We generally expect our artists to be more interesting people than those from other walks of life, and we reward them for their special abilities to help the rest of us find complexity of meaning, beauty and even grandeur in the world around us. So when an artist attempts to sidestep that mythology and chooses a project that shifts the attention away from himself to the capabilities of other people, it’s not an easy task; such efforts can be hard to read without prejudice. Harrell Fletcher, an artist originally from California and now living in Portland, Oregon, has taken it upon himself to turn the spotlight onto others. With a dedicated, empathic intelligence, he treats us to the joy and poignancy of appreciating our fellow humans by walking a difficult line between artistic skill, organizational savvy and anonymity.
This interview took place in New York on July 29, 2005. A version of it will accompany Fletcher’s project at Domaine de Kerguéhennec Centre d’Art, Bignan, France, later this year.
Allan McCollum I enjoy that the meaning of your work doesn’t reside in any one piece. In fact, looking at any one piece you might pass over it; they’re often so simple and easy to describe. But looking at project after project (the number seems to go into the hundreds), and then your Learning to Love You More website with a couple of thousand more projects, a certain set of values comes through. You’re not trying to produce singular masterpieces, and almost all your work is about people other than yourself. A lot of the things that we expect an artist to do, you do backward. It constantly takes me by surprise.
Harrell Fletcher It’s about having a set of natural proclivities. I see the structure of how an artist is supposed to operate, but some of those things don’t feel comfortable to me. In graduate school, I started realizing that I did not have to follow the normal course.
AM How did you perceive the “normal course” while you were in school?
HF It’s so concentrated in graduate school; you see all of these people going into their studios, spending hours and hours making objects or paintings. And it’s supposed to be about isolating themselves. Maybe they have a wall of inspirational clippings from magazines, but that’s the extent of their interaction with the world.
AM Where did you go to school?
HF I went to Humboldt State University for three years, the San Francisco Art Institute for one year, and then the California College of Arts and Crafts. I was coming from a photography background, and that led to going out in the world and finding things to document. But even then I was frustrated by the system in which art was shown. I wanted to make booklets of photographs and hand them out on the street rather than try to find a gallery to show them.
AM I never would have guessed that your impulse to do these projects came from photography.
HF I’d become interested in new forms of documentary and I just started making books. They were almost like making an exhibition—I could hand one to someone and they’d get the entire idea.
AM In the same way a photographer can put together a book of photographs.
HF Except I was making one-of-a-kind works. I made about 30 of them. Then I started making Xerox books, and that led to the various publications I make now, newspapers, small books, etc.
AM What happened to those early books?
HF I still have them. They’ve never been shown. This relates to your first comment about seeing my work best as an overall set. In graduate school I was doing an independent study with Larry Sultan and whenever he would ask to see work, I’d give him these books that I had made years before. At one point, he was like, “Why aren’t you showing me any new work?” And I said, “I’m trying to make you into my ideal viewer. I want you to be prepared before I show you anything new so that you know exactly where I’m coming from.” It was as if I were trying to show him 30 exhibitions I’d done, all contained within these books.
AM So much of your work seems to have been done for what might be called a fairly narrow audience. Like your piece Some People from Around Here, those big eight-foot signs along the highway in the small town of Fairfield, California, blown-up painted plywood cut-out portraits of local people. Clearly, the chosen audience was the local townspeople.
HF About a million people a week commute past Fairfield to the Bay Area. That was the audience. Also the local people who were represented on the billboards, and their friends and neighbors. The local people had this thrill of suddenly seeing a person they know, or maybe a person they see every day, being treated the way they’re used to celebrities being treated. The excitement for those local people was knowing that I wasn’t just making it in their backyard for their friends to see, but for all those people who don’t know them. That’s the difference between a normal citizen and a celebrity: people who don’t know them personally can still recognize a celebrity’s face.
