Some time back I posted something about The Fine Art Adoption Network (FAAN), Adam Simon's online commission for Art in General. I promised my readers an interview; well here it is at last (conversation conducted over the course of the spring & summer, by email):
NEWSgrist: hi Adam,
I'm about to head off to work, where, wonderfully, I found a copy of the Mauss [The Gift] in my library's stacks. I will read some during quiet moments today and get back to you about it, maybe... In the meantime, tell me how you came to think of FAAN as a concise "project" (at your leisure of course) -- or how you started to think about giving and exchange vis-à-vis our habits here in the hub of art world commerce?
Adam Simon: I've always split my focus between my studio work, which is mostly painting, and projects which deal with how art is disseminated. From what I can tell, you seem to have a similar split focus. The Fine Art Adoption Network (FAAN) refers directly back to Four Walls, the exhibition space/artists forum which Michele Araujo and I started in 1984 and I later co-directed with Mike Ballou. Both FAAN and Four Walls were propelled by a certain degree of frustration. With Four Walls it was frustration at the lack of live sites for dialogue between artists, particularly ones that were also exhibition sites. With FAAN it was my realization that a surplus of good art somehow coexists with a scarcity of people owning art. I also had to remove a couple of large, early paintings from my mother's house in Boston because she was moving and I didn't want to store or destroy them. That was the immediate impetus. By the way, thanks for referring me to Paul Chan's audio project. I like the way it resists definition as either a service or an artwork. I think of FAAN that way except that, as an artwork, FAAN is extremely collaborative. At this point it is being shaped by a lot of people.
Yes, I'm beginning to feel it taking off, or taking shape... Today I had my first actual handing-off of a painting to a fellow named Eben who is a writer and teaches English at CUNY. He is the first of 6 adopters, and actually first emailed me from AiG during the opening. He later came to the fair use conference and said hullo after my panel. Today he came up to the Met where I work, we got sandwiches and sat in the park and talked for maybe an hour and a half. Then I got him a button to go see the Kara Walker show / extravaganza (speaking of things shaped by many people!). I'm feeling very "high" -- one has the power to shape a "transaction" differently once money and market values are taken out of the equation. There seems to be a fast-track to genuine discussion... somehow, several layers of the usual bullshit vanish from the moment the adopters open themselves up in their letters; that is what they seem to do, and maybe what it takes; that is the intimate level at which the exchange is taking place...
I remember Eben from the opening. He was interesting. I remember he said that he wanted contemporary art for his students to be around. After I said that to you yesterday about FAAN being shaped by a lot of people, I saw that you had used your homepage to invite comments from artists and adopters on what they think FAAN is all about. As far as I know, yours is the first instance of a FAAN homepage being used for something other than the artists' images and related text. I like it. At some point, during all my promotional claims about how FAAN would be this or accomplish that I realized that no one, including me, had any idea what would actually occur.
Eben is lovely; he gave me a short story he'd written after we finished lunch. :-) Funny, your webmaster (John Weir) emailed me right after I posted that "hey FAAN people" thing – he said he thought it a nice way around the lack (so far) of an interface for such an interaction and wanted to know if there was anything else I might need (!) - I told him I had given away my last artwork for adoption that day and my homepage seemed so sad and bare!
I guess also it's an almost unconscious impulse for me to do something like that... all those years yammering on list-serves and, more recently, blogs; I assume that online communication must go in both directions. In any case, it occurs to me that FAAN has only just begun -- it could keep going and going, and morph and develop into -- who knows what?!
Well, it's definitely going to get bigger. I guess it's natural to fear that something will be lost as that happens. I'm hoping that the idea is simple enough so that the flavor will last. Maybe it is possible to instill a different model in the minds of the general public. Artists are thought of by many as hucksters and overnight success stories. If the public has to reconcile that idea with multiple acts of random generosity, well, that might be significant.
Sorry to leave this conversation for a few days -- things have been hectic! I managed to squeeze in a lovely 45min beer at my studio with my second adopter, a shy, scholarly looking architect gent. I also squeaked into an opening Saturday where Carrie Yamaoka has a piece, where I happened to be introduced to your brother!
It seems to me that people pine after new models, even if they get confused. I love "multiple acts of random generosity." Okay, dashing off again. More soon. I think FAAN could grow into a giant and longstanding many-armed giant... Joy
Hi Joy, I've had offers on both of my paintings. One is now adopted. I put him (a psychiatrist/artist) through a few email exchanges before I said yes. The other I'm still deciding on. It's someone I know and I would prefer that it wasn't. On the other hand, he's a hundred years old and a dear friend.
I think it is interesting with FAAN how ownership of the artwork requires an exchange. Since both the collector and the artist have to choose each other for the transaction to take place, the artwork from the outset is facilitating human interaction of a personal nature. The adopter has to present him or herself as a good candidate for adopting and so is placed in a kind of one-to-one correspondence with the artwork. The artist offers a work of art; the adopter offers herself. The adopter has assessed the artwork and now the artist assesses the adopter. Both participants deal with the risk of rejection, but the adopter has the greater risk. The exchange ends up resembling exchanges that occur on internet dating sites. Several adopters have expressed anxiety about soliciting the artwork. They are in awe of the artist's willingness to bestow this gift. The desire for the art has to be strong to overcome this anxiety. For many of the artists, this can be a whole new relationship to an audience. They are used to being the one that is soliciting recognition.
