Interview with Savage for the Publication — Lifting: Theft in Art (2007)

Stolen White Goods, 2005

For a 2005 project at The Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, Savage undertook a work (Stolen White Goods) in which he stole 36 white items from 6 different shops. The theft became the basis for an artist's book which documented these items. Past interventions include, The Gift (Theft Reversal) where the artist bought items from a store and then covertly returned them to the shelf and Keeping things just tickety-boo, a blanket cleaned, folded and neatly returned to the exact same place it was found on the city streets of Bristol.

Theft In Art: The work Stolen White Goods, references Ceal Floyer's Monochrome, (a receipt for purchases of only white products). Since you stole the articles listed on that receipt, what is your specific interest in Floyer's work and the wider relation between art and systems of commerce?

Savage: Monochrome was a work that cost Ceal money, a specific amount of money. Stolen White Goods was a simple gesture of offering a saving. Ceal spent £38.14. I saved £46.41. It would appear that we are all bound to value systems and constructed systems of market forces. This work is not confrontational activism but more so a quiet attempt at reversal, which in its essence provides little more than a statement of fact concerning economic value; however, it belies an ambiguity in meaning that could perhaps be perceived as being more entwined than the initial viewing may reveal, very much as Ceal's work invariably does. Art is an economic system in its own right; I am however not sitting in judgement on such systems but more so playing along with an overriding sense of futility.

T.I.A: Is it important that ambiguity is maintained to whether any crime has actually been committed in the making of the work? (It is only your assertion that the items in Stolen White Goods were acquired through theft.)

S: It is my intention that this kind of action goes beyond issues of legality, and offers, perhaps, a more poetic and romantic view; one that is not bound by the actualities of evidence but instead engages with the core ideas of the rites of exchange. In much of my work there is little actual evidence of the event, merely the remains — the objects themselves or an image depicting them post-intervention — forensics is not the issue, proving my case is not the issue. The event, the theft, has been and gone, the restoration is now a thing of the past; the actualities of the crime have been supplanted by the romance of their memory. It is therefore perhaps more to do with story telling and myth making than proof of crime. I tell a story. It is up to you to buy in to the idea of it or not. Protesting my innocence or admitting my guilt does little for reinforcing these ideas. Stories will continue to be told and I will continue to tell them. This story may, for a while at least, be talked about and surely the joy of stories is so that they can be heard?

T.I.A: Could you talk further about your interest in exchange and reversal? Are these motivated with respect to any particular philosophical or economic theories?

S: I am as much influenced by fiction as politics and philosophy. Holden Caulfield's [1] simple desire for the world to stand still to avoid the process of change is perhaps also equally identified in John Gray's Straw Dogs[2] with the questioning of this thing we call progress? There is the idea that we are in control and are evolving, progressing as never before and we have ultimate purpose in life and by doing so we are driven to do, to make; to progress; for fear that if we stand still it would somehow be confirming our own futility. This terror that we have generates our excesses. In times of excess and what appears to be a society obsessed with little more than its own consumption, the excesses of pointlessness grow ever more attractive: futility having more value than commodity. It becomes an aspiration which is perhaps more excessive than the excesses of which it protests against?! The paradox that this presents is that the futility we abhor becomes the very thing we value as we strive to escape it.

T.I.A: It appears you are very interested in using economies as structures for narratives which undoubtedly imbues them with a social perspective-yet as you acknowledge, one that understands its futility. Do you think this should be understood as humorous, poetic, poignant etc.?

S: The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely′[3]. Wilde's concerns within The Picture of Dorian Gray; and more so in The Decay of Lying[4], strive to go beyond simple notions of politics and economics and the dull accuracy of truth to engage more so in the uncertainty of story telling. These works set out to create opportunity for circumstance, humorous, poignant or otherwise however I seek more to be a passer by, just walking through. I play, I cheat, I lie and I steal yet will always offer something back. It is down to the viewer as to what they want do with it. Perhaps there is an overarching sense of melancholy and romanticism in much that I engage with however I am in complete accord with John Gray here: ′Can we not think that the aim in life is simply to see?′[5]

T.I.A: It is interesting to note the ways in which the lexicon of commerce/exchange proliferates within very different contexts. You talk of ″buying in to an idea,″ is it mistaken to understand economies as only those instances involving selling / exchange or are they a more pervasive aspect of human existence?

S: It could be reasoned human existence can be identified by the constructed value systems it defines itself by. Those systems are inherently linked to our culture and our identities. Our state of being is ostensibly fuelled by what we physically buy or what we buy ′into′. To divorce such language from all aspects of society is surely impossible. If the economy of truth is bound by reason, the economy of an idea is equally so bound. As such all exchange is reasoned, appertaining to its value, whether it be true or false. That's where the games begin.

[1] Holden CaulfieldCatcher is the main character Catcher in The Rye, JD Salinger,

[2]Straw Dogs – Thoughts on humans and other animals, John Gray, Granta 2002

[3] Preface to the Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1891

[4] The Decay of Lying – An Observation, The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde (New York: The Nottingham Society), 1909

[5] Straw Dogs – Thoughts on humans and other animals, John Gray, Granta, 2002, pp199