Don't believe the hype

A new barter scheme tries to short-circuit the distortion of aesthetic value

What would you do for the following? A melting tehnicholor landscape. A telephone earpiece with tiny squawking birds waiting to ravage the caller's ear. A romantic message about the memories we carry in our souls spelt out in solar panel powered lightbulbs. Three box-lit lit close-ups of an anus perhaps?
  
This is the concept behind Art Barter, an exhibition that is the lovechild of two young curators Lauren Jones and Alix Junta, and which asks what value we put on art. Fifty emerging and established artists have offered their work up to the public in return for . . . well, anything except money.

"In a world where the actual piece of work and its message or beauty often falls second to the hype or price that is attached, we hope to encourage people to value the work themselves, not for the name or price tag attached" says Jones.

For the next three days these fifty -- among them big guns such as Tracey Emin, Mat Collinshaw, Gary Hume and Gavin Turk -- will grace the walls of The Rag Factory, Hume and Emin's old studio off Brick Lane. Their identities are kept anonymous, in order that personal taste is allowed to dictate the value of the work -- at least that's the idea.

But some are a giveaway. Simon Tyszko, who has built a full size replica of a Dakota wing in his apartment in Fulham offers the whole lot, wing and apartment complete with a 98-year lease.  What he is expecting in exchange? "A hamlet in the South of France".
 
One corner of the exhibition is reserved for punters scribbling on "barter forms" with tiny pencils. They are offering anything from home-cooked curries and trumpet lessons to adult-sized giraffe suits or "the fur of 25 minks". 

Artists are not obliged to accept and it remains to be seen whether these noble intentions can have any effect on an industry where notions of value and worth have become so skewed. At best, the popularity and support that Art Barter has achieved could indicate a re-emerging bohemian sensibility among some of Britain's most eminent artists; at worst, it is at least an entertaining experiment for all involved.

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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