"Portrait San Diego" is a project that has involved various engagements between myself and members of the San Diego community. There are a couple different parts or layers to this project. The first of these layers is how I framed the project as it was presented to the public. I encountered people with a set of questions regarding their opinions of local culture, and their involvement with it. I told them that it's all for an art project that will culminate in a series of portraits of the participants displayed with all the various opinions I've received, with the results to show the many faces and voices of San Diego. At this point, I asked if it would be alright to take their picture. If agreed upon, they signed the release form, filling out their name and address. They were further assured that personal information would be kept separate from their responses, and that their address would only be used in order to send an invitation to the exhibition. In order to gather participants of the various demographics in the area, I've taken my camera and my questions to different parts of the community, as well as various places of congregation like shopping centers, movie theatres, or any special events that happened to be going on. I also solicited help in obtaining participants for the project, which resulted in 18 participants all being from the same apartment complex. I took out a few ads in the local paper, The Reader, and a couple online at www.craigslist.com to ensure a wide variety of responses. Each of these garnered only a couple responses in which a photo was also sent to me, but were unique in the fact that they had to initiate the engagement, whereas myself or an assistant had to confront all other participants.
The second part of this project is what happened once I returned to my studio. With the pictures I took of the participants, I created miniature portraits using oil on 3" x 2" pieces of copper. I've amassed 50 portraits of people who have also participated in the survey. There were almost twice as many more people to have taken the survey than allowed me to take their picture, so not every voice had a face to represent it. The paintings were carried out in a way that I felt a member of the general public can relate to, as close to realism as possible, with little stylistic flair or meandering away from the original photograph. I felt that if the portrait was not well executed, or painted in an alien style for someone of popular taste, then there wouldn't be much interest in participating. Painting someone's portrait is an unusual relationship, and the circumstances of which were completely different between those people whom I've met and interacted with, and the people whose image I received by other means. I noticed a correctional tendency in myself when painting people I was at least a little familiar with, meaning that I would alter the image a bit in order to conform with my feelings towards the subject, while with the other paintings were executed in a directly technical manner.
Three weeks before the exhibition, which took place on April 16th and 17th, 2003, I mailed all the portraits out to their rightful owners, using the address they provided when they signed the release form. When the project was explained to them previously, it was only made explicit that it was an art project involving portraits, but the implication was that they would be photographic in nature, and the subjects would have no further obligation or engagement with them. I therefor made it their duty to complete the work by giving them the task of bringing the work to the gallery for the show, otherwise the walls would be bare. I included the following letter to explain what I expected out of them:
The goal was to try to get people into the gallery. In a sense, the number of people that showed up, and what their interest was in the first place, amounted to something of a portrait of the sense of culture in San Diego, more so than any individual or group painting, or with any combination of opinions. The gathering of people within a gallery context discussing issues of culture was the art piece more so than what was hanging on the wall. The paintings themselves, I felt, had to be good enough likenesses, and well enough executed for the receivers to think that they're anything of value, and the project worth supporting, although it's hard to say if anyone didn't participate because they didn't like the portrait, or for other reasons.
The results were a little disheartening. Out of the fifty portraits that were sent out, 14 ended up being on display. Only Three people actually showed up to the gallery to deliver the portrait and attend the reception. Five people mailed back the portrait, suggesting other obligations. Two people I only had email addresses for, and I emailed them to say that their portrait was being held at the gallery for them to pick up, but they never showed. Two portraits were mailed back to me by the post office with a return to sender stamp, suggesting that the recipients either gave me a false address, or refused to accept it. The last two I cheated on a little by painting portraits of myself and my girlfriend, and we were at the show. Of the people who came to the reception, two were artists, and the other had friends in the arts. Two were people that replied through an ad, so whom I've never met, and the third was someone that I confronted with the survey previously. I got the sense that the eight people that were previously strangers, and who participated to their fullest capacity, were already in some way inundated with a sense of cultural appreciation and experience in one way or another.
In the end, all the portraits were given back to their owners, and the show was over. The portrait created by those in attendance was of a very apathetic San Diego community. Who knows what fate the portraits met? I doubt that I'll ever see them again. I conclude that the majority of the public cannot even be bribed into caring about art and culture in any way. I view my work with this project something like an artist missionary giving gifts to would-be converts to an enriched life. On the other hand, there is no doctrine I'm pushing, nor belief structure, just a shared experience. Fifty people can now say that they were a part of my project, and they have uncontestable proof of that fact. The execution of the project was more for the interaction and dialogue with the public regarding cultural matters than it was about any tangible outcome. The effects on the cultural consciousness of the people involved cannot be measured or in any way tested. I only have numbers suggesting that roughly 16% of the participants bothered to take further action, while only 6% cared strong enough to be present for the reception. Combined with the opinions that everyone submitted, that seems like a fair assessment of San Diego's cultural climate. This is the attitude that I've tried to counteract with much of my work in the past couple years.
