The Guerilla Art KitKeri Smith
New York, Princeton Architectural Press, 2007ISBN 1568986882website: http://www.kerismith.com
Learning to Love You MoreHarrell Fletcher and Miranda July
New York, Prestel, 2007ISBN 3791337335website: http://www.learningtoloveyoumore.com
If love and war are indeed opposites, then The Guerilla Art Kit by Keri Smith and Learning to Love You More by
Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July appear to be two very distinct projects. While
the former privileges medium over message, by providing techniques inspired by
street and protest art to disrupt everyday spaces and routines, the latter encourages
participants to share their personal experiences by performing a number of fixed,
content-driven assignments documented on the projects website
as well as the new book. Both projects share, however, two crucial characteristics:
a focus on small interventions within the fabric of everyday life and an emphasis
on self-expression The Guerilla Art Kits principal objective, it turns out, is to help you get your message out in the world. Keri
Smith actually refers to the Learning to Love You More (LTLYM) website in her Guerilla Art Kit,
and one of her proposed exercises to make a poster of your day is very similar to LTLYM assignment 10 (make a flyer of your day), as both involve summarizing ones day and posting photocopies of the poster/flier in public spaces. In another exercise proposed by Smith, readers are invited to write encouraging fortune-cookie-style messages on small paper slips, and drop them randomly wherever they go, while LTLYM assignment 63 gives instructions for making an encouraging banner including a positive thought or affirmation. You are a star, Smith suggests as an example of a hidden fortune; You are incomparable, were the words chosen by Skye Gilkerson from Minneapolis, Minnesota, for her (his?) realization of the LTLYM banner. If distributing a poster of your day involves sharing snapshots of your personal life with strangers, and making encouraging banners or hidden fortunes is about spreading positive thoughts in the world, another concern running through both projects focuses on ways to beautify or recreate a space that is soulless or without character (to use Smiths words). LTLYMs suggestion, in assignment 15, to hang a windchime in a parking lot is a good example of this beautifying agenda. Smiths step-by-step guide to how to make seed bombs aims at the same result as LTLYM assignment 36, which encourages readers to grow a garden in an expected spot. In addition to gardening, both Keri Smith and the LTLYM authors tend to encourage the use of old-fashioned crafts whether collage or drawing, stencils or papier maché,
crochet or knitting.
Of course, as it will have now become clear, the main reason why both projects
are not so different after all is that Smiths guerilla art bears no real connection to any political intervention, whether anarchist or situationist. Even if beautifying the environment is only one of the three aims of guerilla art stated by Smith the others involve the slightly more promising, if equally vague, challenging the status quo and interacting with the environment and other people Keri Smith can be more appropriately described as a Martha Stewart on pot than any guerilla activist. All trace of violence has been excised from her definition of guerilla art as any anonymous work [
] installed, performed, or attached in public or private spaces with the distinct purpose of affecting the world in a creative or thought-provoking way. In
her essay in the Learning to Love You More book, art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson
rightly points out that the project does not claim any grandiose political goals of social protest or community building; LTLYMs claims are indeed nothing but modest, as are those embodied by Smiths guerilla art. Modest however, does not mean non-existent, and it is the specific brand of politics at stake here that seems most relevant to contemporary forms of art and activism concerned above all with what Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt has aptly called micro-attempts
at change.1 And, since over five thousand contributors have
sent their reports to the LTLYM website, and ten thousand readers a day (according
to Princeton Architectural Press) visit Smiths weblog, the two projects
themselves are as good barometers of current social trends as any other book,
website or artwork around.
The projects are premised on a general sense that some vital connections have
been lost in our societies. For Miranda July, we have lost touch with our feelings
and our spirituality a project such as LTLYM tries to satisfy our
desire to feel more2 through joyful and profound experiences leading to a rediscovery of ourselves, and our relations to other people. For Keri Smith, we have become disconnected from our environment because we are constantly bombarded by an overwhelming mass of information. Guerilla art, according to her, can reawaken a sense of connection of the environment (whether urban landscapes, the natural world, or a local community) by pointing out something I might not have seen, by adding a new image to the world that is unexpected, or by presenting an alternative point of view. Both projects, then, use exercises or assignments to help us reawaken, or re-learn these connections within the spaces of everyday life, rather than in an explicitly political realm of social activism. Many LTLYM assignments sound like psychotherapy exercises, and Smiths how to book
points to the convergence between self-help and do-it-yourself manuals. Both
are responding to a need for directions, a craving for community, for direct
connections in a fragmented and uncertain world.
Small satisfactions, it seems, can nevertheless still be found within this melancholy
context: the pleasure in following instructions (the LTLYM assignments are compared
to recipes, exercise classes or singing along to someone elses song), the wonderful feeling of elation in anticipating the future discovery of a guerilla art object. These momentary losses of self-consciousness by voluntarily submitting to someone elses
orders, or by focusing on making someone else happy secretly certainly seem risk-free
(Smith discourages any major infringement of the law.) One is reminded of the
little tricks invented by the eponymous heroine of the French film Amélie (2001), who spends most of her time contriving to bring happiness, anonymously, to people around her. As in Amélie,
the emphasis on tiny pleasures and minute acts, which can bring a beautiful human touch to our everyday lives (in Bryan-Wilsons
words3), can slip into a problematic cuteness and sentimentality.
