Trading goods along social networks since 2003
March 26, 2009 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Kate Rich has run the Feral Trade grocery business trading goods along social networks since 2003. Feral Trade forges new, 'wild' trade routes between art, business and social interaction. Goods hitchhike on other sources of movement, harnessing the surplus freight potential of social and cultural travel to haul grocery items intercity, often using other artists and curators as mules. An online courier database provides a live, public view of all movements in the network.
posted by furtive (18 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Not quite Web 2.0 quality but interesting nonetheless.
posted by furtive at 9:49 AM on March 26, 2009

Non-snark request: Can someone please translate this post, as well as Feral Trade's statement, into plain English/layman's terms?
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 10:00 AM on March 26, 2009

"Anti-depressant" herbs from Bulgaria brought over by Easyjet?

Customs officer:What are these herbs, sir?

Courier: I'm a courier for an informal network of artists moving goods of dubious origin and composition across national borders in what we call a feral trade route.

Customs officer: That's veeeery interesting. These rubber gloves were supplied to me by a formal organisation that we call the government. Now bend over.

posted by MuffinMan at 10:00 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Can someone please translate this post, as well as Feral Trade's statement, into plain English/layman's terms?

When you go there, can you buy me some and bring it back?

Where "there", "you" and "some" are all variables.
posted by DU at 10:18 AM on March 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

posted by DU at 10:23 AM on March 26, 2009

Mildly interesting. I like the log best since I'm one to obsessively track my UPS packages. A more coherent explanation is here:

"It all started because I wanted some decent coffee for my bar," explains Kate Rich, the British-based artist-cum-import-export entrepreneur. "Everyone said I should get Fair Trade, but the packaging was patronizing, full of these sentimental images and information about how the farmer could now send his children to school. But what did he know about how I spend my money?"

In 2003, Rich ended up sourcing coffee directly from the Cooperativa de Caficultores Nonualcos in San Pedro Nonualco, El Salvador, for her customers at the Cube Microplex bar in Bristol. Coining the process Feral Trade, she began a series of projects that cut across art and business. Two years later, packets of coffee are continuously exported from the cooperative cinema to destinations in the UK and Europe over various social, cultural, familial and vocational networks.

Each transaction is noted in minute detail: when it comes to Rich's trade database (at, the project is anything but feral. In mid-September 2005, for example, her online log records that ten bags of ground coffee were shipped from Bristol to Vallum Court in Newcastle, to restock supplies after ten bags had been transferred up to Stills Gallery in Edinburgh earlier in the month. The courier was novelist Hari Kunzru.

Designing her own packaging, which details the beans' complex financial and geographical journey, Rich elevates-or as she says, "adds density to"-the banal tendencies of import-export. Her projects expose the intricate web of relationships that exists around a product and the high-tech/low-tech messiness of the supposedly simplistic, frictionless nature of global trade.

Wanting to test the economic model, and highlight this messiness further, she then turned to a more exclusive product, Iranian sweets-the best kind, generally unavailable outside Iran, are objects imbued, as she says, with "an air of impossibility." Her journey to buy the candy was deliberately complex: following the smugglers' routes from Bristol to Tehran, via Brussels, Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Arad, Sofia, Istanbul and Yazd, she documented and photographed each transaction and gave trade talks along the way. Approximately sixty boxes of sweets have since been traded by artists via their hand baggage in the UK, Europe and the US.

Rich is on an underlying quest to investigate the trade process and make money for her producers, but her approach is playful. Her documentation of the journey includes an intricate budget, which notes free dinners at artists' houses and bribes (in a bid to secure a couchette) to the guards on the Arad-Bucharest sleeper train.

Digital communication is key: at the crux of Feral Trade is the question of whether ephemeral electronic networks, typically established at international exhibitions and other artists' meets and through friends of friends, can sustain the passage of goods. Feral Trade turns such dynamics on their heads: here it is cultural, social and digital networks that establish routes for commercial products, rather than culture serving as innocuous padding around the serious stuff of commercial politics. In turn, the passage of goods opens up what Rich calls "wormholes" between diverse social settings. (The pastoral theme continues in her definition of feral, denoting "a process that is wilfully wild [as in pigeon] as opposed to romantically or nature-wild [wolf].")

