Harrell Fletcher

Harrell Fletcher

Photo courtesy of Harrell Fletcher

Music Credit: Simple Gifts performed by Luna Nova Quartet.

Harrell Fletcher: We almost had what we felt like was a hypothesis or a theory that people were interesting, and we weren’t totally sure but we were going to try and find out. And then it turned out that, yeah, it's true. People are really interesting. And it doesn't matter where you go, you can always find somebody that's compelled by some subject.

Jo Reed: That’s artist Harrell Fletcher. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Harrell Fletcher believes that art is everywhere and available to everyone, and he has spent his career demonstrating just that. He’s created an exhibit out of photographs in random people’s wallets; he’s turned a gas station into a movie set and theatre, and an elementary school into a museum with its students as curators. Harrell’s art is known as social practice—in fact, he’s one of the key figures in its development. Simply put, Harrell works outside the studio to create socially-engaged art that’s rooted in a community with its residents as his collaborators. That’s social practice in a nutshell—here’s Harrell to fill in the details.

Harrell Fletcher: The term that’s developed for the kind of work that I do is called social practice. It’s a term that has really only been in use for about 10 years. I think there are, sort of, two ways you can look at social practice. And one is, sort of, what it is: artwork that’s—has a great emphasis on collaboration, participation, social interaction, site, and context. And that doesn’t have to happen in a gallery or a museum, though it could. And with social practice, the context is really important, and so the work is usually designed specifically for that place and for the people who are there. Another thing about it is that it’s interdisciplinary, and so social practice also borrows a lot from other disciplines. So there’s a lot of connections to sociology, social work, ethnography, documentary.

Jo Reed: I think, maybe, the best way to understand what you do, more precisely, is by talking about some of the actual projects that you’ve worked on. And I would love to go way, way back in the beginning where you collaborated with another artist, Jon Rubin, and created a project: Some People From Around Here.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah. So that was a project with Jon Rubin, and it was done in Fairfield, California, which is a suburb of the Bay Area in between Oakland and Berkeley and Sacramento along Highway I-80. Something that we had decided was—we didn’t want to start with an idea or an issue; we wanted to, sort of, start with the people. We didn’t want to start with an agenda and then get people to, sort of, fill the agenda in for us. And so when we got asked to do the project in Fairfield, I suggested that I would move there. The public art administrator found different people’s houses for me to live in, so I lived in different people’s guest rooms for a couple of months and met a variety of different people. And then from that experience, I selected five or six people, and we photographed them and then turned those photographs into large-scale portraits that were eight-by-eight feet that were—that we painted. And then they were installed on the side of the highway, I-80 in Fairfield, with a big sign that just said, “Some People From Around Here.” And so as those commuters going from the Bay Area to Sacramento were kind of whizzing by, they actually saw some real people who lived in that place, even if it was really briefly as they passed by.

Jo Reed: When I saw pictures of that it just brought a smile. I thought there was something so wonderful about taking that landscape and making it clear to the traveler: real people live here <laughs>. I mean, it’s a really occupied place.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah. Right. I think it’s easy to forget that as you drive by and you sort of see the sort of standard things of gas stations and McDonald’s and things on the freeway to realize that there is a town and that there’s people there. And when we were talking with the city council people, they were supportive, but they immediately started coming up with ideas about who should be depicted in these portraits. And they were all, sort of, former mayors and significant people from the town. And we said, “No. We just want to show these actual people who, sort of, run businesses and go to schools. Those are the people that we want to highlight in this project.”

