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An e-mail exchange between me and Julie Deamer, the former director at Outpost for Contemporary Art, took place on May 5th, 2011. As it turned out, this dialogue was a key component to define the process of translation from one place to another in order to respond to the different challenges derived from diverse traditions, urban contexts, and power relations between art and sign-painting. New methods needed to be developed for the project to have an echo within the Highland Park community at large. At the same time, my main questions regarding irony and humor as powerful elements for the critique of the art world and collecting practices still seem unsolved by this act of translation:
Julie Deamer: We have been discussing a contextual question, wondering if the project ought to be adjusted in terms of how the sign painters and visual artists engage each other and the businesses. In Ecuador, if I'm not mistaken, the idea was in part inspired by the lack of
presence of contemporary art in Ecuador. This is not the case in Los Angeles, and the neighborhood where your residency will be based is home to a lot of visual artists, including well known artists like Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw. Given this contextual difference we thought it might be interesting to have the process and production of signs be more collaborative. To have the sign painters and visual artists conceptualize and paint the new work together as opposed to the sign painters selecting a particular work to reproduce and that being the extent of the involvement of the visual artists.
X. Andrade: In Ecuador, both the sign painting tradition and the contemporary art scene is different vis a vis L.A., one of the foremost important centers of art in the world. It is not just a matter of scale but of actual exclusion between sign painters and artists. There is a clearly defined boundary, one that quite simply is not crossed unless cheap labor is needed by a given artist. In my work with sign-painter Don Pili, I purposefully thought The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art to be exhibited in a gallery. I'm still trying since it has not been shown in Ecuador yet, and I do not know if I will succeed at that. In the meantime, I have requested more pieces in order to convene the idea of an actual collection. If it gets exhibited or not, Don Pili keeps the authorship of the pieces, while I and Full Dollar remains the author of the concept. This is not just a matter of given visibility to a tradition but of intervening in the small art-circuit of ours, and advancing an anthropological critique on cultural institutions in my native country. At the same time, rendering "masterpieces" of global contemporary art in the language of sign-painting is, for me, making a critical commentary on the commodification of art world as such, and on the value given to "authenticity" in occidental societies as a key concept for advancing practices of collection. In Ecuador, the context of my practice both as an anthropologist and a citizen, we are talking about clear racial, class, and gender based frontiers between art and crafts. My project comment on that as well. Don Pili would never have a chance to be considered seriously at an institutional level. Even if I don't get a space, and I have to show the collection in the privacy of my flat, that makes me accomplish my purposes.
In L.A. you have a far more complex scene in terms of the mix of several traditions (Chicano muralism, sing-painting as such, street art, grafitti, and the art circuit of galleries and museums). Although power relations remain, actual border crossing is a fact or a possibility. Sign painters have access to established craft schools, are in touch with artists, participate of artist projects, even if their main survival strategy is creating signs under the commission of a business owner for commercial purposes. As the case of Highland Park shows, they can actually share the same urban spot as citizens. That is not the case back in Ecuador. My world and Don Pili's is separated, it simply just don't overlap.
Therefore, I totally agree with your suggestions, the project should take into account a different context, participation and dialogue between people involved from both ends (sign painting and contemporary art). This dialogue can be simpler because of a certain common background, a certain agreement about what is art to begin with. I open up to the possibility of generating signs in a more dialogical way, and we should preserve this strategy from beginning to end. Actually, artists and painters painting together is a great idea because it would engage the participation of visual artists in the actual production of signs, and vice versa (for the sign painters to create like artists). However, in one way or another, I would like to keep citations to contemporary art as evident as possible. After all, referring to established contemporary art is at the heart of this project. I see this as a project that is mainly based on appropriation (we should keep this as an open question for the people involved though, and I don't want to simply replicate the Ecuador formula).
JD: This points to another question - In Ecuador the sign painter translated very famous works of art. Should we try to engage well known LA artists generally regardless of their interest in working with communities or should our efforts be focused more on engaging
artists whose work is grounded in social practice?
XA: I will keep this strategy open: I do want to preserve a link between my ongoing project in Ecuador and famous, expensive art (therefore to negotiate with at least one or two superstars is a must), but we should also include community-oriented artists as a contribution and extension of their own work at Outpost. In the first case, i need to preserve the humorous and critical effect of the "defacing" of master pieces when they are translated into street signs. in the second case, a hybrid product could emerge. In both cases, I would need to familiarize myself with potential contributors. In fact, part of the research could bring to light the hierarchical order of art production in Highland Park (and the marginalization of street painters within that order, or not). Still, I'm aware that The Full Dollar Collection enters a second stage. From an original method developed between an anthropologist and a sign painter, to a participatory initiative that involves differently located social actors.
JD: We need to look at budgetary restraints and be realistic about what we can achieve. [The budget] would allow 5 signs to be produced.
XA:If we manage to produce 5 signs, depending upon their placement on key locations in the neighborhood, I think we can make a difference. Actual placement of the signs are key to this project's success. local business partners are key to the whole thing because they have the last word, not the artists. Which, in turn, has a consequence on the type of artists who are willing to play this game, which for me is essential to keep: there is a new hierarchy emerging for The Collection to be made in Highland Park. Owners which maintain a certain power as characterizes their interaction with painters, painters will have power to give artists' pieces a spin of their own, and artists will have to have a real, common ground, one constructed by ongoing conversations amongst whom will participate. In essence, artists should be at the very same level than sign painters. And both will have to have the blessing of a small business owner.
JD: In terms of execution, rather than painting signs on a piece of wood and then installing that onto a business' facade, we'd like to propose having the signs painted directly onto the facades of the businesses. This will cut a number of steps out of the production and
also help keep costs down.
XA: Definitely, that is the way to go, and that is exactly what I have in mind. Again, local business willing to play the game and refashion their own facades are of foremost importance to the full realization of this project's goals. The actual size of the L.A. series, therefore, will depend upon negotiations with the city and business owners. In the process, a decision needs to be made about their placement on either one single strip or street segment, or on several, rather disperse, locations.
I think we are pretty much on the same page, Julie, and I'm truly excited about this collaboration. I see myself only as a catalyzer of a social process of dialogue between differentially situated actors (Outpost, artists, art critics, sign painters, college students, and local owners). As long as "collectionism" as such is part of the discussion, I think we both, myself as an anthropologist and Outpost as a community-oriented art center, will achieve common goals.
Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art is an initiative that aims to reconsider the tradition of public art through a collaboration between artists, sign painters, and business owners.
The Full Dollar Collection of Contemporary Art is developed through a partnership between:
- A Los Angeles Primer
- Arrival Stories
- Block by Block
- Engaging Spaces
- Green Justice
- I Am Los Angeles