Robin McKenna on her new film GIFT and what society could learn from gift economies

Robin McKenna on her new film GIFT and what society could learn from gift economies

Robin McKenna sat down with us to discuss GIFT, her richly cinematic film inspired by Lewis Hyde’s beloved classic The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Interview conducted by Kim Koltun. 


What is GIFT about?
GIFT takes us inside real-life gift economies: places operating outside the paradigm of the market economy. At the same time, it explores this double meaning of “the gift” – when we say someone’s gifted, we have gifts that come from somewhere outside ourselves. “A gift is something we cannot demand- it is bestowed upon us.” So the film follows character-driven stories, in four corners of the world- but also reflects something more metaphorical and magical, this idea of our “inner gifts," and how they come to us.

What initially sparked your interest in the gift economy?
When I read Lewis Hyde’s book, it resonated with something at my core, something I had intuited but had never put into words- and made connections I’d never made around this idea of gift exchange. How gifts create connections and relationships between us- and connecting this idea to art as a gift, the creative process and “the gift” that comes through us.

All of the subjects are so unique in their empathetic stories, how did you find them?
I started with the potlatch, which Hyde talked about in a historical context - here in Canada where I live. I was curious to see, were people still holding potlatches? I had no idea how vital and contemporary that tradition was until I reached out to the Kwak’wakwala community in Alert Bay, went there and started meeting this family of artists and carvers, whose whole system of values revolves around the potlatch.Lee Mingwei, the artist, I had read about a long time ago, and was inspired by his approach of "life meets art/art is life", kind of in the Zen tradition. I looked him up again and discovered his work has been deeply influenced by The Gift! He carries the book around with him when he travels...and Lewis Hyde has written an introduction to Mingwei's work, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. So that was synchronous. I knew about Burning Man, as a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone/gift economy experiment... I found Michelle/Smallfry through the Burning Man newsletter, when she posted looking for honey donations for her honeybee artcar project, Beezus Christ Supercar. I liked the "circular gift" quality of that - people were sending her gifts of honey, which she would pass on. And the museum in Rome, someone had made reference to it as a "gift economy" in an interview, I found it online and started doing more research - and just fell in love with the place.

Tell us about Metropoliz, the artist space in Italy, what is it and what was your experience like filming there?
Metropoliz is an “ocupazione” – an illegally occupied building, a former salami factory, occupied by migrants and precarious workers, and protected by a “barricade of art”. They call it the world’s first “inhabited museum”. There’s the occupation itself and the people who live there- and then the “museum," which coexists with the occupation.I was interested in the experience of the kids who live in this strange industrial place- many of them are Roma, some of the most marginalized people in the culture. So I followed these two little girls, Monica and Andrea, and tried to capture the place through their eyes.Metropoliz (and the Museum of the Other and Elsewhere) is one of a kind--which is both inspiring yet disheartening in its singularity.

What needs to happen to further these artistic movements of social upheaval? What can viewers do?
I think all the stories in the film speak to a kind of resistance to the total dominance of the market economy, where every sphere of our lives has been monetized, from our resources to our education systems. The film is an invitation to reflect on how we bring our gifts into the world - and how we might practice generosity and strengthen those connections in our own communities, those relationships of sharing, solidarity, and mutual aid.Then as a society or culture, we might consider- what is the value of creative work, and how do we better support and strengthen it? How do we protect the "commons", before all our resources and gifts have been bought and sold, privatized and extracted? 

Burning Man is an anarchic event, physically and spiritually separate from its societal counterpart. What essential human traits do you see in Burning Man? How could those translate to our broader society for the better?
What I love the most about Burning Man is the total creativity, the space for utopian, irreverent imagination, and the resourcefulness of people: the DIY, kind of punk maker spirit, the attitude that you can make anything happen. And the opening for a way of relating to each other in a different way: with more playfulness, practicing this "spirit of the gift" - how does it feel to give and receive something with no strings attached? We could imagine creating different structures, that invite these kinds of gifts and relationships.

Tell me about your experience filming with the artist Mingwei Lee, what did you learn from working closely with him?
One thing I like about Mingwei is his complete openness to whatever happens. Although there’s something very formal and structured about each of his works - he has no particular agenda in terms of “provoking something” or proving anything - more of a genuine inquisitiveness, just providing an invitation for people to step in, and for something possibly magical to happen.

