NEW GENRE PUBLIC ART
The following description of the Gourdsigns is an excerpt from the book, Evolving Intentions in Public Art, available for purchase here.
I think I know a lot of you, and I know you mostly through Axle Contemporary, which Jerry Wellman and I run, but I actually exist independently of that as well. So I'm going to talk about a project called Gourdsigns that I did, that started in 2006. Over many years, I put these signs around Santa Fe, near other street signs, in the size of other street signs, but made out of these wild gourds. It started when I first moved to New Mexico; I was fascinated by these gourds, which are called buffalo gourds, or coyote gourds, they grow wild. So I picked a bunch of them -- I had never seen them before -- and strung them up on strings and hung them from a pole. This is a later version but I had done one back in the early nineties, I guess 1990 or so. And this started actually a whole series of different natural materials collected and hung from poles, which I've done in different places round the US and a little in Europe. So anyway, that's a gourd pole, that was the genesis.
And then, Old Pecos Trail -- from the light up here out to the highway -- was re-paved, and they put in medians and changed the traffic flow there a number of years ago. Part of that was adding these Adopt-a-Median signs, which are little frames about this big. No one had adopted them for a long time and I live out that way, so, I would drive through there a lot and see these empty signs. Because I was bored, driving in my car, I kept thinking about what I should put in there. Or what somebody should put in there. So, I did the first Gourdsign; I stopped one day and measured the opening, built a little wooden frame, strung up a number of gourds in there, and put it up. I didn't get permission from Santa Fe Beautiful (which is the organization that does those), or from the City or the Highway Department. I did an anonymous project, and didn't tell anyone that it was me, until today. [audience laughs] So I hope no one from the police department is here and upset.
How long did they stay up? Did somebody take them down or did they leave them?
Yeah, a combination. Some of them stayed up for three or four years, some of them came down within a day or two. I never knew who, or why they disappeared. Because I didn't want to own it, I couldn't ask questions about it. The first one, and this is on Old Pecos Trail, stayed up for a number of years. Then occasionally -- these gourds don't last too long, they would fall apart; sometimes I would take the down and re-build them and put new ones up. Or the city would put different adopt-a-median signs in new parts of town and I would put one up there. I put one up on St. Francis Drive, kind of near the north side of town, and it was gone in a day. The reason they took that one down was because they had adopted out the median, so they took it down and put up a sign for whoever had paid to adopt a median.
So this was the bus stop at the corner of St.Michaels and Cerrillos, and normally the bus stop signs have this small sign at the bottom and then a tall one that dimension on the top; for some reason on this one the top sign was missing, maybe it was no longer a bus stop, or I'm not sure what. So I measured it and created this frame and hung that one. These ones kind of bulge out on both sides, it's a more dense amount of gourd. And I was always concerned about getting in trouble for doing these, and so I thought maybe I should install them in the middle of the night, when no one was around and no one would see me, but then I thought that if someone did see me, it would look very suspicious. So I just wore sunglasses and a big hat and did them in the middle of the day, and carried the ladder over and made it look like I should be doing it. And no one ever asked me about it.
One day I was riding a little motorized scooter down Old Pecos Trail, this was maybe two or three years ago, and there was this city crew taking one down. And I happened to be turning right there, so I just pulled over by the median in the turn lane, and said, "Oh, are you taking that down?" and they said, "Yes, we leased out the sign", and I said "Oh, well actually I made that, could I have it, if you're just throwing it away?", and he said "Well we usually store them -- we have a whole collection of these at the city, at the maintenance yard, but if it's yours, yeah, of course you can have it." So I just put it between my legs on the scooter and drove off. Um, I don't know if they really do have other ones there or not... [audience laughs]
So this one is I think thirty inches in diameter, (two and a half feet), and it's the same diameter as these other fraternal organization signs, this is on Old Pecos Trail, just off the freeway, heading towards town. This was up for a few years, and eventually it blew down in a big wind storm, so I took it away. I sort of monitored them -- I was always very concerned not to have them be dangerous for traffic; I put them where there were other signs, in the same places, with the same distance from the road, and all of those sort of things. I tried to conform to the rules, as much as I could understand them.