AM You’ve got images of the project on the Internet. That’s where I saw it, in New York City, 3,000 miles away. I’m a part of the “art world.” So, now you’ve got an art world audience looking at the works, as well. All artists have to think about their audience, but it’s especially complicated with you when you work with local people in these small communities.
HF At the time the piece was done, I didn’t know that would happen. I was trying to make work that would function without special art knowledge so that people could access it in a direct way, which might also be incredibly complex based on their own personal history and associations. At the same time, as an artist I have knowledge of the history of art, and that goes into the work too. There are multiple readings, but sometimes having too deep a reading takes you away from the actual experience.
AM What do you mean, the actual experience?
HF That first encounter with something.
AM The first encounter of “us” in the art world, or simply the first encounter?
HF For anyone. David Hammond says that the art world audience is the worst one, partly because they’re overeducated and partly because they’re too conservative. They have expectations and immediate cynicism or they try to dig into it too deeply right away.
AM But people who don’t study contemporary art are just as likely to have an impoverished way of looking, a knee-jerk Oh, that’s just elitist, or My kid could do that.
HF Especially if the work that you’re presenting to them seems like something they could have made themselves. I’ve tried to make projects less about my own personal aesthetic, which might appear to be a my-kid-could-do-that approach because that’s an aesthetic that I like. But I give the work a certain level of technical proficiency so people feel that it’s validated. The portraits on the highway are not hyperrealistic, but they’re not sloppy either; people can’t automatically say, I could do that.
AM I see, because they couldn’t do that. (laughter)
HF The work is bumped up just past that level. Unless it’s actually a kid who did the project, which often happens. In that case, someone might say, Yeah, my kid could do that and my kid’s pretty great, and I can relate to the fact that this is a good thing.
AM Tell me about The Report project, where after talking to a person, you produce write-ups that itemize interesting facts about that individual, and then publish them as downloadable PDF files on your website. How long have you been doing these?
HF Maybe three years. I was talking with a friend who told me an article was going to come out in an art magazine about his work, and then it didn’t. I knew the feeling—expectation and hope, and you’re wondering, Is this going to be a good article? How is it going to represent me? You really feel at the writer’s mercy. So I said, “You know, you should just make your own art magazine and represent your work however you want.” And he said, “Well, I don’t think I can do that.” And I said, “Maybe I’ll do it.” Then I thought, Why don’t I just do this with all sorts of people who are interesting? I’ll give them a chance to identify what they want to talk about, how they’d like to represent themselves, and I’ll put it out there in a way that both regular people and the art world can have access to them.
AM I’m curious, why haven’t you done more Reports?
HF I don’t know why, other than a lot of these things that I do seem easy but are actually difficult for me. The work involves so many kinds of interactions with different people, and it also takes a lot of time being totally alone, avoiding social interaction.
AM When you do a report, do you do the whole thing with them, right on the spot?
HF Yeah, it all happens right there. They get to look at it, cross things out, change it.
AM So it doesn’t take very long.
HF Usually about an hour. It’s done as an interview/conversation. I have a template, I write the person’s name in, the issue number and the date, and I ask, “What things do you want to talk about and how do you want me to represent them?” Once I’ve listed anywhere from five to 20 topics, I say, “Tell me about this particular topic.” Then I ask them to draw a picture of it. Then they dictate to me again and I write down what they say. Usually, it leads someplace else, and we only cover two or three topics out of the list. But I include the whole list on the front page to show the range of this person and their interests. If you meet them, maybe you would want to bring up one of the other topics.
AM There are a lot of chance encounters involved in your work; you often develop large, complicated projects with people you simply happen to meet in the neighborhoods you find yourself in for one reason or another. You did a project with a rug merchant, when you were still a student.
HF That was part of a collaboration with another artist, Jon Rubin. It was my first year of graduate school in 1993, we had decided to start a gallery in a borrowed building that was devoted to exhibitions about people and places within a five-block radius of the space. The rug store show with Albert Keshesian which displayed things from Albert’s store and life was the first one we did. His store was just across the street on College Avenue.
