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POKING ALTRUISM and other things of value by Jorge PĂŠrez-Gallego Fall, 2011

During a recent domestic flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, I sat across an old African American couple traveling westbound to visit their newly born granddaughter. It was their first time in a plane, which it could be easily told from their complete sense of awe. They, somehow, made me miss a feeling I have not experienced since the first few times I stepped into a flying machine. Nowadays, for many, flying is simply moving from point a to point b in time t spending x. Is that all it is? An hour into our flight, the elder woman decided to enjoy a movie from the in-flight economy class entertainment center embedded in the back of the seat in front of her. Unfortunately, she missed the stripe reader when swiping her credit card, and it ended stuck deep inside the gap between the device and the seat. She asked a hostess for help. She tried for a few minutes but she was unable to retrieve the card. After witnessing the scene, I quietly decided to give it a try. I tore up the cover of Sky, magazine available to all passengers inside our seat pockets, and folded a long stripe in half. I slid it into the gap, folded side first, and used it as a hook to successfully retrieve the card. I gave it to the elder woman, and asked her to wait for the hostess before trying to pay for her in-flight entertainment again. She thanked me effusively. By now one may be wondering what this has to do with the subject of my writing. As much or as less as you prefer, I would argue. Shortly after retrieving the card, the hostess who unsuccessfully tried to help the elder woman, gave me a Have One On Us card. Shortly after, the elder woman, who had also been given one for her trouble, gave it to me. To my surprise, it had “Thank You!� handwritten on it. I never expected anything in exchange for my gesture but ended with two identical tokens. Were they? Last October, for the span of twenty eight days, I decided to avoid typing as a way to communicate online with others. This meant, among other things, no more spell checked electronic mails, no more copy and paste, and no more instant messaging. Furthermore, during that time, I chose not to inform the people I was interacting with, including professors, students, and colleagues, about my endeavor. I got different responses, ranging from total indifference



to over appreciation. My online communications included electronic mails, and most of what anyone can do via Facebook,1 including messages, status updates, and comments. I considered two options to fulfill my online communication needs: recording videos, and taking pictures of handwritten notes. I used the latter on one hundred and fifty nine occasions, and the former on thirteen occasions, for a total of one hundred and seventy two online communications. This is significantly short from the ones registered during the span of twenty eight days prior, which included my birthday, and subsequent to my performance: six hundred and twenty two, and four hundred and thirty eight, respectively. These numbers do not include instant messaging. During the month of October, I became a curator of messages, and because of the extra effort required, I had to consider the actual value of each message before writing it. Thus, only those messages I actively considered important were written, documented, and sent. On Sunday September 11, 2011, one hundred and eighty four of my Facebook friends wished me a happy birthday by posting a greeting message on my Facebook wall; much more than those who chose to do it via electronic mail, instant messaging, telephone, or in person. Most of the messages were generic birthday wishes, and anything but genuine. While every single one of them was appreciated, they failed at being more than words. In a way, they felt like the Have One On Us card the hostess gave me, rather than the one the elder woman did. Strictly speaking, they all meant the same, but did they? Handwritten Notes Jorge Pérez-Gallego October, 2011

Some of the people that wrote on my Facebook wall on that day, I am not sure they would recognize me on the street, and the other way around. They were simply responding to a stimulus—Facebook informs you of your Facebook friend’s birthdays—with an action very similar to a knee jerk reflex. Thus, as suggested by University of Colorado Denver psychology professor, Mary Coussons-Read, while Facebook makes communication easier and it is good in moderation, it often lacks the means to move away from the superficial.2 Satisfying human interaction relies on effort, which is difficult to 1


CBS Denver 4 Social Media Team (2011)



argue in most of these communications. In a way, they were all too easy to be given any relevant value. How do we evaluate something as personal as a birthday greeting, then? Or a simple message? When do they excel their mere function to become gifts? A good example is the role the handwritten letter plays today to most generation X people, and older, who grew up with them. There are many emotions involved, as well as effort, in the writing, sending, and especially receiving of handwritten letters. Somehow, their physicality, as well as the effort they entail, elevates the regard they are held to deserve. Projects such as Handwritten,3 We Are The 99 Percent,4 The Hand Written Letter Project,5 Postsecret,6 and I___LOCAL7 are examples of the effects handwritten text has in messages and recipients. Arguably, my handwritten notes were able to excel their mere function, gain value, the same way the elder woman’s Have One On Us card did, and become gifts for their recipients, from whom I did not expect anything in return; otherwise, they could not be gifts. Gifts cannot be asked for, they are given.8 In a way, they are depictions of the nature of the existing relationship between the giver and the receiver. Gifts require certain effort from the giver, certain sacrifice, something that enhances the value of the given good or service: think about a blank tape versus a mix tape. Unarguably, the handwritten nature of my notes makes me more present when they are being read, and adds an extra layer of depth to the message itself; in a way, writer and reader feel closer together. For Marcel Mauss, gift giving is both selfish and altruistic, and furthers both of these human aspects at the same time.9 For him all given goods or services are never completely separated from the giver, which compels the recipient to reciprocate. Solidarity is thus achieved through the social bonds created 3

Handwritten iPad App






Frank Chimero (2011) Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way. Do Lectures

Marcel Mauss (2000) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (Rev Ed.). Norton


by gift exchange. There is no room for free gifts such as my handwritten notes in this scenario, which is the main reason why Mauss’s views on the nature of gift giving have not been without their critics.10 On the other hand, Lewis Hyde opts for embracing most of Mauss’s views and stating that “the gift must always move.” Within this expanded scenario, there is indeed room for free gifts. Hyde argues that what is essential is that gifts are moving, rather than their direction; reciprocity is then secondary.11

Potluck Auction Jorge Pérez-Gallego, Emily Ariel, Tyler Benjamin, Naomi Braun, Cristi López & Spencer Smigielski November, 2011

When I think about gifts, I usually think about the paradox of the potlatch. The potlatch is a gift giving based economic festival practiced by indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the United States of America. At potlatch gatherings, families hosted feasts for their neighbors. While they involved singing, dancing, feasting and spiritual ceremonies, the most important activity carried out was the redistribution of resources among the members of the tribe. The status of any given family was raised not by who had the most resources, but by who distributed the most resources. Nevertheless, this altruistic-like practice was banned in Canada first and the United States of America second in the late nineteenth century for being, according to missionaries and government agents, wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to civilized values—the ban was only declared null in 1951.12 Nowadays, it is difficult to find gift giving based economies, although their influences is obvious in events such as Burning Man,13 and every other potluck you have been to.

James Laidlaw (2000) A Free Gift Makes No Friends. Journal of the Royal Anthopological Institute, 6, 617



Lewis Hyde (2007) The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (5th Ed.). Vintage

Douglas Cole & Ira Cahikin (1990) An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law Against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast. Washington



Renea Robert (2002) Gifting It: A Burning Embrace of Gift economy. R3

The potluck is a gathering of people, highly influenced by the potlatch, in which each person contributes a dish to be shared among the group—each person redistributes his or her resources, in the shape of food, among the group. Potluck Auction was envisioned as a relational performance in which the subjective perception of value could be explored in a familiar setting. For it my team14 and I organized a soirée to which guests were invited without any further instructions. We, as hosts, offered several dishes prepared by ourselves—some scarce, some abundant—and guests were asked to secretly auction for them by means of bid ballots. Dishes were valued twice, first by our guests, who were not allowed to bid money, and second by us; every cook chose his or her preferred bid in exchange for his or her prepared dish.

Pizza Marriage Jorge Pérez-Gallego, Cristi López & the Relational Aesthetics class October, 2011

The dynamics of Potluck Auction resembled those of a barter economy, in which goods or services are directly exchanged for other goods or services without the need of a medium of exchange such as money. Barter economies, contrary to gift economies, in which goods or services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future compensations, are ruled by the quid pro quo or tit for tat. The potlatch as an economy is closer to a gift economy than to a barter economy. While it is broadly accepted that barter, or natural economies, as they were denominated by Karl Marx,15 preceded money or credit economies, these primitive communities operated largely along the principles of gift economies such as the potlatch,16 and limited bar-


Emily Ariel, Tyler Benjamin, Naomi Braun, Cristi López & Spencer Smigielski


Karl Marx (1992) Capital (Rev. Ed.). Penguin

Marcel Mauss (2000) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (Rev Ed.). Norton




ter exchanges to those happening between members of alien communities.17 Another example of bartering can be found in Pizza Marriage, also a food based interactive performance. For this, I asked all participants to feed each other instead of themselves directly, which gave rise to a series of interesting feeding exchanges and negotiations about food around an exceedingly dynamic dining table. To further explore the value of this sort of exchanges, and the goods or services exchanged, I designed a particular fund raising campaign around a well known yearly campaign. During November each year, Movember is responsible for the sprouting of moustaches on thousands of men’s faces, in the United States of America and around the world. With their moustaches, these men raise vital funds and awareness for men’s health, specifically prostate cancer and other cancers that affect men. Furthermore, on 2011 cancer made an unwelcoming appearance in the lives of some of the people I love. Because of that, I decided to observe Movember, and raise funds in their honor, while incorporating elements of a further altruistic approach into my fund raising efforts. Instead of directly asking people for voluntary donations, which I have found it sometimes leads to uncomfortable situations, I offered goods or services in exchange for those. Essentially, my campaign formula was as simple as I grow a moustache. You ask me why. I tell you, “so I can help you.” You tell me how. I do it. You make a donation. And, together we help changing the face of men’s health. In summary, I offered favors for donations. In a way, I was facilitating a gift—as long as we are willing to approach favors as such—moving scenario, similar to the one proposed by Lewis Hyde. I was not only explicitly leaving reciprocity out of the picture by diverging the gratitude of my helpees towards a greater cause, but also inspiring them to embrace a pay it forward attitude. I never cared about the value of their monetary contributions—as long as there was one. I never wanted them to put a monetary value on my effort; David Graeber (2001) Toward an Anthopological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. Palgrave