I find while driving… I live a few miles outside of town, and I come to town most days, so, I see these signs that say "yield" and "speed limit 35" and "stop" and even billboards, and even if I know already what they say, I read them anyway. It gets kind of boring, not very engaging. A lot of us spend a lot of time in our cars, and sometimes we listen to music, or listen to the news or books on tape or whatever. I thought of these Gourdsigns as something visual, something playful, maybe beautiful. And with these repeated objects, something like writing that we have on signs --but not writing with language, just writing with little round balls. So, that's sort of the motivation for that. Here's another picture of that same one. And here's a blurry picture.
This is coming in to town from the North, on St. Francis Drive; it's the size of a speed limit sign. It disappeared within a day or two. I have no idea why. And here's a close-up of that one. They start off green, they dry into that kind of yellowish color, and then they go this sort of golden tan. Then, when you harvest them, and when you string them up and dry them out, sometimes they rot really badly and turn into mush, and other times they get these hard shells that last for a really long time. And I haven't totally figured out what the variables are. That's the one on St. Francis that also disappeared, and that's a close-up of that one. This is on Old Santa Fe Trail, behind Quail Run, kind of heading out of town towards Cañada de Los Alamos. It's curve signs. And this is an "Adopt a River", that also disappeared fairly quickly, that's down on Alameda.
This one is still there. There was this sign post with that bar coming out, it must have used to have been the sign of a business, it was maybe Noon Whistle Cafe and then Aqua Santa, and now it's Bouche, but it's the back of the building, on Alameda downtown. So I just put it up there, climbed up on the wall with the ladder, didn't ask, but I guess they didn't mind, cause it's still there. And this one for some reason had dried out and stayed pretty solid, I think it's the only one that is still up. So I started in 2006, and I don't know when the last one I put up was, maybe 2010?
That was another empty sign, the top part of that post was empty and some sign that had been there had come down, it's near Dunkin Donuts on St. Francis... here's the same one. This... I had a show of some of my other drawings and sculptures at the New Mexico Museum of Art, one of the Alcove shows a year or two ago. So the day of the show -- there's this little hole in the building that didn't go to anything, just this sort of recess -- so I walked around and found that hole, and made this little sort of waterfall coming out of there. It disappeared within a day, I didn't tell the museum that it was mine...
And a couple of them, I experimented using other things. So these were bundles of grasses, of Side Oats Gramma, which is a native grass. And these are seed pods from a Locust tree, that I collected downtown, on Palace Avenue -- that's also on Old Pecos Trail, you can see remnants of gourds from what was there before -- I had taken one down that rotted away.
Did those last as long, the grasses and seed pod ones?
Matthew Chase Daniel:
The grasses one lasted a long time, and the seed pod one somebody came and broke it -- stamped on it, I don't know what they did. So I found it broken, a couple of weeks later. When you're doing these anonymous, unsanctioned things, you have very little control over security. It's an interesting thing, because, I wanted them to be anonymous when I did them, but I also, as an artist, have this desire to have credit for what I've done, and to document them.
So it's this interesting balance, and that's some of what we're talking about today, these ephemeral, temporary things... how do you get funding, how do you get credit, how do you get documentation. In the beginning, it was just cause I wanted to do this, and I didn't want to get in trouble, so I was like ok, I'll be anonymous and I'll do it -- I didn't have a plan to do a series of them, I just did one, and then I saw another and decided to do another. And it's not meant to have some big social implications or anything, this project is just very playful, just to give people a little visual something to play with during their day.
I think that's the end of the slldes.
So, first, it isn't exactly a social thing, but for me, when I've seen them -- and before I met you, I saw them -- there's that thing of, you've taken a street sign, and you've put this object that we see in nature (in Northern New Mexico, we see those, they're everywhere) and so for me, there's humor involved, which I love, but there's also that aspect of putting something from the wild into a place that normally has a sign that nobody ever reads... my question is though, you string them, like beads?
Yeah, I use waxed nylon, you can get it at Tandy Leather, and I poke holes; I made a big sort of sewing needle, and I poke a hole going through them, going both this way and that way, so they're fairly solid in the frame. That lighter-colored frame, I built out of wood and screwed and glued it together, and then I drilled holes, at the center of each gourd, so the thread comes through here and then to the outside of the frame. And then I took that frame and just screwed it with deck screws into the existing frame that they had. So some are done that way, others... this one, the frame is made out of steel wire that's sautered together with silver sauter to make a structural frame, and then the gourds are tied onto that with the same kind of thing and then that whole thing is attached to a post. So some are done that way.
