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REACH INTO YOUR POCKET AND BRING OUT YOUR WALLET. YOU DON’T RECOGNISE THIS WALLET. REACH INTO YOUR BAG AND BRING OUT YOUR MOBILE PHONE. YOU DON’T RECOGNISE THIS MOBILE PHONE. LOOK AT THE NAME ON THE PIECE OF PAPER YOU’RE HOLDING. YOU DON’T RECOGNISE THIS NAME. IS THIS A NIGHTMARE OF LOSS OR A FANTASY OF FREEDOM? EITHER WAY, IT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF PARTICIPANTS IN LIFE EXCHANGE, A PROJECT ORCHESTRATED BY BERLIN-BASED ARTISTS WOOLOO PRODUCTIONS.

Between October 31 and November 6, 2007, 10 people were sent blinking into the streets of New York with just a stranger’s possessions to guide them. Martin Rosengaard and Sixten Kai Nielsen, of Wooloo Productions, interviewed participants who were each willing to swap lives with a stranger and matched them into pairs. The longest exchange took one week; the shortest was 24 hours.

Surely you’d have to be crazy to trust a stranger with your house keys, your credit card, your job, your relationships? Participants didn’t just swap material possessions but also met each other’s lovers, worked in each other’s jobs and (although not in all cases) lived in each other’s homes.

For some, this demand for trust might seem like a nightmarish risk, but Rosengaard says it is one of the project’s strengths. Particularly in America, he says, there is a “performance of distrust” carried out by the state, which encourages people to be suspicious of each other’s motives and exploits an inherent conservatism of fear. In contrast, Life Exchange invited a very un-public display of trust and openness.

In fact, the relationship between two strangers was not the central experience of Life Exchange—after all, they didn’t really meet. One participant, occupying the life of Guilio d’Agostino for a day, found himself flirting with a woman on the subway. Twenty-four hours later he had returned to his identity of Ektoras Binikos, who is gay. Obviously, Life Exchange did not affect Ektoras’ sexuality, but it did encourage him to do something outside his normal experience. Crucially, this change in behaviour was not because Ektoras stole Guilio’s identity, but because for a time he was bereft of his own.

Participants in Life Exchange knew nothing about their ‘new life’ until the moment they inhabited it; and for each piece of someone else’s persona they acquired they lost the corresponding accoutrement of their own—their own mobile phone, their own best friend, their own routine. The process must have seemed more like a loss than an acquisition. In this light, the man who flirted with a woman on that November morning was not Guilio d’Agostino (who knows if he flirts with women on the subway?) or even a performance of ‘Guilio d’Agostino’ (having never met him, how could Ektoras know how to perform?). Instead, it was an anti-performance of Ektoras Binikos—a man whose codes and imperatives of behaviour had suddenly been stripped away.

In a city that was playing host, at the same time, to the dead-eyed ‘re-enactments’ of Alan Kaprow’s Happenings [RT 83, p17] , this seemed like a breath of fresh air. Kaprow wrote scores to encourage people to meditate on the experience of living and to blur the definitions of art and life. But, a year after Kaprow’s death, these re-enactments, watched in a packed warehouse in Long Island, were like the hammy cousins of an art historical moment that was never meant to be played to an audience. In contrast, Life Exchange seemed to promise a very real experience—the “sensory becoming” that Deleuze and Guattari describe as the true effect of a work of art.

But while Binikos found the experience of Life Exchange liberating, the project encouraged self-reflection in a very controlled way. The precedent for Wooloo Productions’ 2007 Life Exchange is Nancy Weber’s Life Swap (1974, written up in a book published by Dial Press in the same year), in which Weber changed lives with another woman. Her swap was precipitated by months of discussion, note-taking and written instructions between the women, but it ended badly with each accusing the other of dishonesty and misrepresentation. Life Exchange, however, removed the possibility of any such accusations, because it took responsibility for the project away from the people taking part.

It was Wooloo Productions (rather than any of the people whose lives were exchanged) who provided legal documents and disclaimers; Wooloo Productions who carried out interviews and made matches; and Wooloo Productions who conducted a Life Exchange Ritual at the beginning of each swap. This meant that ‘exchangers’ were free to concentrate on their personal experiences. And, unlike the earlier project, they could never accuse each other of sabotage, because they didn’t own the processes that governed their behaviour. These processes were owned and issued, instead, by Wooloo Productions.

In other words, Wooloo Productions institutionalised Weber’s model. If Weber’s Life Swap was carried out like two women bartering in a market, then Wooloo’s exchange was more like people ticking ‘yes’ to the terms and conditions on a website. This overt mediation concentrated the experience on each participating individual, but it also rendered them strangely passive in the process. Even when exchanges ended badly—as did one between Jane Harris and ‘Joanna’, cut short after just a few hours—the participants did not blame each other but the institution that had led them there. “Just be forewarned”, says Harris about Wooloo Productions, “they don’t seem to know what they’re doing” (www.artnet.com).

It is this relationship of trust between individual and institution that lies at the centre of Life Exchange. Harris’ disappointment with the project reveals her desire to trust the institution—if ‘they’ don’t know what they’re doing, then who does?

In fact, during Life Exchange Wooloo Productions acted just like the big cultural institutions that govern our lives—what Althusser calls institutional state apparatuses. This similarity even extends to the “performance of distrust” Wooloo’s Rosengaard identified in US federal policy. Like the government’s performance, Life Exchange relied on an entity whose power is hinted at but never explained; participants were even blindfolded during the Life Exchange Ritual that began each swap to reinforce this sense of mysterious power. And, like government performance, Life Exchange demanded casual complicity from its public.

Was Jane Harris right to have doubts about Wooloo Productions? The institutional façade that the organisation erected was flimsy at best. The Life Exchange Ritual, for example, which featured candles and New Age music, was an empty, generic scene such as might appear, Rosengaard says, if you googled the world ‘ritual.’ And unlike US government policy, Life Exchange did not exploit conservatism. Instead, it centred on unpredictability, stripping individuals of their symbols and then leaving them to their own devices.

Life Exchange created a dream of freedom and a nightmare of loss at the same time. It gave its participants liberty from identity, agency and expectations. But in return it enacted a loss of identity, freedom and agency. Creating a mask that borrowed from the familiar processes of big cultural institutions, Wooloo Productions suggested that liberty can only come from the comforting arms of an institution. The question, then, is which institution do you choose? And which liberty?


Wooloo Productions, Life Exchange, New York, Oct 31-Nov 6, 2007

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 37

© Mary Paterson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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