I was recently lucky enough to get to go to the Manchester International Festival, which is a cross-art form biannual festival, with theatre, music, performance, and the visual arts at its heart. One morning I took my kids to see 11 Rooms at the Manchester Art Gallery, which is a series of eleven commissioned works of live time-based art – eleven artists, given a room each. This was a remarkable exhibition, not the least for the way in which almost all of the artists' rooms engaged both me and my kids.
The room that engaged us most completely was 'Swap' by the artist Roman Ondak. This room had a small table in the centre, with a man sitting behind it. On the table was a single item. When we arrived, it was a pen. The man sitting behind the table was encouraging the other people in the room – there was about ten in total – to swap something of their own for the pen. Everyone held back, of course, but then, slowly, the swapping began. The pen was replaced with a used post-it note. The post-it note was exchanged for a single, wrapped, stick of gum. My kids insisted I rummage through my handbag. The eldest swapped a nearly full package of tissues for the stick of gum. A young man on the other side of the room swapped the package of tissues – 'Ooh, Balsam!' he said - for a 50 pence coin. My son got the 50 pence coin by handing back that stick of gum. And on it went.
It was a fascinating experience to watch the people in the room react to the swaps. It made my kids and I think about not only the value of the things in our pockets, but also the nature of the swap as a transaction, mediated by the 'performer' sitting at his table. For my kids the process was akin to a game, and they found watching the swaps take place exciting, in particular when new people entered the room and entered into the process. It was tempting to do something outrageous – I thought briefly about putting my smartphone on the table, just to see what would happen. I managedto resist that urge, but we were all beguiled by this highly evocative, very simple, work of art. In a digital age it was refreshing to focus on a work like this that relies completely upon bodies-in-the-room and lived experience to exist.
The photo at the top is my son's hand and the things he came away with after his swap session.