Unlimited Liability – An art shop that won't sell to rich people.
(This conversation has first been published in the issue September/ October 2007 of ART PAPERS)
Hamburg, 21st July, 2007
CS: So Michel, we are sitting here in your shop, unlimited liability. This is a pretty unusual name for a shop. It sounds like a term from the business world—what exactly does it mean?
MC: It's a sabotaged business term. The term is 'Limited Liability' (Ltd.), and this is the British word for what is called a corporation, in America. There was an interesting study that came out recently, Unequal Protection by Thom Hartmann: he analyzed how the alleged rights of corporations, established in the nineteenth century, the foundation of capitalism, are based on a false interpretation of a Supreme Court decision. Democratic process has been undermined as a result, with corporations often having more rights than people. One of these special rights is in the name (in England, at least): they have limited liability. If you or I am responsible for someone being poisoned through our neglect, we face a jail sentence. If it's a corporation, the individual owners cannot be charged criminally. The corporate entity may be sued, but the individual actors behind it are shielded from liability. This insidious phenomenon explains a lot of the corporate misdoing today, I think. I inverted term here, in this project, with unlimited liability referring to a fine people with over €50,000 in assets do face if they try to purchase something in my shop, which sells mutiples from artists, collectives, publishing houses, record labels.
CS: Before we talk about the shop in more detail, I would like you to describe the neighborhood, because I think that your project relates to it...
MC: The shop is located in a neighborhood I've lived in for ten years now, Hamburg's Münzviertel. A rather low-income neighborhood, now and historically, most of the area was bombed by the British in WWII—only a few old buildings have survived. The city later zoned the area commercially and there are a lot of offices here. Although it's rather central, only about 800 people live in this neighborhood. There is a 'fix-in' center for heroin addicts, there is a homeless center here, and this used to be the main location where foreigners would have to renew their visas... so this area is not really glamorous.
CS: And there are the big streets which surround it ...
MC: Yeah, there're a lot of big avenues, lotta traffic, the train tracks run through here, there's a lot of pollution. On the other hand, we are extremely central, about 200 yards away from the Kunstverein in Hamburg (Hamburg Contemporary Art Center) and the Deichtorhallen Art Complex,
CS: ...which are part of the Kunstmeile ('art mile'), so you are actually close to the Kunstmeile...
MC: Yes, the belly of the beast. But this gives the shop a good strategic location...
CS: One more point about the neighborhood and the context. The shop is open only for a limited time (two months), you also ran it last Summer. Is it part of a larger art-in-public-space program?
MC: Last year I got this space via connections that an art-activist in the neighborhood has. He, Guenter Westphal, has been doing an ambitious project involving local resident-participation, and offered me to use part of this space. I told him, "Look, Guenter, I've got a project for the whole space" and he generously put it at my disposal. This year I am doing this project as my personal initiative: funding-wise, paying electricity, insurance. Fortunately, I got this space for free, again.
CS: Maybe you could describe this place for the benefit of those not here, because the look is rather special, I think.
MC: Let me put it this way, one of the best comments I had was by some men who stepped in, I think they were from Romania. They looked a little confused and asked, "This place is being renovated, right? When are you going to open?" And I told them, "No, it's not being renovated, it's operating as it is."
CS: It is open.
MC: Right, so they were a little astonished. The place looks very badly damaged because there was a flood here in 2004. The apartment is a basement walkdown, and the previous residents had to evacuate because of the flood. It subsequently remained unoccupied and hasn't been renovated since, so there is mildew all over the walls. And there is psychedelic '60s wallpaper everywhere.
CS: What do you sell in your shop?
MC: There are seventy-seven participants in the "unlimited liability" program this year. Close to seventy artists, collectives, and filmmakers, and eight record labels and publishers.
CS: Would you call it an outlet for multiples?
MC: Yeah, that's one of my rules. I didn't want any limited editions or signed works. It may be that some signed works have creeped in despite my policy. Another strict rule has caused a bit of debate: I excluded painting and drawing as media. You could vaguely say that the works have more of a conceptual approach, a lot of photography, some DVDs, works that have a performative aspect—some services are here. Objects with an appropriational/détournement component, and some more activistic projects.