Thank you, I love them.
This is really cool to happen to be here -- these have totally fascinated me, ever since they started, and whenever people come into town that are visiting, I'll take them on a tour of where I think these signs are... the one on Alameda is always there… But it's been really inspirational, really cool, it's a great project.
I have a couple of questions though, and one is, now that it's revealed that it's you, do you stop, or does the project continue ?
Um, I don't know, good question. I haven't done any for a few years, and it's probably just because I've been busy, doing other projects, running Axle, doing other things. And it's a pretty time-consuming project. You know, I don't get the sense that the City or the Highway Department or any of those organizations is out to get me, so I might be able to do more. But yeah, it's a little tricky that way, the balance between doing it anonymously and having credit or being known...maybe I do more, or maybe I do other projects that are different enough that it's not an issue. The gourdpoles, and the other poles, which are related, I've done a lot of those and have always taken credit for those. Those to me are more something that I can continue to do that's related. I've applied actually for certain public art commissions in other cities to do Gourdsigns, and sent them my photos and said, I did this in Santa Fe, and I'd like to do it in ? I've never gotten any of those commissions...
so my second question is, in the process of doing this, how important was the rogue nature, for you?
I don't know, that's hard to answer. If I had put a little plaque on the bottom of each one, so if someone pulled over and looked, they could figure out who it was -- that would have been ok with me. That wouldn't have diminished it, because it's mostly for everyone who's driving by... so the anonymity, or the illegality or the rogue nature, isn't that important. It was just, I guess maybe a lot easier, than to try and get permission. I didn't think I would be able to get permission. There are other projects, where that rogue, anonymous aspect maybe is more important. I was also very careful, with these, not to do anything that was dangerous or destructive, because I think there's a lot of graffiti art and anonymous art where, some of it I find really engaging and great, and some of it I find destructive...if you do graffiti and even if it's a beautiful thing, and it's on someone's building who owns it and doesn't want that, that's problematic. I really enjoy these unauthorized rogue projects but, we all need to be really careful to do them responsibly. Maybe we can take one more question.
First I want to say that I also, from the first time I saw this project, was just so tickled -- I don't know how many other people had that same feeling, but it just made me feel happy. I was wondering, if you were to do this project now, with all the experience you've had with these Gourdsigns and running Axle and other projects you've been doing, is there anything you would do differently?
No. I mean I feel like now that I run Axle I have a very public face, and some sort of responsibility to behave responsibly, so going out to do something that's borderline illegal, is a little more irresponsible than in 2006, when most people didn't know who I was, so it's a little different. I'm doing another project now which ends tomorrow, it's the last day. On Kickstarter I raised fifteen hundred dollars with Axle, for this thing called "Dollar Distribution". I have fifteen hundred dollar bills, and each day for a month, I'm putting fifty individual dollar bills in different places around the city, mostly just dropped on the sidewalk, but sometimes in the crack in the side of a tree, or a book in the library, and things like that. And that is also sort of borderline anonymous -- I mean I'm publicizing it, and trying to get as much awareness about it as possible, and taking photos of some of the dollar bills in their little spots, and putting them on the internet. But I also want most people who find them to not know it's a project -- they're not marked, there's nothing written on them -- to just have that engaging experience of finding money on the street; fifteen hundred different people having that experience, and having it be what it is... without reference to some conceptual framework around it. And that's again a tricky thing; as an artist I want credit for it, I want publicity for it. But for the project, I want it to be anonymous. So, I want everyone to know about it except the fifteen hundred people who find the dollar bills, and that's kind of tricky. [audience laughs]
Male Audience Member:
Thank you. My name is Issa, I just wanted to acknowledge your work because you're one of the artists that I follow here in town, and I think through this work, you're trying to tell the community that you like this town, and this is your contribution. You don't have to wait for funding or to get any public commission to love Santa Fe. So that's the way I see it, but my question for you is, do you have a title for them?
I call them Gourdsigns.
Audience Member: I mean each piece.
No, not so much. I mean, I call it 'adopt a median sign', and 'curve sign', and 'speed limit sign', and 'bus stop sign' but that's more for my own reference... they're pretty much untitled.