AM I’m also remembering the SF MoMA piece about people walking into the museum off the street. You asked to see the photos they carried in their wallets, then re-photographed them for your exhibition, involving the museum-goers’ personal lives. Do you see one’s relationship to a neighborhood as allegorical? What we engage in the world versus what we ignore?
HF Knowing that I’m going to be working with a particular neighborhood, even though it’s a self-imposed structure, suddenly changes my ability to see and value those things I might not otherwise pay attention to. We prioritize what’s important to us. The shoe store where you get your shoes versus another store where you don’t buy anything—the latter is not relevant to you. We do that with people too; whatever is directly related to us, we care about. Anything that is not, we don’t.
When I walked around with a camera, I realized that I could see interesting things I normally didn’t notice. Sometimes it’s a structure or a device that forces you to look at things.
AM With the Come Together project you did here in New York at Apexart, you asked people to choose other people who then choose topics on which to give ten-minute public lectures. You’re three steps removed.
HF Something I think about a lot is creating a strategy that will work within whatever limitations are inherent to the situation. If I had been in New York, I could have spent a few weeks finding 26 people who I thought could do a ten-minute lecture on something they cared about that would be interesting. That’s a project I might do sometime. But I didn’t have very much time and the show was going to happen far from where I live. I had a certain resource—I knew a number of people in New York—but they were largely connected to the art world. I wanted to do something that was not about the art world. Normally what I would do is just go for a walk, so I asked everybody I knew in New York to go for a walk.
AM I want to mention the garage sale projects you did in the early ’90s at your and Jon Rubin’s Gallery Here. I read on your website how every object on display had a “story tag” attached to it that told a story that went with that object. Where were these objects from?
HF It was always an entire garage sale from one family. I would walk around with them, they’d identify an object and I’d say, “What’s the significance of this one?” One of them would tell me, and I’d write it all down, like a secretary. A big part of my work is grunt work, so that somebody can get their words or their photographs or whatever it may be out there. I’ve always been very particular about transcription too; I think it’s crucial. I can turn somebody’s speech into something interesting by making sure that I include everything, or start, or stop, at a certain point, or whatever it takes.
AM A poetics skill.
HF It’s kind of like that. It is one of those things that nobody talks about and nobody appreciates or acknowledges because in transcription, it doesn’t seem like anything happened.
AM I know most of your projects from the Internet. If the World Wide Web had not blossomed, it seems to me you might have a very different career; your body of work would have a very different way of finding meaning. A lot of these community projects might have been like tears in the rain, but the Internet allows them to not only endure in the minds of the local people, but to be known to anyone at any time, all over the world. How did the Internet come to be a part of what you do? Has it changed your work? Do you feel that it frees you, solves problems for you?
HF It wound up being a perfect context for me to show my work in, because it allowed me to make ideal viewers, by giving access to all the work I’ve done.
AM A kind of mental construct of an ideal viewer, one that doesn’t actually exist in the real world?
HF The potential is out there to actually know most of the work through the website. A well-recognized New York artist like yourself can know about the projects I was doing in my neighborhood in Oakland. When I started, that would have seemed impossible to me. I was so focused around books, I didn’t think about the Internet. I’m not a technical person, but when I was a graduate student at CCAC I knew another student there, Yuri Ono, who later contacted me and told me she had become a Web designer. She offered to do a website for me in exchange for some of my work, partly because she wanted to build up her résumé. So, we got together and designed the entire thing. Now she’s in so much demand, she barely has any time. But she’s still very dedicated to my site. I’m probably a year and a half behind on the things I should be sending her to post.
AM So suddenly this audience you were trying to create through various projects in small art centers in small towns all over the place could be presented all at once, for everybody. I suppose we all have the ideal audience in our heads, like we have the ideal lover. Some of us live our whole lives in a narcissistic universe, thinking that everyone is aware of what we’re doing and yet nobody is, or, we think people care and they don’t.
