Generosity projects

The artist Sophie Calle once collaborated with the author Paul Auster. He wrote her into his fiction and she became his character. He cast her out to sea in the city and she carried out instructions, guided by Auster on how to enjoy the city more. She dutifully decorated phone boxes, handed out sandwiches and smiled at strangers. She recorded reactions and responses. This secret game of call and response between Calle and Auster continued on the streets of Manhattan for a number of weeks. The remaining documents serve as a quiet but fascinating anthropological study on the experience of the modern metropolis. Calle, with Auster, used the act of giving as an experiment in eliminating alienation from the city. As a mode to reach out to people, to explore each other's status as strangers and to give a little.

At the Generosity conference in San Francisco, Michael Swayne, an artist based in the city, presented his practice as motivated by a desire to create situations of connection and exchange. Swayne described a recent intervention in a public park in the city in which he offered up his sewing skills for passersby. He recounted (with some glee) that he had been threatened by a homeless user of the park but had overcome the dispute by mending the man's bag. This was expressed almost in terms of a redemptive process, as though his role as an artist (and as a human being) was somehow more complete and fulfilled through this process of giving.

Unlike Calle, Swayne sought to have a presence in the exchange and to move beyond the status of a mere stranger. He wanted to have an impact and to give generously. There is a wide and complex set of issues between these two approaches, politically, ethically and aesthetically. I say this in an attempt to dampen my rage at Swayne's blatant denial of any ethical responsibility to the collaborative process, to public space and to his role as an artist.

The highest act of generosity appears in righteousness. The highest level, perhaps, is the point at which the giver and receiver remain anonymous. For Calle and Auster, their game with the city left them removed from the point of encounter. They could observe from a distance as call-box users rested on the seat and enjoyed the flowers that Calle had placed for their use. Swayne wants to be right there in the action, to be photographed with the homeless guy. To capture the transfer and imposed exchange.

Ted Purves opened the Generosity Conference by framing generosity as a principle that goes against market economies and therefore against capitalism. He cited Lewis Hyde and suggested that generosity denotes an act that evokes a belief in a gift economy. As the Generosity Conference unfolded, I asked myself whether artists feel a need to engage more in the outside world through activism, community work, performance, gestures, exchange with everyday folk, as a symptom of the post-colonial age in which we are attempting to rid ourselves of the inequities that have established the developed world. Is all this collaboration really just a symptom of bourgeois guilt?

Luckily, Jeanne van Heeswijk stepped up to save the day and announced her discomfort with the use of the word 'generosity' because of the inherent imbalance of power that it denotes. She referred to its OED definition as a willingness to forgive and indicating a nobility of birth. For Heeswijk, the term evokes the patterns of colonial pasts placing the act of giving within a moral and ethical framework, therefore becoming 'a gesture of guilt'.

Heeswijk sought to reposition her approach to generate a space for 'multiplicity of thought rather than singularity of ideas'. She emphasised her reluctance to 'zoom' or 'parachute' into a context. Collaboration takes time and 'exchange' requires patience and sensitivity. She explained that by initiating dialogue in an area she takes on a level of responsibility to the context. She becomes an active participant in the life of the area and will often take on a job locally, find a place to live in order to spend time with people and the place. Heeswijk also reminded us not to underestimate the power of the residue, the limiting power of the image, the document to situate generosity. I couldn't help feeling this was directed at Swayne and his ilk that relied so heavily on the document to prove their worth (and their generosity).

Jeanne van Heeswijk unraveled her approach through the presentation of two projects: A House for Community began in 1994 and Valley Vibes began in 1997 (both are ongoing). Both projects were situated in their specific context and related to their motivations and wider social agendas. A House for the Community was the result of a commission to work with the town hall in a strict protestant community. Heeswijk explained that art is perceived as a privilege in this context. The commission was framed to serve and apply a connection to this community. For two years, Heeswijk initiated discussion rounds asking the community how they would reflect their community in a house. This dialogue created a process of giving and sharing information to find a common ground. Following this period of consultation, Heeswijk created zones in the town hall to represent the results of these sessions. The community, who are running and sustaining projects themselves, now uses these spaces regularly.

Heeswijk then introduced the vibe detector, the tool at the heart of Valley Vibes, which records and collects events, parties, speeches and rallies in its location. The detector was described as a tool to mediate discussions rather than an artwork. It encourages participants to 'become an actor in your own surroundings'. She described the process of introducing an object into a particular context and understanding that people have strong personal values and bring a sophisticated and personal response to the tool. Overall, Heeswijk was adamant that any initiative has to work in a larger context. She described her approach as 'sociality', placing your own subjectivity at zero. She argued that throughout a project, one should constantly go back and reconsider public space as a shared space. Her work has to create a 'meaningful re-injection of information' into a site and it cannot work independently. She summed up: 'Generosity has to be a mutual process of giving and taking. This process can take years. Generosity doesn't always generate change'.

© Sarah Carrington, February 2002


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