CS: Why did you exclude painting and drawing? Do you have anything against originals? (Laughter)
MC: There are two exclusions in this shop. People with over €50,000 in assets are prohibited from buying anything, although they are welcome to come in here and have a look, as some have done. And painting and drawing are ruled out, media that are very present in the art market, that have made a big comeback in recent years. I wanted to play devil's advocate, in a way. A lot of museum directors do big painting exhibitions using pseudo-populistic argumentation that goes, "We receive public funding and painting is what the common folk want (because they don't understand this concept stuff)." A grotesque argument, I think. I see it as the upper classes that want this supposedly more-sensual orientation, production which focuses on a genius cult. Such myths are important to consolidate this class' social domination: 'natural' talent and taste, carefree audacity (as Bourdieu shows in Distincton). Lucy Lippard's chronicle of conceptual art, Six Years, influenced me a lot. The picture that emerged for me is of conceptual art as a middle-class phenomenon that opened the way for protagonists with less inherited cultural capital, protagonists for whom, to paraphrase Bourdieu, culture has not become nature through a process of early-childhood incorporation. There was a real emancipatory thrust in this do-it-yourself, instruction-manual aesthetic.
C.S.: And what does this have to do with buying conditions?
M.C.: The selection and buying conditions here are an experiment to see if this can be reactivated, or has any meaning today—also for artists who have just completed their art-education. It matters little if people lay weight on (or are conscious of) the fact that they are buying art, that some of these producers are 'known'. It's enough when buyers are simply interested in these odd things.
CS: Can you explain the selection. You select all the works, right?
MC: No, wait. I select the artists, so this is not like a curated exhibition, "this work by so-and-so, next to this work by..." I invited people who responded with propositions. I am pleased to say several things here were created especially for unlimited liability. Some folks scratched their heads thinking "what kind of a multiple can I produce?"... it's something students are not trained to do at art schools.
CS: How about the prices?
MC: Oh, yeah. Very important question. Everything is less than €30 because it would make no sense (or be just another boring Kippenbergeresque 'prank') for me to exclude people with assets but then sell expensive stuff. Four items are free this year. About one third is in the 50 cents to €5 price range.
CS: What would that be, for example?
MC: 50 cents to €5 covers all of our buttons, stickers, half of our CDs, all the postcards, several publications, even some of our DVDs.
CS: I find it interesting that you say you want to exclude rich people, let's say 'rich people', because this is the opposite of what happens in the art world, which is based on rich people...
MC: ...but seldom admitted as such...
CS: ...can you explain why rich people shouldn't spend their money on these works if they'd like to? Wouldn't that be good for the artists?
MC: Well... rich people have plenty of opportunities to spend money on artworks. I want to just have a context where artists face the challenge of selling their works and not orienting themselves towards a structural dependency on society's apex. As far as the exclusion of collectors goes, the goal is not to penalize people with a certain lifestyle. Of course €50,000 is not so high. If you own an apartment, or inherited money from your grandma, you can't buy anything (here). Yet, I haven't received any negative comments from people who are borderline-over the limit. What I'm trying to do is isolate, within the dominant social fractions, those who control the tap. And to bring to light this ugly little fact that is seldom thematized in art schools: galleries' sought-after buyers are also the people who are orchestrating neoliberal policy. Collectors use these artifacts of putative self-determination, these artworks, as a source of legitimacy, flattering themselves that they are as with-it and spontaneous as the artists are along the way (the other function of art-market-commodities is, of course, that of investment). At the same time, these millionaires block collective self-determination on the political and economic level. Quantitative and qualitative research confirms that the top 2 percent of the population, the people who buy art, also overwhelmingly votes for and funds 'conservative' and neoliberal parties.
CS: So how can you make sure that rich people don't buy in your shop? If our famous collector here disguised himself as a down-and-out person, or sent an assistant, what could you do to prevent this?
MC: (laughter) The person has to sign a contract and show me an ID so I can verify their identity. The contract they sign makes them liable to a €1000 fine in the event that they violate the terms of the contract. They also have to return the artwork. That's the risk they face. And I can imagine, the publicity, too.
CS: But it never happened, so far... Actually, I was thinking this would be a very perverse way to generate income for the project...
MC: Someone I have doubts about bought work last year, but there was a mishap as far as he contract goes. Someone who was sitting in for me here signed the contract instead of me, so it's a little complicated. I hope the person comes back this year.
CS: (Laughter) Okay... how exciting. What reactions have you had from people who buy here? On the one hand there's some pretty inexpensive object, on the other, this bureaucracy to work through to be able to buy this object. If I want a sticker for €2 I have to sign a contract and I can't imagine people being pleased with this situation.