HF It’s a funny balance. Even working with all these people, giving them credit and trying to promote them, the work still falls under the heading of a Harrell Fletcher project. So there is still a lot of ego in my work.
AM It can be almost impossible for an artist with any contemporary art-world orientation to do projects with small communities without a knee-jerk negative response from critical studies academics, that you’re somehow using people for your own ends, that there’s something “colonialist” or patronizing about working with everyday folks. People suspect cynicism. Do you run into this kind of criticism?
HF That kind of response to my work came up until recently. I’m not sure what’s changed, but I think there has been a climate shift in the art world with regard to socially engaged work. My response to the question of exploitation is that in many ways the people I work with are actually using me. There is at least a certain amount of mutual exploitation in the projects, or in other words, reciprocity. That’s a good thing. We are helping each other out. I work with people to give me different perspectives and content than I can come up with on my own: they work with me to be enabled to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have access to or the skills to do. In other professions, that’s a normal dynamic. Even in something as closely related to visual art as theater, it is normal for a director to have overriding control while actors play their part and add their individual abilities to a larger piece. No one suggests that a regional theater director is exploiting non-professional actors by casting them in a play. Sometimes exploitation is a justifiable criticism of socially driven art, but in my case I don’t think it is.
AM I want to ask you about the list of ideas that you keep on your website for art projects you might do in the future. It relates to the way your work almost always refers to someone else other than yourself; it’s a kind of unexpected generosity. I’m curious about how self-conscious you are about that. Artists are expected to be expressive of who they themselves are. It’s a cliché. And of course artists are always very competitive and proprietary about their ideas, their own territory.
AM But you actually keep this extensive list of your ideas for future projects on your public website. This totally confounds me. I also keep a list of ideas that I might use in my work, but I keep it away from the eyes of others, even from my friends. How is it you’re not afraid that people are going to steal your ideas? Are you that confident that you have so many?
HF When I was making those little booklets in graduate school, I didn’t copyright them. My feeling was, Go ahead and copy what I do, because I don’t care if it gets distributed in a new way by being Xeroxed or if someone just copies the idea. I wasn’t a very good technician as an artist. The skill I had was that I kept coming up with ideas.
AM (laughter) This artist is a luminous fountain!
HF Even if somebody were to take one of my ideas and do it before I did, I’d just come up with another one. And they’d do it differently, they couldn’t do it the way that I would. Occasionally I’ll see something that seems similar to what I’ve done and it’ll bother me slightly in that where it’s coming from is not being acknowledged. I’ve re-created other people’s projects, but I always credit them. I make that part of the project.
AM When have you done that?
HF I re-created this Paul Thek class at Cooper Union. I was very clear about it. I acted like an intermediary between him, a dead person whose teaching notes I was delivering, and the students, who I asked to act as surrogates for his students back in ’82. I’ve also done a re-creation of a Robert Smithson lecture, but I say, I’m going to read the transcripts of his lecture and show the images he showed. It’s like doing a cover of a song.
AM Almost everything you’ve done involves acts of honoring. When I go into a museum, like the Museum of Modern Art, there’s always a multi-level system of honoring: the artists, the curator, the lenders, the benefactors. Your approach is so absolutely, weirdly leveling of that “hall of heroes” stuff, it’s stunning. You once had an exhibition at the Jack Hanley Gallery in San Francisco where you created posters of the artist’s work who happened to be showing in the adjacent gallery! Is this how you think of your work, as a kind of honoring?
HF It came out of a frustration with that rarefied museum system that you’re talking about, and also the more general, popular culture of celebrities. Those people aren’t interesting to me. People I encountered, either through more obscure books or films or through my own daily life and experience, are the people that I was wishing were on the magazine cover at the checkout stand. I didn’t have access to People magazine, but I did have access, eventually, to a museum like the Whitney or SF MoMA. I had opportunities there to bring attention to the things that I care about in a way that could also act as institutional and social critique, challenges of various sorts.
