October 1, 2009


Untitled (Four Girls) Harrell Fletcher, 2005

***I read the Allan McCollum interview with Harrell Fletcher on Bombsite.com***

People, context, audience

Social Practice, at its base, is about people. It’s investigative journalism reinterpreted. It’s about, and for, the regular person. It elevates, if only temporarily, the average citizen to the status of artist, collaborator or celebrity.

It’s hard to talk about Social Practice without talking about Harrell Fletcher. It seems that this brand of socially engaged art falls wholly into his realm. I always find it hard to explain what Social Practice is to anyone without using Harrell’s projects as examples.

By placing the mundane in an art context, it is immediately elevated to a place of interest. An audience is created for content which before had no audience. This is one part of Harrell Fletcher’s social practice. The other part is a total subversion of that same art world in which, by purpose or default, Harrell Fletcher’s artworks are placed. He often works outside of the restrictions of a traditional art context and make his works more accessible to “regular people.” A non-art audience.

Picture 10

Lawn Sculptures, Harrell Fletcher, 2002

Take this project, for example. A residents of a NE Portland neighborhood were photographed and transformed into lawn sculptures after Harrell happened into a conversation with a homeowner about her vandalized lawn sculptures. This art project was born out of a happenstance conversation, and in the end brought together a community to share in artwork about their neighbors and neighborhood. The ceramic sculptures were shown at PICA and then made into cement sculptures that reside in the front yard of the Williams family in Portland. Artwork about and for regular people. Regular people experiencing artwork both inside and outside of a traditional setting. A non-art audience.


The Report, Harrell Fletcher, 2003

Another project, The Report, is based on the premise that regular people are interested in learning regular facts about other regular people. Harrell conducted hour-long interview/conversations with people he knew, on topics of their choice, and produced one-page reports about them. Downloadable on his website, Harrell says, “I’ll give them a chance to identify what they want to talk about, how they’d like to represent themselves, and I’ll put it out there in a way that both regular people and the art world can have access to them.” The project proves what many of Harrell’s projects prove: that given the proper context and presentation, no one is regular and conversation isn’t boring.

Picture 11

Some People, Harrell Fletcher, 2008. http://www.somepeoplepeople.com

Some People is another of Harrell’s projects that encourages the exchange of personal information among regular people like you and me. It’s a website on which anyone can post a documentary about anyone else. It allows ordinary people to be elevated to the status of celebrity, of art, and celebrates their daily lives. This kind of documentary is interesting to me as a designer.

98.196.10Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin, David’s wife Linda at age nine, 1998. SF MOMA Permanent collection

Design and Social Practice

To me, good design seeks to achieve a lot of the same things as social practice does. Exposing regular people to good work, exposing seemingly mundane truths to a mass audience.  Design is art for the masses. Sure, a lot of design is for designers. But how interesting is that work? And a lot of design that is for the masses is commercial,  is total crap, is selling deadly things like fizzy drinks or gasoline. But truly accessible design reaches the broadest possible audience without discriminating or favoring a particular set of individuals. It illuminates truths about humanity that were previously unapparent.


Untitled, Harrell Fletcher, 2005

I like that Harrell sees himself oftentimes as simply transcribing information. As an artist he’s turned the spotlight on the people he works with, illuminating their stories and giving them an audience. I see designers, who often work with someone else’s copy on someone else’s projects, as holding similar roles. Harrell Fletcher:

“A big part of my work is grunt work, so that somebody can get their words or their photographs or whatever it may be out there. I’ve always been very particular about transcription too; I think it’s crucial. I can turn somebody’s speech into something interesting by making sure that I include everything, or start, or stop, at a certain point, or whatever it takes.”

As designers, we are in a similar position where we can employ our skills to persuade, reveal, expose, narrate or reveal content as we see fit.

401255331_d6c4711e35North Beach Parking Garage, Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin, 2002

I think that some of Harrell’s approaches to his artmaking can be incredibly valuable to us as designers, especially a sentiment about interest. I think that in order for the work we make to be maximally effective, inspiring and genuine, we must be passionate about and interested in the work we’re doing. Here’s what Harrell says:

“And what is the best strategy for appearing interested? The answer is to sincerely be interested in fact nothing else will work. This is not difficult for me, because I actually think that people are interesting.”

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