Today, I appear to be the beneficiary of a command performance by the Nation Wide Museum Mascot Project (NWMMP). Christen Sperry-Garcia, Brian Dick and I are at the entrance patio of L.A.'s much-challenged MOCA Geffen. This early afternoon the museum's attendees will meet the friendly extended hand of a goony colorful thing (though from its looks, that hand could be a lateral eyebrow.) Appearing in a full-body costume made from reconfigured, brightly crappy, stuff NWMMP attempt to transfigure our every day relationship with art institutions by way of Allan Kaprow and Sid and Marty Krofft. Owing to the fact that it's a command performance, and Christen is going to give birth in two days, the couple haven't made any of the give-away museum promoting schwag that normally normally accompanies their mascottings; buttons, bumper stickers, corn-dogs.
Brian and Christen are animated this morning. They appear with piles of stuff, from which emerges the lifeless costume. Each museum they mascot means the invention of a new character. Brian wiggles into this one despite the heat of the day. He simultaneously holds a conversation with me and dialogs with Christen as they make alterations and additions to the work in progress.
Brian: "Make a slit not a square for the eyes?
Christen: "Like this?
C: "Do you want a square hole?"
C: "I can feel your hot breath from inside there."
Reaching into a "bag of tricks," Christen pulls out zip-ties and hands them to Brian underneath the velvety fabric of the mascot's costume. Brian squeezes his arms up the narrow tube of the mascot's body to slim the slit that function as his porthole. The goal here is to "break up the human form. When the lower part is emphasized, it's less of a human shape," they say. Eventually the mascot for MOCA comes together. In support and approval Christen proclaims, "from the back you look like a Buddhist monk." Then, with the addition of a repurposed piece of cardboard now stating abjectly "MOCA is...", Brian steps from our immediate presence, looks to the institution he's come to support, and for visitors to greet.
It's a slow morning and we could be closer to the museum's entrance. Christen, whose individual art incorporates elements of dance, tells me that each mascot has it's own vocabulary of movement. Body language is important for the mascot; it tries to do as little talking as possible. I gather that the sign and the ostensibly friendly, if awkward, gestures should communicate cheer and celebration of museum. Brian as MOCA mascot gets a family or two to wave at him. Also a few confused people pass by. Eventually NWMMP decide to stake out a spot right in front of the Geffen's door.
The Nationwide Museum Mascot Project began in 2005 in San Diego on a whim when Brian and Christen decided to mascot a street fair. It wasn't the Nation Wide Museum Mascot Project then; they just paraded themselves at "Art on Adams" and greeted people, taking photos and autographing them as "Art and Arty." Later, in 2008, invited to participate in a show called "Inside The Wave: Six San Diego Artists Construct Social Art," they decided to mascot it -- somewhat to the chagrin of the shows curator. Dressing up, they spearheaded a free corn-dog day at that museum, offering a free corn-dog with the price of admission. This summer the NWMMP self-actualized, dropping in at museums from San Diego up to San Francisco and east by way of Detroit, Philadelphia and NYC.
The NWMMP recognize their value, and this summer offered their services for hire to museum curators along the tour's route. In well-crafted pitch letters mailed in advance of their travels, they sold three levels of engagement: GOLD MINE, TRIP TO THE MOON, and THE BEST SUNDAE EVER. With "The Best Sundae Ever" NWMMP offered:
- NWMMP staff onsite for one day to one week to facilitate mascot residency
- Custom made mascot
- Interactive page dedicated to your museum on NWMMP's website
- Mascot workshop (examples: museum theme song writing, mascot movement, museum etiquette)
- Mascot to greet guests and community members and pass out museum positive stickers and other giveaways
NWMMP takes it in stride when its offers to perform go un-answered. They have been notified that their pitches have been forwarded to museum's marketing departments. They have been told how a museum takes great care in maintaining a specific image. They've been told no, please do not come; do not create a mascot for us; do not greet our public; do not make and hand out stickers and pins; do not smile and offer out public hi-five's. No thank you. Stay away.
The Hammer Museum in Westwood has an official unofficial agreement with the NWMMP. They are allowed to do their thing there, like cheering on the Mohn Awards, though their presence there isn't official. This is funny. However Jill Dawsey, associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, has officially worked with the NWMMP. She enjoyed their engagement, and adds:
"These debased mascots are especially meaningful to me at a moment when museums and their marketing efforts are becoming increasingly corporatized. Of course, I'm proud that our own (MCASD) communications/marketing department willingly embraced the debased mascot, in all its backward, castoff glory."
I asked a group of people what they thought an appropriate MOCA mascot would be. Suggestions included: a dead fish with X's for eyes, anything invertebrate, Andre the Giant, guys named "James," some kind of geometric shape in a pink seersucker suite, a Scrooge McDuck /Eli Broad chimera, an ailing chameleon, the ghost of (much revered museum director) Pontus Hulten, and a penniless yet fabulous party girl. It was also suggested that all graphic representations of the mascot should be produced by Shepard Fairey.
Outside the doorway to MOCA, it was a remarkably short period of time before a museum guard appeared and firmly suggested: "You know you are going to have to go." To this, the mascot said "Yeah. Thanks." The NWMMP is not interested in antagonism -- they tell me clearly: "We try not to make any political or historical statements." Interested in sculpting a character and public play, they state that mascot performances are akin to a Buddhist practice - involving detachment from contextual issues.
Otherwise mascoting museums happens in politicized space. Whether the guard saw the sign-carrying mascot as an ambiguously clear protest or just something weird and unwelcomed at Broad and Deitch's museum, I don't know. I never asked him. Not having left fast enough, the guard returned. In no fewer words, he demanded that Brian and Christen leave now. While complying unquestioningly, the mascot turned to the guard to explain that this was "The Nationwide Museum Mascot Project" handing him a promotional postcard. On the card were printed 12 images of awkward friendly characters pleasantly posing outside with museum patrons, engaging them in the spirit of creative play. Taking this in, the guard addressed the mascot face-to-face, and thoughtfully suggested: " You could have submitted something to our corporate office."
Top image: OCMA Mascots | Photo: Courtesy of NWMMP.
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