Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel

"Es patērētājs" simpozijs.

Item: Entertainment (Ticket to Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel)
Cost: One review/response/blog/whatever the fuck we’re calling these now
Needs: 20% Esteem, 80% Self-actualisation
Affect: Excellent / +7

There’s no star rating but already this feels like a judgement; this decision to value in stark terms an exchange that is both work and not work. I’m not paying to be here and nor am I being paid, but it’s still a transaction. I think, not for the first time, about Megan Vaughan’s three reasons why she doesn’t accept free tickets for reviews and feel a twinge of something like guilt or discomfort or anxiety. How do you reconcile something that you love with an exchange that you hate?

Our lives can be measured out in transactions. The rent, the bills, the grocery shops – all the money we shell out just to keep going. The self-medicating coffees, chocolate bars and glasses of wine. The books and albums and theatre tickets and works of art that offer us identity and fulfilment at a price. The gifts that aren’t about how much money we spent, but sort of are. The building deficit of guilt.

Our lives can be measured out in transactions, and for twelve months artist Harry Giles did just that. On an excruciatingly exhaustive blog, he recorded every last purchase and how it made him feel. As he explains, it was an experiment in asking how consumer capitalism affects us on an emotional level. How does living inside capitalism actually feel? And is it possible to change that through what we buy?

Each purchase, as Giles explains in the show that has now emerged from the project, was logged along with its cost, what it fulfilled according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the emotion it elicited on a scale of -10 to +10. A picture gradually emerges: of money grudgingly handed over for the essentials, of an ongoing battle between ethical principles and guilty pleasures, of the hundred different ways in which our buying habits affect our wellbeing.

For the data junkies, Giles has put together a detailed annual report of his findings, but the numbers – as so often – are misleading. When he first strides across to the microphone on stage at Camden People’s Theatre, in his slightly-too-big suit and backed by his powerpoint presentation, Giles has the air of a bottom-rung sales rep about to break down some figures for us. Slides flash up on the screen as Giles explains them slightly-too-loudly and slightly-too-enthusiastically. As the piece goes on, though, the initial parodic tone becomes splintered by anxiety and the promised simplicity – “it all adds up,” Giles repeatedly assures us – unravels into more and more complication.

As the administrative litter of capitalism accumulates around him on the stage – receipts upon receipts upon receipts – Giles gives voice to the inner dialogue that underscores so much of our buying activity. That woozy cocktail of guilt, denial, principle and compromise, all delivered with jittering, ever-mounting anxiety, is so familiar at times that it hurts. I think of all the times I’ve shopped at the supermarket chain I hate and all the takeaway coffees I’ve convinced myself I need despite the waste. Giles also sharply captures the dilemma of ethical consuming: it seems necessary, in a harmful system, to make the least harmful choices, but expressing your politics through consumption feels like both a contradiction and a cop-out. In the end, of course, every decision is a sort of defeat.

But Giles also recognises the intense emotional attachments we can form for the things we choose to spend our money on. As I write this, I’m glancing occasionally across the room to my bookshelves. Of everything in our flat, it’s the sight I find most comforting, the collection of things that most roots me in this place. I can feel the glow of all those little, individual purchases: bribes to get myself through a hard day’s work, rewards for miniature achievements, satisfyingly impulsive buys. Unlike pretty much everything else, books are almost guilt-free purchases for me, which begins to explain why I own so many. I know that that erasure of guilt is false in many ways, but I allow myself to feel good about these objects. Money well spent.

So where does that leave us? Ultimately, there are no answers in Giles’ data, and the punishing year he spent tallying up every last penny has not helped him on his way to happiness – be that through frugality or extravagance. If anything, it seems like an oddly masochistic exercise, as does Giles’ intense and exhausting performance. As playful as it often is, Everything I Bought and How it Made Me Feel is difficult to laugh at, its chuckles leaving behind a bitter taste and its restless anxiety spreading from stage to audience.

Watching, though, I feel just the right kind of queasy. The discomfort that Giles has consciously documented is not one that can tell us how to assuage our spending guilt, but by cultivating the same discomfort in his audience he begins to push past the numbers and through to the feeling of money and politics (the two sometimes seeming indistinguishable from one another). And as I’ve reflected before, I think there’s something in how politics feels, something that – when it denies us easy, sentimental catharsis – holds within it a sort of hope. Beyond immediate guilt or gratification, we can’t really change how we feel through what we buy, but perhaps we can start demanding the kind of emotions that aren’t easily bought and sold.