Social art is a term I use to describe a type of fine art that I’ve been doing for the past three or four years. I’ve been asked by various curators to define it, but I can’t. Ultimately, I suppose social art is hard to define intelligibly but not unlike what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography—we know it when we see it.
At its core, social art is the intersection of art, social tools and technology. It’s interdisciplinary, interactive, collaborative in part and usually ongoing. Most importantly, it leverages assets and resources beyond the creative or logistical abilities of any single artist.
Below are a few of my recent projects—examples of social art. I will let them do the talking.
The Best Camera
[Picture book and online community]
The Best Camera is an ongoing, five-year body of photographic work that began with the release of the original iPhone and my early fine art exploration of mobile phone photography. What would it mean if five billion people worldwide considered their phones primarily as cameras? With this in mind, I created the world’s first mobile photography picture book (The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You), an online community with more than a million participants and the first live feed of mobile phone images. This project – and community – continues to thrive.
Dasein: Invitation to Hang
[Interactive art installation at Ace Hotel NYC]
The German word Dasein has been used by Heidegger and numerous other philosophers to refer to raw human existence—the fundamental mode of “being there.” When applied to photography, this everyday-ness is most revealed by the snapshot, which awakens us to the realization that we each have a limited number of these discrete, fleeting moments in our lives. From this idea I created a monthlong art installation at the Ace Hotel in New York celebrating the snapshot, integrating my work with thousands of photographers the world over in digital and printed photographs. More than 15,000 images from 190 countries became a part of the digital installation, and in the physical gallery space, I curated, printed and hung up to 200 images every day for 30 days.
[Large-format, photographic-print collage]
This large-format print is a collage comprised of portraits shot over the course of a three-day period in which open dinners were hosted by a collaborator, dining-provocateur and friend, Michael Hebb (see page 46). The images are an intimate reflection of a social experiment in which people unknown to one another have come together anonymously to share stories of the revolutionary year that was 1968. I photographed this project with an Olympus Pen camera, which in 1968 was taken by my uncle to Vietnam, where he was tragically killed. The camera was with him when he died, and these images were the first be taken with it since his death. The mosaic I assembled to highlight this sharing of stories and artifacts is itself both a signfier and a sign. When viewed at a distance or with a squint, a 1968 becomes visible in the patterned portraits.
Seattle 100: Portrait of a City
[Printed, photographic gallery show; limited-edition, hardback book and interactive website]
This project is from a three-year personal gallery, book and interactive project comprising portraits of more than 100 inspirational people and groups who are driving culture in Seattle. Part fine art project, part photographic record and part cultural ethnography, these portraits are of artists, philanthropists, dancers, restaurateurs, DJs, scientists, architects, environmentalists, musicians and more. What they have in common is the important work they do and how it affects our city. Each subject was photographed in a reductive manner to distill and simplify the image and minimize distraction. Individually, these images aim to capture the essence of the subject in a single moment; collectively, they create a portrait of a city through its people. Not a finite, canonical “best of” list, this collection of photographs is very clearly meant to be a Seattle 100, not the Seattle 100. And this is just a start. More than anything, Seattle 100: Portrait of a City is an idea that our people, our community and our city matter.
[Large-format, photographic-print collage]
There are images and there is image. What is a celebrity and what is baked into the concept, meaning and ethos of a recognizable personality? How does that juxtapose with an actual image? This large-format, photographic-print collage is the product of 300 smaller, macro images of dozens of shapes, colors and types of make-up that come together in a larger image of a fashionista celebrity. Up close the image is a mosaic of shape and color, almost indistinguishable from splotches of paint. At a distance the image is fully recognizable as a beautiful model. This piece is part of a larger collaborative show and collection of work I helped to organize where 50 artists – many celebrities in their own right, from a range of disciplines – used 50 Polaroid printers to create 50 pieces of work, all using the same medium: 3×4 inch photographic ZINK paper. The 50-50-50 show was recently on display and went to auction at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York.