In a world where everything has a price, the most priceless things are free.
I have the honor and pleasure of introducing a new film by Robin McKenna called “The Gift” at the Castro Theater this Thursday November 29th. This movie is a visually delicious sampling of personal stories that illuminate some of the philosophy behind the popular and influential book by Lewis Hyde published in 1983.
Robin showcases four examples of “gifting” as manifest in some very different cultural settings. My favorite is the story of a anarchist(y) squat in a giant abandoned commercial swine abattoir. Roma gypsys, immigrants and struggling artists conjured Metropoliz out of a derelict property on the outskirts of Rome that no one seemed to want. This experiment ran into some bumps when the real estate started rising in value. A clever counter to this inexorable tide of property greed we have all had to contend with in some fashion was for Metropliz to emphasize the (soon internationally recognized) artistic contributions that famous artists have painted on the various huge walls of the complex. The stature of this new museum has helped fend off eviction attempts by real estate concerns and their political servants to date. The Gift here is an ongoing sharing of the space with the occupants and the outside world of art and culture afficianados.
Another of the four samples of “Gift economies” finds Robin and crew documenting a native potlatch Kwak’wakwala community in Alert Bay in Pacific Northwest Canada. The idea of “The Gift” in some form or other is a part of many tribal and indigenous cultures going back to pre-history. Gifts are not always accepted and often weighted significantly with social and cultural obligations; the unifying factor is simply that the The Gift must not be held. It must be shared with others who in turn are obliged to pass it along.
The Gift also follows the work of artist Lee Mingwei who’s work is a “life meets art/art is life” in the Zen tradition. His work is influenced by Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, a book he carries the book around with him when he travels. Hyde has wrote an introduction to Mingwei’s work, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Last but not least in the quartet of lovely of Gift vignettes is Michelle/Smallfry who created a “circular gift” camp, art car (giant bee called Beezus Christ Supercar) and crew of busy bee pals that took gifted honey from SF beekeeper acquaintances and passed along for free on the playa at Burning Man.
I enjoyed these four symbolic and literal tales, each illuminating the concept of “The Gift” in different though related fashions. Our world, western culture, is driven in large part by the great and valuable philosophies of the spirit of the individual, freedom of will and self determination ruled by “none other.” Unfortunately, we have swung too far in that direction, abandoning the balancing power of community, sharing of resources, the idea that some things must remain free. The Gift is a timely message in this world where literally everything has a monetary value, a price – whatever “the market” demands. If we cannot return to a balance between the individual and the communal, we are surely doomed to a future of even more greed and inequality.
One of the many ideas that avatar and co-founder Gary Warne sprung on his Suicide Club co-conspirators in the late 70’s was a scheme to commandeer two massive freeway billboards and to bend the ominous message to the confederated will of the Club. The Suicide Club evolved out of Communiversity, a free school at SF State in the 1970’s that was part of the free school movement of the 1960’s. Pranks and adventures were reflected in many of the classes offered. The Suicide Club first appeared in print and the world as a “class” in Communiversity in 1977. This first billboard alteration was the inspiration for the founding of the Billboard Liberation Front a few months later. The BLF was to go on altering or “improving” the copy and images on giant drive-by advertising for thirty-four years, predating and presumably influencing later work by Shepard Fairey, Ron English, and other midnight advertisers. The BLF grew concurrently with the Cacophony Society and had members that crossed over the entire San Francisco underground arts scene. Suicide Club stalwart Dan Spero made several audio interviews with Gary back in the early 1980’s before Gary’s tragic and untimely death at the age of thirty-five. The audio file below is Gary’s story of the first billboard hit, an event that spawned or encouraged a thousand advertising hacks to come over the next three decades. Chuck Palahniuks novel Fight Club (and the David Fincher movie) include a billboard hack inspired by Cacophony and the BLF.
Hearing Gary’s voice decades after his passing is quite a treat for me and for anyone else who knew this visionary prankster.