free art

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free art

a project by Patrick Nagle

I. Free of charge

My project was inspired in equal parts by Baudrillard's critique of the structure of the mass media, over and against which he valorizes the hand-painted slogans of May '68, and my empty wallet. I decided to produce works from freely available materials---that is, whatever I found in the trash and recycling dumpsters around campus. This imparts one sense of free (and perhaps the most legible or commonplace) to my title: free of charge. Thus, the tissue paper, stamps, wall paper, gouache, file folders, paperclips, paintbrush, news clippings, and wax paper I worked with were all foraged. I already had an exacto knife and decided it wasn't a good idea to go looking for one in a dumpster lest I find it.
In order to move to the next sense of "free" my project brings into play, I'd like to describe the works. My project comprises two approaches to my materials. The first is more standard sloganeering, effected with a hand-cut cellophane stencil in gouache (pricy, I know, but you'd be amazed what the folks over at List Art Center are throwing away) with a discarded paintbrush. Terribly old-fashioned though this method be, I thought it would be valuable to explore an earlier form of reproduction whose results are neither as consistent nor as rapid as those of digital technology. And if Baudrillard is to be trusted, hand-painted posters might make people stop longer to consider their confrontation with the work as part of a concrete situation, perhaps drawing them out of the distraction of the mass mediascape. As far as the content of the poster goes, I decided to keep it simple: "free art" with an arrow pointing up, towards the dumpster's lid.

The second approach I test in this project is making one-off collages of found materials, assembled mostly with paperclips. These collages both incorporate the slogan "free art," and one incorporates the arrow; the other rewards close attention, with free art spelled in filing cabinet tabs on the poster's margin. My hope for these works is that people will encounter them near the dumpsters and recognize that the materials in the collage have all been salvaged, prompting them to think about what's sitting around up for grabs in the trashcans. The collages also incorporate forms of low- or no-cost art---used postage stamps, newspaper images, wallpaper, and makeshift wax paper palettes. But I'd like to return to the paperclips...

II. Free to touch, free to take, free to participate

My hope is that people will interact with the collages in ways that they usually don't with posters---namely, I want them to take away pieces of the collage with them. It should be easy enough, since none of the materials are glued together and most but are fastened temporarily. I decided upon this method because I want to share the thrill I got finding so many supplies, and I'd like to provide an example of what kind of art one can make from trash. I hope that someone who sees a poster, takes the time to go over and look at it, and discovers a collage will in turn be curious enough about the dumpster to hop right in. One of the collages also includes the stencil I used for the posters; hopefully someone will put it to good use.

Moreover, even posters for anti-capitalist rallies seem to rely upon people's susceptibility to enticing images that are exactly reproduced and, ideally, ubiquitous. Yet this very form is the lifeblood of advertising. Although I'm not going to decry mass-produced posters for turning us all into capital's mindless slaves, I think that there's interesting work to be done on the shared assumptions of many forms of publicity, radical or no, and Baudrillard's formalism goes a long way towards elucidating these commonalities.

III. (You) Free Art!

The third sense of free art that I'd like to explore is the imperative, a command to free art (or materials with potential to be art) from both the dumpster and the gallery. As I researched trash art in anticipation of my project, I realized that most of the projects I found take materials from the most abject social spaces (dumpsters, landfills) and, having reworked them, makes them acceptable for prominent display in the most rarefied (galleries, museums, rich people's back yards). Yet "high" trash art takes discarded commodities and merely recommodifies them, imbuing them with economic and cultural capital that makes them inaccessible; consumption (albeit in the form of visual delectation) is still the order of the day. I think the fullest potential of trash art lies in the availability of its raw materials to everyone, allowing broad latitude for experimentation to people who may not otherwise consider dabbling in art. Moreover, sharing trash art creations in quotidian public settings - even right outside the dumpster, as in my project - is a call to experimentation that demystifies art and makes it politically viable in a different way than gallery exhibitions can achieve.

I see myriad possibilities for trash art to take on content that is more traditionally political than inciting participation in making art. To name just a few: economic disparities (rich people's trash versus poor people's; who takes out the trash and who doesn't think about it?), environmental racism (who lives by the trash dumps, the nuclear waste dumps, the asphalt factories? Where does hazardous electronics trash end up when it's shipped overseas?), and the culture of disposable commodities (how does trash function as a necessary part of production for individual consumption?).
Yet the modest goal of my own project is simply to get others to join me in the dumpster and to think about the possibilities and limitations of trash art. And perhaps encouraging people to produce for their own and other's pleasure and edification is a more liberating form of social practice than merely dictating a political agenda---but let's save that for class discussion.

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