Male Audience Member:
I see generosity of spirit throughout your work. And within the context of that generosity of spirit, I think had you overly advertised the fact that it was yours, some of that generosity of spirit would be diminished. I also think that dancing with the legality and illegality of your project, creates another situation in which to address that generosity of spirit, and how odd it is that doing something generous like this might be illegal. I find that to be interesting as well. So the question of the rogueness or illegality or the anonymity -- perhaps you didn't think of it but it doesn't really matter -- it causes us to have to think about those kinds of issues, especially in relation to public art, and what public art is becoming more and more today, which is -- the value and the response that you get is oftentimes very indirect. Anyway, I just want to salute you for this work.
Thank you, Jerry. yeah it sounds like what you're saying and Issa's saying as well, is there's a generosity and it's a gift to Santa Fe, as a place I care about, to do this and put it out there for other people. And I think that's true, I like that take on it.
Matthew, just picking up on what Jerry said, I feel the same way -- I think of you as kind of a pollinator of imagination. And I think those of us involved in public art, very involved in structures and institutions and that kind of thing, I feel like you're holding a very very critical space, here in Santa Fe, so I want to just look at you and say thank you for that, and may we continue to support you.
Thanks. it's a tricky balance, because this project took a lot of time, and there's no payment for it. For the Dollar Distribution project, I raised fifteen hundred dollars, and I give away fifteen hundred dollars, and it's a lot of work. It has changed my relationship to money -- every day, for the last month, I leave the house with fifty one-dollar bills, and rather than -- you all look at that and think 'wow, that's a lot of money' -- rather than it being something of value to me, like 'oh, I could get a cappuccino and a croissant', I'm like 'Damn, that's a lot of work that I still have to do today!' [audience laughs] 'it's already ten o'clock and I've barely even started…' It's a very strange thing.
So that's an interesting question in terms of institutions of public art, and projects like these that are not sanctioned and not balanced, and how can can we continue to do things like this and support them. Axle Contemporary is having our annual fund drive, so if you want to give us any money, [audience laughs] we support things like that…
Hi, it's Michelle. I live out that way too, and I saw those every day. And although in listening to you I hear you say that the rogue-ness and guerilla-ness weren't important to you, they were to me, as the viewer. And I feel like I had a different experience coming across them daily and wondering… just knowing that they weren't a 'sanctioned' public art project. That somebody was doing that, somebody was popping these up, for me, to see on my way in. And I'd see different ones… And working in the institutional public art world as I do now, and wanting to fund projects like this -- at the same time, thinking about it while you were talking, as a viewer, it would have wrecked it. So it's sort of a weird dynamic, I don't know how we work with that.
Yes. a Catch 22. Thanks. one more question.
Hi, I love this, and I think we'll get into this more as we listen to the projects, but it made me think about permission, did they get permission to do this? And just that whole idea of asking permission to make art. It comes into public art, because sometimes it's on someone's property… so I'm curious how that comes up, how that's handled also in the other projects. Because also by asking permission, in some way you're asking for restrictions.
yeah. At Axle Contemporary we did this project called Haiku Roadsign in 2011. It was this portable sign with plastic letters, and we had thirty-two Haiku on it. We moved it to a different visible location each week for three months or something -- 16 weeks, four months. We got permission from all the property owners, and they were all visible from the street. There was a U-Haul dealer, and a Museum, you know, a whole range of places. But it still had that aspect of surprise, when you went by, and you weren't expecting to see a poem on one of these cheesy signs. So I think there are ways to get permission and still have it have that unexpected charm. But for these Gourdsigns, it would have been impossible -- especially as at that time, I was not as well known. Like now, I know the people at the Santa Fe Arts Commission, and New Mexico Arts. But to try and get permission, probably still, with the highway right of way…it's a tricky thing. There is another un-sanctioned public art project on Old Pecos Trail; someone has been throwing shoes in the median, for, I don't know, fifteen, twenty years. And I don't know who that is, I've heard rumors it might be Carlos Glass, I'm not sure if that's true. It just goes on and on, and there's been articles in the paper about it maybe fifteen years ago -- that's an interesting project, I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean. It's not quite as beautiful necessarily as a sign or something, it's more subtle, but it's interesting, and it's on-going -- and maybe it's different people who are taking it up…