Journal of Aesthetics & protest

Conversations and Theory in
practice. go post-money!!!

issue 7

The Free Store

by Salem Collo-Julin

The Free Store

BERG: Later, when I was traveling around the U.S. in the '70s, I remember every time I'd come into a household that was communalistic or back to the land, there would be an area called the free box. And people would say, 'that's the Digger thing.' They got that from us. But I think more than imitating it with a free box in the corner, was that people got interested in new experiences through us. And that's what we deliberately tried to do. The whole Digger thing was set up as a kind of an interactive, participatory event, to kind of recruit people into a lifestyle. Did you know the free food was served behind an orange frame? Yeah, it was 12-foot square. It was called the Free Frame of Reference. And the reason was, traffic coming past it in the morning, when we were serving breakfast, at Oak Street, would see this event taking place within a picture frame.
GOLDHAFT: Somebody said, if you put something in a frame, it's art.
-Peter Berg and Judy Goldhaft, as interviewed by Jesse Hamlin in the May 20, 2007 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

We are driving up to the empty parking lot. We are on the south side of Chicago on a Saturday morning. It’s early for us, but there are already people running their errands and gossiping on the stoops. Truck #1 is unloaded: a fancy Italian leather couch, several boxes of house wares, the hanging racks and stools that we have attached “TAKEN” tags to so they don’t walk away. The guys who live above the sandwich shop next door poke their heads out their window – “Y’all doing it now? We’ll be right down.” It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday, three more cars filled with stuff are coming, and our shoppers are starting to gather around the lot.

This isn’t the first time for us. We’ve been doing these since 2006, but today we’re all anxious. We have four more truckloads stacked in our garage a few blocks away, but the boxes we’re unpacking are already attracting a lot of attention. People knew we were coming, and like early birds at a garage sale, they stand in wait and just stare at us. Complicating matters is the fact that we’re in our own neighborhood, where everyone has seen us loading up the garage with stuff getting ready for today’s event. They aren’t just waiting for us to be ready. They are waiting for that rice cooker they saw, the mattress we said we would set aside, the rack of baby clothes to sort through.
In the end, this is both one of our best and worst Free Store days. My favorite memory is watching two guys carrying a leather sofa away toward their block party while their little brother sits on it like Cleopatra at a parade. Of course, they are all wearing sombreros. My most anxious moment happens when a group of people rush the truck that a friend’s girlfriend is slowly unloading and, to their chagrin, she clumsily and loudly tells them“Back off!”

Our undertaking, called “The Free Store,” started from a seemingly casual conversation that my collaborator Melinda Fries and I were having about the Diggers, about giveaways, about what’s good and bad about the ideas of charity and the gift economy. When we realized that we should just stop talking and do a free store, we immediately shared our thoughts with our other core collaborators, Zena Sakowski and Rob Kelly. We found ourselves with a decent combination of personal skill sets – we all had experience giving things away, doing public events, getting the word out, building interesting things out of seemingly nothing. While we share in the reverence of specific Diggers activities that many of our free store “cousins” (the myriad Freecycle groups, the Really Really Free Markets, etc.) we also feel that we are linked to a wider history of intentional public art and performance, and direct action activity. It’s this combination of art and activism that we feel links us directly to the Diggers.

We know that a free store is just like a store, but everything is free. Items or services are offered and visitors can take them with no obligation other than showing up and taking. These visitors don’t have to bring a coupon, read any literature, or pledge allegiance to any of the store’s ideals – except for the part where they show up and take something. 

At the same time, a free store is nothing like a store. It is something better. It is more fun, more pure, and more important for both the “proprietor” and the “consumer”. The community that forms and disbands throughout the life of the store becomes a diverse coalition of people fiercely aware of each other’s presence, and each other’s needs. The event becomes a living testament to that overused phrase “Another World Is Possible”. It’s a thrilling experience when you figure out that this possible other world is not only happening in front of you, but seem to be something that others want. Is my revolution yours? I know that I’m tied up in you. And even though we can’t agree on which channel to watch, don’t we both need to breathe?

I think most practitioners of free stores and similar activities are speaking to a need to coexist and gather with other humans. I believe a free store breaks down economic expectations that have been ground into us because of capitalism, and the social expectations we have for our own behavior. Casual conversation at The Free Store often leads to a discussion of worth and value. Who gets to take this? Do we need to know what they are going to do with it? Is it ok for them to resell it? What if they have decided that what they really need is money? Does the guy who brought his kids with him get first dibs on this stuff over the guy who doesn’t have kids with him? This seems like it might be worth something. Do you really want to give this away? What’s the catch?

Sometimes we feel that people mischaracterize what we do. It is important for us to discuss The Free Store as an art project. The closest we usually get to a good dialogue about this is an eye roll followed by a cynical “Well, I suppose everything is art, hmm.” I think this reaction is less a flaccid imitation of Archie Bunker and more an uneasy reluctance for the speaker to admit that they can’t or don’t want to make the connection and the small leap, to our possible world. We consider the experience of attending a free store a more determined and interactive notion than viewing performance or mindlessly tramping through the supermarket aisles. Creating a situation where practical needs are met at the same time as creating a public place for dialogue amongst disparate folk is essential. It may be the essential component to the idea of public performance and activist art practice. Alternatively, this activity isn’t “practice”. It is very real.

If that makes people feel more comfortable, we’re happy to be known as “like a garage sale without money”. We’re happy to have a casual conversation about why we think everything should be up for grabs. We’re happy to explain that this isn’t charity, and it isn’t just for poor people. So many institutions spend a lot of time setting limits on who deserves stuff and what can be given. We don’t need to trade or sell our experiences, or even use The Free Store as some ultimately meaningless notch on our curriculum vitae.

It’s about claiming our identity in the world without using the mask wallets or personal situations. In the competitive worlds art and activism, the audience you reach is the final question. Did the press come? Was it just our friends? Did “the community” show up? Do it for everybody. And we mean everybody. Don’t get too excited if the Wall Street Journal does a story on your trading post because that may scare your grandma away. Rely on your friends’ support, but welcome new friends.

We’re all deserving and worthy. None of us living were the first here, nor will we be the last. Everything is coming to you – you better get ready.