May 27, 2001 - e-flux - 100% FREE
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May 27, 2001

100% FREE

100% FREE

e-flux 

In celebration of the International Workers Day we are pleased to announce the launch of 100% FREE, a project and a free multiple by Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation), presented in cooperation with kurimanzutto, Mexico D.F.

To view the project please go to: www.e-flux.com

Minerva Cuevas is currently working at the Delfina Studio Program, London. Among the exhibitions Cuevas has participated in are: Casino 2000, S.M.A.K. Museum. Ghent; Locus Focus, Sonsbeek 2001. Arnheim; Dream Machines, Hayward Gallery, London; Shot In The Head, Lisson Gallery, London; Screenclimbing, Kuntsverein, Hamburg; Pasaje Iturbide, Museo de la Ciudad de México.

100% FREE is the second in the program of special projects produced and presented on our site this year. Currently accessible through the e-flux home page is the previous project: an online book by Rob Pruitt – 101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself, presented in cooperation with Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York. In conjunction with the book, e-flux also produced a limited edition print by Pruitt – Love Letter, distributed as an insert in Parkett #60. Our next project – Invisible City, by Hans Ulrich Obrist, is scheduled to open in November 2001.

Mejor Vida Corp
Excerpt from Recent Politcal Forms
Radical Pursuits in Mexico
Santiago Sierra, Francis Alys
Minerva Cuevas
Cuauhtémoc Medina
TRANS> 8, 2000

In 1998 the artist Minerva Cuevas launched an ingenious and complex ongoing economic fiction as a means of exploring the politics of contemporary hope: Mejor Vida Corp. (Better Life Corporation). According to Cuevas, the project started more or less spontaneously around 1997, and derived from her interest in defying the structures of the art market by anonymously distributing small-scale art objects in public spaces. Later on, in the winter of 1997 to 1998, while traveling in the New York City subway system, Cuevas saw a poster produced by the train administration bearing the slogan “Awake is Aware,” warning the passengers against the dangers of falling sleep while traveling. To prevent passengers from having a “rude awakening” (the title of a film that was advertised at the time of the “Awake is Aware” campaign), Cuevas started leaving small bags with caffeine doses attached to the posters located in the cars, as if the subway administration were distributing them in the guise of “safety pills.” The more or less classical intention of defying the status of art as a commodity was replaced with the more radical intention of playing with the goal of achieving public good by means of art practice. The project was refined by the invention of a corporative identity. The company would experiment with an unheard-of modality of aesthetic and political intervention involving systematic acts of generosity purportedly fulfilling urgent demands from the public. According to the corporation’s motto, MVC works “for a human interface.”

Further mocking the structure of a private corporation, Cuevas rented an office on the 14th floor of the tallest skyscraper in Mexico City. From this local 1950s modernist icon, Cuevas designed a website that is part of the “irational.org” group, which also has contributors in England and Spain, (33) and set out to establish a whole range of products and services to be given away for free on request and with no obligation to reciprocate. MVC’s catalogue is a small compilation of contemporary dreams and antidotes to frustration. Cuevas leaves random “magic” seeds (very much in the tradition of Ben Vautier’s unlabelled cans of “mystery food”) next to ATMs, suggesting to the customer an agrarian turn to make money. She has tested people’s reaction to unexplained gifts by giving away subway tickets at rush hour in the Mexico City underground, saving travelers the long morning queues. On occasion she has discreetly volunteered to clean public buildings (including subway stations), to write letters for the illiterate, or to support small campaigns through disinterested voluntary work. Some of MVC’s products reflect the fears of the population, for instance providing tear gas for personal protection, or promising to provide security services to the population by applying (so far unsuccessfully) to join the police corporations in Mexico. Other products are more related to wishful thinking in general: MVC does not distribute money as such, but it can provide the customer with lottery tickets. Cuevas has made galleries such as Chantal Croussel in Paris extend letters of recommendation to people who might need them to apply for a job. Finally, there are those services which, despite seeming rather simple and cheap parasites of public or private services, entail quasi-criminal activity: MVC distributes prestamped envelopes, accepting full responsibility for their contents. Cuevas produces customized, trompe l’oeil bar code stickers (or “trompe l’scanner” as the artist says) to reduce prices of articles in the supermarket. So far the most successful and iconic of the MVC projects has involved the issuance of student ID cards that allow one to get the international student identity card and apply for discounts.

