March 14, 2010

On Feral Trade


Coffee from El Salvador, fresh sweets and rice cookers from Iran, grappa from Croatia, Cube-Cola from the U.K., mountain-grown antidepressants from Bulgaria – the list has an almost Borgesian randomness to it, begging the question: what system or situation could possibly bring such a diverse selection of items together. And yet these are in fact the products currently travelling around the world in small quantities as part of “a public experiment trading goods over social networks” that goes by the name Feral Trade.

In an age in which the term ‘Globalization’ brings to mind some of the most intense acts of corporate greed and malfeasance imaginable, the humble scale of global exchange posited by Feral Trade feels almost moving in it’s pursuit of simple human-level exchange. It started in 2003 when British-based Australian artist Kate Rich was looking for good coffee to import to the Cube Bar, part of the Cube Microplex Cinema Co-op in Bristol, and felt dissatisfied with the condescending and righteous tone in which so many of the Fair Trade brands promoted themselves. Instead she decided to directly contact the Sociedad Cooperative de Cafecultores Nonualcos in San Pedro Nonualco El Salvador and brought over 30kg of coffee herself, choosing the word ‘feral’ because it evoked a process ‘that is wilfully wild (as in pigeon) as opposed to romantically or nature-wild (as in wolf),’ a process of taking matters into ones own hands.

As this ‘public experiment’ slowly (and eccentrically) continues to grow, each transaction is documented in minute detail on the Feral Trade website ( Friends and friends of friends conduct the imports, often in their luggage. The fact that the website personally names each individual involved in these transactions feels somehow contrary to how we normally think of ‘international trade.’ It’s almost as if the label at the supermarket were to list the names of everyone involved bringing the product to the shelf. And yet, if we allow ourselves a certain imaginative leap, it also posits a possible world in which supermarkets might no longer exist, where if you needed something from, let’s say, Bulgaria you could simply call a friend who happened to be going to Bulgaria and she’d bring some back for you. The fact that such imaginative scenarios are conjured up not through fiction but though actual, real world transactions makes them all that much more alluring.

In 1972 Joseph Beuys set up the Organization for Direct Democracy Through Referendum at Documenta 5. The project consisted of an information office at which Beuys sat (for 100 days, the entirety of Documenta) and tried to convince whoever dropped by about the merits and necessity of direct democracy. However, as provocative and groundbreaking as it was at the time, that table (and the discussions that surrounded it) was only a place for the promotion of democracy by referendum. Over the course of the Documenta 5 no actual ‘democracy by referendum’ took place.

If we compare this with Feral Trade we might notice that Kate Rich is conducting a more concrete experiment into what things might look like if one of the main social components in our lives – international trade – was conducted not by governments and corporations but rather though social networks, by the people we knew and knew of. The experiment is of course small but nonetheless can – like all good art – suggest many pathways and possibilities for the future. It is what happens when, instead of accepting a situation the way it is (i.e. the condescending manner in which Fair Trade coffee sometimes presents itself) we consider what other options might be available. In this, it offers up a small but potent lesson in how we might live more wilfully and wildly, and how the options available are never quite as limited as we might first think.

(Another quite good text, Feral Labelling by Femke Snelting, can be found here.)


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