It’s unusual to find a shop that encourages shoplifting. In Bristol, a new store goes further, providing an outfit for the purpose that includes a coat with extra inside pockets and a scarf with pouches for penny sweets.
Rachael Clerke would not survive long as a real shopkeeper. But as the artist behind Transactionland, an experimental series of events at a Bristol community centre, she is more interested in sparking debate than turning a profit.
For nine afternoons starting on Wednesday, Clerke will attempt to upend consumerist culture with humour, provocation and some admirable puns. Her “unusual out-of-town retail emporium” at Bricks, a charity based in St Anne’s House, a former council office building, was partly inspired by our search for a new normal after the pandemic’s first wave.
“There was this huge push to get back to the shops and kickstart the economy,” says Clerke, who is 31 and from Edinburgh. “It was like this gamble when it was OK to do things if you were going to spend money. And if you weren’t going to spend money, that thing would probably give you Covid and you’d die.”
Clerke has been collecting swimming pool inflatables as a backdrop to talks about – yes – inflation, while the “Debt Gala”, a take on the annual celeb jamboree the Met Gala, will include cocktails such as the “debtropolitan” as well as debt-themed karaoke and prizes for the best borrowed outfit.
In the daily lunchtime “doughnut hour”, participants will be invited to eat doughnuts while discussing doughnut economics, a visual framework for a healthy society developed by an Oxford economist. At “Shoplift-o’Clock!” shoplifters will be let loose to fill their pockets while evading shopkeepers.
Clerke wondered how shoppers might behave if invited to steal stuff. As well as sweets, potential loot will include more inflatables, scratchcards and other products that people are expected to bring to trade and swap.
“What if we saw shoplifting as a kind of radical form of commoning?” the artist adds, referring to the socialist tradition of sharing and collaboration (her approach calls to mind the 17th-century protest poem against the enclosure of common land: “The law locks up the man or woman, Who steals the goose from off the common, But leaves the greater villain loose, Who steals the common from off the goose.”)
Clerke, whose large wire-rimmed specs are about the same size as her hoop earrings, admits she has more questions than answers. She is not an economist, nor any kind of expert (and nor, to be clear, is she promoting criminal behaviour). But from an early age she has been fascinated by how things work – and how they might work differently.
“I’ve always been a pain in the arse,” she says. “As a kid I’d take something really boring and be, like, ‘Mum, how do you make this digestive biscuit?’ A couple of years ago I realised that’s all I’m doing as an artist – trying to work out how things are made.”
Among other conceptual artists, she has found inspiration in Piero Manzoni, an Italian avant garde pioneer best known for canning his own faeces in his 1961 work “Merda d’Artista”, or Artist’s Shit. He valued the tins at $37 according to their equivalent weight in gold. In 2016, one of the tins sold at auction for a new record of €275,000.
Transactionland is the third project in a 10-year series Clerke calls Businesses – an “irreverent yet earnest attempt to understand, expose and co-opt systems of money, trade and exchange”. In 2019, she launched a subscription business. For £4 a month, 50 subscribers received objects in the post, including a printed pamphlet containing all the emails between Clerke and her estate agent, and the materials necessary for building a fire.
The artist explored shared ownership in her second business, selling 461 shares in a 6ft 3in cardboard cutout of herself for £5 each – with a view to retaining a majority 51% shareholding. She is using the income to build a bicycle that all shareholders will be entitled to use.
Clerke says she is anxious to engage people in themes of money. “We don’t like talking about money or economics and if I’m being cynical, which I am, I think that is by design – it suits the banks and the government that we almost don’t feel we have a right to understand.”
As well as the government’s response to Covid – to promote spending in shops and restaurants – Clerke is struck by the widening economic inequality that the pandemic is contributing to, including the effects of inflation on food. “A lot of people are very vulnerable and struggling and as an artist I’m not going to fix everything,” she admits. “It’s about making a space for a bit of uncertainty and for asking questions.”