MC: Well, I haven't had so many negative incidents. It's true, it's rather 'bureaucratic'. People have not complained about the length of time... I had one person who, as it happened to be, was also an artist, and who has written for establishment magazines like Texte zur Kunst... this person got really angry because the approach with the contract was supposedly "naive" and using "bourgeois institutions" and somehow involved a "police state mentality." I have not heard problems voiced from people who don' t write for Texte zur Kunst, they are actually pretty happy to do it when they know what the reasoning is. One point is that a lot of artists are selling works at very inexpensive prices (they tell me, "this is much lower than my usual price"), and it's important for me to respond to their trust, and to institute a firewall so that these works will not become investment objects for the groups we mentioned earlier. Filling out the contract is an opportunity to engage in a discussion. It marks in a performative, ritual way that we are stepping out of free-market-economic practice.
CS: What does it mean when someone from the neighborhood comes in who is not aware of the extra context, who wants to buy a glass of "(theory-)jam" or some stickers, and who is confronted with this contract (laughter)?
CS: Is there a way that you communicate to them?
MC: Yeah, of course. There's this sign right over my head that explains the conditions in the store, and... it's not always easy for me to immediately identify who's from the neighborhood. It's astonishing how people go along with it, I guess it may be entertaining to have me explaining this to them. Obviously, if you're in a rush to buy something this is gonna be a headache, but most people who come here spend a long time anyway, looking at all the material. And we are off the beaten track, so they want to spend time seeing the project. As far as locals, it's true that some students say, "very interesting, I'll come back later."
CS: Does it make people from other neighborhoods come here and mix with the locals?
MC: To some extent, yes. For the moment it's about 50-50 as far as purchases go.
CS: This concept of the multiple art object goes back to, I don't know, the sixties or seventies, the democratization of art, is that what you are also referring to?
MC: In a way it goes back to Dürer who worked with woodcuts and engraving in order to reach other audiences, and countries. More recently we have Walter Benjamin's speculation about the impact of mass media on the aura of the artwork. People like John Heartfield were doing work for militant communist newspapers, disseminating very interesting and important art in that context. Then you're right to bring up the late fifties and the sixties, fluxus is a real influence here. The extremely anti-elitist approach of Macunias, Brecht and Flynt.
CS: Do you see this as a functioning shop, or is this more like a metaphor. For example, last year, while unlimited liability was running, we had the Kunstverein (the city-supported Hamburg Art Center) "three shops" project. Once, I even walked from here to the 'shop' in the Kunstverein, and I was thinking of asking you how you compare or relate the differences.
MC: That's a very interesting question to ask. In a way this project is a response to that Kunstverein program. A group that I'm a member of, the Culture and Social Movements Archive, was actually invited, in December 2005, to participate in the 'shops' series.
This was in the wake of a controversy you are no doubt acquainted with (laughter) which pitted a group of artists who were elected to the new Kunstverein board of directors, against a group of gallerists and collectors who did not want to accept such a momentous shift. The latter actively campaigned to declare the results of the election invalid. This experience with the Kunstverein confirms what I was mentioning earlier, that it's high time (given that material autonomy is a conceit) that artists work on creating a structural dependency on other social groups. Collectors, i.e. certain millionaires, are much more interested in themselves than in art when they engage in their 'patronage' activities. This is what we saw in the above case when Jochen Waitz and Harald Falckenberg mobilized their friends against the newly elected board.
At the general assembly at which this artist-majority board was initially elected—artists who were critical of the Kunstverein's hermetic and market-oriented curatorial orientation—it was interesting to see how (Kunstverein director Yilmaz) Dziewior tried to score some points by championing his contacts to the subculture. While sketching the coming year's program, he went into considerable detail of how certain interesting fashion/political/subculture approaches were (finally) to be featured in this upcoming 'shop series'. Another example of the art market's two-fronts strategy: move those goods, but keep the cutting-edge flank covered.
CS: So would you say the Kunstverein 'shop series' tried to misappropriate the little shops they had invited in order to demonstrate a proximity to small, self-organized projects, while structurally supporting/or being supported by people who represent exactly the opposite?
MC: As you note, there is a considerable dissymetry between the status and budget of the Kunstverein, and the shops they are graciously featuring on the ground floor. The curatorial line was "let's have a look at other economies, and see how they are different from the art(market)-ecomomy"—but why not invite Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, or Elaflex, then? The Kunstverein invited compact, sympathetic, subcultural, non-exploitative entities. The fact that two of the three 'shops' are directly involved in the art-world, too, can be seen as "giving art a good name." This showcase is in marked contrast to the entire capitalist circus on the second (and main) floor, exemplified by the exhibition Formalism, Modern Art Today.