Jo Reed: Speaking of gas stations, I read about a project you did with someone who worked at a gas station: the Ulysses project, Blot Out The Sun.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah. So that was a really early project for me here in Portland. I got a grant through a local public art program, the Regional Arts and Culture Council here in Portland, around 2000-2001. My proposal was that I would work with a set of different people who I met in Portland who weren’t artists but maybe wanted to have some kind of art project done, but didn’t feel like they had the ability to do it, technically or didn’t have the equipment or something like that. And it was partly based on this man, Jay Dykeman, who I had heard about who owned a gas station in Southeast Portland, Jay’s Quick Gas. And I’d heard that he wanted to have a movie made at his gas station. So I went and approached him and talked to him about it. And he said that he’d sort of been waiting for somebody to come and offer their services to him for a long time—that he was really excited about having this movie made. And so I said, “Well, what’s it supposed to be about? What do you see as the content?” And he said that he wanted it to be based on Ulysses by James Joyce, which was a book that he had read and was a fan of; I hadn’t read it at that point. So I went and got a copy of the book and started reading it and come—went over and talked to him more about it. The book, itself, though it’s about 800 pages long, is just about a very short period of time with a few characters roaming around Dublin, Ireland. And he said that, for him, the gas station was his center of the universe and that all of these different characters were, on any given day, sort of, passing through and saying these interesting things and doing things, and that he saw a relationship between his gas station and Ulysses. And so what we ended up doing was selecting passages from the book—just short pieces. And then I wrote them on cue cards and then approached people who were at the gas station—working or getting gas or standing at the bus station, walking by—all of these different people—I think about 50 people—and had them read the lines from Ulysses. There was no rehearsal or preparation; it was just walking right up to them. And oftentimes, they were a little confused by why I was asking them to do this. But they all knew Jay, and Jay was, sort of, right there, nearby, and he would, sort of, tell them that they should do it—that they should participate. And so then, in a really short period of time—I don’t know, in three or four days—I shot the whole video. And then the idea was that it would be projected at the gas station at night. And so we’d already selected the screening date, and I gave out little postcards to all of the participants to let them know when to come back and watch themselves in the video. And I only gave myself three weeks or something like that. So I edited it and then we projected it. The people all came back, and so there were a hundred people at the gas station, sort of, leaning up against the pumps and stuff and watching this projection against this big wall that was next to the gas station. And Jay and all of the mechanics talked about what their experience was like as part of that. That was really all I was expecting to happen with that particular video. But as it happened, somebody that was from the Olympia Film Festival happened to drive by as we were screening it and stopped and watched it, and then invited us to come up and screen it at the film festival. And so Jay and the mechanics came up, and we all talked and presented the film there. And then it just continued to get shown in different places, including in the Whitney Biennial in 2004. And it’s been shown, really, all over the world at this point, even though I really didn’t have that expectation of it and didn’t plan on it. It was planned to be just a very, sort of, local project but it—somehow or another—there’s been something appealing about it. And I shot, sort of, an introduction where Jay sort of explains the process, so when people are watching it away from Portland or away from the gas station, they can understand how it was produced and the role that Jay played within it.

Jo Reed: And I’m assuming Jay was very, very happy with the results. I mean, this was his dream.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah, he was. Jay made copies of it, himself, and gave it out to customers and had it playing in his waiting room. It was a very simple production—very, super, low-budget thing. But that’s really all it took. He just wanted somebody to be able to realize it in some way.

Jo Reed: God, it’s amazing what people have inside of them or around them that is so valuable and often unseen and Jay obviously was one of those people who had the—I don’t know—fortitude and imagination to really see what he had.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah. I think originally for me and when I was working with Jon back in the early 90s, we almost had what we felt like was a hypothesis or a theory that people were interesting, and we weren’t totally sure but we were going to try and find out. And then it turned out that, yeah, it's true. People are really interesting. And it doesn't matter where you go, you can always find somebody that's really interesting or really compelled by some subject. And that's part of the appeal to me about working in this way is that—if I was working in the studio and making objects that were my own—and I do, I have done that, and I see that as a valuable and important thing to do. But at some point, it's just about you. You're just sort of learning maybe more and more about your own personal aesthetics or something like that. And with this kind of work, it allows me to be the person who doesn't know anything. I get to go to all of these different places and learn from people in those places about subjects that I didn’t even know to be interested in. And then a project happens in which I'm the one that gets to experience it; I become almost like an audience to my own work. And the people who I'm working with are able to take, to some extent, the leadership roles. And I'm sort of there supporting that and facilitating it and making sure that it can happen and making that art world connections occur that support the project.

Jo Reed: You did something quite similar to that with Miranda July, not a site-specific one, but you and Miranda July served as the—I don't know—the prompts and—I don't even know if "curating" is the right word. Why don’t you just tell us about Learning to Love You More—that project and what you had in mind and how it turned out?

