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As if anticipating the financial crisis, the prescient residents of the Greek port city of Volos pioneered an initiative three years ago to reinstate one of the oldest systems facilitating the exchange of goods—barter. More recently, another Greek town adopted an even more direct system of barter with a “swap, don’t shop" ideology. The Greeks have seemingly nailed the fundamental principle that Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, said was integral for a community-based economy to survive—for a barter to happen, each person must “want" what the other person is willing to exchange.

But what if the objects being bartered are works of art whose value at the time of exchange is uncertain, but is likely to appreciate over the years? There is in fact a long and rich history of such transactions; New York’s Chelsea Hotel is among the most prominent examples, where artists like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol gave their paintings in lieu of rent to the longtime manager and part owner, Stanley Bard.

Drawing from the unwritten legacy of such material exchanges, Mumbai-based artist couple Hemali Bhuta and Shreyas Karle decided to experiment with the age-old construct. Their motive was to circumvent the market while establishing a platform for concentrated dialogue among their peers. Titling it Bartered Collections or Len Den (to take and to give), they informally invited 14 artists in May to participate in a “temporarily closed system" wherein they were urged to negotiate the nature of the deal they’d like to make with each other, procuring two artworks by any of the artists in exchange for two of their own. To preserve the continuity, each artist was asked to invite five others to participate in what would be a second round of barter. The anticipated last phase hopes to invite artists to barter with non-artists.

“This barter aims to raise questions, about collection, collector, commodification, experience, process, aesthetics and sociocultural implications," Bhuta explained in one of her many emails to Makarand Dhotre, one of the artists the couple roped in—these have been printed out for the public to read. The others who make up the mix of young and mid-career artists are Mahesh Baliga, Jason Dodge, Bhuvanesh Gowda, Ritesh Meshram, Yamini Nayar, Gyan Panchal, Himanshu S., Amitesh Shrivastava, Gagan Singh, Kiran Subbaiah and Sashikant Thavudoz.

Bhuta and Karle, founders of CONA, a not-for-profit space for artistic interaction, reached out to Nida Ghouse, the new director of the Mumbai Art Room, a non-commercial gallery in Colaba, seeking to use the premises as an archival and storage room where the viewer could see the works (some still in wrapping that viewers are encouraged to open wearing gloves) and encounter “a zone of confidentiality in which artworks are usually traded", Karle wrote in an email, one of the many that are currently on display at the Mumbai Art Room.

Ghouse was instrumental in overseeing the conversations, often intervening to ask crucial questions about the purpose of the project. In one corner of the room stands a steel cabinet with files that contain printed correspondence, the outcome of the exchanges between the artists. The displayed letters attest to the transparency the artists were hoping to establish between them as participants and the viewer as receiver.

“Divorced from the aura in which they typically appear in public, the artworks come forth as real things, objects in an assembly line of meaning," Bhuta and Karle explain. “They sidestep the economy of the art market but enter a collection, raising questions about the value of art and its system."

The responses to Bhuta and Karle’s initial invitation were overwhelmingly positive. “I would like to join your business scheme and profit from it," wrote Kiran Subbaiah, throwing up a gamut of questions in a follow-up email that would help shape the nature of the ongoing dialogue: “I think there will be matters to resolve in the barter from the business perspective. I would like to begin with that, irrespective of the show. How do I begin—should I create a catalogue of what I have to offer? How do I know what others have? Should we declare market rates for the works on offer? Let me know if you have come to some agreements with other artists. I look forward to being a little ambitious and liquidate everything I have made."

Karle then suggested each participating artist send in a portfolio of at least five works and/or links to individual websites, which would be shared with the group to reach a better understanding of each other’s practices. They could then initiate a dialogue with the artist(s) with whom they wished to exchange work.

However, Karle did issue two significant mandates. “One must try to avoid Forced Barter…the idea of exchange is about negotiating with the other to come to a term where both the parties are benefited from the deal," he wrote, before moving on to speak about how the mission of “dissolving hierarchies" forms a fundamental layer. “We kindly urge all the artists to carry forward the exchange based on their liking towards a particular piece. The decision should not be influenced by the position, age and economical status of the work of the artist."

Gagan Singh, whose debut solo at Chatterjee & Lal in 2014, Line Bomb, featured hyper-erotic drawings, writes in his reply to their invitation: “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.’" He echoes the rationale proposed by Art Barter, a UK-based platform for free exchange between artists and the public.

A faded paper scroll with lines intersecting between artists and a tally underneath each name, marking the number of works either acquired or sold, has been pasted on the wall around the Mumbai Art Room entrance— signifying the evasion of the intermediary, the gallery, while denoting the negotiations between artists that facilitated the exchange. The number of art objects within the gallery keeps increasing as new works are brought in through new barters, suggesting a set-up that is in no way fixed, perhaps even resistant to the conventional logic governing a white-cube space where works are hung on walls rather than left leaning unpacked against them.

Although the exhibition will come to an end on 17 September, the project will continue— the various acquisitions will reach the homes of their new owners and remain part of a disembodied collection, even if they are later resold, with the certificate of authenticity marking their intriguing provenance.

The 200-plus pages of written correspondence in files constitute the heart of the show. They reveal growing intimacies, and are speckled with epiphanies. They reveal to the reader so much that is elemental to the process of art-making but is rarely discussed outside artist studios, and are marked by a measure of profound observations regarding each participant’s practice, emerging as responses to sometimes innocent and sometimes provocative questions. They are embedded in the consciousness of their senders and recipients being the inheritors of a certain artistic lineage of exchanges, between the Progressives and their contemporaries, that was perhaps affected by the Indian art market boom which saw over-inflated price tags. They remind us of the deep friendships between practitioners of art and the understated notion of community and its role in creating a platform for interaction, engagement, critique and response.

Bartered Collections or Len Den is on view till 17 September, 11am-7pm (Sundays and Mondays closed), at Mumbai Art Room, Pipewala Apartments, 4th Pasta Lane, Colaba, Mumbai.

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