraduate studies in curatorial practice at Goldsmiths College and worked as Exhibitions Organiser for seven years at Camden Arts Centre.
 Hannula, Mika, The Politics of Small Gestures: Chances and Challenges for Contemporary Art, art-ist produksiyon tasarim ve yayinilik, Istanbul, p. 06
 Bourriaud, Nicholas, Postproduction, Lukas & Sternberg, New York, 2002, p. 26
 Rancière, Jacques, Malaise dans l’esthetique (Problems and Transformations in Critical Art (2004), reproduced in excerpt within Bishop, Claire (Ed) Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London and MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006, pp83-84
Tags: letting space