Ever tried living without money or bartering your way through your vacation? Sounds impossible? Not for Russian artist Sergey Balovin, who in the last year has travelled to 33 countries, including Kazakhstan, China, Singapore, India, Italy and France, without any cash. And all of it through his project, In Kind Exchange, where he barters his art for things that he needs.
The 29-year-old hasn't used his money since end-2012. He taught at the School of Architecture and Design, Studio YA, from 2001 to 2005. Post that, he was a professor at the Voronezh State Pedagogical University, Faculty of Art Education, till he quit in 2010 because, "it's easier to live without any money than on a teacher's meagre salary, in Russia". He sold some of his art and moved to Shanghai; that's where it all began.
Sergey rented an apartment that was almost empty. His next-door neighbour was moving out and had lots of things she didn't need, including an easel, which he offered to buy. "Since it was a gift from a friend, she didn't think it was right to sell it. I asked if she would be willing to exchange it for my artwork. She agreed," recalls Sergey. It dawned on him that he could turn this into a project to get other things he needed. He posted his offer of art in exchange for things he required online; in no time, his apartment was furnished.
Some of the gifts he has received
As word about his project in Shanghai spread, he began receiving emails from people across the world; some were even willing to pay for his journey. By February 2013, he had begun his world trip. His only condition when accepting invitations was, "You have to help me get to my next destination. It doesn't matter how—plane or train ticket, drop me in your car, send me off on a bicycle, help me hitch-hike".
Realising that the destinations were not too far off, it was easy even for students and unemployed people to get him to his next destination. "Obtaining visas was not a problem. I needed a Schengen visa for Europe and after writing about needing help with visas on my blog, someone came forward to help with my Indian and Chinese visas."
"Money is important to people. They fight and kill for it, but life can be good without money too. I have learnt that I can trust people around the world." That doesn't mean he hasn't used money at all. There have been times when people gave him money for a specific purpose, in exchange for a portrait. A train ticket for instance. "It's not always possible for someone to book my ticket as my passport and other personal details are required, so they give me the money instead," he explains.
Sergey Balovin in action
Sergey usually does a 5-10 minute sketch on 20x30cm or 30x40cm paper with a brush and black ink. The tools are simple, but not the technique, as you can't rectify mistakes. If you want a portrait on a larger canvas, make sure you carry it along. The value of the gift you offer in return is inconsequential. Plane tickets, an iPhone, a Macbook, a bottle of water, a drum-set, an expired driving license—Sergey has received all sorts of gifts. "Sometimes I have to leave them at my hosts' home. It's not that I don't like them; I simply cannot fit everything in my backpack." If you're not happy with the artwork, you don't have to give him a gift. You can pick a gift from his wish list, but he won't bargain.
Sergey, who likes interactive and contemporary art, believes in creating something sensitive enough to touch hearts. He's created approximately 5,000 portraits and met between 3,000 and 4,000 people. "The number of portraits is higher, because I often create 2-3 portraits of one person at a time. I give them one and keep one for myself," he explains. You could get him to Skype with you or create a portrait from a picture and send you a photograph of it. If you're lucky, someone travelling from his city to yours might transport it for you as a gift for having his portrait drawn by Sergey.
His journey has not been all smooth sailing. Among his many challenges, a mistake on his plane ticket from Shanghai to Mexico led him to postpone his trip by a week. He has also received plenty of invitations to Brazil, but with the FIFA World Cup going on, potential hosts have rented out their spare rooms or apartments.
Does he plan to not use money at all? "It's like a game! I plan to play as long as I can. I'm not saying I will never use money again, but I'm not afraid to live without money. While some people like the idea, others don't think it's a real job but whatever you do, you'll find people who support you and those who don't," he believes. Knowing how unstable it is, it's something he had to try before he settled down with a family and the greater responsibilites that come with it. But he is far from irresponsible. He has used In Kind Exchange for more than his own needs, by drawing in exchange for clothes, books and toys, which he donates to charity. If he were not an artist, he would do something that didn't steal his freedom; like writing or making music. Less than three weeks from now, once his world trip is over, he will host an exhibition in China, showcasing his experience.