An experience like MVC might be analyzed in several ways, from discussing its importance in terms of the gift economy and the anticapitalist hopes postmodernity attributed to symbolic exchange, to an analysis of the construction of corporative identity. This single-woman charitable company somehow plays a double role: on the one hand, it provides a service, based on goodwill, that momentarily brings aid or relief, or at least seems to provide it. But as any anthropologist would understand, this form of micro-potlach also implies an acquisition of prestige, power and rank that mocks a structure of clientelism. (34) Mejor Vida Corp. evidently copies the contemporary structure of the transnational corporation, but radically inverting its economic rationale. The office, web page, distribution, packaging, and public relations of the corporation have so far been entirely performed by Cuevas alone, who is increasingly forced to perform eight to ten hours of work a day in order to keep demand more or less under control. Part of the conceptual structure of the project is, in fact, to deal with the necessary bureaucratization and productivity crisis of the corporation. Since MVC can’t by definition grow, its success is at the same time its decadence. The more customers the company draws, the more likely it will be to end up leaving them unsatisfied and, eventually, even close down. Working on the basis of one person’s budget, donations from members of the public, or institutions that might want to endorse it, MVC’s economies are always leading to built-in bankruptcy. Anti capitalist in spirit, the corporation is a test tube in which to examine the plausibility of non capitalist interpersonal relationships. For the artist, a certain exchange is involved in the whole of MVC’s operations: she spends money and time fulfilling people’s needs, but her “customers” “pay” her back with the questions and commentary. (35)

In part, MVC suggests an active critique of the current Left, the paucity of its discourse and its inability to transform people’s lives. MVC substitutes for a missing form of activism: it directly participated in the anti-WTO demonstrations in Mexico City on June 18, 1999, and through the creation of a website about the Playa del Carmen beach has tried to develop an awareness among travelers of the ecological and social consequences of the expansion of tourism to the third world. More recently, MVC has launched two witty anti-advertising campaigns focused on the invisibility of poverty. One parodies the Mexican lottery “Melate” ads to publicize the fact that 40 million Mexicans live under the poverty line, and the second, based on the advertisement for the year 2000 census, explains that homeless people “do not count” in national statistics.

Cuevas herself frequently insists that MVC has no ideological leanings, and that its activities, despite being focused on issues of equality and freedom, are set apart not only from political parties, but also from left- or right-wing traditions. This post-political status is in part a result of its corporative identity, but is also related to the fact that MVC actions do not question political parties or call for social mobilization. In a way, MVC adopts an administrative attitude toward its work. The causes MVC endorses are too generally recognized to suggest any particular political affiliation. Nonetheless it is clear that the corporation’s refu-sal of monetary relationships and profit does in fact entail a post-leftist preoccupation. MVC’s radicalism consists of testing non-capitalist forms of human interaction rather than becoming the mouthpiece of established ideologies.

Sierra’s, Alÿs’s and Cuevas’s strategies of interference with the social body are paradigmatic of the way new political forms are emerging in the hotspots of the globalized margins. The obsolescence of the old fashioned concept of politically affiliated art opens new aesthetic possibilities of repolitization, now in terms of an active form of social speculation. Nonetheless, MVC’s profile as an economy of promises also suggests the mourning for a local political history. This company of monetary losses and critical gadgets seems quite logical in a context like Mexico, not only because of the immense need that poverty and underdevelopment imply, but also because of the ideological importance that apparent generous gestures has for the image of the state. This is a country where, among other things, constitutional law includes the promise of good health, and where presidential tours are awaited with the same sense of expectation that children attribute to the visits of Santa. The Mexican state was characterized by a combination of the arbitrariness of its services, the routine exercise of politically motivated charity and its paternalistic halo of miracle-making. When global capitalism and the advance of electoral democracy is about to erase the last remnants of the old paternalistic state, MVC somehow has built a dialectical image of it. This is a corporation that recuperates the hopes of a population that has been equally betrayed by the promises of the former social structure of political clientelism and the untenable dreams of world-class development. Despite its mocking of corporate culture, and the radical and anarchist leanings of its creator, one can credit MVC with having replicated the unconscious structure of this fake version of the welfare state. Cuevas’s work, in that sense, is a timely counter monument for a cunning postrevolutionary populist regime that seems on the way to vanishing entirely, eroded by the democratic struggles of its population and the unstoppable advance of global capitalism.

33 www.irational.org/mvc.
34 “To give is to show one’s superiority, to be more, to be higher in rank, magister. To accept without giving in return, or without giving more back, is to become client and servant…” Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, trans. W.D. Hals, New York and London, W. W. Norton, 1990, p. 74.
35 This was the economic rationale of the project that Cuevas herself described during a lecture at the Museo Tamayo on Tuesday, July 11, 2000.

Cuauhtémoc Medina is an art critic, curator and art historian in Mexico City, where he co-curated Five Continents and One City.

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