Miranda July (Image courtesy of Center for Art of Performance)

LOS ANGELES — It has always been a mystery to me how a signature Louis Vuitton bag can go for thousands of dollars while an impeccable knockoff (essentially the exact same bag) can go for mere hundreds. In the same way, a piece of art that can hardly be sold at the time of its creation can skyrocket at an auction decades later. Value, whether monetary or abstract, is a difficult quality to pin down, in regards to people, certainly, but surprisingly, for objects as well.

Last week, artist-filmmaker Miranda July both demonstrated and questioned the mercurial process of assigning value during The Auction, an event put on by the Center for Art of Performance at UCLA.

In the course of 90 minutes, July — sporting a mop of curls that mixed Molly Ringwald with Dirty Dancing–era Jennifer Grey — singled out three members of the audience, set them on stage, and within a few minutes of easy banter, probed, poked, and surprised them into revealing their soft, squishy humanity to the audience by way of the throwaway objects they had in their possession. It is a process she has gone through many times while researching her book It Chooses You, which follows the stories of objects and people July found through Pennysaver ads, that old redoubt of plain humanity (see below for a making-of video documenting the book’s process).

When our hearts were sufficiently primed, July ended the comfortable tête-à-tête and proceeded to auction off her interviewees’ objects to the highest bidder (for a good cause, of course).

Debbie (all the names given seemed to be pseudonyms) was a snowy-haired mom from Ohio visiting her daughter in sunny Los Angeles. It was her foldable comb (the kind you might get free from Clinique) that July set on a whirling motorized display and projected larger-than-life to an audience of more than 500. “I like that it has a little bit of your hair in it,” remarked July, voicing the mute possibility of insecurity as if it were nothing.

During Debbie’s few minutes on stage, we learned that this glib, confident-sounding woman (who talked at a brisker pace than normal) was a widow whose husband died of cancer; was close to her daughter; and was thrice retired. “Do you spend a lot of time alone?” asked July in a small voice. “Yes,” came the answer, “but it’s nothing to be concerned about,” Debbie clarified (though we may privately wonder how much of that statement is true). Her comb, which probably came free of cost along with a make-up set, was auctioned off for $60, strand of white hair included.

“Do you have a wallet?” asked July, addressing Allan. It was a funny question, one that made us think July was getting ready to mug her latest interviewee. She was only there to rifle through its contents, however, searching for something as meaningless as a Subway loyalty card, used only once, probably acquired from a branch of the fast-food chain in New York City.

We learned that Allan is a lawyer who has been married for more than 40 years to Ellie. They met at Allan’s sister’s wedding, but no sparks flew that day. It was only when Allan took Ellie home after the first Nixon-Kennedy debate that things started to simmer. Allan drove Ellie home that night and he’s been driving her home ever since, he quietly but proudly said. His Subway card (which might only be valid in New York City) went for $70.

And finally, Nicole (pronounced with a French twist because of her Swiss mother’s French classes). Her Lipsmacker lip gloss spun around as July blundered into her romantic life. “Who do you kiss regularly?” asked July, which earned her a reproving glance from Nicole and a revised question, “Then, who do you kiss irregularly?” which then brought titters from the audience. With more than a bit of squirming, we learned that Nicole is with someone she would call a friend, who she kisses irregularly and goes to events with. The value of her lip balm, an item picked up at any grocery store for pocket change? $58.

All in all, the auction garnered $188 for a good cause — which turned out to be an unknown someone who raised her hand while we all had our eyes closed and silently acknowledged that she was desperate for this windfall. It was a strange, disconcerting feeling to walk out of that playhouse knowing someone out there was the recipient of our kindness.

Who pays so much for objects obviously worth so little? We do, apparently. In the same way, we may overpay for a piece of leather artfully sewn together or a canvas painted with vigor, our hearts (or our lusts) playing a part in separating us from our hard-earned money.

Our sentimentality again becomes the target of New York–based artist Martha Rosler’s upcoming Garage Sale, in which forgotten objects (and the perceived stories behind them) are on display for anyone to see.

Rather than have us within a controlled, intimate environment, Rosler invites any curious mind to rifle through various castaways and actually speak face-to-face with a seller (in the form of the artist) about these objects. Who knows what modes of negotiation will ensue? Price ranges will no doubt fluctuate according to how much meaning the seller can imbue the object with and how much nuance the seller can squeeze into a few sentences. Is it old, or vintage, or perhaps well-loved? What do these things taken together say about the seller?

In past iterations Rosler relates she’s sold everything from old clothes and softcore porn to a baby’s shoes. Rosler says on the Garage Sale website, “I was struck by the strange nature of these [garage sale] events, their informal economic status and self-centeredness, but also the way they implicated the community in the narrative of the residents’ lives.” Taken together, this stuff forms a silent, overt narrative, and we can’t help but look and wonder about the history behind an object.

Though marketers have long known the power of a good story to up a price, I’d like to believe we take out our wallets because we remember our humanity, not because we are easy prey. It isn’t that we are all natural suckers — not all the time, at least — but that we place value in finding the soft center in other people, within a world that encourages us to be hard, to be wary of others, and to put up defenses. When we pierce the invisible walls that separate us, no matter how fleeting, the moment can be (as the old Mastercard ad goes) priceless.

The Auction was staged by the Center for Art of Performance at UCLA on October 18. Martha Rosler’s first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The Garage Sale will be on view from November 17 to 30, 2012.

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