Buying Art That Just Wants to Escape From You: A Conversation with the Collector of A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Feb 2, 2010 at 11:45 AM
'I have this thing, and I really want to keep it, but the reason I want to keep it is that it might leave.'
Last week, Terence Spies of Palo Alto became the first person ever to "own" A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter, the black box sculpture by Caleb Larsen that puts itself up for auction every week on eBay—and whose sale last week was driven by the fact that it blew up on the web. The artwork is on display at Lawrimore Project.
Spies has never seen it and never had it in his house—and he may never.
Last night, A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter put itself back up for sale.
This morning I talked to Spies about his newfound lust for the object actively trying to get away from him. "I’m the only person in the world who can’t buy it—I own it, but I’m the only person in the world who can’t buy it," he says, a little mournfully.
How did you hear about it? Are you an art collector?
Yeah, I’m an art collector. I actually lived in Seattle for about 12 years until I moved down to Palo Alto to work for the company I work for, in 2002. So I’ve done quite a bit of collecting from guys like James Harris and Greg Kucera, who Scott [Lawrimore] used to work for. I can’t recall how I heard about it because it just sort of hit the blogosphere, and I just saw it all over the internet, and was not even really aware it was in Scott’s gallery until I tracked it back and did some Googling.
It was one of these things that was immediately appealing. The interesting thing was that I’ve had discussions with people who never had opinions about art before, and you tell them about this and they immediately have an opinion. Which in my view is a pretty good test of a piece, actually.
What do people say?
It sort of uniformly falls into two categories: either, That’s an enormously appealing, thought-provoking piece of art, or the other thing is, That’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever seen. They’re really defensive about it.
I hang out with a bunch of computer security people because I’m a computer security person myself, so they want to know, are you going to hack the box? Is there some way to put it behind a firewall to slow it down so it can’t sell itself? Which really adds a whole other dimension because you buy the box and the box immediately starts trying to escape from you. So part of the impulse is, is there a way I can subvert the process of it trying to escape from me? By doing that, you’d in some ways be removing the reason it’s interesting.
I had really strong reaction right after I won the auction. I have this thing, and I really want to keep it, but the reason I want to keep it is that it might leave. I wasn’t really aware of how strong that reaction would be until I actually owned it. There’s this acquisitive part of my brain that is really bothered by the fact that this thing might leave. The process of the piece really gets to some of the reasons why you might be collecting art in the first place. There’s always the question of why are you paying for a picture or a Sol LeWitt piece—a set of directions—or any of these more conceptual things, but this really exposes your motivations for wanting to own something like that.
Do you have any other works like this one?
Not directly like this one. In the past I have tended to buy more minimalist works, more text-based works, but this is the first direct interaction with the internet that I’ve ever bought. And it’s sort of unique. I don’t know of that many things that have engaged with electronic commerce as this particular piece does. I was reading about the guy showing at the Guggenheim right now [Tino Sehgal], who demands that his works aren’t documented and can only be sold by verbal contract. Now that I’ve engaged with this work, I guess is what you would call it, I’m thinking about going more in this direction in terms of investigating it.
It just—actually last night—is making its bid to escape. It’s gone up. I guess the auction has six days and 19 hours to go and there are no bids. It took some inevitable time to get the paperwork taken care of, which is why it didn't go up for sale until now—the artist is working on automating that process, but it just took time like with all computer things to get everything hooked up. I’ve never seen it and I may actually never take possession of it. If it sells itself before it comes off exhibition, I may never take physical possession of it.
Can you bid on it?
That’s called shill bidding. Because I’m selling it, I can’t actually bid on it. The only way I could get it back is by buying it back from the person who buys it from me. I’m no longer really involved in setting the value of this. I’m the only person in the world who can’t buy it—I own it, but I’m the only person in the world who can’t buy it.
How will your week go? Are you tempted to come up and see it?
I will probably fly up and see it, probably next week, to actually, you know, touch the artifact. I’m looking at flying up just for the day. But at the same time, I know what I’m going to see, I’m going to see a black plastic box. It’s not as though you can actually grab the thing that’s interesting.
So when does your auction expire exactly?
Let’s see, it will end…I guess it will end February 9th at 6 am Pacific time.
Well, I’m sorry if my interview with you causes the object to escape.
Yeah. I’ve talked with a lot of people who have of lot of speculations about whether it’s going to leave or not.
What’s your prediction?
I think there’s a good chance that it’s gonna end up leaving. Yeah, we’ll see. Either I tremendously overpaid for it, or it's going to end up being in someone else’s hands. I don’t know when the exhibiton ends exactly—but that person might have it for two days and then it might go to somebody else, depending on the timing.
You'd have it now if it weren't on display in the show.
So you’re in a uniquely unique position.
Do you have any advice for people who are considering buying it? You can influence the market here.
That’s a good one. Um, I don’t know. It’s definitely an interesting condition to own it, and own is in quotes. There’s a different feeling between speculating about owning it and actually owning it.
You just feel it more intensely?
Yeah. And maybe I’m just being overly sensitive about it, because there’s all kinds of odd transactions that happen all the time. I was telling a friend that this is really the art of our time because there are companies on Facebook that make money selling imaginary cows to people. So it’s not like this is the weirdest transaction that’s ever happened, but definitely it's an interesting one.
I don’t whether to say I hope you get to keep it, or I hope it gets away.