Good will on our streets: The Art of Swap

A few years ago little wooden boxes started appearing, nailed to telephone poles across Ottawa. Inscribed with the motto “Take something – Leave something” the cheerful little cubes – always whimsically decorated – were seen by thousands of Ottawans every day. They were a mystery to some, a source of delight to others, and in time new “Swap Box spottings”  became a coffee-shop topic throughout the urban core, and a point of reference in the local blogoshere.

Probably no blog celebrated the Swap Box phenomena more than the excellent Knitnut, by Zoom. In fact, clues as to new locations of Swap Boxes were sometimes left as comments below KnitNut posts.

There aren’t as many swap boxes as there used to be; rain and wind have taken their toll, as have vandalism, bylaw enforcement, and souvenir hunting.

The Swap Boxes were a labour of love by an urban planning student by the name of Elmaks who now lives in Montréal.  He has continued the Swap Box project in his new city, where he also blogs on public space issues. He still visits Ottawa from time to time and sometimes installs fresh Swap Boxes while he is here.

In an era when our city’s budget for public art was effectively zero, it often seemed like Elmak’s interactive installations were  the only display of creativity to be seen on our streets. We wanted to discover the background to the Swap Box project, and this past week we were able to contact him directly, and inquire about the inspiration behind his art and what is next for the little boxes.

Q. What inspired you to start  the project? Were there other initiatives you had in mind that helped to shape Swap Box (BookCrossing, geocaching, etc)?

A. I have been making graffiti and street art, off and on, for close to a decade. I am also a part-time visual artist and illustrator with an interest in found-object sculpture, and the Swap Box Project was somewhat of a fusion of both worlds.

The project which most inspired me was the Berkeley Free Store, a place where one can only exchange goods for other goods. It has been in operation since the mid-1960s when it was set up by the San Francisco Diggers, and it has spawned variants across the globe. It helped inspire the Swap Box Project’s motto of ‘Take Somethin’, Leave Somethin’ “.

I had also been reading some of Shepard Fairey’s writings, where he talked about his famous “OBEY GIANT” postering campaign as being an social experiment in memetics and information transmission. He wanted to see how people would react to it, and that was one of my initial interests with the first few Swap Boxes.

I first read Jane Jacobs’s “Death and Life of Great American Cities” in my teens, and one phrase which always stuck with me was that which said that the health of cities should be measured by their ability to create potentials for human interaction. As I got more into making interactive street art I started reading more about urban morphological theory and the writings of Kevin Lynch and Aldo Rossi. Those got me thinking along the line of seeing a city as built up in part of the layered paths of its inhabitants and wondering if it would be possible to create new nodes that could pull some paths together.

I wasn’t thinking about geocaching when I first started the Swap Box Project, as at that time GPS units were still very expensive novelties. Now I see that geocaching presents an interesting, alternative, and fun means of navigating the urban (as well as suburban and rural) landscape, and I have tried to incorporate some of those ideas into my street art work. But whereas geocaches are often hidden I try and make the Swap Boxes eye-catching in order to get people to check them out.

Q. You are studying urban planning. How does that world intersect with your interest in street art?

A. I became interested in urban planning through my interest in street art (and consequently in the politics and design of public space) and through my involvement in post-disaster relief work in New Orleans.

Long story short, I came into the program with a really eclectic background. There were (and still are) people who looked upon me as a kind of strange novelty but there have been others who have been really interested in my experience and opinion.

I’m always looking for mentors, and it’s been tough finding others who can help me learn more about the intersectionalities of streetart and urban planning/design. Honestly, I think I have confused quite a few faculty members..

Q. Is there an image you have in your mind as to what happens when a Swap Box is first discovered by someone new to it? Is there something that you *hope* develops from “citizen contact” with a Swap Box?

I hope that people’s first encounters with Swap Boxes make them more interested in the hidden and overlooked elements of the urban landscape that they would otherwise pass right by. I hope it makes people who encounter it and find something to swap return back and check what others have exchanged, and I hope it helps bring people together who otherwise would not meet and helps kickstart a renewed interest in public spaces.

Q. Did you ever catch anyone damaging/removing a Swap Box; if so, what happened next?

A. I never have. I look on Swap Boxes, just like most other forms of streetart, as ephemeral and temporary additions to the urban landscape which survive and flourish based on others’ good will.

Q. What next for Swap Box? You are in Montreal now, and some Ottawa Swap Boxes have started to go missing – did you “hand over” the project before you left, or are you going to see if the legacy gets picked up by others?

I have been back to Ottawa several times to put up new Swap Boxes. In the last two years I have noticed the project take on a life beyond what I am giving it, with others putting up Swap Boxes around the city. I have had people as far away as Seoul, Tijuana and Hamburg email me to ask how to make Swap Boxes, request my permission to make some of their own (which I always give, as any time someone else wants to take part in urban beautification exercises I’m thrilled) and show pictures of their own creations.

I am working on a small book titled “The Art of Swap: A book of Streetart and Ideas by Elmaks”. This will be my first book, and will feature a mix of streetart photos, some thoughts and explanations about my streetart work, and several short essays about cities and urban planning. Right now it is in the final editing stage and I hope to have a publication-worthy version produced soon.

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3 comments

  1. Excellent interview and article! I’ve been completely enchanted by the concept and the experience of Swap Boxes ever since I encountered one for the very first time. They’re especially appealing, I think, to those of us with a curious streak and an appreciation for synchronicity.

  2. Great interview! I love the simplicity of the swap boxes and the fact encourage people to participate. The fact that they encourage barter is awesome too!

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