Palermo, Sicily, February 2006.
Thank you for your interest in Living & Loving, our series of biographical publications about ordinary people's extraordinary lives. The project started in 2002 with Living & Loving # 1, The Biography of D. C., the life story of a 28-year-old art school security guard in San Francisco. Two years later we produced the sequel, Living & Loving # 2, The Biography of Zoe Stillpass, a 20-year-old art collector's daughter from Cincinnati. The series is now due for its next incarnation and, at this very moment we are working on the edit and layout of the third volume, due for release in June later this year.
The subject this time is Mitchell Wright, a 29-year-old fine art graduate student at the University of Tennessee. Aleksandra met Mitchell last summer when he walked into her studio in New York looking for a summer job. This scenario was later reversed when she went to visit him in Knoxville, Tennessee, and they spent four days driving around the city together, visiting his studio and talking about his life.
The selection of a subject for our biographies is typically the result of a 'meeting' with a person, an unexpected crashing into someone you never even imagined could exist before you actually met, and who then suddenly strikes you as interesting, worthy of further investigation and mutual engagement. When the invitation to then become a subject is introduced, it is obviously crucial that she/he be fully aware of the process ahead, willing to spend the time and share both information about her/his life and offer supporting visuals -- anything from personal photographs to academic records. So it comes down to making a deal that both parties agree to go through with. At this stage Aleksandra acts like a journalist. A release form is signed that gives us editorial authority. We also offer them 100 copies of the publication for their personal use. The motivation on the part of the subject to sign on and reveal themselves without any further compensation may not be obvious to the reader of the final story, but it is always clearly present within our arrangement, and it is in effect what gives us the license to go ahead and get to work.
In D. C's example, Aleksandra had met him when she was doing a residency and photo research at CCAC Institute, California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco. Donald was Manager of Public Safety on the campus where she was staying and they got to talk about her work and his life after her first night in town, when she thought her place was being broken into and she needed to file a report in his office. Donald showed her his photo albums and broke everything down for her in chronological detail. She found an incredible life story ready to go. Although his life held a lot of dramatic and shocking content, the process of interviewing and the subsequent narration was pretty straightforward. One of Donald's motivations to share his story, apart from a general exhibitionist streak, was the fact that he was already a biographer of his own life and saw this as an opportunity to amplify his own practice. Also, since as a child he had been channeled through numerous foster homes, he had lost contact with several people who meant a lot to him. He saw the publication as a slim chance to perhaps connect back to some of these people. And of course he enjoyed the minor celebrity status it eventually gave him. So our exploitation of his story in the realm of the art world and as far as possible beyond it was simply cast against all his personal reasons to be in it. While not uncomplicated, and never without great consideration, this deal and trust in the subject's own self-awareness - his or her readiness to meet Aleksandra face to face - constitutes our ethical standard in a nutshell.
Following 3 days of interviews in Donald's home, Aleksandra left San Francisco with no further opportunities for publication, but had promised Donald that she would make a book of his life one day. More or less simultaneously, Polly had just started working as curator at the non-profit, artist-run, Cubitt Gallery in London, producing a program of artists' projects and testing what was possible in this experimental space. Publishing seemed like a good idea. We had become good friends a couple of years earlier, as we had met over a fanzine that Polly was producing called 'Saturday'. Since Aleksandra was moving to London for the summer of 2002, we knew we wanted to hang out and collaborate on a new project. From the beginning, our professional roles were clearly demarcated and are still easily identifiable in terms of the separate tasks that we perform, but the experience of working on something together is one of total collaboration.
Typically, production entails that Aleksandra travel on location to meet the subject and perform the interview in his/her natural habitat. This interview is recorded and then sent to Polly in London where she hands the tapes over to a professional transcriber. About a month later, we both receive a stack of paper covered in terribly rambling conversations. The next step is the essence of our creative process, which lies in about 70-90 hours of solid text editing and picture layout. The task at hand usually makes us want to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world and so we always take a week off from all other commitments to do this.
The story then emerges as a form of mediation between the subject and us, and between the two of us. It is at once a wrestling game and a love affair, painful in parts, and delightful in others. We need to develop an intense obsession with this total stranger, accept her/him on his/her own terms, suspend judgment, bring her/him to life through the layers of words, sentences, punctuations, the structure and drive of the story that we put together. And then we need to be able to get out of that state as quickly as possible so as not to go insane.
About midday tomorrow, we'll emerge from our writing pad and return back to civilization. Polly will go back to London with one single CD, leaving behind a trashcan full of soiled drafts, dried felt tip pens and a mountain of Frutella wrappers. She will deliver the CD with the final draft and formulate design instructions for our designer Silke Roch who has worked on all three publications and helped shape it's original aesthetic - a broadsheet, 30 x 42 cm, color publication, font Univers BQ, size 11.5 point, generously spaced (for easy reading by a seven-year-old child or a retired person), bolded questions, un-bolded answers and with a count of approximately 12,000 - 15,000 words - it is more a magazine than a book and more a book than a magazine.
Because of this project's independent, free form, radically experimental and ongoing nature, we have had to provide for its perseverance in such a way that we can be consistent in our artistic intentions while letting it migrate between different production hosts and thereby also parasite on various financial structures. This changes each time.
