When I was growing up, my family and I took day trips and camping vacations to beaches along the Northwest coast to look for agates. Beach agates are special: waves and sand tumble off their sharp edges and soften their fractured faces, their translucent forms smoothed but not polished by the action. If you hold one of these agates up to a light, its core will glow back at you, but sitting in your hand, the “partial finish” of the beach tumbled stone looks more like a frosted window.
Sometimes being at the beach felt like being at a casino. Here we were, wandering but not interacting with other beachcombers, each of our sights locked onto a small patch of gravel in front of our feet, each step a bet or a pull of the lever. A day’s haul would likely fit in the palm of your hand, and would be “worth” nothing more than the addition to one’s storage jars or along window sills back home.
I tried to make an artwork out of agates once. The work was to be a task (agate hunting), paid by the hour ($25), realized upon purchase, and completed when a sufficient number of agates had been found. This was a gamble of another kind, as the purchaser would be unaware of the price of the task until it was concluded. It was an hourly rate that outstripped what I made at work and, since finding one agate could sometimes take several hours, the speculative venture was weighted in my favor.
On the one hand, this work was simply following the time-honored American tradition, which is quickly becoming an imperative, to commodify one’s hobbies and leisure time. On the other hand, it was an effort to develop an art practice in which the “means of production” didn’t extend much beyond my own person and a handful of tools. Mine was an economically risk-averse art practice, comfortably under-leveraged. The fact that the agate work never sold was no skin off my nose, my jar simply grew several stones fuller.
It wasn’t until several years after speculating on my agate hunting hobby that I encountered Adam Smith mentioning a surprising historical precedent in The Wealth of Nations:
In some parts of Scotland a few poor people make a trade of gathering, along the sea shore, those little variegated stones commonly known by the name of Scotch Pebbles. The price which is paid to them by the stone-cutter is altogether the wages of their labour; neither rent nor profit make any part of it.
This passage seemingly justified an identification between my agate artwork and the labor of a dispossessed 18th century scavenger of raw materials: they were looking for agates for money, I was trying to sell some time looking for agates for money. My identification with the Scotch Pebble hunter at the level of our activity obscured a glaring discrepancy between us: economically playing with one’s free time ≠ the economic need to return to the beach each day in search of stones.
My misrecognition was symptomatic of a tendency among artists who, through the use of a relatively humble toolkit and their own brains and muscles, identify with the wanderer, the vagrant, the scrap collector. There is a false homology between the wandering, working artist and the wandering, working worker. It’s an identification that can only ever (affectively) flow one way, and smoothes over sharp economic differences.
I am an artist in my free time, and I work so that I may have free time. The money I make from working does not support an extravagant practice, so I look for ways to work with low-cost, at-hand materials, at scales which can be stored in my apartment. These are political economic decisions I make which are determined by the jobs I hold, and the amount of space and money I have. Walking, looking, and even gambling are activities charged with pathos, but our imaginaries of these activities are one-sided when we abstract away all the particular economic determinants which compel them, however enjoyable they may be.
Many of the works in Basement of Art began shortly after I posited my agate artwork. All of these works, at their base, are guided by a certain economy of means. The expenditure in these works is mostly time itself: time spent learning techniques from friends, family, and YouTube, and applying those techniques to small bits of materials, which become art. A crucial distinction between the agate work and the works in this show is that in these works, finding is a moment which exists in relation to technical production rather than mere nomination. These are attempts on the problem of how to produce art inside determinate conditions, and not an affective identification with nor exaltation of that which stands in nonrelation to these attempts.