When thinking about A Stock Exchange (2011), it might be helpful to remember some words from Ian Fleming: ‘a horse is dangerous at both ends and uncomfortable in the middle.’1
The event, organised by Amelia Groom, Jack Jeweller and Robert Milne, was conceived of as the visual arts component of the 2011 Imperial Panda Festival. The premise was that people could submit offers of any sort and their offer would be paired off to form a systematised program of exchange, partly inspired by Sol LeWitt’s lifelong practice of exchanging work with his contemporaries and younger, far less established artists.
A Stock Exchange (ASX) attracted over 64 participants, split into 32 pairs. Each person’s name, their offer and a representational image were listed in twosomes on a beautifully designed, purpose-built website—halfway between a scientific chart and a fractured family tree—which can still be publicly viewed.
Once the organisers informed each swapper of their pair, they were to arrange a time and place for their exchange. ASX’s makeshift ‘head office’, in the under-construction Chippendale venue Freda’s, was also available for meet-ups, to provide neutral ground on which two strangers could comfortably convene.
The offers themselves ranged from simple, to involved, to objectively labour-intensive. Many wished to present their partner with something new, like fresh-picked tomatoes, a piece of pottery or a thinly disguised electric shock. Others preferred to draw from what they had, proffering house keys, an oil painting or the results of their STI test.
Where some participants made a one-time proposal, others committed to extensive preparation or lasting results, including adopting a fish in the recipient’s honour or sending them a text containing the common name, astrological name, meaning of the name, and constellation location of a new star each night for 101 nights.
Forestalling any idea that their exchange experiment was all about kindness and goodwill, ASX’s organisers made much of gift giving’s sinister side in the event’s supporting literature. One of the initial calls to participate in the project read:
The sociologist Marcel Mauss convinced himself that far from being voluntary, disinterested and spontaneous, the phenomena of the gift entails the obligation to give, the obligation to receive, and the obligation to return. Failure to complete any of these obligations results in loss of dignity.
Is that what you want? Send us your offer and join our potlatch, for your dignity and for ours.
It’s true that, at the start, A Stock Exchange felt slightly dangerous. Everyone knows that when multiple human gestures are directed at a single purpose, their disparity doesn’t so much invite judgement as beg for it. Making an offer was daunting enough without the dull terror of what might be offered in return. Someone had anonymously submitted an offer promising ‘a disproportionately minute act of revenge exacted on your behalf’, while another was insisting that they be allowed to rearrange your bedroom. The ‘head office’, with its desk lights and PowerPoint presentations, resembled a waiting room where the offers sat arranged on trestle tables awaiting the chance to run their course.
But, as swaps began to take place, what emerged from the experiment was not the deviant nature of the contributions or the awkwardness of meeting a stranger. It was the ability of the people in charge to inflict rewarding results or jocularly punitive disappointments with equal ease.
Take Stephen Russell, if you will – and the organisers clearly wouldn’t. Russell’s offer was a bus fare. He was paired with art collective Bababa International, who were offering an unpaid internship, ‘valued at $15,000’. Russell’s bus fare was hardly of use to a group of four – never mind the fact that Russell was, to the organiser’s knowledge, a member of the group.
Groom, Jeweller and Milne had never claimed to be impervious to personal preferences and humour, nor were their pairings invariably subversive. Certain exchanges sounded delightful, like when Groom’s grandmother received a ‘pollination service’ from Tega Brain, who made up for the absence of birds and bees by using a paintbrush and, in return, accepted alteration services on three garments.
But the case of Stephen Russell raises an issue about how much power participants—likewise susceptible to bouts of humour and preference – should have been afforded when trying to co-opt the project for their own ends. After all, wouldn’t Marcel Mauss have claimed this to be unavoidable, if not integral to the process?
Many participants had positive experiences, mostly because their pairing gave them scope to do so. Because it was not made clear why some offers were labelled ‘genuine’ and others ‘worthy of reproach’ it was difficult to accept the pairings or be satisfied with their results.
Perhaps, if A Stock Exchange were to be repeated, free agency would be all it takes to allow the true character of an offer—or a participant—to shine through. Selfish acts could languish in the face of generosity, and dynamic recipients might dismiss apathetic gestures. Kindness may be met with indifference or, more alarmingly, two offers of equal substance could find each other by chance.
A Stock Exchange was held at Freda’s in Chippendale, Sydney on 10-13 March 2011.
Further documentation of A Stock Exchange can be found at
1. Fleming, Ian, Sunday Times (London), October 9, 1966.