The artwork that sells itself

Paul Raven @ 28-01-2010

Consider, for a moment, the trials and tribulations of the plastic artist. You create your masterpiece, and – if you’re lucky – you sell it. And that’s your lot – not only is it beyond your control once it leaves your studio, but it can’t make you any further income.

Or can it? Caleb Larsen thinks he’s found a way to keep a persistent revenue stream flowing back from his latest piece, a featureless black plastic box entitled A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter; once it arrives at its new owner’s home or gallery and gets plugged in to power and ethernet sockets, it will wait for a handful of days before logging into eBay and putting itself up for auction again:

“Inside the black box is a micro controller and an Ethernet adapter that contacts a script running on server ever 10 minutes. The server script checks to see if box currently has an active auction, and if it doesn’t, it creates a new auction for the work. The script is hosted on a server to allow for updates and upgrades if and when the eBay API (the interface used for 3rd party programs to talk to eBay) changes.”

The technology is designed specifically so that the buying and selling process could carry on ad infinitum, suggests Larsen, who adds that, if eBay “dries up and disappears, then another platform, either propriety or public, can be used for the selling.”

However, the process is also reliant on purchasers agreeing to stringent rules. There are, in fact, 18 terms listed on the eBay auction site, although Larsen is confident that buyers will comply because they could make money by doing so.

Here’s how it works. The purchaser can set a new value for the artwork, which must be based on “current market expectations” of Larsen’s work, and which could be considerably more than the price they paid. When A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter decides it wants to be sold again, bidders will start their battle at the value set by the current owner.

This is where the art collector could make money. However they must first pay any fees to eBay and give Larsen 15 percent of any increase in value of the artwork.

I expect that once the novelty of the story has worn off, the income stream will dry up pretty fast; Larsen’s real gain here is notoriety and cultural kudos rather than cold hard cash. But his work is an interesting conceptual collision, and doubtless says something quite profound about the value we place on art, the ephemeral nature of that value, and the abstraction between the creator of a work and its existence independent of him or her – a metaphor for modern parenthood in a networked world?

Or something like that, anyway. [image lifted from linked article; please contact for takedown if required]