When is a Kickstarter not a Kickstarter? When it’s an alternative art economy.
This is an Exhibition Kickstarter.
It's not a plea to raise money for a vanity project, or a crowd-funding effort to bankroll some half-finished record, student film, or domestic gadget. Exhibition Kickstarter is an art show that is a Kickstarter; a Kickstarter that is an art show.
Credit Krystal South for the idea. South is an artist, curator, and self-styled "general enthusiast" of the digital arts in Portland, Oregon. Frustrated by the economics of the art world—the exorbitant cost of fine art and the hegemony of the gallery system—and limited in her financial capacity to put together an art show any other way, South decided to leverage the shareability of a crowdfunding campaign to create this experimental exhibition format.
She commissioned eleven artists to create original pieces for the show. Each of the pieces are custom-designed or otherwise sourced from online retailers in editions of 10, a conceit that has been interpreted widely and loosely by the exhibition's participating artists, many of whom do not usually work with IRL media.
For his contribution, Ryder Ripps will purchase arbitrary objects from eBay, for example, guaranteed to "mean to absolutely nothing in the most current way," while Kim Asendorf's edition is a 7-foot teardrop-shaped beach flag emblazoned with a fluid digital image of Justin Beiber painted by a bot.
"In a way," South reasons, "the method of production feels well balanced with the method of distribution, in that it's 'direct to consumer'." The prices for these commercially-assisted readymades are sensible, by art world standards: $250 for a custom pink and baby blue Letterman jacket emblazoned with a crest that says "URL," designed by artist-avatar LaTurbo Avedon, and $80 for a 3D print of Jeremy Bailey's actual hand frozen in a "classic laptop trackpad pose."
Visitors to the Exhibition Kickstarter can browse these works as they would any digital art show. But interested parties can also purchase the pieces—until the editions are exhausted—knowing that 75 percent of the price will go directly to the artists, a far better deal than any IRL gallery arrangement. The rest goes towards fees associated with the Kickstarter itself, credit card processing, and installation costs for a final physical show of the pieces, at an artist-run space called Ditch Projects in Springfield, Oregon, once the Kickstarter Exhibition is over.
As one of the last unregulated markets, the art world of auctions, galleries, and multi-million dollar fairs is riddled with speculation and unsustainable pricing structures; more and more, emerging artists are turning to alternative galleries, artist-run spaces, experimental models and crowd-funding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to support themselves. Of course, the livelihood of artists has always been diffuse, distributed, and precarious—so there is nothing particularly new about working artists scrabbling for pennies wherever they can be found.
Exhibition Kickstarter is one of many experimental alternative art economies that has emerged in recent years, and joins a growing chorus of artist-led critiques of the institutional art world. Some are pragmatic, like Culture Coin, a proposed alternative currency that creative workers could use to barter for resources among themselves. Others, like the recent work of Swedish artist Jonas Lund, who games the financial rules of the contemporary art world and makes paintings designed to be "flipped" by collectors, are far more cynical.
Many people imagine themselves to be curators by virtue of their adeptness at selecting for taste online. But the challenges facing 21st century curators are great—foremost, reframing the limitations of the web as challenges, even possibilities, for artists. South explicitly doesn't call herself a curator (she prefers the term "producer" and sees the project as a manifestation of her own art practice) but the Exhibition Kickstarter represents precisely such a transcendence of constraints.
South comes from a social practice background, and the collaborative aspect of Kickstarter—the way in which its projects are funded by the small contributions of many rather than the singular patronage of an institution or donor—resonates strongly with her.
"I really like the idea of very transparent, communicative art making and sales, where the audience has a voice in the work," she explains. "I've always been interested in the audience helping form the work."
With Kickstarter as a medium, that's quite literally the case—without donors, the works in South's Exhibition Kickstarter would live purely online, as ideas and image files. With a paying and participatory audience, however, the Exhibition Kickstarter becomes a marketplace in which everyday patrons can engage directly with artists, transforming jpegs into physical objects.
It's still capitalism, of course, but a gentler version, one where enthusiasts can engage with (and support) the artists they admire. "I think art audiences are not shrinking but growing," South says, "and that people are hungry for new ways to experience art and maybe take it home with them." It helps to see a visual pricetag—and to know exactly where your money goes after you click "Back This Project."