Keri Smiths exercises and LTLYM assignments fall into this trap because they often infantilise their readers. Smith finds it necessary to warn readers that the new blades of x-acto knives are very sharp. Go slowly, she advises. The instructions in LTLYM are usually very detailed, advising on the form and content of the assignment, including donts as well as dos, and offering reassurances and general thoughts about the objective of the task. Moreover, LTLYM knowingly invites regressions into childhood and adolescence, whether by inviting participants to make a childs outfit in an adult size or to reread their favorite book from fifth grade. Meanwhile, Smith encourages us to make friends by pasting cut-out eyes onto inanimate objects in public spaces, and to create miniature environments complete with cork figurines and landscapes made out of paper clips, spools, shells and buttons. Add some instructions for making potato prints (in the stamp section),
and you have enough activities to keep a bunch of five-year olds busy on a rainy
We are living in a golden age of self expression.4 The press release for The Guerilla Art Kit underlines
its relation to the explosion of blogs and social networking sites such as YouTube and MySpace, which are also obvious points of comparison for the web-based LTLYM. For Smith, such independent media provide a way for people to take power back in a context dominated by a growing mistrust in corporate media and a sense of impotence in the face of a system that seems to be dominated by corruption and money. Guerilla art is more than a reaction to the present American context, however: the need for people to share and express themselves in a public way can, apparently, be traced as far back as prehistoric cave painting. (I like the image of a cave painter indignantly rejecting the invitation to exhibit in a white cube gallery because this wouldnt allow her to express herself in a public way). The Guerilla Art Kit is, we are told, about leaving your mark, in order to remind the world, as the Adbusters blog (cited by Smith) puts it, that the human spirit is alive here. LTLYM encourages a similar form of mark-making through the creation of objects and stories. The ongoing flux of confiding and confessing invited by the more personal assignments (from explaining the significance of a scar or a special outfit to recording an argument, spending time with a dying person or writing down a phone conversation you would like to have) inevitably sets up a voyeurist/exhibitionist dynamic reminiscent of US talk shows. (The LTLYM book even includes the real life story of long lost siblings reunited through the website.) In this sense, LTLYM is even more closely related to another web project the
hugely popular PostSecret, which invites contributors to send in their
secrets anonymously. (With its 180,000 contributions and over one hundred million
website hits since 2004, as well as a series of bestselling anthologies, Frank
Warrens PostSecret has in fact been a far more visible social phenomenon
than either LTLYM or Keri Smiths books and blog.5) Like PostSecret,
the stories in LTLYM make for compulsive reading, exploiting the same mechanisms
at the root of Tracey Emins success, in order to present for our pleasure the neuroses not of one tormented individual, but of a whole society. Indeed, one of the reports for assignment 14 write your life story in less than a day was singled out by July and Fletcher for an award, and described by them as The Great American Story (complete
with dysfunctional family, alcohol abuse, homelessness, mental illness, and,
of course, a happy end).
In drawing a composite portrait of America, LTLYM acts as a counterpart to Jeremy
Deller and Allan Kanes Britain-based Folk Archive, which similarly operates as both a website and a range of changing exhibitions in different locations.6 The Folk Archive documents
existing rituals and objects, rather than encouraging people to make their own
contributions, but Deller and Kane would no doubt agree with Fletcher and Julys claim that they are recording the frequently wild, sometimes hilarious, and quietly stunning creative lives of a few people living on earth right now. The fact that Deller and Kane would never express themselves in this way should not only be attributed to good old British reserve: their difficulties in articulating the aims of their project stem largely from the awkward power relations implied by their ambivalent roles as outsiders recording popular pastimes. July and Fletcher avoid this pitfall by resolutely placing themselves on the same level as their contributors. Anyone who has watched Julys
award-winning feature film You and Me and Everyone We Know (2005) can
vouch for her sincerity: in it, she stars as a young artist whose sensibility
and activities clearly display significant features of the LTLYM aesthetics.
While July and Fletcher do not adopt Deller and Kanes problematically superior position, the infantilizing and sentimentalizing drives in LTLYM can nevertheless be considered as forms of manipulation. This is why, I think, the cuteness factor
of this project, like that of The Guerilla Art Kit, leaves me uneasy:
their cheerful and friendly format seem to encourage an eager submission to orders
and instructions which may not be as empowering as they even modestly claim.
The concept of the gift mobilized by both projects has become a leitmotif of
critical discussions of contemporary art, and most critics agree with Marcel
Mauss that the logic of the gift involves reciprocal relations which establish
forms of obligations as much as pure generosity.7 The democratic operation
and the sincerity of LTLYM have the merit of making these relations more transparent:
both parties, it seems, are getting something out of this exchange, although
what this something is, remains somewhat elusive. Behind its pretty
design and upbeat rhetoric, The Guerilla Art Kit is, in contrast, as vacuous
as Keri Smiths own weblog, which, like most blogs, contributes to the mass of useless information that led us to tune out in the first place. Why should I be interested in what kind of tea Ms Smith drank yesterday? How can knitted ornaments hung from trees change
the world? Keri Smith provides answers to neither question, and leaves us wondering
how Princeton Architectural Press came up with the notion that The Guerilla Art Kit shows
how small acts can start a revolution. LTLYM is certainly more effective in demonstrating that the human spirit (to refer the Adbusters quote again) has not yet been entirely crushed but is staying alive enough? I am still left wondering what kind of revolution will come out of our golden
age of self expression.
1. Rebecca Gordon
Nesbitt, The Reality of my Desires, Variant, 30, Winter 2007, p. 4.
2. Julia Bryan-Wilson, Some Kind of Grace: an Interview with Miranda
July, Camera Obscura, vol. 55, no. 1, p. 196.
3. Ibid, p. 182.
on January 21, 2008).
5. Cf. http://postsecret.blogspot.com
6. Cf. http://www.mini-host.org/folkarchive/
7. Marcel Mauss (2001) The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: Routledge)