It's called "A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter." It is a black eight-inch cube, made from acrylic, with a computer inside. You can buy it at auction on eBay, though doing so comes with a catch. Artist Caleb Larsen explains.
BOB GARFIELD: There is an item up for auction on eBay. Well, how do I describe it? It’s a black eight-inch cube, made from acrylic. Inside there is a computer of sorts with an Ethernet cable emerging from a small hole on the back of the cube. Before bidding on this item, you have to agree to a series of terms. For example, if you win the bid, you must, when the item arrives at your home, hook it up to an Internet connection, at which point [LAUGHS] the black box will put itself back up for auction. [LAUGHS] You've bought it, but it’s not really yours, at least for long. On eBay, the object is titled A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter, and it’s the brainchild of artist Caleb Larsen, who joins me from Tulum, Mexico, where he lives. Caleb, welcome to On the Media.
CALEB LARSEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, I got to say I'm not a huge conceptual art fan, but this piece is just one of the greatest things I've ever seen in any category of human endeavor, ever. I [LAUGHING] simply love this artwork. Where did the idea come from?
CALEB LARSEN: The idea initially came from when I was working with a friend of mine who runs an online moped parts store. We started joking around about, oh, it would be much easier if there was a way to just simply make something that sold itself on eBay so we didn't have to go through all of the hassle of finding products, listing them and then doing this over and over again. A few months later, when I was back in graduate school in Rhode Island, the economic markets crashed everywhere. On the same weekend, Damien Hirst had his big auction at Sotheby’s.
BOB GARFIELD: Damien Hirst, he of the shark suspended in formaldehyde, probably the most famous, certainly the best compensated contemporary artist.
CALEB LARSEN: The whole body of work sold for over 200 million dollars. Prior to that, the highest auction record for one man was Pablo Picasso, and that was at 88 million dollars. This all in the same weekend that Wall Street took its first big tumble, and the irony on that was not lost on me.
BOB GARFIELD: Or the potentiality, for that matter. This was one market that clearly had not crashed, eh?
CALEB LARSEN: Not yet. It came a little bit later. And so, as an artist with a huge amount of debt, getting ready to finish graduate school, my mind started to turn, and my work, as well, to finding ways of making money as an artist. And so this was sort of born from that.
BOB GARFIELD: And part of the deal is that if a subsequent auction raises the price of the work, you get a piece of that action, right?
CALEB LARSEN: Yep, I get 15 percent of the appreciated value from the subsequent sales. So if it’s sold in one auction for 6,000 dollars and then sold for 7,000 dollars in another auction, I'm to receive 15 percent of that 1,000-dollar increase.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so you originally put it up on eBay yourself. You were the beneficiary of the first auction price. What was that?
CALEB LARSEN: Six-thousand five-hundred dollars. Terence Spies, the current collector who owns it, will be receiving it in the next week or so. When he does, he'll plug it into his ethernet connection at his house, and it will go back up for sale again.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just say this fellow decides to flout the contract and not to plug it into the Internet or even to the wall. Does he not still own your piece?
CALEB LARSEN: Well, according to the contract, no, because the way this whole thing was conceived is as both a physical object, the black box, as well as the potential for it to always be for sale, or the perpetual auction, in this case. And so if one part of it doesn't exist, then the work as a whole doesn't exist. As part of the contract, it would sort of be disowned as a legitimate work of art and its value would no longer be that of a work of art, but rather as just a collection of parts.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I must ask you – and as a conceptual artist you have to be willing to entertain this question – a work of art is not necessarily the property of its creator nor is the meaning of the work of art necessarily determined solely by the creator. The viewer has a dog in this fight, too. And maybe this guy says, no, I'm just upping the ante on Caleb’s concept. I say this an even more interesting work of art because I have removed the perpetuity element of it. It may not be what he created, but it is what it now is. Eh? What do you say to that?
CALEB LARSEN: Well, I would say that that is a valid and legitimate point, and perhaps that would be his artwork but it would no longer be mine, in the same way that Rauschenberg went to William de Kooning, asked him for a drawing because he wanted to erase a William de Kooning drawing, and de Kooning thought this was a really fun idea. So he took a really, really heavily worked, really thickly drawn drawing and gave it to Robert Rauschenberg and said, here you go. And for weeks or months, Robert Rauschenberg sat there and erased the entire drawing and created a new work out of de Kooning’s original work, which we have never seen; it was never documented. And he created the Erased de Kooning. If a collector or another artist were to do that with my work, it would irritate me, but it would no longer be mine and I would no longer have a part of it.
BOB GARFIELD: Assuming that eBay continues to exist, or some sort of online auction, and assuming the contract is never violated, you have created a perpetual-motion machine [LAUGHS]. Far be it from me to try to get inside of your head, but it seems to me that at least one other point that this thing makes is to call attention to the question of whether anybody ever really owns a work of art.
CALEB LARSEN: That was one of the things that I was really enjoying while working on it, was that this was a work of art that maintained its own identity. A lot of artworks, certainly during the big boom within the last 10 years, were being bought on speculation, were being bought as investments. This work really kind of undermines its ability to be purchased as an investment or to be incorporated into a hedge fund or something like that. The work itself could be owned for as little as a week or as long as forever, but there’s always the possibility that somebody could come and buy it from you. My hope is that one day it'll go into a museum collection, that a museum will be audacious enough to buy it, but then [BOB LAUGHS] it could always leave the museum’s collection at any point.
BOB GARFIELD: That would seem to be an issue. Caleb, thanks so much.
CALEB LARSEN: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Caleb Larsen is an artist. His work, A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter, is up for auction on eBay.