Take the Junk and Run

"An applied economics of worthless objects"

Francesco Manacorda

The art historical definition of appropriation – a direction of art practice common in the 80s in which artists would reuse imagery, objects, concepts and styles previously produced by other artists as a vocabulary to reinvest with meaning – implies that the use of existing materials is an act of thievery that has an allegorical value. According to appropriation’s most refined theorist Craig Owens, allegory consists of using a particularly meaningful pre-produced text within the work (the appropriated element), in order to read the new text (the artwork produced through appropriation) through the old one and vice-versa.[1]

In the practice of Bristol based artist Savage,, the old text is not a well-known fragment of art history, but rather a commodity belonging to the normal class of circulating objects called the ‘utilitarian market’ or, more often, a discarded object excluded from that cluster. For this reason, his interpretation of appropriation does not belong to the closed discourse of contemporary art, but rather aims at inserting that discourse and its sophistication into the economic system of exchange that regulates the circulation of goods? the economy. For Savage appropriation rarely assumes the role of an allegory; he never steals to cast a secondary meaning on the acquired material. His interventions aim at using crime as an attention-raising strategy, or as a part of the production process that grants a particular meaning to the final product; the work presented in the gallery, in the street or documented in a publication like this one. This penchant for illegal acts could be regarded as the most extreme form of appropriation, one that pushes the term’s meaning towards theft rather than extreme quotation.

Within such an expanded framework, the action of stealing to produce a work of art has not only to do with the transgression of law, but also with questioning the attribution of economic and symbolic value that legal and economic systems regulate. Art is a particularly interesting field within which to operate such interventions as its economic value is mainly regulated by an unpredictable and discretionary system of attribution of meaning. This is because art’s utility is not measurable or objectively determinable; its function does not produce visible outcomes. For this reason, stealing art? the reverse of Savage’s practice? is perhaps almost a performance that can be played out only by a great lover of art, the theft nearly ending up being an artwork of its own.[2] For Savage, the act of stealing is not charged with the pleasure and intensity of an unavoidable kleptomaniac impulse would that be motivated by criminal, compulsive or lucrative intentions; neither is it particularly addressed to the symbolic performance of breaking the law. Unlike the personal advantage and irresistible gratification given to the art thief, Savage commits small crimes to break the continuity regulating the circulation of objects in order to subvert the conventional understanding of the hierarchy where these objects are placed in an automatic projection of utility and meaning. His insertion into the ideological circuit through manipulated objects questions the status of things in the real world in a way that reminds us of the debate of the nature and position of the art object, its commodification or dematerialisation, that takes place within contemporary art discourse.

If we look at the bigger picture, stealing is not the main strategy that Savage uses in the production of artworks. I am not even sure whether we could define his practice as production or if it would be better renamed as ‘conceptual de-production’, a strategic displacement of our understanding of objects through the inversion of their symbolic and economic value. His attention is always captured by what the surrealists called objet trouvé (the found object) a discarded item that the artist encounters by chance, which is only occasionally transformed into an objet volé (the stolen object).[3] The ‘found’ is a class of objects that from surrealism onwards expands on the specific involvement of the artist within a parallel economy, in which value, meaning and rank are attributed in an utterly different way as to the inter-subjective utilitarian economy. Such tradition invests the artist with a mission to question and subvert the conventional attribution of value and create a new understanding of reality divorced from judgments based on commercial value or utility. The achievement of the surrealist exhibiting the objet trouvé consists of a certain displacement of the object’s role that allows unconventional associations of thought and a shift in value: “the objects brought together in this way have one thing in common: they derive from the objects which surround us but succeed in achieving a separate identity simply through a change of role”.[4]

As we mentioned, the objects that Savage selects for his interventions are generally rejected junk, abandoned on the corner of the street or found on a park bench. In the artist’s hands, the found or stolen object is processed in order to become something else. It is not returned to its original status before rejection [real, economic or metaphorical] but at times restored and left where found, or advertised as found and available for recovery, or even presented in the gallery as a leftover of a performance. These symbolic or real manipulations have different functions, obey different intentions and achieve different results.

