Art As Auction
The Media Channel, April 12, 2000,

After Yahoo!, eBay, the online auction site, may be the best-known corporate enterprise on the web. (The four and a half-year-old "online trading community" currently features 4.4 million items in 4,320 categories on its site.) It allows anyone to participate in the e-commerce market as something other than just a consumer by blending the gratifying roles of Netrepreneur and Sotheby's seller: Just assign a value to those cast-off goods or quirky services, and watch their value rise (or not even register) over time. Unlike nearly every other dot-com, eBay was profitable from its first day of operation, and it seems to have made good on its boast of emptying American attics, although it's probably filling them at an approximately similar rate.

Artists, like the rest of us, have found eBay's addictive charms irresistible. When conceptualist Cary Peppermint recently initiated a new series of work, he logged onto the site looking, not for materials or found objects, but for a paying collaborator and co-conspirator: "The high-bidder will have the rare opportunity to make art using artist Cary Peppermint," he promised. "High-bidder will email specific instructions/directions for Cary to perform. High-bidder will then receive a 5-15 minute VHS of Peppermint following high-bidder's instruction and thus making an art EXPOSURE via video. High-bidder will be granted all rights to reproduction and distribution of this EXPOSURE and will be credited as director in the opening credits of the actual work." To save himself and the "high-bidder" from embarrassment, Peppermint reserved the right to refuse physically damaging or "hackneyed" instructions. Like any good conceptualist, Peppermint knows that the art primarily resides in the idea and the often unconventional medium or approach, rather than the execution of the art object.

The piece that resulted from Tim Whidden's winning $100 bid was "Use Me As Medium" (Peppermint says Whidden is now "using me to impersonate me.") But far more controversial was Peppermint's "Pussy and Beer and Online Auction via," in which he auctioned off a set of erotic Polaroids of his alleged ex-girlfriend and a case of beer. Although eBay disqualified the sale because it doesn't allow the selling of beer, Mark Tribe and Terrance Kosick, two online-art professionals later contacted Peppermint and purchased the lot for $520. In the interim, "Pussy and Beer" generated a bevy of buzz in the tiny online-art world, doubtless due to its title, rather than its nudity-free images. But the work's message - and its witty delivery - are far from negligible. "Pussy and Beer" underlines the new reality that everything is fodder for public consumption in the digital era.

Why does the New York artist make such work? "I simulate what I feel are [late capitalist] cultural illnesses - to paraphrase Baudrillard - 'not simply by staying in bed but by actually acquiring some of the [pop-cultural] symptoms,' " Peppermint recently emailed me. "This involves an order of 'lies' in the service of art, [directed] toward a certain vitality and continuing dialogue that makes culture urgent or restless, as opposed to 'lies' in the service of capital as in the fashion world." However theoretical his language, Peppermint is essentially a culture jammer attempting to reveal marketing's false promises to sell you a lifestyle or a vision in the guise of a product or service. eBay offers the virtual face-to-face contact (and contract) of the flea market. If sellers don't deliver on their promises, their transgressions can be posted on the site.

Peppermint has other (as yet unscheduled) eBay plans. You may hear more about "Adam and Eve Real-Time Rental," which will buy the highest bidder, in the artist's words, "two models over the age of 18 (of course!) who will simulate (under my direction) an updated and technologically enhanced version of paradise in your living room, loft or art space for four hours."

Peppermint is by no means the first artist to use eBay as a medium; there's practically a school of them now. (These artists are actually using the online auction system to realize or complete their artwork, rather than simply to sell it.) One of the best works of the eBay genre is a series by artist Jeff Gates that began last June. For a minimum of $100 (the "reserve" price), bidders could own the artist's demographics, that is, "a comprehensive list (suitable for framing) that includes pertinent information on my socio-economic status, TV viewing habits, brands of household, automotive, and lifestyle-enhancing products." While this type of marketing data may be the most heavily mined gold of the e-commerce world when sold in bulk, nobody met Gates' reserve price.

For a recent auction, Gates shifted his business plan, as he put it, and offered a handsome, limited-edition print of his unsuccessful demographics auction, noting that "after all, what's the value of collecting a Web page if it's available to anyone with a Net connection?" It, too, failed to meet its reserve price, but generated fascinating chat from potential bidders, which is archived on Gates' site.

One eBay gesture by students at the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts) threatened to create an international incident - and would have profited from such a stink. In October, the AKSHUN (Action? Auction?) collective sacrificed some very valuable real estate - their scheduled five-day December show at the prestigious art school's gallery space, or, as they put it, 73,440 minutes of fame. A dissident political group from North Korea hoped to win the bidding, but the Export Administration Act forbids trading with North Korea and the students chose not to take the case to court.

The same week in December another artwork was taking place on eBay's block. This time, four students from another Los Angeles art school, Art Center College of Design, presented eBay's first live video feed. The available object of desire was the Theory Machine, which was described in a press release as an "open container" - a box - to which anyone on campus could add objects under the gaze of video-cam-assisted visitors on the eBay site. The box and its contents sold for $32, but the high bidder never paid up and the contents of the container are destined for Goodwill, according to Matthew Carroll, one of its creators.

Perhaps the happiest ending to an eBay-art story was a March benefit for RTMark, the culture-jamming collective that recently turned over its spot in the online component of the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibition to visitors who were able to substitute other sites. Along the same lines as opening up its part in the venerable exhibition last month, the collective successfully auctioned off four tickets to the exclusive March 21 artists' opening of the show.

RTMark intends to use the winning bid of $8400 to help finance its anti-corporate art activities. Amazingly, the winner, an engineer/artist from Texas known as Sintron, decided not to attend and passed the tickets along to other bidders who'd lost out, on condition they send him items picked up at the opening. According to RTMark members, one of those other bidders is even in the process of making a movie for Sintron about the event.

eBay art reminds us that - with the properly deft touch - any phenomenon or system is ripe for hostile, or affectionate, takeover by artists.

© 2003