Portrait San Diego (PSD) can be considered something of a culmination of ideas and practices I've been working on that would further public interaction with art. I've placed art in public places that would confront an unsuspecting public; Swings, Sleep With Art, Poetry, Free Stuff, as well as held gallery exhibitions that encouraged viewer participation; Enviro Conjunction, One on One, but the current project wavers between the two. The first part of PSD can be considered to be myself, as an artist, being placed in public spaces to interact with the people, akin to early works of Vito Acconci, or having Komar and Melamid conducting their surveys face-to-face. It's a performance that doesn't call attention to itself of being so, and the impression given is one of serious community research. Once the painting is created and mailed off, the art becomes privatized. At this point, the individual pieces become their own objects, entities both a part of and separate from the art world in general.
The fact that they are portraits links them with a whole history of portrait painting dating back to man's earliest historical records, through the ages to gothic and renaissance portraiture where gilding was a common practice, and to the modern day when just about anybody can have a portrait commissioned with little money. At the same time, the portraits are part of a larger project that links them all together, and that has contemporary significance. The fact that the works are being mailed links them to mail art, and people like Ray Johnson or early Joseph Beuys. Interactivity has been a buzzword of much work in the past decade, but which has had a prominence in much of the work of the second half of the twentieth century with the Fluxus movement with participants including Ken Friedman and Yoko Ono and happenings by Allan Kaprow, Situationist International with artists like Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, and contemporary figures like Rirkrit Tiravanija and Felix Gonzales Torres. My project also has associations with theorists like Marcel Mauss and George Betaille and their notion of the gift, even crossing over to a wider "free culture" from Diggers, Yippies, and the open-source movement including web-based art and shareware. The gift, in this case being the portrait, can be associated with Native American cultural and socioeconomic practice of the potlatch, or a redistribution of wealth, with the biggest gifts taking the form of "coppers," one of the reasons for choosing that medium for the paintings.
The idea of the gift is counter to the capitalist structure of modern society, of which the art world has also fallen prey. Value and monetary significance seem arbitrarily structured, and inherently unbalanced to favor a higher class of individuals. That's why I purposely sought out people who have not been immersed in this subculture of cultural elites, and to see how they would react to my project, and what sort of value they would place on one of its artifacts (their portrait). I am not at all surprised by the results of the exhibition, knowing the attitudes of both the art world and the general public. The art world has successfully removed itself from any matter of relevance other than its own existence, leaving a previously engaged public scrounging for alternatives. It found them in "artists" like Bob Ross, Thomas Kinkaid, and the countless Sunday painters that appeal to the mass audience, and who expect nothing other than a modest pocketbook to be appreciated. At the same time, the art world feels relieved from the burden of the uneducated, and is free to subsist in their self-contained, yet deceptively boundless arena.
It is then a mystery why I continue in my efforts to burst that bubble, letting art and culture spill out unto a black and white landscape, and inviting the public to share in its spoils. One can imagine a success being similar to the success of military engagement on Iraq where the ruling party was obliterated, and the oppressed scurried rampantly to loot its riches, doing so more as further punishment or retribution, than as a means to assimilate the wealth and prestige into their daily lives. Change must happen slowly, and needs to be accepted by all involved, otherwise chaos will ensue. That's why continue these baby steps towards a change in the socioeconomic position of art and culture, and furthermore on society itself.
Portrait San Diego is yet another building block being used to construct a metaphorical bridge between the two worlds. A bridge is an open structure, with citizens on both sides free to cross at will. This image surpasses notions of a revolution wherein factions on both sides will no doubt vehemently oppose the changes. Currently, the bridge is merely a footbridge, able to accomodate relatively few people, but it's there. It has the potential for growth as long as there is a willingness for acceptance. I see both worlds being able to benefit from its construction. The public will gain an entire class of critical thinkers and intellectuals that have been absent from the American spotlight for decades, and the artists will gain a wider audience and means of support for their production. False stereotypes of what an artist is and does would first have to be eliminated from the public consciousness. Likewise, prejudices towards an unknowledgable public need to be forgotten. It's a long process, I'm sure, but one that I see a doomed society without.