In the case of the ‘Return Series’ [Coat Return, 2004; Jumper Return, 2004; Washing Machine Return, 2005; Glass Return (Bellagio, Las Vegas), 2004 and Keeping Things Just Tickety-boo, 2003] an object is found in a particular location that frames it as an abandoned one: an old washing machine on the street, a damaged item of clothing in a park or a beggar’s blanket under a bridge. Its abandonment can be traced back to a cessation of use or of desire. This turns the object as it was found into a worthless entity, one that is undesirable in appearance and with no rate within the inter-subjective system of attribution of significance (again the market). The artist’s work consists of his conceptual repairing or physical mending or taking care of a leftover, an ‘excess in the system’ that is then returned to the location of dumping, fully functioning. The found object with no market value is returned with increased value, although this change of status is not immediately apparent, but rather purposely concealed by the objects re-presentation in the context it was originally discovered in. This camouflage is a key element in Savage’s view as it allows his intervention to remain unnoticeable, therefore turning a utilitarian gesture itself into a waste, an excess that cannot be used but instead is dissipated gloriously or catastrophically.[5] His effort and investment in the object is in fact spent with no profit for the artist, as an exuberant offering to the unknown.

Another of Savage’s methods of de-production sees him stealing a desirable object in order to orchestrate what seems to be reversed advertising. In our current economic system, an object is produced by a company and then offered in exchange for money to a customer whose desire for that product is enhanced by the language of graphic design operating in the advert itself. In the work This is not mine 2005, the artist uses advertising and graphic design for the opposite of their normal functions: to confess publicly his crime (the stealing of a TV set) and to offer the desirable object for free. The work addresses members of the public directly, not only in the art gallery but in the street, in their capacity as desiring human beings, as active components of the chain of exchange that regulates economic production, commerce and consumption. The audience is moreover involved in the completion of the artwork when this latter is designed to induce a member of the public to appropriate (read to steal) the object in question. In this case, the work is triggered by a very desirable object placed and choreographed as if it were abandoned or forgotten. In Christmas day jumper abandonments, 2002, a brand new sweater is arranged to be found or stolen by a desiring ‘Christmas flaneur’, who in turn is captured by the artist’s video replicating a department store’s CCTV. Savage could be compared in this work to a social scientist, testing the theory by which Christmas is supposed to increase attention to the microeconomic alternative circulation of goods, thereby raising the level of desire dedicated to commodities.

As Marcel Mauss has demonstrated in his seminal book The Gift Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, acts that seem totally disinterested, such as giving a present, belong to a system of symbolic and material circulation of goods that forms the basis of our post-industrial economy.[6] Even what is supposed to be a noble renunciation pertains to the continuous object-based ‘conversation’ that we entertain through the swapping of commodities and symbolic items, sometimes through money, at other times on the basis of a direct correspondence of value that is not solely financial: “several times we have seen how far this whole economy of the exchange through gift lay outside the bounds of the so-called natural economy, that of utilitarianism”.[7] In Savage’s practice the economy of utilitarian exchange is short-circuited by gifts that are not noticeable within the system of signs of financial or symbolic exchange in our society. Such a gesture represents an act of subversion that allows systems of value to be suspended: is his act a gift or sabotage? Are his intentions anarchical or merely ludic? Is his gift really disinterested? What we can notice is only that the act of generosity – or act of aggression as Mauss characterises it in some of his case studies – is made imperceptible and anonymous, its value rendered null by the invisible network inside which they are deeply embedded.[8]

Nearly all of Savage’s works or the processes that generate them have a profound degree of excessive expenditure. By this we can consider a concept similar to pointlessness, one of the aspects that characterises the art object as opposed to the utilitarian one. A good example of this formal exuberance can be observed in the work Eamon's Jumper, 2004. To construct this work, the artist temporarily subtracted a functional article (a jumper) from a friend, took it back to the store from which it had been purchased, removed the security tag of an identical new jumper and attached it to the old one, stole the new jumper and paid full price for the old one, gave the new jumper to his friend and exhibited the old one in the gallery with the documentation of this process. Here we can witness a closed circuit but also an incongruous inversion of value. The forced insertion into the economic circuit of an object that does not belong to it allows the condition for a paradox to be enacted. A second-hand object is stolen twice, the first time as itself (stolen object 1: an old jumper), the second time as a new object resembling the one previously stolen (stolen object 2: a new jumper). ‘Stolen object 1’ is disguised as ‘stolen object 2’ so that the artist overpays for something that he already possesses from the previous theft. This is what computer programmers call a ‘nested loop’ (a loop located within another loop), a double negative that annihilates the crime through an imperceptible swap. Such an elaborate and unnecessary procedure corresponds precisely to an exuberance that allows the system to be in constant transference between symbolic and economic value, importing normal objects into the financial increase of value due to its conceptual significance that pertains to art objects. It is thanks to this strategic recipe that the artist manages to make evident the overlooked allegorical nature that lies behind any financial or object-based transaction, a consideration that makes of economy, the branch of human activity allegedly far from being symbolic, something facilitating not only material but also spiritual or immaterial exchange[9].

