Articles

#BestNonBuy: When Shopping, Not Buying, Becomes Art

by Hrag Vartanian on January 8, 2010

Man Bartlett relishes the coffee I bring him and then tells me about the Tibetan amulet he's wearing to help him not buy anything. (click to enlarge)

Shopping is an America art form, so it seems natural that Flux Factory resident Man Bartlett is taking it one step further to make it a full-fledged performance called #BestNonBuy.

With a background in theater, Bartlett decided to spend twenty-four hours in the Best Buy megastore in Manhattan’s Union Square with the intention of spending no money and only shopping without ever buying — I myself forget that the two aren’t one in the same.

The performance began last night (Thursday, January 7) at 6pm and he has been there all night. He’s tweeting along the way and his twitterfeed reads like a mashup of QVC and theater of the absurd. Here are some things he’s already broadcast:

#BestNonBuy hard to tweet and shop, but, I will not buy True Blood on bluray
#BestNonBuy What movie would you like me to not buy?
#BestNonBuy I am reading the first aid directions on a tomtom that I will not buy.
#BestNonBuy About to leave the relative safety of this computer to continue in another part of the store. My feet smell. Part mad.
#BestNonBuy security guard to me: “do you need help?” me: “no, just sort of browsing for now.”
#BestNonBuy Was finally approached. Very friendly exchange and think there’s an understanding. I can stay.
#BestNonBuy PS I am the only person in the store right now.

When I ran into him this morning I found him wearing headphones and drumming away in a corner of the store. His eyes were blood shot and he was glad to see me. I offered to buy him coffee and when his face lit up, I darted out and returned with a fresh cup. It was 8:30 am and I was a little surprised to find other people — who I assumed were not staging their own performance piece — already browsing the aisles.

“I’m used to durational work, whether it is drawing circles or confining myself to a space, so this comes out of that interest for me,” the artist says. He toured me around the store as if he was showing me his home. He pointed out his favorite commercial among the many that loop on the television screens that wallpaper the store. While we walked around he pointed out his favorite items, like a bottle of colored fog for fog machines, Lady Gaga headphones, mini video cameras that didn’t work, and he explained that the longer he’s been there the veneer of newness has given way to a realization that many of the things on display are dusty, not functional or even a bit grimy.

He admitted that he began the performance with a little paranoia about spending so much time in a retail store. At 4am, two security guards approached him and asked him if he intended to buy anything. He said no and explained what he was doing in the name of art. After they checked his bag, to make sure he hadn’t stolen anything, he was free to roam again.

My reward for visiting Man Bartlett and not buying anything is a drawing thanking me for taking part. (click to enlarge)

During his performance he has learned that the store has a goal of making $80,000 each day, which means that hundreds, if not thousands, of people march through daily. Coincidentally, Barlett has his own financial goal that could stop his performance, he says that if he raises $700 via online donations he will call it quits and go home. Something tells me he won’t be so lucky and he’s in it for the long haul.

I find the whole performance a bit absurd and I can’t stop laughing at the tweets he keeps sending which are often punctioned with “that I will not buy.” The repetition makes his tweets feel like a type of meditation. During our chat, he pointed out the Tibetan talisman around his neck, which he says helps him resist the urge to buy — I’m not sure if he’s joking.

Before I leave he asks me, “Are you going to buy anything?” “No,” I say. He reaches into his bag, pulls out a small sketch pad and hands me a drawing, which consists of the words, “thank you for shopping at 24h best-non-buy.” My gift from him was 9/10.

An hour later I see a tweet from him that reads, “The urge to go to the checkout line even with no product is oddly large.” It makes me realize that his performance piece has me enthralled because it’s a DIY version of reality TV. I want him to break down and buy something even though I know he won’t. What will happen next? Follow him and find out.

#BestNonBuy will continue until 6pm today at Best Buy in Union Square.

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