"Swapping Is Contagious"

“Leave your wallet at home!” This could be the slogan for the bartering and swapping markets that have flooded several cities in Europe over the past few years. Moving beyond the traditional market idea, swapping markets are advocates of an ‘exchange — without-money’ process which has recently gained popularity in the light of global economic recession.

Historically, bartering systems have been developed as parallel to monetary ones, while the exchange of goods and services replaced money as the principal medium. Without however being able to replace an entire economy, bartering has occasionally substituted for actual trading especially at times of monetary crisis. Further, the basic principle of ‘one-to-one’ informal bartering has been established through the decades as a means to make use of excessive stock in goods or put into use one’s capacities in return for another’s.

As rapid globalization processes have set in motion a series of scalar transformations in economy, barter markets and swapping activities seem to provide alternate ways for local economies to maintain their balance. Most of the people involved in bartering highlight the major contribution of the ‘exchange-act’ in raising awareness over our normal consumption habits and the value of things. At the same time, the main idea behind swapping is the contribution of goods, or even people’s skills and services. Through the exchange part, people are presented with the opportunity to put back into circulation unused items, but also their own personal resources and assert, in this way, a certain degree of control over their personal economies.

Barter markets seem to appear mainly in city centres or as complementary to neighbourhood flea markets. While these kind of local activities introduce new ways for enhancing community cohesion and organizing local economies, what is interesting in many occasions is the flexible and fluid character of such public space interventions. The transformations happening in public spaces are part and parcel of the same ‘exchange’ act of goods and skills, as they become inextricably linked to the very process of bartering. Based mainly on used materials and low cost infrastructure, DIY market benches and kiosks hold a prominent role in transforming empty squares and lots into neighbourhood meeting points and vibrant spaces.

Moving forward, as globalization trends proceed to redefine the materiality of public space, bartering has taken over not only the physical spaces of city centres but also the virtual public domains. During the past few years, several websites and peer-to-peer collaborative communities have popped up promoting swapping activities across distant locales with low or no cost included. As the use of internet-bartering transcends the local scale, people are able to connect to distant others, create communication bridges and exchange info on organizational matters and meeting points. Hence, skills and goods can be made available simultaneously in various places, a factor that adds to the flexible character of relevant projects.

A recent example of a free exchange platform between artists and the public has organized bartering exhibits in several cities around the world. Launched in November 2009 by London-based curators Lauren Jones and Alix Janta, Art Barter re-examines our current system of exchange, encouraging the trade of art for goods and services, not money. As Susanne Mehr of Dossier Journal explains:

“In a time when art and the artist have become commodities, appraised by their monetary value, investment strategies and instrumental objectives, Art Barter asks: What is a piece of art worth? A year of psychotherapy or piano lessons? A lifelong supply of milk, cheese and eggs? A trip to the Bahamas? An exhibition… a kidney? At Art Barter, you can buy art with anything, except money. As Tracey Emin, who bartered one of her works for 30 hours of French tuition, explains, it cuts out the middle man… it is looking at the work, rather than the artist.”

Click here to check out Art Barter’s ongoing project in Madrid, Spain!