[1] “In his hand the [appropriated] image becomes something other (allos = other + agoreuei + to speak). He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured: allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather, he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants the antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned but is also the source of its theoretical significance.” Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Post modernism’, in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. Scott Bryson et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, p. 54

[2] “I found myself being torn between two duelling ecstasies. On the one side the elation at the thought of taking, and on the other, because of Andre, a growing respect – and call it perhaps love – for painters; men like Titian, the master who draped luminous glazes over his pictures to bring into being translucent richness; the passionate flowing strokes of Rubens, possible, according to some only because of a secret medium he had made that has since defied analysis; and then the one perhaps most of all, Rembrandt, with his handling of the mysteries of light and shade, particularly in those of his pictures that came late in his life” Edward Moat, Memoirs of an Art Thief, Arlington Books, 1976, p 98-99

[3] “And there are found objects along a staircase – inevitably along a staircase: “The path towards the heights and the path towards the depths are identical.” (Heraclitus) Any piece of flotsam and jetsam within our grasp should be considered as a precipitate of our desire.” André Breton, Surrealism and Painting, McDonald, London, 1965, p. 283

[4] Ibid, p. 280

[5] “I will begin with a basic fact: the living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g. an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, it must necessarily be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically” George Bataille, The Accursed Share – An Essay on General Economy, Zone books, 1988, p. 20 (my italics)

[6] “In the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transaction concluded by individuals. […] what they exchange is not solely property and wealth, movable and unmovable goods, and things economically useful. In particular, such exchange are acts of politeness: banquets, rituals, military services, women, children, dances, festivals, and fairs, in which economic transaction is only one element, in which the passing on of wealth is only one feature of a much more general and enduring contract. […] We propose to call all this the system of total services. Marcel Mauss, The Gift – Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, Routledge, 1990, pp. 5-6

[7] Ibid, p. 72

[8] The decision of invisibility brings about the artist’s symbolic renunciation to turn his gesture into an overtly political claim: “For, ever since labour was divided into an abstract organisation that alienated people from ideal ways of life, appropriation has been a practice of getting back from society what it has taken from its members” Jan Verwoert, ‘Apropos Appropriation’ in Beatrix Ruf and Clarrie Wallis, Tate Triennial 2006 New British Art, Tate Publishing, 2006, p. 11

[9] “Money still possesses its magical power and is still linked to the clan or to the individual. The various economic activities, for example the market, are suffused with rituals and myths. They retain a ceremonial character that is obligatory and effective. They are full of rituals and rights. In this light we can answer the question that Durkheim posed concerning the religious origin of the notion of economic value. The facts also answer a host of questions concerning the forms and reasons behind what we so ineptly term exchange, the “barter”, the permutation of useful things, that, in the wake of the prudent Romans, who were themselves following Aristotle, an a priori economic history places at the origin of the division of labour. It is indeed something other than utility that circulates in societies of all kinds, most of which are already fairly enlightened. The clans, the generations, and the sexes generally – because of the many different relationships to which the contract gives rise – are in a perpetual state of economic ferment and this state of excitement is very far from being materialistic. It is far less prosaic than our buying and selling, our renting of services, or the game we play in the Stock Exchange.” Marcel Mauss, Op. Cit. p. 72

This text was first published by Ikon Gallery in the book This is yours now.

Francesco Manacorda is currently Director of Tate Liverpool. He was curator at the Barbican Art Gallery in London and artistic director of Artissima. He has written extensively for many publications including Domus, Flash Art, Metropolis M and Art Review.