The potlatch is a significant indigenous tradition that has thankfully lasted throughout the years, what lessons could other cultures learn from this Native American gifting custom?
Yes, a tradition that’s persevered with great resistance and resilience: through the times when it was outlawed by colonial authorities, when the practices went underground and continued in secret, at great risk. What struck me most about the practice now was the attitude of: wealth is meant to keep circulating, to be given away and re-given, and that hoarding your wealth is the worst thing you can do. I think the more we can really feel and embody that idea - a whole web of reciprocal relationships can be generated, a kind of "field of generosity", that opens new possibilities.

How does the potlatch, along with other gift-based cultures in GIFT, challenge the logic of global capitalism?
I think that’s an interesting question: why were the colonial authorities so concerned about the potlatch, as a threat to their system of values? As Wayne Alfred, the artist and carver, says in the film, “They didn’t like us making all that money, then giving it away.” If our whole system, the paradigm that still governs the culture we live in, is based around the idea of private property, owning wealth as individuals and defending it- then this practice of radical generosity, emptying your pockets to give everything away - might look pretty threatening! Metropoliz in Rome, and other occupied spaces like these, also challenge the logic of private property. How could we put to use the spaces that exist, in ways that open new possibilities?On the level of relationships, even the subtle gift interactions in Mingwei's work are about opening ourselves to something unexpected, interacting in a different way, stepping outside the conventions that normally govern us - into something more intimate, and intuitive.

How involved was Lewis Hyde in the creation of GIFT?
He told me from the beginning he’d be “delighted” to see a film happen- but he didn’t have an active role in it. We met, not long into the process, in Boston, and it was him who introduced me to Mingwei, who he knew through his work in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He was encouraging throughout the process - I showed him pieces of the edit along the way. And then he made one of the boxes, for our Gift-it-Forward project. After that he came to Montreal, invited by DHC/Art, just before we launched the film, for an onstage conversation... he interviewed me about the film. Which was a beautiful circular movement of the gift! From his work that inspired mine, to what that sparked in him, and then what his questions provoked in me...

How can professors in the area of Literature and English incorporate GIFT along with Lewis Hyde’s The Gift rerelease into their classrooms?
GIFT is very much an audiovisual essay, and The Gift serves as the backbone of the film: I told Lewis Hyde I wanted to "remix his book for the 21st century." Students who read the book and then watch GIFT can explore the process of taking an original work and transforming it into another original, creative piece, translating the same universal themes across cultural and geographic space - and for a different historical moment.

How does an artist maintain creative integrity in a capitalist society? What can artists gain from watching GIFT?
It's a big challenge! Both for me and people around me who are making beautiful and important work...which can feel totally unsustainable on a practical level. Like the bee-creator in the film, asking herself "Do I cut my losses, or do I keep going?" Why do I spend so much time on something so ephemeral?Part of the purpose of the film is to explore these questions, not necessarily provide the answers - like Mingwei in the film, asking "How do we put a price on a piece of artwork? I don't really have an answer." I hope the film sparks some inspiration in people, some reflection on how we share our gifts, inner and outer, individually and collectively. And what makes that process rich, sacred and worthwhile.

How can communities use GIFT to generate positive change locally?
I think the film can be a vehicle for meditation, conversation and reflection - to inquire into some of these themes, and how we can apply them in our lives and our communities. There's a study guide and conversation guide in the works - which might help structure these conversations. Eco-villages experimenting with the gift economy, permaculture projects, transition networks, local economy projects, meditation communities, networks of artists and creators, philanthropists... we're starting to work with groups like these, to see how the film can be used to further their thinking and practices, in exciting & maybe transformative ways.

What do you want most for students to take away from your film?
Magic and inspiration! Maybe a shift in perspective, maybe a kind of heart-opening - in terms of what we value, how we relate to each other, and what connects us. I want them to take away a sense of possibility, in this surreal and apocalyptic moment...of what we might imagine and create differently. And maybe a sense of their own gifts, reflected or awakened, and a glimmering of how they might be shared. It's a slow, spacious and meditative film- I think it invites us to slow down, contemplate, and connect to something deeper in ourselves... what might be calling us.

GIFT makes its US premiere with screenings in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, LA and Boulder. Details here: