(Gift) Shop Talk

Ways to Pass Time Inside This Room by Laurel Schwulst and Webb Allen. [A white, spiral-bound publication with green lettering spelling out the title and bylines in English and Japanese.]

Meg Miller: I didn’t realize you made Ways to Pass Time Inside this Room before the pandemic, that was very prescient.

Laurel Schwulst: Yeah, the publication came about because I had a residency in Osaka, Japan in the summer of 2019. It was at a creative community space called “pe hu.” It was actually my first official artist residency — and it came about because I had been ambient internet friends with the pe hu community for maybe five years previously, mostly over email. I was excited to finally meet and spend time with them.

My residency was built on the pretense that I would make an exhibition inspired by Flight Simulator, this iOS & Android app I had released earlier that year (made in collaboration with my friend Dan Brewster) that lets you take make-believe flights on your phone. 

The first iteration of Ways to Pass Time Inside This Room. [A guidebook of green laminated sheets of paper held together at the corner by a metal binder ring.]

Before it was an app, Flight Simulator started as a ritual I would do in my house: I would look up the flight times between different places, pretend I was on a flight, turn off my wifi for the duration of the flight, and then chill out or do whatever I wanted to do. Fast forward back to the residency — the people at pe hu asked me to do an exhibition in the style Flight Simulator, and we together decided it would be cool if the exhibition was an Airbnb room that I designed, and afterwards they would rent it out.

I realized that “designing an Airbnb room in the style of Flight Simulator” meant that the Airbnb would be designed around taking make-believe flights inside it. So just like in the app, I installed some clocks (for the departure and landing timezones), among some other small but important details. Most Airbnbs come with guidebooks, so I realized we should make one too. Typical Airbnb guides are about exploring the area outside of the house; but since this exhibition would be all about taking make-believe flights inside of the room, I wanted to give people an idea of activities to do *inside* — to stay sane and have fun [laughs].

pe hu Airbnb [A mostly white room with a white couch, and two white clocks side-by-side on the wall. The earlier iteration of the guidebook lays on the couch.]

It’s a strange coincidence that all of this happened in 2019, the year before the pandemic. During the pandemic, both Flight Simulator and the guidebook suddenly had a new meaning. I thought it would be nice if more people saw this book — so I uploaded it as a PDF to my “Ode to Airplane Mode” channel, and the block itself eventually became connected widely — I think it has over 350 connections at this point, along with some very touching comments.

Meg: It’s such a nice concept. Wasn’t there also a “travelog” from the 19th century that you had found and taken inspiration from?

Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre. [A white publication with an illustration in black ink below the title. The illustration is a portrait of a man’s head, presumably Xavier, overlaid on an illustration of a room, presumably Xavier’s.]

Laurel: Yeah! It’s a satirical book called Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre from the Victorian era — 1794 to be exact. The book came about because the author got into trouble with the law and was sentenced to six weeks of house confinement. At the time, grand travel narratives were popular, so he made fun of his confinement and also stayed sane by writing a travelog about traveling around his room — as if each furniture in his room was a different land or country. I was definitely inspired by that.

I also wanted to mention that I co-wrote Ways to Pass Time Inside This Room with my friend Webb Allen (inside a spreadsheet), and the illustrations are by Ayami Konishi, who is one of the members of pe hu in Japan. And Elliott Cost was also part of my residency, and we had a separate exhibition together called “Green People.”

A spread from How to Pass Time Inside This Room. [On the right side of the page is an illustration of a person with a wand levitating a feather, with the words “practice magic” below it. On the left side is text that reads, “people say magic is a key to the soul. If you want to feel a certain feeling more, it could be good to listen to music. Sometimes when you're sad, it's good to listen to sad music so you can fully experience that feeling.”]

Meg: So today we’re publishing a print edition of the PDF that’s riso printed, spiral bound, and printed by TXTbooks in Brooklyn. And this also signals the launch of the Are.na Gift Shop, which you’re heading up. How did that come about?

Laurel: I was looking back at my email, and around March of this year I emailed Cab. I said, “Oh, this block with Ways to Pass Time Inside This Room has a lot of connections. What if we printed it? And not only that, what if we started an Are.na Gift Shop, and this was the first item?” We would make our decisions not only on Are.na popularity, but also producing things that are somehow unique or representative to Are.na that could become physical. And Cab, correct me if I’m wrong, but you just said, “let’s do it.”

Charles Broskoski: Wait, my memory of this is a little different.

Laurel: [laughs] Oh, really?