Harrell Fletcher: So, yeah. So this was—I think we started the project in 2002. Neither Miranda or I are very technical people, and so we weren't really like gravitating towards the Internet, but we were intrigued by it. We both were really interested in books, and we kind of saw it as like a way to make a book that could be continually updated and that lots of people could participate in. It's kind of hard to remember now, but this is before Facebook, or YouTube, or Instagram, or any of those things existed—so sort of before Web 2.0. And most of the art works that were done for the web were kind of coding, like heavy tech kinds of ones, that were much more for people who were on the inside of the technology of that. And we thought that we could make a project that would be for people who didn't have that kind of knowledge or skill. What Learning to Love You More was is a website that Miranda and I would list what we called "Assignments," which were short instructions on an activity to do. And then we just sort of offered it up to anybody, anywhere who wanted to participate. And that if they followed the instructions, they could then document their results, and put what we called a "Report" back onto the website. The assignments ranged all over the place. Some of the early ones were to make a field recording of people in your neighborhood. Some people did music or did storytelling or different kinds of things like that. One of them was to take a photograph of your parents kissing. And so we just thought it would be an interesting thing for people to have to approach their own parents and ask them if they would kiss for a photograph, and that it would cause this sort of moment of intimacy but would also make a kind of compelling photograph. And so the projects were all over the place. Some were video, some were audio, some were writing. We had—one of the projects was to write your life story in less than a day. There were many really amazing life stories that came out of that process. We kind of saw it as like a way to make a book that could be continually updated and that lots of people could participate in. It's kind of hard to remember now, but this is before Facebook, or YouTube, or Instagram, or any of those things existed—so sort of before Web 2.0. And in the early days, back in 2002, we worked with a web designer, Yuri Ono. And she was really amazing, but it was before a lot of things were automated. So she had to digitize everything herself, and then she put it onto the website. And eventually, there were like over 8000 participants. And for us, initially, we were just surprised that people did it at all, and that lots of people that we didn’t know were starting to do it. And then it just kept growing because of the nature of the Internet—that somebody would do an assignment, put up their report, and then share that with their friends and family. And so then those people would see it, and some of them would do it, and it would just keep spreading and spreading that way. And so that was really interesting to us how we could make a really large-scale project with a huge number of participants, collaborators, on the project. It wasn't totally open; it was actually pretty structured. One of the things we use as an analogy is like a recipe book: the idea that people were sort of following these recipes that we gave them, and everyone would wind up with a different looking cake, but they were still following the same recipe, and that that was interesting—was to be able to sort of compare those things.

Jo Reed: People needed to follow the instructions. And if they did that, their work was posted.

Harrell Fletcher: Right, yeah.

Jo Reed: There was no editing out.

Harrell Fletcher: Right, right yeah. I mean it was because we could; we could add as much as we wanted. There was no limitations on that. So unlike the normal exhibition that has limited gallery space, or a normal book that has a number—just a certain page count—having a website, and it seems obvious now, but strangely it was kind of a revelation back then that we could do something like that, and that it could be that inclusive. That—if anybody followed the instructions, we would just include it, and there were no limitations to that. So we just kept adding a few assignments every month or two—not on any real basis, just whenever one occurred to us. And then eventually wound up with 70 assignments, and wrapped up the project in 2009. So it went on for about seven years. It was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and as part of that, there were hundreds of people who were included in that show through Learning to Love You More. We always credited everybody. And so, that was a significant thing to us was that we were able to kind of create this access and validation for the people's work through that project. We eventually froze it; we didn't add—don't add—anymore assignments, and people can't add reports anymore. But it still exists as an online archive of the project, and SFMOMA actually acquired it. Once again, kind of like with Blot Out The Sun, we didn't have big “art world” sort of expectations for it. It was more kind of an experiment and something we thought was primarily for the participants, themselves. I think Learning to Love You More is a good example, and just in general within my work, once again, I'm trying to make projects that lots of people can participate in, in lots of different ways, and that they remain dynamic so that they can be adapted and reused in ways that are relevant.

Jo Reed: I do want to talk about some of your current work and part of it is the work that you do at the King School, but I think we need to backtrack just a bit, to talk about the Art and Social Practice Graduate program, because it's the students from that program that are doing the work at the King School, if I got that right?

