Bad at Sports

Interview with the Present Group

By Bad at Sports April 21, 2010

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Eleanor Hanson Wise and Oliver Wise, the Oakland-based founders of the Present Group, focus on self-perpetuating creative systems.  They describe the Present Group as “like a mutual fund that produces art instead of profits.” Since founding the quarterly subscription art service in 2006, they have channeled over $20,000 toward funding artist projects, stipends, and development of critical essays. They have just created a new program: Web Hosting that Supports Artists. The couple has spoken at Yerba Buena for the Arts, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and California College of the Arts. The Present Group was a recipient of Southern Exposure’s Alternative Exposure Grant in 2008.

Image: David Horvitz. Hermosa Beach, CA, Issue 9, Winter 2009; edition of 50. All images, courtesy of The Present Group, Oakland.

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Subscription Art Service 

Brian Andrews: I’m here with Eleanor Hanson Wise and Oliver Wise, the co-creators, muscles, and brains behind the Present Group, which is a unique method of distributing artwork. Maybe you could tell us a bit about what the Present Group is and what you guys actually do.

Oliver Wise: We’re a subscription art project. People pay $150 to receive a limited edition once a quarter throughout the year, for a total of four. Our edition size is roughly equivalent to the number of subscribers we have, with a few back issues.

Eleanor Hanson Wise: We look to the model of a CSA [community supported agriculture]. We see the subscribers as funding four works of art that have yet to be produced. It gives the artist a little bit of shelter because the subscribers don’t know who they’re going to get, or what work they’re going to get. So the artist can really have a little bit of room to play. They don’t have to sell it. They can try out a bigger project, a different tangent than they would normally.

OW: We generally find our artists through an open call. We’re always reviewing submissions. Once a year we do a subscriber’s-choice issue, where we narrow it down to about five proposals and let the subscribers vote online.

BA: For the people who subscribe, is the experience managed like a magazine? They come home from work one day and there’s a package sitting there with some artwork in it?

OW: They generally know it’s going to come at the end of every season. Other than that, they have no idea. We announce the artist one piece ahead, so subscribers at least know who the artist is going to be a little beforehand.

BA: Subscribers not only receive the artwork, but also supporting documentation. Why do you do that?

EHW: We commission a critic to write about each piece to give the work a little bit of context. I think it’s really important for subscribers to not have something just drop on their door out of nowhere. Because there are all these people who are interested in art, but sort of turn off when they don’t necessarily understand it, or haven’t been educated in it. A lot of our subscribers are not necessarily art-world people, so to have something written about the work, and a little bit of time to put it into context, helps to familiarize them with the ideas around it and just…

OW: Get comfortable with it. We also interview the artists, so we usually send a CD. We put all the pieces online, to have an interactive version of each one, so that the general public can experience it, read the critique, and listen to the interview there. And we also try to compile sort of annotated links that pertain to the piece.

Ingrid Burrington. Center for Missed Connections Information Initiative, Issue 13, Winter 2010; edition of 100.

EHW: The next piece we’re producing is by an artist from Baltimore named Ingrid Burrington. She’s working as a think tank, so we compiled a list of other people, other artists, who are working as organizations or as think tanks.

BA: That makes me think of the Hoover Institute or the American Enterprise Institute, organizations that are highly politicized. But then I think maybe all artists are think tanks?

EHW: It’s true, all artists are think tanks. For this project, Ingrid's is the Center for Missed Connections. She’s analyzing the data from Missed Connections on Craigslist, and putting out information to the public about what she finds there.

OW: Analyzing the loneliness of five cities throughout the country, and also the Internet as a whole. There’s a whole section in the handbook about the gray area, which is just people using Missed Connections to vent their loneliness with no particular focus, no person attached at the end. So it’s this generalized internet longing that she’s tracking.

BA: How do you actually confront and deal with more conceptual-based work, or work that might not be physically embodied? Do you find ways to constrict yourself to format, or posing yourself around documentation practices?

EHW: We do require for the projects that something has to be sent out to our subscribers, and we say that it can’t lose quality in being reproduced, so those are our two guidelines. Other than that, we’re pretty open to format and medium. We have done documentation of a performance project by Presley Martin as one of the pieces. He did sort of a land-art performance, where he went to a beach in Berkeley, found all these bricks that had been worn down, collected a lot of them and took them back to his studio to glaze and fire them. Then he brought them back to the beach where he made a simple circular arrangement and let the waves redistribute them throughout the beach. And then we redistributed them to our subscribers. Our subscribers received a brick from each stage in the project, and they also received a video documentation of the whole project, so they got to see all the different stages. So that’s one example. But we do find ourselves drawn to more project-based work, and sometimes it is a challenge to have the final multiple as something that’s tangible.