Last fall Rich, together with Berlin-based artist Natascha Sadr Haghighian, traveled to the Iranian city of Rasht to purchase rice cookers from the Pars Khazar factory. They bought premium brand products-chrome-plated, the king of rice cookers-for a network of subscribers in Europe. For the first time, Rich is working without British Council or European Union funding, relying instead on what she terms "class action shopping"-here, a group of people clubbing together to circumvent usual trade routes.

After stopping off in Istanbul, Sofia and Brussels to fulfil orders, Rich received the bulk shipment in London, and the rice cookers are now in circulation in the UK and Europe. In a further step, the two artists are commissioning the factory to produce a new product for the busy, globe-trotting singletons of the art world: a one-person rice cooker. Rich pitches me: "It's apocalyptic: a full kitchen on one power socket, meaning that when you're staying in that crappy hotel at a biennial, you can cook a nutritious meal for one ..."
posted by otherwordlyglow at 10:30 AM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I think feral trade sounds a little off - makes me think it's a ring of animal smugglers. I think something like "straight trade" or "full trade" would get the point across and not sound overly clever. It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't sound new to me - I'm just assuming that individuals have been doing this for local customers for a long time. Maybe it's new now that the internet is letting everybody know that this is what they're doing? A way for a chronic backpacker (not that that's bad) to make some money? Ultimately I could do without the unnecessarily obfuscatory art-exhibit language. Still, pretty interesting.
posted by billysumday at 10:44 AM on March 26, 2009

When you go there, can you buy me some and bring it back?

Where "there", "you" and "some" are all variables.

It seems to be bridging the gap between that and an actual black market system. It would be a lot more interesting to see a heavily documented and annotated log following heroin from production to its eventual use by heroin addicts, rather than Iranian candy being delivered to artists, but serious criminals seem to have a hang-up about loudly publicizing their crimes that artists are largely immune to.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2009

Pretty cool, but I also wish it could be....useful.
posted by Miko at 11:00 AM on March 26, 2009

I suspect if you tracked a lot of innocuous goods like this, you would eventually find many of the same pathways that are either used, or could be used, for black-market goods. Once you find a way to bring boxes of Iranian sweets in, and you know where they'll be searched and how much scrutiny they'll come under, it would be fairly trivial to swap "Iranian sweets" for any other commodity you prefer.

I'm not saying this to criticize the project in any way, I just find it interesting. I also think that it shows the near-impossibility of truly embargoing goods when there is a demand for them.

The only thing I'm not keen on about the project is her apparent need to 'complexify' things without reason. Maybe that's because I'm not an artist and don't get the art-project angle, but it seems unnecessary. Piggybacking on social networks and using people's hand baggage as a conduit for goods, providing an alternative transportation network that goes places the standard one doesn't, all that strikes me as very cool. But taking things on a circuitous route just because you can? That seems inelegant and unnecessary.

I'd love to see the concept expanded into even more embargoed areas, or places where goods typically can't get to or from. North Korea, perhaps, or Antarctica (not that I'm sure what anyone would want imported or exported from Antarctica...). That would make for a very interesting route, I'm sure.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:07 AM on March 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

Metafilter: Ultimately I could do without the unnecessarily obfuscatory art-exhibit language. Still, pretty interesting.
posted by kcds at 11:27 AM on March 26, 2009

This is lovely and fascinating. Thanks for the post.
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:38 AM on March 26, 2009

Maybe i'm a cynic, but i'd never participate due to paranoia about what illicit substances might be secreted within my package. I'd like to trust people not to use me as a drug mule, but if the project could be used to ferry illegal substances, it probably will be.
posted by jester69 at 12:36 PM on March 26, 2009

I'd like to be part of a ring where we exchange toiletries and things like aluminum foil and dishwashing soap. Everyone in the group would have all their mundane day to day products as a perplexing assortment of obscure foreign labels, in languages that could only be guessed at.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:45 PM on March 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

It's sort of like Echelon, but by artists, for coffee. And stuff.
posted by Xoebe at 1:54 PM on March 26, 2009

This is really great. Thanks for posting this!
posted by Asparagirl at 2:21 PM on March 26, 2009

And speaking as an occasional customer, it's good coffee.
posted by Luddite at 4:29 PM on March 26, 2009

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