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Brisbane’s James Street shopping corridor is a four-block stretch of posh boutiques, cafés, wine bars, and stark, glass-walled salons. In two empty shops in the James Lane development, under the Natalya Hughes mural and past the smart jeweller, was an exhibition titled Propriety Limited, or Shop Pty Ltd. Organised by artists Karike Ashworth, Jenna Green and Cassandra Toscano, Propriety Limited was a temporary installation-cum-shop-cum-game-cum-happening that was, when at its best, a savvy analogue to the dematerialisation of e-commerce, social network exchanges and digital monetisation.
Visitors to Pty Ltd were greeted by an ‘attendant’ who gave a cursory explanation of the rules: earn tokens—smooth, blank plastic chips called ‘units’—and spend the tokens. A glass of wine cost five units, or seven units, or three units depending on fluctuations in the ‘market’ that were continuously updated on a large digital board at the entrance. Products called ‘desirables’, by Luke Roberts, Easton Pearson and others, were also prominently displayed (and would instigate a slapdash auction late in the opening evening). Units could be procured legitimately by a number of small exercises in participation; for example, confessing sins to artist Richard Bell; or wearing a Pty Ltd t-shirt emblazoned with ‘I’m getting paid to wear this’; or selling bodily detritus: hair, fingernails, saliva—commodities whose values were also constantly shifting. Units could also be procured illegitimately. Over the course of the opening evening there were thefts, anarchist distributions of fistfuls of units, and a few panhandlers and grifters working the crowd.
Shop Pty Ltd managed the difficult feat of creating a meat-space site that neatly approximated the experience of social network transactions. Participants were rewarded for divulging personal details, having lengthy conversations, posting candid snapshots and endorsing the Propriety Limited brand. Even the exhibition space, with its clean white walls, polished grey concrete and subtle black & blue text, mimicked the aesthetics of the Facebook interface. Although Ashworth, Green and Toscano demonstrated an intense ambivalence toward technology, the body and late capitalism—in the exhibition and in conversation—the work cleverly implicated cyberspace economies and their fluctuating valuations. The online environment is populated by users and content providers who gain virtual status by contributing presence, content and personal data to specific sites. These contributions also lead to complicity with the value accorded to utterly abstract units of worth—simulated currencies that are notoriously difficult to translate into ‘authentic’ money—such as numbers of visitors, clicks, ‘likes’, Twitter followers, page views, points and virtual treasure. More provocatively, Shop Pty Ltd’s insipid white chips, a Kubrickian fantasy of money, suggest crypto-currencies like Bitcoin—cyber-currencies that exist only as blank digital artefacts, without any connection whatsoever to state-backed legal tender.
Not surprisingly, as the show progressed, it became more and more unruly. Slightly unnerved, Karike Ashworth described the event afterward, ‘It got out of control. I wasn’t sure how we were going to end it’. But it did end, rife with corruption and confusion—one participant unsure of how exactly she managed to ‘win’ the Pope Alice figure in the Cuban cigar box—and with nothing left behind but two empty shops and a crate of tiny plastic bags filled with fingernail clippings and spit.
Karike Ashworth, Jenna Green and Cassandra Toscano, 2012. Loan approvals with the Pty Ltd Bank Manager Anja Homburg. Photograph Maria Lloyd.
Karike Ashworth, Jenna Green and Cassandra Toscano, 2012. Live currency updates shared on the 'currency board'. Photograph Maria Lloyd.
Karike Ashworth, Jenna Green and Cassandra Toscano, 2012. Pty Ltd attendant Arundhati Madan serving at the promotional counter. Photograph Maria Lloyd.