Cab: [laughs] Well, so, we had been wanting to do collaborations with people on Are.na for a long time, and you were always the first person on our list. So we started talking about what the collaboration could be, and then, you had the idea of renaming the “Are.na Store” to “Are.na Gift Shop.” And I feel like adding the word “gift” does a lot to reorient what the thing is supposed to be.

You know, I was thinking about what the purpose of the store was to begin with, and realistically I think we were just thinking that Harsh [Patel]'s logo is so good that we wanted to make hats and t-shirts with it. It didn’t go much further than that. It wasn’t really a business decision, we simply wanted merch, and we figured other people might want it, too. But Laurel took this idea of doing collaborations and sort of wrapped it in a way that made so much more sense for us.

A spread from How to Pass Time from Inside This Room [On the right is an illustration of a person doing a plank, with the word “exercise” below it. On the left is text that reads, "It’s easy to want what we can’t have. Sometimes on a plane, you get hungry. Then you think about what you’d eat if you were at home, or what you’d order at your favorite restaurant. But you can’t have that. What can you have? Try cooking something special and delicious with the ingredients and tools at your disposal.”]

Meg: So what’s the plan for the Gift Shop beyond this publication?

Cab: I think it’s a similar idea to the things you’ve been doing Meg, with the blog, Annual, and Are.na Walkthrough events — the idea that someone is thinking about something on Are.na and using channels to gather those thoughts, and a blog post, an essay, or walking through the channel is way to both give extra visibility to what they’re thinking about and provide a form to think through those ideas in a different way. Manifesting those thoughts as an item in a gift shop is a similar opportunity but in a way that is both physical and situated in generosity (i.e. a gift). 

I think some really cool things will emerge through the challenge of taking the things that you’re thinking about and turning it into a physical object, and especially conceptualizing it as a gift for someone else. What do you think, Laurel?

Laurel: Yeah, I love that idea. To build on that, it almost feels like we’re trying to model a process for how one comes to creatively think about things and use building blocks as a means to do that. You know, creating a physical object is just one of many ways to manifest an idea and share it. Especially if it’s a gift. The nice thing about gifts is that they have a very specific audience. And that likely makes it easier to make and give.

Meg: I just Wikipedia-ed “gift shop” and it says, “a gift shop or a souvenir shop is a store primarily selling souvenirs, memorabilia, and other things related to a particular topic or theme.” The immediate association for me is a museum gift shop, where the gift shop is an extension of a shared interest or experience you just had, going through the museum.

Cab: Yeah, I think the things you buy from a gift shop tend to be fairly nuanced and specific, and maybe the object’s relationship to “utility” is a bit further away. I was thinking about this essay about Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift. Because an object from a gift shop is so nuanced and specific, there’s a potential layer of communication that happens between the giver and the receiver that’s like a secret language or something. It’s something out of the ordinary. 

Meg: That essay about Lewis Hyde also excerpted The Gift, a passage that said:

A work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies,” a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.

Laurel: What do you both think makes a good gift? 

Cab: It’s tricky because everyone’s idea of a good gift is so different. I like gifts that are really personal, but sometimes I make the mistake of buying gifts for family members that I’ve maybe thought too much about, and then they’re like, “I would’ve been happy with the gift card.” [laughs] One’s own standards for gifts does not necessarily apply to everyone. I feel there are a handful of people I know who are just really good gift givers. And I don’t know if it’s particularly for me or across the board, but there is some kind of quality of empathy or something — really understanding the person you’re giving the gift to.

Meg: Definitely — the best gifts are usually from people who know you really well, and in a particular way. I think good gift givers are also very good at listening and then remembering that one thing you said that one time about wanting something. I also love when people give me playlists for my birthday. I think for me it’s that foresight, or the fact that someone has been thinking about you as they buy or make something.

Laurel: A couple people have told me that they think I’m good at receiving gifts [laughs] which I don’t know how I feel about exactly. The reason they said I was good at receiving is because I appreciate all of the details or thought someone put into something, and I can enthusiastically reflect those details back to them.

I also enjoy thinking about gifts pragmatically. For example, “I don’t know this person that well, but I know they live in New York. If they’re like me, they probably don’t want another physical object for their small apartment. I’m going to give them something that will naturally disappear — something ephemeral — like flowers, incense, candles, etc.” 

I also think a good gift has an element of surprise — that’s key. A friend sent me flowers through a delivery service last month, and it was extremely touching. Even though it was probably very easy to order — just go onto the website, pay money, and send it to me — it was the surprise and the timing that made it truly thoughtful.

