A participatory process and hands-on exhibit documenting a gift network
“It is not when the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.” -Lewis Hyde, The Gift
This project explored the paths, connections, and feelings involved when I sent a series of drypoint prints into a gift network. The prints are portraits of eleven people I was committed to building a strong community with, but was struggling to feel connected to as a group. In creating the portraits I spent time thinking about what I most valued about each person.
I gave each person a series of seven prints of their portrait, and also gave an edition of seven to someone outside of the community who I considered to be a close friend. I set out to find connections between the people I wanted to build community with and people I had already successfully built relationships with.
I asked the recipients to give away their edition of seven prints and document whatever they felt was important about their giving. In doing this, I wanted to build a network of people who were connected to each other through the original gift and the qualities that I most valued about the person pictured in the portrait.
The exhibit displayed the original print that was given away, the documentation each of the recipients gave to me, along with my visual and written response to each gift exchange. Visitors to the exhibit were invited to sit down, handle the artwork, and look through the documentation of this gift network.
Giving is based on gratitude, obligation, and reciprocity. Gift giving can involve a multitude of people, making visible the connections we all have to each other, but ultimately a reciprocal gift exchange builds a relationship between two people. Through one to one interaction, reciprocity, and trust in this process of exchange people are able to build strong relationships and organize themselves into communities.
Gift giving is part of the social fabric that binds whole communities together. This is true in contemporary communities and has also been the case on a fundamental level in past societies. The primary means for distributing resources, services, and hierarchies in many societies has been gift exchange.
Gift exchange is dependent on a connection between the gift, the giver, and the recipient. In gift giving, the stories and sentimentality of the object are part of what make the exchange valuable. Giving also includes an assumption that the receiver has the capacity to give; this is how gift exchange differs from charity. This is why giving and receiving gifts creates dialog, a key element to a healthy community. With gift giving there also comes obligation. Though obligation can be seen as a negative, it is this accountability that makes relationships and communities function.
Gift giving represents a means for challenging alienation and exploitation of resources and people in a capitalist society where money exchange often overrides humanity. In creating art that is given away, I am making visible the connections that are inherent in giving. I am also affirming my belief that material objects and things of beauty can help create relationships and draw people into community.