“This is a primer for those ready and sturdy enough to take real action.”Dennis Hiebert, Geez magazine
“The gift must travel.”Anonymous
Small gifts is a series of interventions that introduces new spaces for conversation and generosity within shopping centers. The series was conceived as a way of presenting concepts of radical generosity to people who might otherwise not think of themselves as political.
Some of the questions that this series addressed include:
• What would our world look like if we exchanged gifts rather than money?
• What is the value in speaking to strangers?
• What if we focused on giving as much as we can rather than as little?
One particular intervention, called “give what you can, take what you need,” invites passersby to share resources, cultivating the recognition that everyone might have something useful to bring to the table.
The intervention takes place in a busy shopping center, where three artists (Rajni Shah and two other collaborators including, at various times, Lucille Acevedo-Jones, Lucy Cash, Sheila Ghelani and Ilana Mitchell) set up a large dining table and chairs and prepare one hundred tiny envelopes, each containing a one-pound coin (US$1.50), a question to serve as a conversation starter, and an instruction to use the pound as inspiration to make, buy or find something to bring back to the table.
Passersby are approached by the artists and invited to take part in the intervention by accepting the gift contained within the small envelope. On acceptance of the envelope, they become part of the conversation, and decide for themselves whether or how they will spend the pound, and whether they will return to the table. If they do return with something to offer, they are invited to use their conversation-starter question to meet new people, and can partake of whatever is on the table at that time.
This intervention is typical of the small gifts series in that it asks the participant to determine what he/she takes from the experience, guided only by a series of simple conversation starters and whatever is being shared on the table. Stated outcomes included a renewal of faith in other people and the formation of community among strangers. In addition to the people who return to the table, everyone who takes an envelope then has to decide what to do with their pound coin, provoking discussion about generosity, value and ownership.
Because the interventions don’t ask participants to assume any particular political position, they involve a much broader range of people than other, more targeted actions. The participatory, conversation-sparking nature of the work allowed for a deeper connection with the principles of generosityand gift economy, and actively encouraged strangers to connect with one another.
This is an example of a gentle happening that can take on a life of its own. When the artists did this project in Manchester, they left the party in progress, and allowed conversations to continue without them. It felt important that the public had taken ownership of the concept also see PRINCIPLE: Simple rules can lead to grand results.
The beauty of this kind of gentle, open intervention, which uses gift giving to engage with people, is that it attracts people who are not usually drawn to either “arty” or “political” interventions. Small gifts allowed the artists to create spaces for genuine conversation and then let those conversations lead where they may. It also allowed for new relationships to develop across social divides — a deeply political but almost entirely non-confrontational action.
Small gifts aimed to bring a sense of trust and beauty into the otherwise manipulative and fully commodified world of shopping centers. The artist-originators spent a lot of time preparing their materials, so that the gifts they were handing out would feel like real gifts and not easily be dismissed. By beautifully handcrafting their initial gifts, the artists invited the same care and attention to detail from passersby.
This action came from the artist’s own sadness that most radical works of art only create a greater divide between those who already believe in a cause and those who don’t — and a realization that she herself was afraid of speaking to strangers.
Choosing to site the interventions in shopping centers only added to the message: operating within a hub of commercialism, the ideas of gift exchange and simple generosity seemed all the more radical and transgressive.