I wouldn't go so far as saying "misappropriation," however: the shops willingly took up the invitation, and had freedom to use the space however they wanted to, with a not-inconsiderable budget. In January, 2006, we at the Culture and Social Movement Archive, made a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to reflect the recent social movement within the Kunstverein. This cooled the director off. Thankfully, for him, Berlin's progressive b_books went along with the charade, and spared him any of the "critical relection" they advertize on their website.
Perhaps a few words about the visual context are in order: if you walk into the Kunstverein, there's this interior which is designed by Kuhn & Malvezzi, very cool, the color even called arctic blue, I believe. And then always this huge bouquet set up there on the shoulder-height counter, what you'd find at the Hyatt Regency. So then you're expected to walk though this antechamber and just go and pretend you're in a shop. I doubt anyone forgot for a minute that they were in an art center. People walk into unlimited liability and probably don't have any idea it's an art project. Some visitors have probably not been to an art exhibition in their whole life.
CS: Following this idea of 'bringing shops into the Kunstverein', it would be consequent if Dziewior invited you to the Kunstverein, no?
MC: I've thought about it (laughter). I would obviously refuse to go into the art center...
CS: With he same concept, the same contract, everything the same, but just move it from here to there?
MC: I don't think he would do it because I have T-shirts that make fun of his friend (Tocotronic singer) Dirk von Lowtzow. So I think that's enough. This is conjecture, naturally, but he (Dziewior) is known for dispatching 'scouts' to various locations, to see if the coast is clear, and I have some 'artist' people who came here, who looked around, and who left with expressions of bitter disgust. I'm pretty sure he's not going to invite me. I am also offering catalogs from the Kunstverein, at 90 percent discounts, in our 'Fundgrube' (grabble box), and nobody has expressed any interest in buying them.(Laughter)
CS: So, I'd like to approach this idea of the 'shop' again, not comparing it to that program, but to the idea of artists running shops. How real is the idea for you to run a real shop? Or do you use it as a symbolic form?
MC: This is not economically viable as a unit, obviously. We're in an era when most non-chain shops, that are run professionally, have trouble not going out of business. It would not be possible for me to pay myself a minimum-wage salary with what's coming in revenue-wise. So you could say to a certain extent that it is an exhibition, but I also see it as a form of art mediation, or an... ah, art-political campaign. It consists in getting artists to get their feet wet and to sell things, and I am doing my best to get people to buy things, to create an affective relationship between artists and other groups, other people. Not just by selling to them, but by respectfully arousing their curiosity, and hopefully emboldening them, down the line, to show their numbers and raise their voices when cultural policy is being debated.
CS: I would also consider it as a kind of experiment, because you did it last year already, and you collected some experiences—so you decided to do it again, building on them.
If you make a summary of last year, what did you change, what did you keep, what was your most important finding and why did you decide to continue?
MC: Uhm, I do keep notes, I have all the contracts, this is private information of course, but I can see who is buying what, I take notes after certain conversations. I would say there are three audiences here. People who step in from the street, with nothing to do with art; a more bohemian student/cultured group, concerned with city-cultural policy and more 'mobilized'; and then the artists who I invite myself. I have discussions, emails, with them, they are an audience as well. The project works on those levels, people who read newspapers, those walking in by chance (who may come to think 'maybe art isn't so bad/scary/hermetic’), and the artists.
CS: What we haven't mentioned is that you are not just selling things, but also organizing small events. Perhaps you could explain their nature and role for the 'shop'?
MC: The events are an attempt to use the space intelligently, to draw in people. Let's say there are various sub-groups in the shop project. I have publishers, people who are in bands, people who are interested in cultural politics and urbanism. And I tried to set up events taylor-made to these poles of interest, to draw people in and to keep people coming in here. It only lasts two to three months, so it's difficult to get word-of-mouth to spread. I am doing a constant information campaign.
There are precedents for this kind of project, Fashion Moda in New York, and The Times Square Show, where they exhibited/sold goods for an average price of $5. These were projects happening in the late-seventies and early eighties in NY. And if you have a look at current historical re-caps, taking Transform's Do you remember institutional critique? issue as a case in point, this period is really ignored by all the showcased authors. They just talk about the late sixties/early seventies, and then the nineties as periods of institutional critique, following James Meyer's lead (in the Kontext Kunst catalogue). In a way I'm also trying to renew and reactivate approaches that are under-appreciated today in 'consecrated' art-theoretical discourse.
C.S.: Thanks a lot for the conversation and good luck with your undertaking. Hope to see it again next year, and I have to say, I would like to see it as a permanent project on the Internet ...