The Catalyst

It’s eerie when a work of art or literature impacts you so strongly that it haunts pedestrian concerns. This happened after reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948). Then there is the reality that I watch empires crumble, bulge in excess and sloth, give in to crowd behavior—irrational, compliant—reveal themselves to be flimsy shams or frazzled oligarchies disguised as democracies struggling to become living republics—missing the target. Some rebel, retreat, embrace passivity, choose complicity; others attempt to fix or reform. Others go mad. A similar spectrum of conflicted energies may be observed in the art world, for it is known to judge, mark, pigeonhole, simplify, ad nauseam. Some categorize for the sake of efficiency; others rate out of cruelty, enforcing will or power (inherited, assumed, abused). The art world appears to be a daft yet brutish machine (game?) which adheres to established dictations and invisible forces. Rules shift, and some players break rules—or do not play. The art world is not known for its egalitarian mindset; as byproduct of this inequity, you may find yourself here. Yet, who wants to see a ‘bad’ artist given a ‘fair’ amount of attention and reap benefits set aside for the ‘best’ and ‘brightest’? The clash exists for reasons both provisionally justified and spurned.

There is no shortage of instances where the ‘winner’ (or ‘victim’) was undeserving, where the outcome was predetermined or dishonestly arranged, where justice was absent or tardy. Privacy, the environment and peace of mind are sacrificed; ‘self-care’ and ‘mindfulness’ appear reserved for select echelons. This pursuit surfaced while residing in Vilnius; at the same time I was feeling my way down a pitch-black corridor towards some plan, the Ponary (Paneriai) massacre site loomed on the city’s outskirts. From Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump to Mark Zuckerberg, sound ethics are no prerequisite for affirming success, stardom or material security—no matter how tasteless or absurd. The line between ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ remains blurred by both the media and legal system; those who speak up against injustice or exploitation can easily be muted or disregarded upon having the courage to denounce it. #metoo #timesup #believewomen (and subsequent backlash) remind that even when one chooses to reveal an unfortunate story / truth (“indelible in the hippocampus”), there is no guarantee that others will respond appropriately or progressively (e.g., Dr. Christine Blasey Ford). Meanwhile, an unfortunate cascade of souls receive punishment for: defending treaty rights (e.g., the Indigenous People and First Nations), acting in self-defense (e.g., Cyntoia Denise Brown), leaving food and water in the desert for migrants journeying to seek asylum (e.g., No More Deaths activists) or having pre-existing health conditions (a.k.a., a medical history). The death of ‘integrity’ and ‘reputation’ is also noted as once-revered idols fall. Despite the crisis, new affinities and intimacies will inevitably surface.

Today, the ‘unpaid intern’ as phenomenon lingers on; yet, some occupational tasks and workers are being replaced by technology, and variants of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) are incorporated in one’s artistic practice with increased frequency (e.g., Portrait of Edmond Belamy [2018] by Obvious [GAN: Generative Adversarial Network] which is the Paris-based artist collective plus one machine / algorithm). This transformation will affect the art world and its ‘game’—but to what degree? When art can be made by a machine, what remains for humans to create? Since humans construct machines, how do A.I. makers avoid creating algorithms which promulgate prejudice, enforcing encoded assumptions or targeting specific demographics? Diverse makers lead to diverse machines.

A parallel dynamic thrives in the art world—omit the occasional wily critic or sly artist who jumps fences, contorts contexts and makes their way out of its labyrinth, the machine in question is generally impatient with those who resist or do not submit. The reality of being quickly replaced weighs heavily on its participants. Just as a ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ may be perceived as a threat upon speaking up, those who protest against the art world may be viewed similarly. And after? Prepare to be greeted with a dismissive shrug or wave of petulant nihilism which further dilutes any semblance of meaning—at times, discrediting the age-old tenet that ‘good’ will prevail. An authority maintains power by controlling information; so as to thwart this maneuver, motley forms of knowledge production will be prioritized here. Novel connections—cross-connections, corollaries, anti-corollaries, theorems, anti-theorems—are sought after.

Among other scruples, this project is concerned with exploitation and objectification; many individuals appear to be ‘locked in’ or ‘trapped’ within a defective structure which was never built with their interests in mind. Neoliberalism feeds the beast; it’s easy to profit from a socio-political concern while avoiding the ‘line-of-fire’ (e.g., certain entities advertise to promote women and minorities and advance their issues while simultaneously collaborating with companies, publications and individuals who have a shady history of mistreating them). Elites broadcast to ‘save the world’ (their world?) while essentially remaining the same. Are unpredictability, randomness and the arbitrary to be feared? Where does the real danger lie? Observe: the wolf in sheep’s clothing, calculated discrimination, default options, toxic negotiations, conditioned responses, fashionable regurgitations, vapid entrepreneurism.

