Atomic exchange

And when you are living in America
At the end of the millennium
You are what you own


– Jonathan Larson, Rent

An outline of a body is drawn on a table, not as in a crime scene but as in a body lying calmly on its back. Placed within the outline are the ephemera of existence that a body typically carries. This might include coins, handkerchiefs, train tickets, pocket fluff, a necktie, and just about anything found inside a wallet, purse, or handbag.

On a small pedestal next to the body outline is a pile of business-size cards that read: “This certifies the accompanying object as part of the piece ‘Atomic exchange’ exhibited at [location] on [date].” Also on the pedestal is an instruction for viewers: Take an object from the body, replace it with something you carry, and take a card to authenticate the object you take.

This piece explores the concept of boundaries between a person and others and the idea that even the body itself is always changing while retaining the same “identity.”

From a purely scientific viewpoint, the body is continually replacing its atoms through inhalation and consumption of food, and accompanying exhalation and elimination of waste (along with other more subtle processes such as outgassing through the skin, sweating, etc.) This replacement happens on the cellular and molecular level throughout the body.

On an even more fundamental scientific level, each atom in a body has spatial extent and long-distance influence (albeit small) in the sense of quantum fields that extend throughout space and time. The boundary between the body and the external environment is, in a quantum sense, ill defined and fluid.

In the piece, these scientific concepts are represented through the continual exchange of components standing in for the identity of a person. The exchange of an item forms a connection with the artist who contributed the original items or with other viewers who contributed an item. As contributors of items then leave the exhibit and spread throughout space and time, they go as quantum fields.

The piece also asks questions about identity in an ownership-intensive society where people are often represented in terms of what they possess. But then surely in a consumerist society with the concomitant rapid exchange of possessions, identity is also fluid in this paradigm.

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