Thursday, August 29, 2013

Art Swap 2013 - The Lowdown and Story

Sorting the goods from the Art Swap, pre-mailing.  It was difficult to walk around for those two days. 

After college ended, the loss of both a community to share my work with and the structure to guide it bothered me for a long time. School had structure: teachers giving out assignments and a degree that needed to be completed and friends down the hall working on cool stuff that made us want to work on cool stuff too. The working world lacked community to an extent I found alarming. Somewhere in the post-college abyss, I was fairly certain, there existed young people doing paintings and sculptures and operas and comedy acts and lyric essays who were willing and eager to read, watch, listen to, admire, critique, and discuss their own work, but I wasn’t sure where they were or how to find them. I did, however, find a lot of people who felt the same way I did, both those who were unemployed and those who worked day jobs they weren’t really interested in.

I was inspired to do the first CD Swap back in 2008 while (voluntarily) sequestered in a sleep research study in Boston without windows, internet, or phone for two weeks. There were, however people: twentysomething interns and college students working at the sleep lab for science credit, medical experience, or weekend cash. They were bored of taking blood samples and delivering cafeteria meals, and wanted someone interesting to talk to about Woody Allen movies and feminist interpretations of male behavior, or the experience of working in the lab itself. It was the first time in months I’d met new people who had something to say, and the experience inspired a new feeling of optimism. I wanted to do something collaborative. I just needed something to do.

I remembered my friend Trainwreck talking about a CD Swap at his company where everyone made a mix CD, burned enough copies for the group, and exchanged. Though Trainwreck hadn’t gotten much out of it, I was pretty sure my friends had better musical tastes. New music was also something I hadn’t gotten a lot of since college. It was as good an idea as any.

Organizing the CD Swap, the people involved (friends from college and high school, and a few friends of friends), plus my own mix kept me busy and focused in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. My own writing at the time wasn’t going well, since I found myself unsure of my audience. Having an outside project, a kind of community, made the project more rewarding. The others as well gave the project their best: they designed elaborate covers, thought up clever themes, included bonuses, and even created original song mash-ups. Seeing them put in so much thought and effort made me push harder, and in retrospect partially replaced the more direct criticism I was used to from college.

The CD Swap went so well that we did another, then three more, totaling five years and well over a hundred CDs (for those involved in all five). By the end, though, the Swap had developed problems too big to ignore: higher than ever numbers of people and CDs, waning interest among veterans, and an alarmingly high number of last-minute dropouts. The CD, as we know it, is also nearing the end of its days, and doing an online swap seemed so banal as to not even be worth it. I also found myself remembering something Randall told me after he burned his final mix: “There’s only so much you can do with other people’s music.”

The solution then was to expand. Taking again an offhand idea from Trainwreck, I planned out an Art Swap, where instead of burning mix CDs, people would make well, something else. The swap was open-ended enough to appeal to anyone creative (be it in writing, music, drawing, video, sculpture, needlepoints, computer programs, websites, food – I used a lot of lists when I sent the e-mails), yet required enough effort to scare away those likely to flake out. The result, as seen in the above photo, was an assortment of projects unlike anything I expected: calligraphy, jewelry, re-usable shopping bags, an online scavenger hunt, even a board game. I also received a lot of messages from people who were happy to get their packages, but happier still to find the audience and the motivation to make something they were proud of.

For the next sixteen weeks, I’ll be featuring all of the Art Swap projects on this blog, with a different one posted every Monday. You’ll see pictures, audio files, a scavenger hunt, and other fun stuff, each project different than the last. I encourage you to check out their blogs, listen to their podcasts, and follow up on things you like. And if you’re sitting there reading, excited about this whole thing, wondering why you never knew about this before, post in the comments or send an e-mail to ianmrogers[at]hotmail[dot]com, and I’ll let you know when we do the next one in 2014.

After all, what better use is there for the internet than sharing cool stuff?