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CONFESSIONS OF AN EBAY ARTIST

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I am selling my day, March 19th, on eBay. Why? Because March 15th seemed like a bad idea. I will be starting with my breakfast, then dividing the day into blocks of times and events that buyers can choose for me to do, and end with an auction for my bedtime.

The secret is that I am an avid eBayer. I live the ebay lifestyle of searching, watching, waiting, selling, shipping, and bidding at the last minute. I know what “rockabilly,” “japan,” and “belly dance” all mean in the language of ebay. I know if you start 7 day listings on Sunday evening around 10:00, you have the best chance of attracting bidders because people on the East and West coasts can wait and bid live. I know if you wait until the last seconds to bid, and bid some weird number, like $11.56 instead of $10.00, you have the best chances of winning.

The idea started because I wanted to do something for the victims of the tsunami disaster. I had little money and a lot of things, so I decided I would list my things and have the buyers donate the money to the Unicef tsunami fund and email me a copy of the receipt. I listed my clothes and forwarded the link. The listings read, “Made in a sweatshop in SE Asia, now you can remedy this by donating $ to tsunami victims in SE Asia.” Then I realized some of my friends would not want my xs sweater, so I decided to make things up that they may bid on for the sake of interest. At first it was humorous things, like a left sock that my friend had left at my place, and snow from the major 2005 snowstorm. Next was a testimonial on friendster.com, and a phone call in which my friend would tell the winner everything he knew about penguins. It was conceived as a project for my friends. I would whisper the secret search words and ask them to pass it on, and start a mini ebay community that could do our little bit for tsunami aid efforts.

But the reality is that eBay is a forum, a new means of communication with the outside world. I started to think of bids as a strange nod of approval. eBay is a labyrinth of search words, doors, and links; it gives the opportunity for each and every participant to leave their mark, whether by bidding, listing or asking questions. With these thoughts, I realized I had started to weave a web in my little corner of eBay. I thus began to list items that would appeal not only to my friends, but also to strangers. It was to be an experiment in finding participants, perhaps collaborators, in projects which I would conceive.

My first such project was to wear an ugly shirt for 7 days starting at $.99. However, ebay does not allow non-existent items or joke listings, and they do not hesitate to end an auction early if it does not abide by the rules. So I made sure to clearly state that the winner will receive 7 photographs documenting this event. Something seemingly tangible. As I waited and watched, ebay made it only too easy to stalk my own item. I could see how many people had visited the site. Usually it was around 100. On my seller’s page, I could see who had put my item on their watching list, when they would take it off the watching list, and who was asking questions. When someone asked a question, I could post it along with my answer right on the listing for all to see. The ugly shirt listing changed drastically in nature when a buyer asked: “Will we have any say in the ugly shirt?” I replied that I would have a few ugly shirts ready and email pictures, after which the buyer could choose whichever one he or she wanted.

The thrill is when I find a stranger who happens by and decides to bid. I immediately check their feedback. How do I know it’s a stranger? It’s frightening how one can spot a friend, even on ebay, by what they buy and the questions they ask. My friend Selina had bought kohl eyeliner, tarot cards and hazel atlas bowls. Jenny buys trolls. This method will also reveal whether the bidder is a true ebayer. As one who lives the ebay lifestyle, I can just smell another eBayer.

When my first stranger started bidding, I felt like I had made first contact. I had thrown the ball over the mountain, and, after a short delay, someone had thrown it back to me.

Perhaps it is the biggest letdown when my friends, some of whom have a new unhealthy ebay obsession, will outbid my stranger. The stranger becomes the little sheep that wondered into my pasture. I wish I was the shepherd, but I only provide the grass since can’t control his or anyone else’s bidding. The bidder and I are suddenly vulnerable to one another. I don’t know why he is bidding; he does not really know why I am selling. Only feedback can keep us on an even playing field.

I watch my strangers. I see how many items they have bought this past month, and what those items are. What search words do they use? I started using “outsider art” for some of my listings after realizing it showed up in other items my bidders bought. I’ve never been trained in ebay art, so I thought it was kosher to use the description, usually attributed to folk art (and it is only fundamental to the nature of ebay to change and evolve and appropriate search words in its lexicon). I then look at the bidding history of some of the items my bidders have previously bought. What are their bidding patterns? Do they place a bid and then come back every day? Or do they wait until the last 20 seconds, like me? Sometimes, if the items they purchase interest me, I will look to see who sold the items, what their feedback is, and so on; the ebay passageways are seemingly infinite, in a choose-your-own-adventure format. Inspired by this idea, I decided to list things that the buyer could choose. “Settle the Dispute: Catherine wants to paint the bedroom pink. Guido wants to paint it white with red spray paint graffiti accents. The winner decides, and will receive a photo documenting that their decision has been carried out.” For that listing I found imagery of walls from around the world—the Berlin wall, the Great Wall of China, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Iraqi walls with graffiti of mullahs, aerial maps of walls, and internal diagrams of walls. For another dispute, the winner would decide Catherine’s hairstyle, and receive similar documentation. I included the words “guido” and “catherine” in all of the titles to provide unique search words in order to make finding the items easy.

