Free Store Kim Paton 38 Ghuznee Street, Wellington 22 May – 6 June 2010
Kim Paton’s Free Store was part of a larger series of projects, run by Letting Space, which proposed to ‘engage a wider public in the vitality and relevance of installation and performance‐based contemporary art practice outside an institutional gallery framework’.1 Effectively, the series is a continuation of a program that was run through Auckland’s ARTSPACE from 1994–96; the current Letting Space projects pair artists with Wellington property developers to provide greater exposure for contemporary art practice and, hopefully, by combining the creative with the commercial, suggest new pathways for urban renewal.
Paton has exhibited a number of architectural installations in galleries around New Zealand that have encouraged viewers to question their relationships to surrounding structures. A more recent work, The Wal-Mart Effect, exhibited at the Govett Brewster in 2008, had a more explicit focus on global trade and politics. Free Store can be seen as the synthesis of these two interests, the architecture of the store functioning in the same way as the spatial structures of earlier works, only this time reflecting Paton’s critique of consumption and capitalism. As the owner of an independent grocery store, currently completing a Masters Degree in Business Studies, Paton is well versed in the economics of food. Free Store was positioned within this context, rather than as a participatory art project. This was refreshing given the glut of exhibitions and discourse on social practices that have come out of Wellington over the past few years.
Operating within and against this commercial context, Free Store inhabited a vacant shop in central Wellington. Instead of focusing on the social form of the exchange or the encounter, Paton’s primary concern was with unnecessary waste, un-met demand, and re-channeling of the flow of food distribution. Free Store’s shelves were filled with excess stock donated by a range of local businesses. This network of relationships was as key to the project as the involvement of customers, and equally as indicative of any collective desire for social and economic reform. Contrary to what one might have assumed, numerous independent boutique food stores declined participation, while the largest contribution came from an Australian owned multi-national.2 This produce was available free to the public during the store’s opening hours.
Of course, an artist giving away free food makes for a popular exhibition, especially in these post-GFC times. The local press reported that the store was receiving hundreds of visitors per day.3 This large number of visitors indicates that the art audience was outnumbered by curious bargain seekers and other budget conscious people. The range of businesses and customers that participated in the work and the subsequent discussions can be seen as a mark of success. All too often, participatory projects rely almost exclusively on an art-informed minority, and fail to engage with the broader public.
Though only intended as a temporary project, Free Store received such a large amount of support from suppliers and community groups that there has been talk of continuing the project long-term.^4 This demonstrated local commitment suggests that Free Store has the potential to succeed beyond its intended short-term existence, with the capacity to take on a life of its own. Paton commented that ‘the strangeness and discomfort of the value having shifted to something other than money’ led to many small conversations, an ‘opening up’ of a space for thinking about food, distribution, waste and exchange, outside of our taken-for-granted consumer mindset.5 Undoubtedly, Free Store was not a new concept, but with Paton’s economic and social concerns at the fore, the project surpassed the ambiguous rhetoric of relational art, in favour of entering an inclusive dialogue. For those who took part, if only for a moment, this project enabled them to re-think their position in a wider system of exchange, and imagine a more ideal alternative.