What makes a good Are.na gift?

Cab: For me, it manifests as private channels between people. The person who is the best at this is Damon [Zucconi]. He has a private channel for me called “cab style.” It’s kind of half troll-y, half generous, but he knows my taste well enough to make fun of it in a loving way. He probably does that like once a week or something. Every time I get it, I’m like, yeah, it’s really nice. [laughs]

Laurel: That’s so nice to know that he’s thinking about you as he is going through his browsing rituals. 

Meg: Thinking about a channel as a gift is nice. In our first online Are.na Annual launch, we had an open channel during the event that people could add their notes or impressions or images to as it was happening, and we were thinking about it like a gift, or a party favor. Like when you leave a party with a doggy bag or something. Now we do it for all of the walkthroughs. 

The three published Are.na Annuals [Three books with different cover images — a snowman, a map, and tree rings — against a black background]

Laurel: One of the goals of this first phase of the Are.na Gift Shop is to develop a heuristic of what makes a good Are.na gift. I think we’re only going to understand that by doing, but some questions I had jotted down were: “Could this have only flourished within the Are.na community?” For example, I don’t know where else I could have uploaded a PDF and gotten a lot of attention for it. [laughs] Another question is, “Would the community on Are.na appreciate this thing?”

I’m also thinking about “Are.na” and “gift” as two separate words: there’s the Are.na part and then there’s the gift part. I think Are.na people would want to think about what a gift can be and would be genuinely excited about taking “gift” to the next level. So another question is, “Does it consider a gift expansively?” I think that’s the biggest one to unpack still, but it’s almost like “What's a minimum viable gift? Does this gift consider how it will live on in the future? How will it be circulated?” There’s probably a lot more there, but my ideal dream would be that we can clarify what a gift is at its essence, and the possibility of gifts in the present and future age.

Cab: Do you imagine that you would feel excited about something potentially being in the gift shop because you would also like to receive it as a gift?

Laurel: Definitely. It reminds me of one strategy I use when I’m stuck on a project, such as designing a website: I literally close my eyes and imagine. I ask myself, “What's the ideal website I’d like to encounter in the world?” And then I simply hope that there are more people who feel the way I do. I truly believe our present age needs more power in imagination, so it’s good to practice by literally closing one’s eyes and exploring every once in a while.

That reminds me a little bit actually of an interview with Sean Raspet in The Creative Independent, where he said that he thinks “art making is making things that no one asked for.” [laughs]

Cab: That’s making me think that maybe the best gift is when it’s something you want and you’re positive that the other person would want it too, because you can feel like there’s an overlap of what you can both feel excited about. 

Meg: We also read some writing by Robin Wall Kimmerer in preparation for the gift shop, and one of her ideas is that the gift economy, or reorienting your thinking around gifts and abundance rather than scarcity, changes our whole relationship to the world. She makes this point that gift-giving promotes a sense of reciprocity. The first thing that you feel when you get a gift is gratitude, and the second is reciprocity, you want to give a gift in return. So it kind of creates this web of “mutual flourishing.”

The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds that enhance mutual well-being; the economic unit is “we” rather than “I,” as all flourishing is mutual.

Laurel: It reminds me, in a way, of the sense of reciprocity that many of us feel. That is, in that many of us have benefitted from others’ ideas manifested in some shareable form in the world. I know that, for instance, I’m often making work by thinking about myself as a preteen, which was a very formative time for me — using the internet to discover special things made by artists for the first time. In many ways (and I’m not sure if I’m always successful), but my intention is: I’m trying to give back.

A cooking stone, from Evelyn Bi’s “object freedom” channel. [A grey-ish brown stone with a hole through the center. Cooking stones were used in the Palaeolithic era to cook food by heating the stone with fire and placing it into pots with a stick inserted through the hole.]

Which is similar to what Evelyn Bi shared in her piece “On Object Freedom” for the Are.na Annual last year:

There will always be a strong emotional response when we encounter something that touches the core of who we are, but it’s important to remember that we’re only able to find ourselves in these objects’ reflections because they exist. Because someone else deemed the idea worthy of making into a real thing. In this way, freedom is not earned or won, it is built.

We are only able to find ourselves in things that touch us because they exist.

I’m excited to explore gifts with you all!

Laurel Schwulst is imagining & developing the Are.na Gift Shop.

Charles Broskoski is one of the many co-founders of Are.na.

Meg Miller is editor at Are.na.