AM And creating a model that other people might imitate, you think?
HF Possibly. I don’t have a manifesto. I don’t even have a set of guidelines. It’s a much more intuitive sense of how—this is me being a bit selfish or me valuing my own taste—I see a particular problem, and this is how we’re going to fix it.
AM And it seems that your focus on other people usually involves discovering their particular interests. Everybody has special interests, just like everybody’s objects have a thousand stories.
HF I want to know what those people are passionate about. And usually there’s something in it that becomes interesting to me. Or not. But Ulysses did become something of interest to me, beyond the project and beyond that person.
AM Explain the Ulysses project, Blot Out the Sun, to me.
HF I had gotten a Portland public art grant for ten thousand dollars. I proposed that I would find three people in Portland who had a project that they couldn’t realize without my help. I had heard of this guy Jay, who wanted a movie made at his gas station but I hadn’t tracked him down yet. That was what started me thinking about setting up the grant like that.
AM The idea had already been in his head when you showed up?
HF Yeah. That’s what was so fascinating to me about it, that there was this person I hadn’t met yet, but I knew he wanted a film made at his gas station. I got the grant and then I went and talked to him. He said he had been waiting for me to show up for the last ten years. He wanted it to be filmed there, and screened on this big white wall that’s attached to the gas station. I said, “Okay, what should the film be like?” And he said, “It’s about all of the things that go on here,” because to him the gas station is the center of the universe. And it was just so interesting to me, he’s not an artist, he’s not a filmmaker, but how many people are there that don’t fit into a category? You know, they’re not like the person who wants to make a film. They’re the person who wants a film made at their place. What is that? Can you go to school for it? Can you have a career of it? You can’t. Most of these things slip through the cracks. And there’s all of these people out there who have an idea, but they don’t know how to go about it at all. He said the film should be like Ulysses by James Joyce. I hadn’t read Ulysses, so he explained it to me. Later as I was reading the book I decided that I would use the text directly and have the people at the gas station speak the lines. I made postcards announcing the screening before it was actually shot, giving myself three weeks to do it. Then I had to figure out how I was going to make this thing. I wrote cue cards with lines from the book and had the people there read them, which allowed the mechanics to keep working on the cars, and let people who were pulling up for gas, who would only be there for a few minutes, still be in the project. They read their lines and then got a postcard to come to the screening.
AM I’d like to hear more about the Learning to Love You More website, where you offer assignments to people over the web and they send their completed projects back to you. The site seems to offer a solution to the dilemma of what to do about all those people out there who have a story to tell. How old is the website?
HF Three years, it started roughly about the same time as the Blot Out the Sun project.
AM In both cases, you play the role of facilitator. When you make an assignment on the Learning to Love You More site, like “Write down a recent argument,” you’re not telling people what the argument has to be about. Or the assignment, “Take a picture of strangers holding hands.” They can be executed in so many different ways.
HF The early projects, the rug store and the garage sale, were all collaborations, not just between me and the people, but between me and another artist. And Learning to Love You More is a collaboration between me and Miranda July and Yuri Ono and all of these other people.
AM Do your collaborators also come up with assignments?
HF Miranda and I come up with assignments. We run ideas by each other; sometimes we go back and forth, developing and changing them.
AM There seems to be a picture emerging of how complex meaning can be in ordinary life, in addition to the complexity of that rarefied area that we call art, like in Ulysses. Artists are always excited to show everyone how one small thing is the axis of hundreds of meanings and narratives. It’s a good thing to remember, but at the same time, why do I need a professional artist to tell me that? This is common knowledge. Why have we gotten into this habit of asking artists to show us how one single moment or one single object can be rich with associations? I wonder if this is a frustration of yours, if you create these projects to show us that we don’t always need artists to tell us that the world is filled with a million stories.