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah. So, I started working at Portland State University in 2004. And initially, I was teaching in the normal MFA program. And then in 2007, I was able to start a social practice MFA program at Portland State. It’s a three-year program. The students don’t have studios, and they do a lot of collaborative projects. And so one of the things that we do is—we're very engaged with doing projects while the students are in school. And one of them is a project at a public K-8 school here in Portland, in North East Portland. It's called King’s School and is a school that's mostly lower economic students and has had its struggles over the years with test scores and things like that, but a really interesting and dynamic, amazing school as well, and one that's really close to my house. I just live a 10 minute walk away from it. And I was approached by a principal there a number of years ago, and she was interested in having the social practice program do some kind of work there. And so we initially did a couple of small projects, and then over time, it's evolved, and I'm now working with another professor from Portland State, Lisa Jarrett. And she and I have created, with our students, what we are calling a museum—a contemporary art museum—that exists within the school, itself, with the approval of the principal and teachers. It's called KSMoCA: King’s School Museum of Contemporary Art. And the idea was to think of the school being not only a school but a museum. Partly with the idea that the students who go there, normally, if they get to ever go to a museum, it would maybe field trip to the Portland Art Museum once a year, or something like that. And we thought that it would be really important for those students to have greater exposure to art and to the idea of what a museum is, and the value that happens within that on a much more regular basis. So we just thought, "Let's just put it inside of the school, so they can't—kind of can't help but being connected to it." And then the first show that we did was a show of work by Magnum photographers who had been working on a project called Post Cards for America where these internationally recognized photographers—they'd been going to different cities and documenting those cities. And then they were coming to Portland, and I actually worked with them, and they worked with my students in the social practice program on their documentation of Portland. But at the same time, they gave us all of the photos they'd taken in all of these other cities, and we showed those to students from King and let them function as the curators. So they got to select the images that they were interested in. And then those images were printed and displayed in the school, and they also wrote the labels. There was the standard information on the label, but then there was also the interpretation that the student had in response to the photograph. And then they also functioned as docents. So we had first graders being docents during the opening of the exhibition, leading people through and doing little education projects with the people who came to see the work there. And then it continued to exist as just as set of displays that the students would walk by on their way to their—to different classes or to the cafeteria. And then since then, we've done another show, and we're working on a third one now. So we keep expanding it and trying to sort of figure out how it can function both as a place where national/international artists would show their work, and the students and local people would also be able to have relationship to it. It's a collaboration between a lot of different people, a lot of different aspects of the art world, and the school, itself, and the students, and parents and teachers. It's starting to look more and more like a museum and function that way. That's a project that I'm particularly interested in, because a lot of my work has allowed me to travel all over the world, but I'm really interested in being able to do a project that's here in Portland that I can do on an ongoing basis and work with a lot of different people in a wide variety of capacities. It's kind of a perfect project for me.

Jo Reed: And King’s School was also part of the White House's Turnaround Arts Program.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah, that's right.

Jo Reed: Which is fantastic. We know the importance of art for all of us but particular when you're young.

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah, and I think, you know, one of the things for Lisa Jarrett and I, the other professor from PSU who I work with, is that we've been frustrated sometimes that when people get college-age, that there's a pretty limited set of people who decide to become art majors. And, in some ways, it feels like there's whole demographics that are kind of left out of that possibility, partly because of just not having a lot of connection to art, and some of it because it doesn't seem like it's an economically viable profession to go into. And I think that, you know, there's legitimate concerns and issues with that. And so we thought if we could bring in this contemporary art in a variety of ways at the earliest sort of stages of kindergarten, and that people would have a relationship with it as they went all the way through eighth grade, that it would be something that was more likely that they might choose to do once they got to college. And that they'd also sort of understand that it wasn't limited to just being an artist as a maker of art, but that you could potentially be a curator, or a preparator, or an education person in a museum, or a gallerist, or whatever happened to be. That there were a whole bunch of professions and ways that you could function within art.

Jo Reed: Right, because it's hard to aspire to something you have no idea exists.

Harrell Fletcher: Right, exactly.

Jo Reed: And we have to talk about the project that you have as part of Public Doors and Windows, the collective that you're a part of. In two weeks, Collective Museum is going to open, which actually sounds pretty fabulous.

