OurGoods is a peer-to-peer online network that facilitates the barter of goods and services between artists. The site matches barter partners, provides accountability tools, and offers technical assistance resources to help artists complete their barters and their projects successfully.
OurGoods emerges in response to the current economic crisis. To some extent, the arts have always existed in a recession economy. Independent artists in particular are experts at making do with very limited resources. As it becomes clear that even those limited resources will shrink in the coming years, OurGoods enables us to leverage what we already do well in order to create a support system for ourselves.
Which means what, exactly?
Caroline Woolard: Our Goods is a barter network for creative people that connects artists and designers and craftspeople and activists with each other so they can trade skills and spaces to get independent projects done.
What gave rise to OurGoods?
CW: We are all artists and designers as cofounders, and we’ve experienced forever that there’s’ no clear market value for what we do. Still, we want to continue to do it. We’re motivated by something other than profit. What we do feels valuable to us as a community, so we’ve always gotten things done by trading with other people whose projects we value. That reciprocal exchange feels satisfying; it also helps to get the project done, and we thought—why not make a larger network so more of us can connect across disciplines?
JA: Put another way, the market value (within the capitalist valuation system) for what we do is very low, but the market value for what we do within our circles, within the circles of people who appreciate art, is very different…
CW: it’s an alternative market.
How do you demonstrate value?
JA: In my case, people come see the work and most times they’ll have a lot to say afterwards, about their experience. They’ll have had thoughts, their own sense of their humanity, their connection to others may have changed; their perceptions may have been shifted in a particular way. All those are innate goods in the human experience, yet they are externalities in the capitalist market system. They are things that must happen for us to be fully human, but there isn’t a money market for these experiences. So [our question was] how can we create other kinds of valuation systems that support those things happening?
How does OurGoods.org work, exactly. Say I arrive on your site, then what?
CW: You log in, make a profile, and you list your needs and what you have, and what sort of projects you’re involved in. Then, people can search for what they need and find people who can fill those needs, as well as what projects they might have that you could help with. When two people have found a potentially good match, they have a conversation, and decide between them how to rate the exchange of labor.
JA: There’s so much value that comes from that conversation. First of all, the fact that we’re asking people to have a conversation about value is disruptive and valuable. You can tell its disruptive because people are confused by it. They don’t instinctively know how to have that conversation. It’s a skill we don’t have but one we need to nurture.
There are all sorts of possible metrics of exchange. One metric is hour per hour: right now I’m receiving an hour of yoga lessons in exchange for an hour of business plan consulting.… Other exchanges are less obvious: an object for a skill, say, or exchanges that involve people with more or less experience. Sometimes it makes sense to use money value—how much am I paid for what I do/how much are you paid—but without the money.
CW: What’s important is there is no answer. There’s no clear way to value people’s labor. It’s subjective and that’s the main thing. We step back and say as long as the framework is mutual respect, then the conversation can come out any way. There’s no right way in particular.
What constitutes a successful outcome. Want to share an OurGoods success story?
JA: In the case of an artist I admire, I may just want to help him—and that’s my end of the exchange. I get the experience. He gets the help. We’re asking people to engage with each other and with uncertainty and see how it changes their lives.
The fact that we’re having these conversations at all is a successful outcome. A lot of projects are getting done, some shifts are happening in people’s creative process, and then there are people who’ve gotten very practical things exchanged: video shooting in exchange for a website for a documentary maker, etc.
Gaia [an online think tank soliciting ‘third world” ideas for “first world” development] needed translators, but through the barter process, he ended up with collaborators who helped him spread his project to new countries.
It doesn’t have to be transactional, it can blur towards collaboration, gift giving or sharing. The bottom line is mutual aid, not self-interest.
JA: we’re not trying to say that people don’t have self interest. They do, but there are other motivations too, and we see them in action all the time, every day. This isn’t some story we’re making up in our minds or wishing to be true—we see it. When you offer a tool for people to offer assistance and surface those other motivations… Wikipedia is one obvious example, but ours is a real [not virtual] interaction.
Has OurGoods changed you?
JA: I’ve changed everything. My life had been all about navigating scarcity.
But how do you survive, make a living, pay your bills?
JA: How do I survive is very different from how do I get money.
I survive because I’m part of WOW [a thirty-year-old wonen’s theater collective in the East Village in New York]. If I weren’t in community I would kill myself.
How do I get money? [Before OurGoods] I was working at small non-profits as an administrator. The groups I worked for operated on a shoestring, with never enough money to do what they needed to do, and I was deeply entrenched in poverty. Health insurance was eating up 20–25 percent of my income. Now I have it through my partner who works for Time Warner/AOL. How do I pay bills now? I’ve reduced my expenses through exchange, a grant supports me at OurGoods.org and my partner has a middle class job.”