I studied Media and Communications before going to Art School. My course covered journalism for radio and print media. We did graphic design and photography, and published a magazine, all from a very critical perspective. That media is a craft and a construction was an obvious point of departure for me, and it is a short step from that to be making art.
But I also had a paper route from the age of eleven and what I remember most from that job was the tactile, almost sensual quality of fresh morning print. The weight of the paper on my bicycle, the smears of ink on my hands. I have carried a lot of that over into my work as well.
Osama, is part of a series of 240 drawing produced during an exhibition called Newsroom (1986-1999) which took place at the Mary Boone Gallery over two months, September-October, 2007. The idea was to simulate the daily workings of a Manhattan newsroom. The work was produced by myself and 17 assistants live in front of the public, and when a set of drawings was completed, we mounted it on the wall so in effect the exhibition was re-hung ever week, in a rotating display of old news and new art.
Mary Boone gave me the keys to her gallery, which was previously unheard of. I guess that deems me the ultimate reliable nerd! I was the first one to arrive and open the gate and the last one to leave and lock up. I spent six days a week there. It was my project and it was the level of ambition I had set for myself. I never had a studio during my fifteen years in NY so when I finally had access to this amazing real estate I didn't just want to hang work on the wall and walk away. I wanted to use it to its fullest.
The seventeen assistants had clear schedules. Everyone worked part-time, or three days a week. To manage so many people requires good organisation and some basic discipline for the whole thing not just to collapse into anarchy. People often assume I am running some kind of hippie commune when in fact the opposite is true. Yes it is relaxed and friendly but I ask people to come early to be on time for the 10am brief and if they are 2 minutes late the doors are closed. I always offer my assistants free lunch which harks back to my own days of working in shitty jobs all over the city and not having enough money to eat out, but it also has the clear function to keep the group together during the day. I allow everyone a great deal of freedom within the space I can feasibly offer, but ultimately we are working towards realizing my overall vision and to deliver a show, and then it is over.
As I practically lived in the gallery for two months and I learned a lot. First, that apart from the obvious cast of art world personalities who go through a show in almost military formation evoking expert opinion, galleries are also free and wide open public spaces. Anyone and everyone comes in off the street and you have to deal with them as it goes. As my content was all about the public life of the city, I thought a lot about creating an environment that could feed off this public energy. In the middle of my drawing, I would often spot someone I thought resonated with a headline and asked if I could photograph them with it. People would pose in a jokey and ironic way, as if helping to take apart a myth, but there was always some genuine or crazy correlation. These are my favorite moments, when the media as story telling comes full circle.
This all happened before the advent of social media. There was no facebook or twitter or Instagram and barely any cameras in the space apart from my own. And no selfies. I could not have made that work today. The behavioral codes for how the public relates to a live event, or any art show, have completely changed. The Selfies of today have none of the irony or creative performance but are at best empty markers of “I was here”, and the obsession with taking photos has remove the public a great deal from simply being with the work.
This was a history project. The show took place in 2007 and dealt with the fifteen year time period leading up to the end of the millennium.
I first spent one year in the public library together with two assistants making photocopies of the microfilm on those ten thousand covers. I was interested in the time period which roughly correlated with my own time in the city which I perceived as having a fairly quaint quality: a big city yet absorbed in its own small town narratives. The Central Park rape and a love triangle on Long Island were the two longest running news stories over that whole time period. Donald Trump's love life, his marriages and divorces had as much coverage as the whole of the AIDS crisis. Weather, too hot or too cold, was annually recurring. The volume of research material kind of sorted itself into themes which became the groups on shows in the gallery.
We completed some two hundred and forty drawings in total and they were grouped thematically according to the themes that emerged in the reserach stage from the presumably random flow of news, but which clearly reflected the mythology of the city. 'Cops and Teens' is my favorite. 'Bad Weather' is another. If you pick up a catalogue the groups are all listed. The ones that were sold up to 2012 are intact in their groups, the rest were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, from pulp to pulp.
I also discovered the haiku-like art form of headline writing and other hidden poetic qualities of news media which revealed themselves in the process. The collected reports on the shooting of cops for example, had a rhythmic beat to it. "1 Cop Shot, 2 Cops Shot, 3 Cops Shot, 4 Cops Shot" and new narratives would form easily when linking two or more headlines with each other, so it all came very close to fiction writing.
But the way you look at the work at the Whitney today, is again very different. Bin Laden first appeared in the news in 1998 for threatening to avenge on US attacks in Afghanistan. Then 9/11 happened 2001, I did my show in 2007 and then Bin Laden was killed in 2011. But the startling correlation between the past, present and future has nothing to do with the work that I did. Unless you believe in the magic of art of course, or at least it's power to remain timeless and relevant far beyond its point of creation and to extend beyond the intent of its creator. This, I consider a gift.