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What We Want is Free. Comments by Loren Sonnenberg


Whatwewantisfree   “To give and to help; to provoke, catalyze, and enable; to be of service, to be responsible, to better and to improve, to contribute to betterment; to give food… to give ‘voice.’”

– Mary Jane Jacob

    The essays in What We Want is Free act as both a discussion and a catalogue of art that takes on one of these forms. Experiments in generosity and/or social sculpture are becoming more and more prevalent and this text serves as a sort of field guide to what appears to be an evolution in both the concept of art and the concept of audience. “Rather than illustrating ideas of gifts and charities, these works actually intended to embody them, to locate the ‘work’ of the artwork into a literal transfer of goods and services from the artist to the audience” (x)

    Mary Jane Jacob’s essay, ‘Reciprocal Generosity’ deals with one of the most interesting projects discussed in the book, "Haha’s" Flood, which was, in essence, a storefront hydroponics garden. Its dependence on community participation and the delivery of its final product are what make the project interesting. Volunteers were able to contribute to the project, learn a skill, and take part in the creation of the art object of the project: the vegetables that were grown. Then these vegetables were given to a home for AIDS patients. The group also ran community education programs relating to hydroponics and safe sex. In this way Flood served many different roles: as a provider of goods, services, and education. This concept of service and integration of social responsibility into the process of creating art appears to be most successful when combined with a dependence on community participation. Community participation equals community feedback equals a semblance of community ownership and then without the community there is no product, no vegetables, no empowerment, no shared knowledge, and no art. “Thus generosity became the medium, or methodology, and the subject, or product, of this project.” (6)

    In Kate Fowl and Lars Bang Larsen’s essay, ‘Lunch Hour’ the Copenhagen-based group N55 is discussed. Their project, LAND, was setup to begin to return surplus land back to the public and has received donations of land from countries including Norway, Denmark, and even the United States. “The legal rights to each piece are retained by the donor, who agrees to keep access and use completely unrestricted at all times, as a politically motivated liberation of land. The only requirements are that people respect the ways in which others wish to use the space, and that any acts do not detract from the potential for others to add to what happens in the location.” (24)
Just by existing it calls into questions which spaces are free for use and in what capacities people can use them. It also provides a sort of collective support for individuals interested in making their land free for use, while at the same time its structure points to a need for the organization of this type of land use. 
    Ted Purve’s essay ‘Blows Against Empire’ deals with actions, not necessarily artworks, that undermine existing social structures or conceptions. He quotes Peter Coyote describing the evolution of a free food program that came to be at the height of the Haight Ashbury scene. People worked together to collect food they could get for free and that would otherwise go to waste and then prepared it and delivered to people who needed it. All you needed to do in order to eat for free was to step through a large wooden ‘frame of reference’ into a world where the food was yours, not someone else’s to give to you. You were then given a smaller version of this frame of reference attached to a cord for wearing so that you could take it with you. The food could only be truly yours once you decided to give up certain trappings and to open yourself up to the idea of the gift. “The Diggers’ free food and free frame of reference was a manifestation of a start-up gift economy.” They received the gift of food only to pass it on with added weight and added meaning. The creation of food is very similar to the creation of culture and if you can give away food then culture can be given away as well. This is the essence of DIY or the do-it-yourself movement: anything that can be consumed can be created so why not take the reigns of culture and make it yourself? “Behind all this lurks the presence of Situationist thought, mainly in the easily grasped concept that we have lost our power to the forces of capital and spectacle only because they made us believe that they already had it by constantly stating that it was true.” (40) Whether it’s Haha’s Flood, N55’s Land, or the Digger’s free food distribution all of these projects do much to reveal the power that we still have.

References/ Recommended Reading

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