In Donald's case, Polly originally fundraised through Cubitt and wrote grant applications to a range of UK public funding institutions such as Henry Moore Foundation, Elephant Trust and London Arts. We also hooked up with Rob Tufnell, a curator at Dundee Contemporary Arts who helped out financially and arranged for extended distribution in Scotland. We printed 5,000 copies that time and decided that since the distribution of this ordinary man's extraordinary life was integral to our project, we had to provide a suitable distribution model as well. Approx 2,000 people on the Cubitt mailing list received copies by direct mail - an incredibly intrusive or generous (depending on your position) way for a complete stranger to crash into your life through the mailbox. We received lots of feedback, from both satisfied and unhappy recipients. To expand on our geographical reach and as a handshake gesture between fellow non-profit art organizations around the world, we also sent out 15 boxed sets of 100 copies as free gifts, to spaces as far as Finland and New Zealand, asking them to distribute these freely in their local constituencies. Donald's story reached out, as he and we wanted.
By contrast -- and we were really looking to achieve contrast -- the next biography was produced two years later under the auspices of a commercial art fair. Polly who at that point was working as Frieze Art Fair's curator of artists' projects came to act as both commissioner, producer and editor of the next volume. This new production scenario offered an opportunity to be consistent with the previous publication, while allowing the more privileged economy to support and inform the process of production and distribution. The smoother running was exemplified by the fact that Frieze HQ has been putting out a magazine for over a decade and could facilitate a more streamlined print production. At this stage we decided to abandon the idea of direct mail and just present it to the public in stacks. We knew that the demographic of an event which attracts an international audience of over 30,000 people during the course of 5 days, would itself be an extremely efficient vehicle for free distribution. The visitors could simply pick up their copy and bring it back with them to whatever country they came from. We planned for and eventually got rid of 9,000 copies this way. And Aleksandra had already found the perfect subject for this context, Zoe Stillpass.
We wanted our second subject to be a girl and of a different social class from Donald, so we were actively looking for someone like that who would both be available and enigmatic to us. Zoe is the daughter of Karen and Andy Stillpass, a family of collectors based in Cincinnati, Ohio, who already owned a work by Aleksandra and were supportive of her endeavors. But while the family normally commissions artists, we inverted this relationship by making the family the subject of our commission. Zoe, being an only child, a popular and attractive honor student, traveling around the world, seemed to live a life of privilege dramatically different than D. C.'s. Yet strangely, we felt that she was also formed by forces beyond her reach. We arrived at the perhaps obvious conclusion that every child - no matter how privileged, next to being the factual creation of their parents, is also the creation of their dreams and desires. The subsequent idea of excluding her voice completely came from the fact that she had left her family home for college a year earlier and was already featured as a phantom through her parent's tales. So while we always operate on pure fact, we take it for granted by now, that all facts are edited, by everyone involved, again and again and again.
The further charge in presenting a collectors daughter's life at an art fair lies in the fact that these fairs are typically scrutinized as ruthless environments where the art objects commodity statuses are laid bare. Well, we wanted to push that revelation way beyond the sofa and all the way into the lives lived by people who buy and surround themselves with art, people who raise their children with art, children who grow up conditioned by art. When Andy's dog started eating from the Felix Gonzalez Torres candy pile which he had bought for his daughter, we knew that there was more than a commodity status at stake.
Because of Zoe's absence, her biography can easily be read as the actual biography of her parents, or rather, the set of strange co-dependencies that constitutes a family. We often get reactions from people who like to think about this project as a comment on celebrity culture. The title for the series, Living & Loving is taken directly from a Sophia Loren Biography so the classic biography format is clearly referenced here. And while we agree that by choosing a regular person and giving them this attention worthy of a celebrity, there is a simple inversion. But our objective is much larger and our interest lies far beyond the person, him or herself.
By picking one endearing life, that obviously is original, but that also can be generalized to the description of an anonymous 'security guard', 'collector's daughter', or 'art student', and who as such is exchangeable with any other type of that sort, we believe we are describing a wider social context around those particular people. Balancing the unique dramatic plot points with descriptions of the ethnographic minutia that makes for each unique person's life story, we are also describing the culture and moment in which they live. So far, all three subjects have been young Americans, so what we effectively believe we are doing, is investigating young America for ourselves. 'Young', because we think the complexity and self-reflexivity of a young life is greatly underestimated, and 'America', because its politics and poetics simply concern us all. Furthermore, the accumulated effect of presenting the voices of people who all act in the periphery of the art world, a security guard, a collector's daughter, a student, is that we also like to challenge the status quo of authority in our own field, i.e. the field of art; who and what makes it.
The challenge of working with a series, is that while we by now have a clear idea of what constitutes one of our biographies, we still need to make sure that each new edition is as powerful of an experience for us as the others. This is almost always secured by the fact that the circumstances of production shift so dramatically each time. In the case of Mitchell Wright, our third subject coming up, the timing of the interviews has been incredibly important. We caught him at the moment in his life where he is finishing his last year in school and is lingering somewhere in between it all: his country childhood and big city plans, his education ending and his professional life starting, hopes and anxieties about the art world, the past and the future all compressed into one. We think it makes for a fertile ground from which to extract a great story.
The distribution this time will be located at White Columns, a non-profit art organization in New York City that specializes in showing young unrepresented artists. The launch in June coincides with Mitchell's arrival to the big city and the start of his professional art career. White Column's regular clientele are mostly hordes of other young aspiring artists who have arrived to New York just like Mitchell. So we, and the White Columns curator Matthew Higgs, thought all of this symmetry to be really valid and now Mitchell is also offered a show, his first show in New York. The economy of the project this time rests entirely on an in kind grant by American Philanthropist and ephemera collector Phil Aarons, as mediated through Andrew Roth, a rare publishing dealer based in New York. Both are great fans of the series, to the extent that they have offered to pay for the production of the third issue. If you really stop and think about it, this is incredible.
Aleksandra & Polly