It is astonishing to know that travelling the world without the use of money is really possible. But it is even more astonishing to know that one can barter their way all around the globe. This couple is doing exactly the same! Travelling the world by exchanging art!
It was in 2018, while I was working on my second job as a social media manager for a popular cafe in Fort Kochi, I had the opportunity to meet Sergey and Claudia. I got a message from the café owner that there was an event happening and he wanted me to cover the event for the social media.
The name of the event was “In Kind Exchange” and the people behind it was Balovin and Beccato.
That is how I met Sergey Balovin and Claudia Beccato, the couple who travels the world by exchanging art.
The event poster they made said, ” Get your portrait made in exchange of any useful presents. Food, drinks, spices, clothes, SIM card, travel tickets etc”.
The concept of ‘In Kind Exchange’ is clear and very simple. Balovin and Beccato would create your portrait in exchange for gifts which let them travel all around the world. These gifts can be anything which basically depends on the giver. For example the place to do this event at the café was also a gift.
In the past, some people have offered them things ranging from flight tickets to an expired driving license. The list of gifts says that they have definitely seen a variety of people in their world tour for sure.
According to Sergey Balovin, his art life started at age 4 when his kindergarten teacher made a sketch of a bullfinch in his art book. Since that day he is into art. Many years after the kindergarten days, he graduated from art college, taught art in universities, done many art exhibitions and sold many of his paintings.
It was in 2009, he received an invitation to visit China to do his solo show. His paintings were massive success in China and it offered a much better financial prospect compared the life in Russia. So he decided to move to China and create more commercially successful paintings.
Many landscape and similar paintings he created with customer demand in mind sold out like hotcakes, which actually earned him at least 100 to 400 euros per painting, and he would make about 10 paintings a day. He made a fortune for himself by painting just landscapes until the universe reminded him that how much he had deviated from his own artistic visions.
By playing to the crowd, (in this case “painting to the crowd”) he was purely chasing money and it costed him things that he cared dearly, including his original artistical views. He realized that putting a price to his art had corrupted his ideologies.
At this point, he decided, enough is enough and moved from the Northern part of China to Shanghai. This happened in 2010.
Since he had enough money to spend, he rented a nice empty apartment in Shanghai and started furnishing it. As he had stopped painting for money, he had no income. But he still wanted things to furnish his empty apartment.
That was the time one of his neighbors was moving out and willing to give away her things except for an easel which Sergey was more than willing to buy. Since it was a gift that she received a while ago, she found it inappropriate to sell.
That was the lightbulb moment for Sergey. ‘In Kind Exchange’ was born.
He offered an artwork in exchange for the easel and she agreed. This exchange made him think and he decided to explore this idea in depth.
With the help of his blog and online forums for expats in Shanghai, within 2 months he was able to furnish his apartment in exchange of portraits.
The word spread around the world and he started receiving gifts and invites from around the globe. One thing led to another and finally Sergey was ready for his World Trip by applying the principles of ‘In Kind Exchange’.
Following the invites from around the world, Sergey started his world trip without using money in 2013. His only condition for accepting the invitation was that whoever invited him should be able to help him to get to his next nearest destination. Help came from everywhere in the form of flight tickets, visa assistance and in some cases in the form of money as well.
During the process of furnishing his apartment, he figured out that publishing a list of things that he wanted, made the process more efficient. It also helped those people who wanted to help but was confused about what exactly to give him in return for the portrait.
This is what Sergey says about his World Trip without money.
“In February 2013 I began to travel without a wallet. I paid with paintings for all my needs. All people interested in taking part in “In Kind Exchange” project offered me food, accommodation and tickets in exchange of their portrait done. In 484 days I circled the Earth counterclockwise, visiting almost 36 countries, I drew about 5899 portraits and received at least 5898 gifts.“
In 2015 the one man show became an artist collective when an Italian gastronome Claudia Beccato left her job as food editor and joined Sergey’s money free journey. Thus ‘In Kind Exchange’ started to get hosted under the name of an artist collective Balovin&Beccato.
In 2016, this couple decided get married in a very ‘ceremonious’ function true to their “money-free” principles. This is what they did, in their own words.
“We decided to celebrate our wedding in Montenegro, but we promised ourselves not to spend a penny on it and not to kiss if anyone tried to force us to. And we did it.“
Their radical money free journey led them to a new direction in 2017 when a family of farmers accepted Balovin & Beccato’s offer and agreed to rent an old abandoned house with a stone oven in exchange for artistic care and maintenance. That’s how Stone Oven House came into existence. This is now a place for artists to come, stay, volunteer, express and grow while exchanging their skills and talents to help sustain the community.
While multiple interesting things happening at their end, this couple decided to go on another money free international trip. This time India was also part of the plan and that was when I met them in 2018.
This art café in Kochi has always encouraged artists. Hence while doing the research Balovin & Beccato found out about this place and sent their request to host their “In Kind Exchange” event and it was accepted.
Over the years the portrait making process for ‘In Kind Exchange’ has evolved. Earlier, in 10 to 15 minutes, Sergey would draw the portrait on a white paper. When I met them in 2018, in contrast to what Sergey used to do, he started painting over a black and white photograph that is printed on a paper.
Claudia would patiently shuffle through a bunch of portrait photographs of hundreds of people of which at times included famous personalities, to find a most matching face profile from their database. After finalizing this portrait, Sergey would start painting on top of that image to create the portrait of the person sitting in front of him.
According to Balovin and Beccato they wanted to verify a fact through visual arts that Scientists have been talking about. Scientists have suggested that all people are brothers and sisters.
By painting random models over black and white photographs of celebrities, refugees, politicians, fishermen, bakers, fashion models, designers, teachers, passengers, etc. they are trying to prove this fact.
This is perfectly summed in their own words.
“The graphic transformation of the portraits brings out a relationship between strangers, regardless of their nationality or social origins.”
When some stranger’s portrait picture transformed into my portrait with a few brush strokes, I knew how everything and everyone was connected in this world.
To be at that place, at that moment, interacting with these people didn’t happen by mere accident. It was the culmination of events from the past and continuation of events into the future, made that present moment happen.
While looking at my “instantly-transformed-portrait” and thinking about the courage of this couple who ventured out in the world only with confidence in the faith of humanity by trusting their art to lead them the way, everything felt insignificant to me.
Being the last person to get the portrait done came with certain advantages. I exchanged the finest cardamom I could find in Kochi and asked them more questions about travelling the world without money and their life at the Stone Oven House.
More time with them allowed me to talk to them more and get to know their story better.
At that point, I was secretly hoping that one day I would be able to go to Stone Oven House and volunteer there for some time and live a life where less is more!
What do you think about travelling the world by exchanging art? Would you love to meet this couple and know more about their story? Tell me in the comments.
Check out more ideas about Travelling the world for free.
Read more about Balovin and Beccato here
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