I have heard it over and over again: with less money, there is more freedom to create—that there is an indirect correlation between art and money: when one goes up, the other goes down. This is just one example of art world ‘locker room talk.’ Yet, assume this holds true; if so, with a project like this one, the outcome should be more liberated than when an organization or institution influences and dictates results via allotted state funds and guarded directorship. Yet, with no support coming from any direction, ideas routinely dwindle away because private funds or alternative means of support do not suffice. Creatives often find themselves waiting for the proverbial ‘green light’ from some jurisdiction before moving forward, yet, sometimes jaywalking is paramount. Another ‘hot topic’: whether or not artists should be paid for their work (i.e., deserve a living wage), but this debate arises with greater frequency in seemingly stable social democracies in comparison to regions under the throes of cut-throat capitalism. In my opinion, creative freedom comes not from being compensated (or even recognized … yet this is another matter) but by voluntarily choosing to create / act in your own way—when left to your own devices. It helps to view this undertaking not as work but play: serious play.

To a degree, disgust, distrust and disappointment fuel this initiative. I am witnessing a stunted art world which primarily benefits the privileged few who play by the rules or perilously manipulate. One should try to locate an alternative—before giving in, giving up. Here lies the seduction of a less confined DIY sphere. Just as artists periodically lose confidence in what they are doing (and for whom), so do curators, writers and critics. This project went through several phases before becoming what it is. Some questions remain unanswered, but when one stops searching, this appears to be a sign of distress. At certain points, this initiative mirrored the times: anxious, overloaded, threatened by its own shutdown.

The moment when one loses faith in the art world as it stands, when one observes that greed and prestige cloud judgment and stifle intuition: this was the catalyst. Options seem scarce—resignation, rejection or revolt. Many choose to ‘opt out’ and form a more compatible offshoot, where boundaries morph and transpose—walls don’t work. Here is an ineffable framework which aspires to void the crinkled currency of sycophants and nepotists. My patience is wearing thin for rehashed themes (please desist with the “Alice in Wonderland” exhibitions which conveniently include dearest friends and lovers)—even if they do reinforce that nostalgic feeling of déjà vu (because I have seen it before). The art world presently allows the comfortably positioned to cultivate repetition; one favorable scheme may be tweaked, recycled and circulated to the point of mediocrity or boredom—especially when an audience is unsuspecting or isolated.

Modification of an Idea

I was inspired to create a ‘game’ based on metaphors in “The Lottery” story:

  • the village ≅ art world?
  • art / artist / curator / identity / ego ≅ sacrifice?
  • black dot on paper slip / lottery number ≅ ______
  • stone / weapon / tool ≅ ______
  • why is this ‘game’ important?
  • what must be saved or has been lost in the current art world?
  • what must be sacrificed for the sake of a new / improved art world?
  • who or what holds the power to sacrifice and / or change the art world?

In its formative phase, The Lottery Project ‘game’ intended to be a spatial, artistic and curatorial experiment realized via the display of short-term exhibitions which questioned the exhibition making process and its continual desire to search for and exalt denoted authors of creations as a key tool in the apparatus of cultural production. It aimed to investigate the significance of the curator and artist’s creative identity, as well as the audience’s role to recognize and affirm the curator and artist’s value and position. The ‘game’ aimed to provide the artist and curator with an unfettered exhibition space to activate without public responsibility or demands—to organize and produce work in which the audience neither expected nor was conditioned to receive. Furthermore, the ‘game’ aspired to nullify prejudice by liberating the project organizer from choosing participants via questionable methods and persuasions.

The ‘game’ aimed to explore the already-existing hierarchy of cultural production by utilizing an unorthodox mechanized system of exhibition production, randomized and uninfluenced by external factors—provoking a collapse of familiar curatorial and artistic practices and rituals. Curators and artists would have been encouraged to collaborate and renegotiate their practices—results exhibited and / or archived into an expanding online system. Yet, the identity of all participants (in conjunction with their lottery number and corresponding exhibition interim) would not have been revealed; all would have agreed to remain anonymous so as to reach ‘ground zero’ by neutralizing (minimizing?) artists’ and curators’ egos by denying public validation and authorship. Relationships between representation, recognition and value were to be dissected, dismantled and reassembled using this emergent ‘game’ a.k.a. The Lottery Project.

As a possible ‘game,’ The Lottery Project transitioned through three phases (abridged):

(1) ‘Game’ results (i.e., solo work & collaborations) of ‘winning’ artists and curators (all anonymous) occur in a fixed physical exhibition space over an extended-yet-finite time period. Results are time-sensitive, highlight a selection of ‘winners,’ occur on a small scale and provide one conclusive outcome as a series. Lottery numbers are assigned to participants via a random number generator which also produces the winning numbers.

(2) ‘Game’ results (i.e., solo work & collaborations) of ‘winning’ artists and curators (all anonymous, occurring anywhere / anytime) are displayed online in an expanding archive, alongside critical, creative and curatorial responses to the theme. A random number generator is incorporated into the site; anyone anywhere chooses their own lottery number and then responds (using a ‘trust’ system) to participate when their number appears on the site.

(3) ‘Game’ results of ‘winning’ artists and curators (all anonymous) are not displayed; initial ‘game’ results go unobserved / undocumented. Instead, the ‘game’ is replaced by a ‘metagame’ of speculation and trial-and-error. Critical, creative and curatorial responses to the theme alongside future ‘game’ hypotheses and manifestations are collected in an evolving archive—a derivative of the preliminary ‘game’ proposal.

The Incentive Problem

It was decided that ‘game’ results (stemming from phases 1-2) should not be exhibited or archived; these prospective ‘game’ results are unrealized—left in the conceptual sphere of speculation (as in phase 3). Instead, results displayed consist of an archive of thematic inquiries, critical / creative / curatorial responses, as well as proposals to how ‘game’ could function—in relation to space and time. This more conceptual trial-and-error lab was chosen because: (1) exhibiting capped ‘game’ results in a fixed physical exhibition space over a finite period of time would not provide sufficient data to reach conclusions or detect patterns found within artistic production when relieved of ‘recognition’ and ‘reward’; and (2) regarding the creation of a web-platform-as-exhibition-space to host expanding ‘game’ results, motivating and uniting others in contrasting socio-political and geographic regions was found to be complex (i.e., too many variables), due to the fact that no single motive (or set of motives) could be pinpointed and thereby utilized to persuade ‘winners’ to participate (i.e., when someone’s number appears, there is no fail proof motive to ensure that each ‘winner’ will submit their new work anonymously into the archive of ‘game’ results).

When there is no ‘reward’ or cultural incentive (which universally functions) such as public ‘recognition’ of one’s work or enticing symbolic capital received by anonymous contributors (i.e., ‘winners’ who participate on their own volition), there is no way to ensure that ‘winners’ will submit their new work into the archive for public consideration. The desire to give players total freedom and anonymity prevents this divergent ‘game’ and platform from functioning in its ideal online form. This ‘trust’ system falls short for large-scale online communities; trust as rationale works best in smaller communities where responsibility and consequence strongly influence outcome. ‘Recognition’ and ‘reward’ are tied to the current art world’s system of askew checks-and-balances. With no applicable incentive, the archive of ‘game’ results may not reach its potential (i.e., results may be inaccurate), ‘fragments’ or ‘remnants’ or ‘nothing’ may have been submitted and archived (since a mechanized ‘game’ of chance was to replace the curator’s influence, editorial role and insight)—instead of work considered to be: difficult, suppressed, hidden, imperceptibly valuable. An alternate ‘universal incentive’ to participate in a ‘game’ with no ‘reward’ or ‘recognition’ for ‘winners’ was not determined. Therefore, this incentive dilemma has been introduced to others—so as to collectively question, mend or alter an art world still shaped by conventional (degenerative) notions of influence and incentive.

Building From Scratch

The initial ‘game’ proposal transitioned to become a more organic archive of exploration. As it stands, this platform seeks to unearth strategies to subvert or overcome a conflicted art world’s systematic flaws, glitches and losses as they have accumulated by using an indefinite panoply of approaches. This experiment integrates a meta– component, for not only does it collect critical, creative and curatorial responses to the theme, The Lottery Project also possesses a self-reflective / self-referential capacity to record its own metamorphosis and ‘game’ results; for instance, ‘game’ proposals, hypotheses and trial runs for how the ‘game’ could possibly function may be included. Yet, the ‘game’ is essentially a riddle or sphinx: a ‘metagame.’ There is the ambition that one or more aberrant incentives may arise via collectively addressing the core problematics of ‘recognition’ and ‘reward’—for instance, if anonymity and / or financial security do not warrant creative freedom, then what does? No hollow promise is given, but art prefers to ask questions—not answer them.

The Lottery Project will unavoidably illustrate paradox and contradiction; this happens when a multitude of perspectives are highlighted and mutually contemplated. Here lies an invitation to participate without being bought, coaxed or duped. I will not quote the esteemed or popular to convince; you need to ‘get it.’ The current apparatus already indoctrinates, confuses and muffles one’s sense of worth, internal logic and moral compass. Interrupting my thoughts with interspersed decontextualized axioms of others may be counterproductive. With no interest in appearing arrogant or ignorant (extremism is fueled by both), I want to make room for what comes next; whatever shape or form it takes, it will most likely stem from self-confidence. By communicating candidly, I hope to strengthen this development as well as provide relief from a hierarchy of dogmatism, recurring mistakes and indifference. Imperfection leaves room for improvement, yet perfection can be paralyzing. Alas: the world changes so quickly that I suspect my sentiments may disappear into the ether.

Jacquelyn Davis (January 2019)