Krystal South on Value and Art

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As the internet works to make many facets of our culture more accessible, the art world is also evolving. It's exciting to see projects that explore the ways artists can directly reach their audiences. Launched by Portland-based artist and writer Krystal South in September of 2014, Exhibition Kickstarter was noteworthy for the way it brought artists and collectors together in a digital space, while simultaneously producing an IRL exhibition of internet-born goods. For Art and Photo month, we chatted with South about the problems with the old-school art world, her experience making the digital real, and—bonus!—got a few good tips for running a great project.

What is Exhibition Kickstarter?

I asked eleven artists to create an edition of ten artworks that could be produced online. Works from each of the artists’ editions were available as funding levels within the Kickstarter rewards system. It became a way to both produce a physical exhibition, and get artworks into the hands of the general public without having a gallery involved in the transactions.

It was such a big project, and there were so many parts of it, that I feel like it was about a lot of different things. What happened when I started to think of Kickstarter as a system that could run parallel to — or supplement — the existing system [of making an exhibition], that was when all of these other conceptual ideas started coming out.

Jeremy Bailey, Famous New Media Artist’s Hand, artist render, 2014.
Jeremy Bailey, Famous New Media Artist’s Hand, artist render, 2014.

 How did you arrive at the idea to use Kickstarter to create an exhibition, anyway?

Well, it was the first time that someone had asked me to do a solo show, and my natural response to that kind of situation is just to bring a bunch of people together to work on something. Kickstarter became a very clear choice when I realized that the timeline for the show wasn’t very long. Because I could distribute responsibility to a lot of artists, and rely on skills that I had in marketing, project management, and that kind of stuff, I could make the system be my artwork. Once I arrived at that idea, I started having conversations about it with people, and everyone got really excited about this as a possibility for organizing a show and selling artwork. People said, "This totally makes sense to me and feels accessible." And when I say people, I mean people outside of the art world – and that’s something I feel really strongly about. I don’t want to only be able to talk to my art friends about art, I want to have an open conversation in this recognizable space that everybody has access to. I mean, I had conversations about Exhibition Kickstarter in very artistic contexts, but I also had conversations with people who work at startups and people who were family friends, and I felt like everyone was able to understand it.

LaTurbo Avedon, URL Letterman Jacket, artist render, 2014.
LaTurbo Avedon, URL Letterman Jacket, artist render, 2014.

Tell me about the decision to have the artists pick a customizable object from the internet, and why you felt they should each produce an edition of ten.

Those were decisions that I made to give the project constraints. I’d been following Kickstarter for years through my work in the tech community, and I had always thought of it as a way to distribute a good or product. I’ve been really interested in artists who create digital work who are trying to find ways to monetize their practice. A lot of them have turned to producing goods, so I’ve been really interested in the translation of someone’s conceptual and aesthetic structure from the digital world into an object. I’m a big nerd about Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, which asked the question of whether or not an art object can still retain value when it’s never been touched by the artist.

What was it like to see these digital objects-turned-readymades in the physical realm?

It was really amazing. I knew what objects were being produced, as the artists had done renderings of them, but when I went to install the show, it was interesting to see that even though all the artists were working separately, the works all fit really well together. One of the things that I loved about organizing this show was getting to know the artists’ practices, and how they each thought about the translation from the internet to the physical realm. For some of them it came really naturally, but in general I think it was a little bit scary for some of them — though I think they all got very excited about it.

Ryder Ripps, Realtime Readymades, installation view, 2014. Conceptual eBay purchase.
Ryder Ripps, Realtime Readymades, installation view, 2014. Conceptual eBay purchase.

As you worked through the process of bringing Exhibition Kickstarter to life, what were some surprises that popped up along the way?

One of the most surprising things to me was how challenging it was for the artists to price their works, which I left completely up to them. They knew how the money would be divided up, and they knew the cost of manufacturing their pieces, so that left them to figure out their profit margin. That conversation about how you value your work was something that I hadn’t really ever been through before. Some of the artists couldn’t decide on a value until they knew how the other artists were pricing their things. I think it was a question of, how do I value myself as an artist, plus how do people value things in the system of Kickstarter?

In the art world it’s not normal to have such a direct artist-to-consumer approach to pricing artwork. It can even seem taboo to talk about why something costs a certain amount.

Right. That conversation happens in the back room between parties that are keyed in. If you find out how much something costs, and you start to question that value, people can just completely shut down.

Anthony Antonellis, #Moneybrick Centurion Card, installation view, 2014. American Express Centurion USB Card.
Anthony Antonellis, #Moneybrick Centurion Card, installation view, 2014. American Express Centurion USB Card.

As soon as you start exposing the underpinnings of value and art distribution systems you get into this super meaty, electrically charged space where emotions tend to run really high.

It’s because people aren’t really talking about this, at least in the conversation I’ve been involved with. While I’m not depending on the art world to make money, I’ve seen so many people sort of give up on their art dreams because they don’t know how to make a living from it. When I started working in technology and startups, I felt like a lot of that mentality could be applied to art. I’ve been in conversations with students and other artists talking about art practice as a business, because if you really want to do this and make it a viable life, you have to approach it in that way. Something has to happen where artists are more empowered to take ownership over their success in the same way as what happens in the startup world. “I want to sell you a thing, and for you to cherish that thing and for it to have meaning in your life.” That’s a value exchange, and I just feel like artists should have more of a voice in how that all goes down. It’s just crazy to me that no one just talks about, like, how the fuck do artists make money?

In that line of thought, are there a couple tips you have for all the artists out there looking to fund a project?

Kickstarter has opened a door for people to do things that would have been completely impossible before, and it really echoes how I feel about the internet in general. Even if you might not be able to find your community locally, the internet can truly bring people together. If you can find something that you want to fund through Kickstarter, there’s going to be someone else who will want to participate in what you’re doing – you just have to find them.

To see more photos from the exhibition and to read more about the artists and artworks included, have a look at the Exhibition Kickstarter catalog.

Rick Silva, RENDERING, installation view, 2014. Custom 10” wall clock.
Rick Silva, RENDERING, installation view, 2014. Custom 10” wall clock.

Further reading:

The theme of consumerism is a bit of a phenomenon in the art world right now, as artists play with ideas of value, commodification and interaction.

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