for example, one proportional to their subjective appreciation of my effort. I never wanted myself to put a monetary value on my effort; for example, one with which I could evaluate the subsequent voluntary monetary contributions of the people I helped. In a way, Aristotle, when writing about friendship,18 wrote the essence of what I expected from them: “Friendship asks a man to do what he can, not what is proportional to the merits of the case; since that cannot always be done, e.g., in honors paid to the gods or to parents; for no one could ever return to them the equivalent of what he gets but the man who serves them to the utmost of his power is thought to be a good man.” (How could we return the equivalent of existence, nourishment, or education?) Finally, I designed a simple zine to document some of the exchanges I participated in, and as a way to thank everyone who participated, one way or another, in my fund raising campaign. Inspired by the earlier impact of my handwritten notes, I decided to include people’s handwriting to highlight the human aspect of the interactions portrayed in the zine.

Movember Zine Jorge Pérez-Gallego December, 2011

It is not an easy task to argue for altruism these days. There are many who, like Marcel Mauss, do not believe in a practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others, and cannot get away from the idea of reciprocity. Some even deny its selfless nature as, in their eyes, everything we do seeks a selfish stage of ease with others, ourselves, or God. Even science seems to disagree when ethologist Richard Dawkins, based on pioneering research by George Williams and William Hamilton, claims individuals consistently do things that benefit their genes, and altruism is just genetic selfishness.19 Dawkin’s theory can even explain something economics cannot: the practice of passing on property, titles, and rights upon the death of an individual. Nevertheless, if the deed is what ultimately counts, who cares about genes? There are arguably plenty of examples of seemingly honest altruistic behaviors. In his recent book, University of California Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner shows this with examples, and argues that compassionate other-oriented altruistic individuals are better at motivating oth18

Aristotle (2011) Nicomachean Ethics (Rev. Ed.). Chicago


Richard Dawkins (1976) The Selfish Gene. Oxford



ers and facilitating communal growth.20 He has even suggested that most of the unforeseen success of Denver Broncos’ quarterback Tim Tebow in the National Football League relies in his soaring altruistic ways with everything and everyone around him, rather than his technique, which according to many is mediocre at best.21 Furthermore, citizen philanthropy is on the rise,22 as well as nonprofit organizations—and no, I do not believe all activism is a form of advertising. Do my performances fall under the definition of art? That is something I do not feel capable of unambiguously answering. Nevertheless, they may to those embracing curator Nicolas Bourriaud’s take on relational aesthetics and the works of artist such as Sophie Calle and Rirkit Tiravanija.23 On Bourriaud’s words “artistic activity strives to achieve modest connections, open up obstructed passages, and connect levels of reality kept apart from one another.” Furthermore, “the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.” Moreover, is not art somehow essentially altruistic? While undeniably based on altruism, I cannot argue my performative work is purely altruistic. After all, it is a consequence of my own research process. With it, I explore the true meaning of the concept, and challenge my audience in ways I hope will make them question the true value of humans interactions and exchanges. It is in the idea of value I am more interested in. What is it about the elder woman’s Have One On Us card that makes it more valuable than the hostess’s one? What about handwritten notes versus electronic messages? Sharing food and feeding each other? Favors? Value, like performances, deals with the here and the now, as long as we are willing to actively participate in its assignment. We do not have to, we can surely skip this privilege and outsource the assignment of value to others, the Market—whatever it may be—, or even God. While this seems the only option when considering large scale economies, local economies could ben20

Dacher Keltner (2009) Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. Norton


ABC News (2011)

Kate Siber (2011) The Year of Giving Adventurously. Outside Magazine, 12, 23


Nicolas Bourriaud (2003) Relational Aesthetics (3rd Ed.). Réel




efit from a more participatory approach, one in which we are actively present in all of our interactions and exchanges. In this scenario, what ultimately matters, is the existence of the gift, and the explicit meaning given to it by the two parties involved—there and then—, nothing else.

Poking Altruism  

Poking altruism and other things of value.

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