Did you start reading Mauss? I love the way that he reveals archaic gift economies as having been about everything except generosity. Not self-interest exactly but different levels of reward and gratification. I agree with you that there are things that occur in the adoption process that are noticeably missing from money transactions with art. Like, it would never occur to me to investigate a potential collector's relationship to my work before approving a sale. Ad
Wow: I wonder if I'm a cheap date. I mean, I found every first letter interesting in its own way, and felt no qualms about giving the paintings away right off the bat. (Okay, I suck at bartering [sic!]; don't take me to the Old Market in Cairo, we'd get fleeced...). I'm not very good at disappointing people, perhaps because I don't like being disappointed myself... the one attempt I made at adopting was from someone I know, and I was turned down! Boo hoo. I didn't ask for the drawing for myself, I made it clear it would be a gift for my guy, but that didn't seem to matter. Anyway... I get off on the surprise element, when you say "yes, it's yours" and the person gets all excited and guilty and amazed. People seem to feel they are unworthy. How interesting; it seems that the would-be adopters come into this expecting to be challenged; but I find the initial impulses to be the most charming. Once you ask someone to "prove" their worth, it turns into something more competitive, contrived... I think I prefer the near-absence of that element.
Well, with the psychiatrist/artist it was interesting because I hadn't figured on someone wanting something of mine without necessarily connecting to the specific logic and underlying content of the work. He liked it for completely different reasons. In the end I had to recognize that I had put my painting in a narrow conceptual box and the adoption had allowed me to release it. I once took a class with the art historian Rosalind Krauss. She talked about having co-curated a Miro painting show; I think it was for the Whitney Museum [sic! > Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1970-73)]. For the catalogue, the curators rejected Miro's interpretation of one of the paintings for an interpretation of their own that they preferred. It seems brazen but in the end the artist's opinion is nothing more than that.
That's the whole nugget -- the viewer bringing another level of meaning to the thing. Or even when a curator puts your work in a context you never thought of, giving it another dimension. It makes you realize that to attempt to "control" context and meaning of an image or an artwork is necessarily to limit its life. Kills it in a way.
[...] The artist gets to assess exactly what her requirements are for considering the work to be successful.
Yes: now I KNOW I'm a cheap date!
The Mauss is sitting here on my desk and I have yet to get the chance to dip into it; maybe it's shooting cosmic rays at me and I'm absorbing it by osmosis... But seriously, the exchange, as you say, is suddenly open to all kinds of influences and parameters once money is taken out of the equation. I've been trying to think of analogies: speaking of psychiatrists, consider the difference between talking to a friend and talking to someone you pay to listen. Among other things, the payment serves to impose certain limits on the relationship you have with your shrink. It keeps any "natural" progression from developing.
And that's a good thing; but you also need friends...
Okay, here's a question: FAAN is clearly an extension, a recent development of ideas you've had about social interaction and behavior which are part of the basis of your work, both painting and curatorial (I'm winging it here, but it seems so to me...) Can you elaborate, or describe this progression in your life and work, in terms of collaboration and social histories? Can you see what sort of culmination you are heading toward, if indeed it's possible to project such a thing? Or if I'm off, set me straight...
Hi Joy, I was laughing because it is really helpful to have a direct question to respond to and yet one of my projects was a series of public conversations with artists that I organized at various galleries in the mid-90s. In that project and also in an ongoing one of video portraits, my whole emphasis was to get away from the standard interview model. So it was conversations, not interviews. Our exchange so far has been a conversation. It's a little sad to see it slip into the more hierarchical relationship of interviewer/interviewee and yet it might be the best way to get at certain information. Yeeesh.
Anyway, the paintings deal with collectivity in the sense of using generic images of daily life in the first world. So I'm exploring ways in which individual lives are shaped by the sense of an existing prototype for any given moment. The video portraits are extracted moments from particular lives. So I think the two bodies of work complement each other. But I've always had an inability to just focus on my individual work. It's a bit of a problem because I live with another artist and we have a 12 year old son and I've always had to work at jobs, so it would really be enough to have that and my individual artwork. But for better or worse, I've found my focus periodically shifting to the gallery system and found myself stunned by the ways in which it is expected to fulfill needs that it can't. Initially it was the need for dialogue between artists which led to the creation of Four Walls in 1984. More recently it is the need to address the fact that we have a surplus of good art coexisting incongruously with a scarcity of people owning art — which led to the creation of FAAN.
I'll try to respond to the question of culmination later. It's also a good one. Thanks. Ad
I'm laughing myself -- I was trying to avoid the "interview style" partly because I'd rather have a conversation and partly because I'm sort of more comfortable when I can be indirect. I don't see why we can't slip back and forth when it suits us. But anyway, getting you to mention your mid-90s public conversation projects was worth it, right? ...so tell me more about those when you get a chance.