HF I think that’s true, but in some ways we do need . . . we need something. This gets into another large subject, which is the change that has occurred because of contemporary society, technology, convenience. Things have changed drastically since World War II: it used to be common to know how to play a musical instrument, to get together and sing, to know how to draw, basically to entertain ourselves and others, to tell stories. I remember when I was younger watching a lot of TV and getting numbed by that. My mom would force me to go outside and do something real. Sometimes what you need is somebody to prod you into having a real experience as opposed to a TV experience.
AM On the other hand, on your Learning to Love You More website, you’ll give the assignment, “Draw a scene from a movie that made you cry” or “Reread your favorite book from fifth grade.” These are acts of reproducing . . . .
HF But they’re adding an active element to a passive experience. In the case of the crying one, I had this inability to cry for a period of time. I just didn’t cry for years, and then some things changed in my life and I started crying much more often. Every time I rode on an airplane, they would play a movie and I would start crying at some point. It was a really sort of happy experience. These were movies that I didn’t normally watch, tearjerker, Hollywood movies, that actually had an effect on me. I was curious about that point when they made me cry. What becomes interesting too is that if one person had an emotional experience with a movie, what happens if someone else takes that moment and re-creates it for themselves? Does it somehow get transferred? So, we had a second assignment: select somebody’s moment when they cried and then act it out and videotape it, and then put that on the website. It’s very similar to what happens with the argument assignments.
AM It was such an odd thing for you to do, to have people make videos of themselves acting out the scripts of the arguments of other participants, complete strangers to them! Why on earth would you do that?
HF In that case, it’s about how ridiculous arguments can be, and through a slight mediation you can see that. By doing someone else’s argument, you don’t have a personal attachment to it.
AM So there’s a definite sense when you come up with an idea that it could be therapeutic.
HF It’s one of those things that I don’t want to acknowledge.
AM Sorry. (laughter)
HF No, it’s fine. I don’t mind saying that I secretly hope, and sometimes not so secretly, that there are these effects—therapeutic, social, political. I fear that if people have an expectation that I’m someone who could make some sort of positive change, that kind of pressure is not actually good for me to be working under. Instantly I want to do something opposite to that. And there are people who do social work who I really admire. I just don’t think that I am one of them.
AM The people who answer the Learning to Love You More assignments, sometimes they’re amateur artists, sometimes they’re student artists, sometimes they’re professional artists, and sometimes they’re not artists at all. In the art community there are always those who are considered to have more “expertise,” and those of us who are considered to have less—it’s a whole hierarchy that people are obsessed with, critics and curators and art dealers, their entire careers are based on deciding who has expertise and who doesn’t. You seem to ignore the hierarchy of levels of expertise that most people describe. But how do you feel about it?
HF Well, I recognize that the hierarchy exists, I mean, the reason that I’m an artist is that there were people I saw whose work I liked, and those were the things that were available to me at the top of that system. But, given the opportunity, I’d like to mix it up. And to see these things in a non-hierarchical mix. For instance, in Come Together, it was great that you were one of the selectors, along with a bunch of people nobody had heard of. And it wasn’t like I gave you an hour, I gave you ten minutes; everyone got ten minutes. For me, that collapses the hierarchy, at least in that system. Everyone’s being valued in the same way.
AM So this fellow who owns a gas station, you and he do a project on James Joyce, who is one of our premier 20th-century artists, at the top of the pack; you can’t ignore the hierarchy when the people you’re working with themselves experience the hierarchy. So, the hierarchy itself has to become a part of your topic.
HF Right. If you look at my work in an overall view, which is the one that I like to see, then you see James Joyce in relationship to Star Trek, in relationship to rugs, in relationship to plants, or whatever it happens to be. James Joyce is not being valued more than these other people and subjects. He’s being valued, because I think he’s interesting, but so are all of these other things.