BY Jens Hoffmann in Features | 01 NOV 08
Featured in
Issue 119

You and Me

From participatory projects to socially mindful curating,Harrell Fletcher explores the role art plays in human relations

BY Jens Hoffmann in Features | 01 NOV 08

Now It's a Party (The Problem of Possible Redemption), DVD projection, 2003

Much has been made lately of art practices that involve various forms of participation, community outreach and collaborative structure. Dominating the conversation have been two primary paths. One is a more American concept of art in public space, which in the early 1990s moved away from the idea of sculptures in plazas to a deeper, almost activist form of involvement with local communities. Two classic examples are ‘Places with a Past’ (1991) and ‘Culture in Action’ (1991–3), both curated by Mary Jane Jacob. These exhibitions analysed the histories and current social and cultural realities of their respective locations (Charleston, in South Carolina, and Chicago). The participating artists moved into the communities to work on a diverse range of socially minded projects in close conversation with local participants and realized works of art outside the privileged context of art museums and galleries.

The other, more European-dominated, approach involves ‘relational aesthetics’, as defined by the French critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud and often discussed with regard to art works that involve audience participation collaborations with non-art groups or volunteers, and that occupy a grey area between curating and art-making. These practices move away from the idea of the artist as the single creator of a work of art and hand over some of the creative power to viewers and other participants. Over recent years the definition of ‘relational’ has expanded drastically, and the critical reactions that have emerged in response to Bourriaud’s concept are generally concerned with questions of why, how and when a work of art becomes ‘relational’.

Harrell Fletcher’s work is clearly influenced by all of this and responds directly to the question of why and how art works can be inclusive and participatory and play a role in creating human interactions. Fletcher occupies a singular niche in the art world’s ever-increasing arsenal of creative practices. His work ranges from site-specific art to participatory projects to socially mindful curating, encompassing playful renderings of the idea of relational aesthetics and humorous takes on the often over-sober and authoritarian notion of institutional critique.

Fletcher began developing his first such project when he was still a graduate student. One of his earliest endeavours was The Alternative Library (1992), in which he opened his own library on his college campus. It became tremendously successful, and fellow students and faculty members began to donate books, even entire collections of books, until the school shut the project down. His first curatorial initiative was Gallery HERE, which began in 1993 and ran for almost two years. Fletcher borrowed a vacant shop in his Oakland neighbourhood and programmed the space until the building was rented again. All of the exhibitions there related to local people and places. One show was about a man named Albert, who owned a rug shop across the street from the gallery. In another, neighbourhood residents held garage sales in the gallery and tagged their items with stories about the various objects.

Fletcher’s practice does relate to those of several other contemporary artists who are working in relational and collaborative ways while exploring the vernacular of modern life. The Folk Archive, a collaboration between Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, is an obvious comparison, as is Mario Ybarra Jr’s New Chinatown Barber Shop, a small non-profit gallery and educational initiative in Los Angeles. St George Marsh was a Vancouver commercial space that Gareth Moore and Jacob Gleeson turned into a surreal mixture of corner store, outsider-art gallery and cabinet of curiosities. The Polish artist Pawel Althamer also comes to mind, with his countless collaborations with marginalized individuals and socially ostracized groups.

However, Fletcher’s work is unique in the way that it embraces seemingly peripheral subjects and collaborators, in addition to the act of curating. Fletcher’s aim in all his projects is to overcome the restrictive and often discriminatory sphere of the art world. He is not so much proposing an anti-élitist stance as aspiring to create an awareness of the overlooked, dismissed or excluded details of everyday life. His subjects and his non-art collaborators are treasure troves of wonders that link individual biographies, characters and stories to a larger understanding of the world, grounding them in a language and context that are accessible to everyone. Fletcher functions as a catalyst, actively refusing the authoritarian role of author or creator.

Perhaps his best-known project to date is his exhibition The American War, organized in 2005. During a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, a memorial museum devoted to what the Vietnamese call ‘the American War’, Fletcher took more than 200 photographs of the objects, artefacts, images and text descriptions in the museum’s display and then showed them at various spaces around the USA as a travelling exhibition.

Another project characteristic of Fletcher’s practice, Tamarind/Frontier Exchange Exhibition, took place in Albuquerque in 2002. He had been invited to visit the University of New Mexico’s Tamarind Institute, which specializes in printmaking, to work on a new series of lithographs. During a meal at the restaurant next door, an old-fashioned diner and cherished local spot called The Frontier, he discovered that the owners had a large collection of local paintings. He suggested that the art collections of the Tamarind and The Frontier should swap sites for a number of weeks. He put an immense amount of work into the display and interpretive materials, and the exhibitions included long explanatory labels with information not only about the artists but also about their personal opinions of the art exhibited.

For his exhibition at The Power Plant in Toronto this October, Fletcher intends to work with six young local artists, who in turn will invite six non-artists to collaborate on the exhibition. The group is planning to spend ten days together before the exhibition to work through their own art and non-art practices and examine the possibilities of wider forms of collaboration that go beyond traditional art-world boundaries. Fletcher will draw heavily on the history and current realities of Canada’s biggest city, and the show will involve public events and satellite projects outside the institutional walls, a multitude of publications and various web-based undertakings.

Regardless of whether Fletcher’s works take the form of curatorial projects, collaborations with artists and non-artists alike, public art endeavours or objects in a gallery space, all of them deal critically with the art world and its systems of display, interpretation, distribution and dissemination of information. He also seems genuinely to cherish what ordinary people do and make, and he approaches each project with a remarkable energy, curiosity and openness. Unapologetic, Fletcher loves people and their stories, and he invites us all to participate in their lives.

Jens Hoffmann is a writer, curator, and Director of Special Exhibitions and Public Programs, Jewish Museum, New York, USA