Origins

BA: You talk about this as a CSA model. How did this actually come about and why do you think this is a viable model for the distribution of artwork?

OW: We were graduating from school and knew a lot of artists who were hitting the real world and basically having to stop making work because they were too busy with real jobs. On the other side, we knew people who were interested in art, but they didn’t collect it. They were open to the idea of the art world, but there was some sort of disconnect.

EHW: We also had parents or people in our lives that would say they just didn’t get it. We’d drag them along to an opening or something, and they would just completely turn off, as opposed to try to understand or engage with the work itself. So we wanted to find a way to connect these groups of people. We wanted to find a way to fund artists’ projects and to help people engage with artworks one piece at a time. And at a low price point, so that people could afford to start collecting work.

BA: That makes absolute sense. I think compared to other popular creative media―music, film―the art world post-minimalism has really almost intentionally isolated itself away from a broader public. And part of it is certainly the degree of education that seems to have to come hand-in-hand with artwork, although it doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive like that. And the price point, I think that makes a lot of sense.

Process

BA: What’s it like working with the artist throughout this process, and creating the work for this model?

EHW: Every time we work with an artist, it’s different. We give a grant to the artist, and then we also fund the production of the work; we see those two things as separate. The way that we fund the production of the work is different in every case. Sometimes we pay vendors and we find sources; we sort of collate all the pieces after the artist has given us what they want to do. Sometimes we actually have a hand in building the works, either along with the artist or on our own. And sometimes the artist pretty much builds it and just sends it to us to distribute. If the artist does all the work on their own, then we try to fund them a little bit more, to cover the production cost.

BA: Could you give an example of one of the processes that you’ve gone through with a particular artist, from cradle to grave?

OW: Well, the first one was a book collaboration between a digital artist and a writer. They produced all the content. The images came from a net-based project. The artist had trained facial recognition software to his face and then he unleashed it on Flickr. So it went through Flickr trying to find him, and along the way it would make mistakes and find what it thought was him, but was really a flower, a city, or something. Those images became a starting point for the story. So in that case, they produced the content basically, and sent us an Illustrator file to print it. We handmade the books, although designing the format was a collaborative process between us and the designers.

On the flip side of that was Christine Kesler’s project. She made sixty-five collages and drawings, all unique, one for each subscriber as she traveled from Brooklyn to San Francisco. For that one, she just delivered the collages to us at the end of her trip, and since there weren’t any production costs, we gave her the production money to extend her trip.

EHW: So it’s always a little different, just depending on the project and how much we can afford and how much labor and time we put in.

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This is the next installment of the collaboration between Art Practical and Bad At Sports.  The podcast of the interview, Episode#243, can be found at Bad At Sports.

OW: Usually we can save a lot of money because our time is basically free.

Sustainable Art Models

BA: Do you think of the Present Group as a work of art in and of itself or as something that is just another way to exist as an artist? I have to ask that question, considering the social practice nexus that we exist in.

OW: We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it in that way, but that is an overarching idea—a business as art, or systems-based art. We’re trying to create a sustainable system that creates change.

BA: Do you see that as a viable model? I mean, the art world has existed in the cul-de-sac gallery system for a really long time, without good alternatives. I don’t think that—except for the few at the top of that pyramid—artists are really happy with it. Could your model be expanded and exported or just adopted?

OW: We think so. It doesn’t have to exist in the way that we do it, at $150 and each quarter, with the specifications that we have.

EHW: I do think that this can work, and I think it can work for a lot of different kinds of artwork. I don’t think that it can replace all aspects of the art world, but it can be an addition. These are multiples; it’s one small segment.

OW: There are all sorts of reasons that people like art. This doesn’t fulfill all of them.

EHW: At the same time, it is exciting to find a model that can fund work, and a big group of people coming together to fund one project is powerful. There’s Kickstarter, and that’s been helping a lot of projects happen. All these ways of pooling money together to make something happen is impactful.

Presley Martin. Earth-Kiln-Bay-Kiln-Bay, Issue 2, Spring 2007; edition of 65.

Economics

BA: Still, the art world is not necessarily about building wealth, but about building culture.

OW: True, but if there were hundreds of projects that people could interact with, it’s a way to supplement it too. Artists have a hundred different jobs, anyway. This is just another one, for a lot of artists.

EHW: Also, if we get to a point where we have a lot more subscribers, it’s possible that we can raise our stipends.

BA: Well I think that’s also interesting when you talk about a CSA model. The CSA movement is inherently this kind of local idea, and supporting one specific farm, cultivating that land, seeing how that farm grows, potentially going out to that farm periodically, throughout the season of the harvest. There’s sort of that natural size, right? It’s not CSA ConAgra or some gigantic feedlot. There’s something subscribers are specifically tied to. Do you think that’s necessary for artwork? Do you see a natural size to this? Or point of cultivation?