So what are the existing prototypes that crossed your mind when you thought up FAAN? (a direct question you may choose to sidestep...)
But I see "an inability to just focus on my individual work" as something quite other than an "inability"... I see it as your "capacity"; me too, I tend to have many things going at once; over the years I'll hopefully connect the dots. I think that in this culture and time, we force ourselves where possible to avoid complexity and lateral -- rhizomatic -- movement; "focus" can be a euphemism for narrowness.
What I'm trying to say is: we self-censor our potential for complexity in order to have what we're told is "order", and yet we know full-well that creativity thrives on the chaos and the richness of the layers of stuff around us. There's a pernicious Puritanical element in our culture that persists and which we unconsciously bend to... perhaps there is something intrinsically anti-puritanical about giving -- the whole idea of art as a gift. It's about lavishing something on someone.
I guess this is why we get along. I never thought that the idea of having a single focus could be considered perniciously Puritanical but when you put it like that it makes sense! After a few years of therapy I was happy just thinking that I willfully sabotaged my own art career.
This shifting is how you work, you enlarge your focus to encompass the social event, and then hone in again on your individual production; it seems an important part of your Grand Project... and maybe you have a restless mind to boot (an enviable thing).
Could you compare (here it comes: another direct question) the differences or similarities between this need for dialogue that you felt in the mid-80s and the need in its present form? and how do the mid-90s conversations connect these two eras? There seems to be a very consistent thread here, very focused. ;-)
Mike Ballou and I had been running Four Walls together for 5 or 6 years. It had been a good collaboration. My emphasis had always been dialogue and he was more into group projects. It got to a point where he didn't really want to be doing the exhibition/forums any more. Four Walls was happening at his place so I decided to take that more verbal part into a different format. At first it was just me talking to another artist in front of an audience. Andrea Fraser, Peter Fend, Rachel Harrison, Perry Hoberman, Joyce Pensato, Nils Norman. I may be forgetting some. They were artists that I wanted to talk to for one reason or another. Like, Peter Fend had this wonderfully perverse idea about taking out a class action suit against the Whitney Museum because their Whitney Independent Study Program constituted a monopoly practice by putting critics, artists and curators together in the same program. In the end he chose not to address that and we talked about other stuff. Anyway, eventually I got other artists to take my place and choose an artist to have a public conversation with. One of my favorites was Brian Connelly with William Pope L. which happened at Postmasters gallery. Brian began by apologizing for William not showing up but there was a table piled high with wonder bread and at some point William emerged from that and went into an extended monologue. I guess that one wasn't really a conversation.
One thing that amazes me about the stock photo catalogues I use as source material for my paintings is how they show that nothing and no one is immune from preexisting models. I was once thumbing through a stock photo catalogue and came upon an artist in her studio, smiling at the camera, wearing worker's overalls, with her canvases behind her. I thought, she is me. That's the generic version of my life. Then I realized that I actually knew her. She lives in London. She later told me that she traded with the photographer. She posed so that he would take slides of her paintings. Most stock photo images are models posed to simulate real-life moments, but not all.
One prototype for FAAN could be the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, which my uncle started back in the 1950s. It was a multiracial theatre at a time when that was illegal. He was in New York when Four Walls started. He actually provoked its inception by saying, "If there's something you need and it doesn't exist you have to create it." So there is a direct line from the Market Theatre to Four Walls, to FAAN. Also, there is a family penchant for creative facilitating. My brother Jason runs the one-minute film festival in upstate New York and is one of the artists behind Orchard gallery. My brother Daniel has Seven Stories Press. My brother Mark started an institute in D.C. that trains teachers to have a role in policy making.
Four Walls may have been partly inspired by Group Material. It was one of a few collective reactions to the early 80's excesses of conspicuous consumption around neo-expressionism. Group Material had this feeling of stepping aside from all the craziness and posturing and looking at what was really going on in the world that artists inhabited. I'm not sure how FAAN relates to the present moment. All I know is that when Art in General decided to commission it, Sofia Hernandez congratulated me on my never referring to 'Gift Economy' in my proposal. I had never heard the term 'Gift Economy' and had no idea what she was talking about. Lately I've been hearing it a lot. I've even used it once or twice myself!
Culmination comes down to a question of FAAN's longevity. If it is very successful it could produce a global alternative system for dissemination of artworks. This would have profound implications since it would situate at least some art in a radical state of non-compliance with the commodification of all aspects of life which we currently take for granted. Even if this happened however I wouldn't expect it to affect the art market in any but a positive way. This may sound contradictory but I think artists deserve the prices they get and I like going to art galleries. It's a matter of in addition to, not instead of. If FAAN turns out to have had a short shelf life, which is certainly a possibility, then it will have been an interesting social experiment and an art project and a moment when artists showed how generous they can be. And maybe someone will pick up on it at a later date and take it further.