Why the names Catherine and Guido? I found two plates at a junk shop a few years ago, one with “Catherine” and the other with “Guido” hand painted on each. When I returned to the junk shop, the woman had a gift for me. Another plate. This one said, “Catherine and Guido June 14, 1937.” They are not mascots, but my internet identity. There’s guido-catherine.com, guido-catherine@hotmail.com, guido-catherine.blogspot.com, Guido Catherine “friendster” and “my space” pages, and an IM screen name of “GC 6 14 1937.” I have a new P.O. Box, where Guido and Catherine live. I needed to buy some items to build feedback and credibility, so I carefully selected what Guido Catherine would buy, since it will show up in my feedback and will be an integral part of this new identity. When I carry out the stunts I have sold, I don a mask that I found in an ichiyen (dollar store) in Japan, which is now the face of Guido-Catherine.

I am currently working on the auction to wear an ugly shirt for 7 days, bought by a gentleman in New Jersey for $12.50. I emailed him pics of shirts I got at a thrift store, and among those, he chose something seriously big, red and shiny. So far, ugly-shirted and masked, I have worked my way into a fraternity party, and a peace vigil that has been going on every Sunday for the past 26 years, where I met a woman who collects baby teeth from children living near nuclear power plants. I have strangers take the photos and always wear my guido-catherine mask. Some have asked why I am willing to be an indentured servant of sorts, why I am willing to relinquish a sense of self while doing the project. Perhaps it is because I was not born in the US, and simply have a different sense of self, one that can be integrated as part of a community. When I put on the mask, I am not myself but a catalyst, a vehicle of communication among those with whom I ask to pose, and my ebay bidder.

I am still working out ideas of time, communication, identity, consumerism, and tangibility in my work. Is it art? Or is it anti-art in its ephemeral nature, and that it can never really gain any value over time or be collected? It can be watched … but watched only once. Yet it is not live. Or is it? Where does it exist? Some interact with it as entertainment; others are eager to participate by bidding. Is ebay simply a culmination of our consumer based capitalist society? Or is it a new society altogether? I am never sure where the good ends and the bad begins on eBay. The idea of rubbing the magic lamp then paying to your hearts content for your item of desire seems greedy and selfish. Being present at the end of the auction, when others around the country are also there to bid against one another is competitive indeed, yet creates a certain intimacy among these strangers. I realized bidding is a complex means of communication when I learned that two of my bidders are a mother and daughter who aren’t talking with each other, but are both bidding on current auctions, including pictures of my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and 100 pictures of Condoleeza Rice. Communication between the buyer and seller, however brief, can be heartfelt. And the idea of recycling possessions on ebay seems noble, but in packaging items to send, trees are felled for cardboard, and dumps filled up with styrofoam pellets. Yet I must admit I enjoy my weekly trips to the local post office, one of the few non-corporate places in my town, where they now know my name and give me free priority mail tape.

So far I have sold pictures of toenails in LA painted with message of choice (the buyer chose “fuck bush”), some of my old shirts, to take a photo of the buyer, anatomically correct snow dolls, 100 pictures of happiness, 100 pictures of wisdom, 100 pictures of morality, 100 pictures of homeland security (all found imagery) and a video of me riding the subway for three hours. Originally I had wanted to do the photography with a 6-7 camera and my favorite 160 VC film, but that seemed somewhat inappropriate for my non-art project. I have used some film, but most of my pictures have been with the digital or, dare I say it, phone cam. Like the ebay listings, these images do not exist outside the digital realm.

I am looking forward to how selling my day will evolve. After carefully considering my options and risks involved, I decided that there will be limitations on March 19th. No permanent changes, nothing sexual or harmful to myself or others. There are a lot of weirdos out there, but so far I none of them have found me. I’m hoping some people will remember that day as the 2 year anniversary of the war on Iraq and the anniversary of the first International Woman’s Day in 1911 and perhaps purchase time to remember those events. What if a war-loving Republican buys a piece of my day? There’s a way around every command. Feel free to add guido-catherine to your watch list.


Links:
Guido Catherine on eBay

All images are courtesy of the artist.


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