OW: We only really know this size, which are editions of about 60, because we’ve had it the entire time.

EHW: And it would be a much different project if we had editions of 1000 or 5000. We’re not opposed to that, they’re just different projects.

OW: That would just change our project. I think that the subscriber’s-choice issue would become more interesting as you got more subscribers because then the group becomes a community. You open up a space where people can talk about the different proposals and have a conversation around that. Then there is sort of a community that is creating these works.

EHW: We do really think about this as a system, and part of the reason we called it the Present Group, we think about each piece as this group of people—the people who fund it, who write about it, who think about it, who look at it on the website, who help produce it, in one way or another. It’s this big system, and it’s exciting to think about this block of people all producing a single piece of work.

BA: Is your subscriber base particularly local and connected in that way or is it more dispersed?

EHW: Our subscribers are all over the country, with a few international.

Collecting

BA: The other thing that this implies is the idea of collecting right off the bat. If you become a subscriber, you’re not buying a single piece. It flies a little bit in the face of the idea of people buying art in order to put it over the sofa. Did you find that this sort of changes the nature of collecting for your subscribers?

EHW: We haven’t gotten a lot of feedback on that. The one thing we do is guarantee one two-dimensional piece a year, so you do have something to put over your sofa. But we really do look at the education aspect of this as part of our project. The conundrum is that you do get something four times a year to keep in your house. So some people only sign up for a year, because they don’t want to keep getting stuff.

We’ve been trying to figure out a way that someone could still support the project but not necessarily receive the thing, or they receive it for a little while, and then they send it along somewhere else.

BA: Like regifting in a way?

EHW: We’d encourage regifting. We’ve been thinking about trying to set up some sort of system to help people donate the pieces to schools after they’re done, to encourage schools to start to have libraries of actual contemporary artworks. So kids can hold a work in their hands, and it won’t be this crazy thing that just lives in museums; it would be like a book in a library.

BA: That’s already something kind of different. This idea is maybe more akin to a book or a magazine. That artwork is to be consumed and then also passed on, is another distribution model, as opposed to the white box, pedestal arrangement for the work.

OW: Yeah, you’re right. It’s almost seeing it as just a piece of information that takes a physical form. I mean, that’s what a newspaper or magazine is, it’s just a collection of information that you can learn from.

We’re not against the idea of collecting at all. We collect art, we like the idea of collecting art, and we see the value in creating objects that are thoughtful, rare, and precious.

Ethan Ham and Benjamin Rosenbaum. Anthroptic, Issue 1, Winter 2007; edition of 80.

Artists

BA: Does this affect your decision process when you’re choosing artists for your issues?

EHW: We don’t look at an artist’s stature in the world as part of our decision-making process. We primarily look at their proposal for the project itself. That’s our first level, and then we do look at their statement, their CV, and everything, in order to see…

BA: Who you’re getting in bed with…

EHW: [Laughs] Yes, exactly, who we’re getting in bed with. How seriously they take themselves, or if they make sense [laughs]. We don’t necessarily make our decisions about our artists based on what we think people will want to keep in their homes. We try to base our choices on great projects.

OW: There’s an aesthetic. We want it to be aesthetically appealing, or at least, provocative.

Education

BA: How do you negotiate this idea as someone who’s not just presenting work and distributing it, but taking some sort of cultural responsibility for how that work is received, and I guess, if you’re really educating them, about how art impacts a person’s life?

EHW: We prefer a minimum of jargon, and we do have an audience that is not necessarily art-world people. The main thing that we aim for is the normal conversation about a piece of art, because you can talk any way about work. We just watched this movie, Examined Life, and this woman Astra Taylor interviews all these well-known philosophers. Simply because it’s in a movie format, and they’re speaking about their thoughts and philosophies, it’s much easier to understand them than if you read their writing, because it’s spoken, and not scripted. That’s how I think about writing about artwork. In our reading packet that we send with the work, we just talk about the things that we’ve thought about, when we’ve been working with this piece for the past three or four months. Just some idea that we have been pondering. The exciting thing about art for me is that you can look at it in many ways and it can bring up so many different things. You can have a conversation about it and around it, and that’s what we’re trying to cultivate.

BA: Do you have actually a vision for the future of how the project will actually grow, or is it…I guess maybe, what’s success for a project like this?

EHW: Our goal is mostly to keep going. Keep this system moving. Keep funding projects.

OW: Originally, when we first started, we wanted to spread the idea of a subscription art model. We didn’t necessarily think that we would succeed, but we thought it was a good idea, and that it could work for a lot of different situations. And in some sense, we have succeeded. There are other people doing subscription type projects, the idea of the subscription is growing.

EHW: So we’ve succeeded [laughs].

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