Harrell Fletcher: Thanks. I've been working for the last couple of years with two of my formed graduate students, Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch, who are both based here in Portland. We use a collaborative name which is Public Doors and Windows. And then one of the big projects that we've been working on for about two years is at UC Santa Cruz, working with the new Institute for Art and Science. And they're in an interesting situation in that they have a director and an assistant, but they don't have a building. And the director, John Weber, is a really interesting curator and educator, and I think he saw the potential of using the campus, itself, as the museum, in the interim, before they have a physical building and that that could be something that would continue on afterwards. And so they asked me to come up with the first commissioned project for the Institute. What Molly and Nolan and I came up with was what we're calling The Collective Museum. And so instead of thinking of UC Santa Cruz as a university that doesn't have a museum, we're thinking of it as the largest museum in the world, and we're sort of taking over the entire campus—so similar to King’s School in some ways. We're just kind of making a claim that a museum exists within a place. We felt like the content is already there, because UC Santa Cruz has so many amazing professors, and students, and an incredible history that's there already and lots of interesting, idiosyncratic, anecdotal things that exist there, as well. And so what we did was we contacted 50 people who had connections to the campus—students, staff, faculty, alumni—and then asked each of them to identify a site on campus that was significant to them in some way or another. And then they told us the story behind that, and we've created signage for each of those 50 locations that has some kind of documentation of a photograph or something related to that site that's depicted there, along with a label and credits for that person and a description of what's significant about it. And then, there's five walls in different buildings around the campus that we've sort of taken over. On the walls, there's little exhibitions also related to those 50 sites. And the signs have this light blue background, and the walls have light blue. One way that we talk about it is as like an exploded museum that is existing all over the campus and is identifiable by this kind of light blue. Then there's an app with all of the 50 sites on it with a GPS map and audio recordings of the people describing the significance of those spots and then an on-demand book. We've done a series of walking tours throughout the process of creating the project. And we're going to do a final one on February 12th where we walk to all of those 50 sites and have the people who identify those sites there to talk about what the significance of those sites are. And really, they range from all over the place. Like one of them is about the first meeting of scientists who got together to decide to map the human genome. Another one is about a professor there, Chris Wilmers, who studies mountain lions, and how a mountain lion actually killed a deer on a little stretch of grass in front of his building on the campus. And then there's a million other really interesting stories. So once again, there's like a conceptual framework that’s going on that's really important to me and that I'm using to kind of structure the project. And then within that structure, there's the room for all sorts of local people to provide content based on what they value and what they know.

Jo Reed: Collaboration, obviously, is important, but I would imagine when you think about the people who are a part of this art—as collaborators, as audience—is there an effect or an impact that you want—if it's social, or political, or personal—you know, to be more rooted where they are, to see what they might not normally see?

Harrell Fletcher: Yeah, I think there's a bunch of different motivations going on for me. And a big part of that is trying to get people to see that there is culture everywhere, and that there's beauty everywhere, and there's interesting stories and histories, and that it's very available to everyone. But for the most part, we've become kind of checked out on that as a society. And so I guess in some ways, what I'm trying to do is point that out, and as I learn about these things, I'm just trying to show the things that I'm excited about to a broader public. It's kind of coming from a really basic impulse. And something that affected me a lot was that when I was a kid, I would go for walks with my dad, and he would always be pointing things out, like literally pointing them out with his finger. Like, "This tree over there,” or “That building,” or “This person," or whatever. He had lived in the town I grew up in most of his life. He knew a lot about it, and he really cared a lot about it. And so, he was trying to share that with me through this process of just sort of walking around and identifying things. And in some ways, I'm showing that this kind of simple act of, sort of, identifying significance and then sharing it—in small and big ways—that there's a real value to that and that it's something that's really available to anybody to do, as well. So that, I think, I play a role in it, kind of the way that a curator, or a director of a film, or something plays a role. I'm sort of like assembling those things together and able to kind of clear through what might be hard to see. I'm sort of identifying that for people. And then, hopefully, it makes it easier for them to just continue to do that on their own, after project is done.

Jo Reed: Oh, Harrell, I could talk to you for a long time, but I think we have to let it rest there. Thank you so much.

Harrell Fletcher: Thank you.

Jo Reed: I really—it's been fascinating.

Harrell Fletcher: Thanks a lot.

Jo Reed: That’s artist Harrell Fletcher. Harrell is also a professor of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Harrell Fletcher shares his passion for social practice—creative projects in communities that are by, for, and of the residents.