Editor’s Note: The Source Commissioner Speaks

“I personally believe that someone can make amazing work for $100. And somebody can make horrible work for a million dollars. And every possible thing in between.”

– Harrell Fletcher

In Spring 2021, Portland State University Art & Social Practice MFA students were each given $100 to commission someone to do something, anything. Projects created include: buying candy for an entire elementary school; continuing an AGNES VARDA FOREVER poster project; retroactively compensating for a minute of building Black excellence; taking a nostalgic driving tour around Bed Stuy, Brooklyn; paying an anonymous woman surfer to go surfing for a week. 

For this issue of Conversations on Everything: Social Forms of Art Journal, MFA students interview those they commissioned. They get to know each other more, plan their projects, and discuss meanings of art and labor. In place of an editor’s note, Salty Xi Jie Ng interviews program director Harrell Fletcher, who commissioned the commissions. He talks about this unusual class assignment, its multiplier effect, shared authorship, the creativity that can emerge from limited resources, and how a fixed multiplayer framework facilitates the appreciation of diverse expression.

Source commissioner, commissioned commissioners, final commissioned. Diagram by Salty Xi Jie Ng.

Salty Xi Jie Ng: How did you come up with this assignment?

Harrell Fletcher: I was trying to figure out a real world project that could happen within the program, that gave everybody the chance to try out what it was like to do a few different things. One of them was the idea that instead of using money that comes to you, you could transfer it to somebody else. And that goes along with this concept of repositioning, an approach that I’ve used in my own work, but I didn’t really have a framework for thinking about it. This idea of repositioning is where, as an artist, you’re given platforms, resources, or opportunities, and you can choose to allow somebody else to use that opportunity, resource, or platform, but to do that  as your work. You’re not doing it in an altruistic way; instead, you’re sort of doubling the resource—I get something out of it as the artist, but also somebody else who may not normally have this kind of opportunity would now get it as well. 

Anyway, I was thinking about those kinds of things and trying to figure out how I could make an object lesson circumstance where everybody in the program would get to work through this framework with a relatively small budget, one that needed to cross the threshold where it still seemed like something. $100 is becoming less and less all the time, but it still means something in our imagination. It depends on the context and who’s receiving it. And that was something I wanted the students to think about too—who makes the most sense to commission for this amount, this particular budget. 

So the assignment provided an opportunity to think about a whole bunch of different aspects that come into play with social practice: crediting people; resource sharing; repositioning; the idea that as an artist, sometimes you can curate, commission or edit—you can use other modes that are oftentimes seen as a background role, but you can forefront that role as your own work. I was thinking about all these different things jumbled up together. It seemed like it might be an interesting experiment.

Salty: What was the process like? Did the students discuss with you what they were going to do and did you give them any feedback?

Harrell: I gave them an outline, which was that it needs to be framed as a commission, and the $100 should be the total amount that’s needed. You can add on to the project later if you like. It shouldn’t be like, Here’s $100, for really what should be a $1,000 project. Part of what I am trying to think about too, is that, when people get commissioned to do a project in general, or with a project budget of any kind, there’s going to be a set amount of money, whether it’s $1,000, $10,000, $100,000. I want people to be able to practice thinking within that budget limitation, because you’re going to ruin yourself if you can’t figure out how to modulate projects to fit within the resources that are offered for them. These could be monetary resources, space limitation, time, any of these things. Whatever the resource limitations are, you have to think within them.

The other requirements were that it had to be done by the end of the school year, and you had to conduct this interview that goes along with it. I talked to people individually about their ideas. Becca (Kauffman) was the very first person who was ready for the $100, so I Venmo-ed her the $100. I said to everyone, all you have to do is tell me what the project is, we’ll go through the details of it, and then I’ll give you the $100. I met with each person a couple of different times. As a group, everybody shared their plans, and we worked out some kinks together. Some people wanted to just pay the person $100 to do the interview, but the way we came up with this, it’s like a two parter. There’s the commissioned project and then there’s the interview about the commissioned project. Some folks couldn’t quite figure out what a commission was, or thought it should come back to them, because they were going to end up doing some work on it anyway. But overall it was interesting to see all the different approaches people had.

Salty: Let’s talk about the different levels or roles here. You’re the source commissioner who’s commissioning the grad students. And so maybe we can call the grad students the commissioned commissioners, and the people they worked with the final commissioned. And by the time we get to the people experiencing the thing that was made, it would have gone on to the fourth level already. You could walk past someone on the street and not know that they were affected by your giving out of this $100. This to me is part of the beauty of this exercise. What are your thoughts on this multiplier effect?

Harrell: I like that. I think that’s really interesting. In general, that’s a good approach to resources in general—not just keeping them to yourself but thinking about how you can spread them out. There’s some project I did in the past that I’m trying to remember—I eventually met a stranger and they were telling me about the project as if it was something I didn’t know about. And I was like, Oh, yeah, that’s my project. It had gone through enough layers that this person had no idea I was sort of the source of the project. In some weird way, it came back around. I like when what starts the process going gets sort of lost, and then the project offshoots and involves many people. That’s one of the things that I’ve been interested in, creating projects in which there is multiple authorship. 

Salty: So how do you think these $100 Projects should be credited, as individual projects and as a collective whole? 

Harrell: I’ve sort of intentionally left this unresolved, partly because I wanted to see how it went. Having done this first version, maybe we’ll do this again and have a much better idea about what is happening. But I think this is an interesting question. Some students that I’ve talked to like the idea that in a way, it’s my project, and that they are a sub, a delegated member of a project that I’m sort of orchestrating. That is one way of thinking about it. And then other people probably want to have nothing to do with me, and want to think about it as just their project, for which some dude gave them $100 to use. I kind of like that people are sorting it out in different ways. 

And as far as I’m concerned, if somebody were to decide to formalize it on their resume or on their website, and they want to credit me, and see it as a project they’re participating in that I’m the big author of, that’s fine with me. I’m totally happy to validate the idea that that’s what’s going on. If other people don’t want to credit me at all, and not even acknowledge that they’re part of a set of other people doing the same commissioning process, I’m okay with that also. 

Like so many other projects that exist, I like that we can look at it from different perspectives, make choices about crediting, and there can be multiple authorship. And there’s no scarcity. We’re not fighting over who gets authorship and credit. Because we’re the ones determining that, we can spread out the authorship and credit as far and wide as we want. And it’s still potentially as beneficial to any one of us, as it would be if we had somehow treated it in a very proprietary way and been like, This is just mine. I don’t think there’s any great benefit to doing that. Mostly people are misled in trying to retain some kind of sole authorship of projects, believing that they get more that way or something like that. I think that in the end, they actually kind of get less by treating it that way. 

Salty: When I was editing the conversations between the students and those they commissioned, it was really delightful to see the variety of ways everyone chose to use the $100. This delegated model created more ways of thinking about art. For some there was this element of wish fulfilment, for others, it was about memorialising something, or a chance to get to know someone better, or getting someone to continue a great project, or giving someone resources to dream up something new, especially for the children, for whom it was like a bestowing of power. Justin did a retrospective commission, and both him and Bri brought the value of labor into the fore. What are your thoughts on the spectrum of ways that it was done?

Harrell: To me that’s one of the interesting things about this delegated model. The way I think of that term is the idea that one person is coming up with a structure and within that, delegating out little structures to multiple people. When you put it back together, you have this bigger piece. I think that can be an interesting and also liberating approach for an artist. Some people would think that that was stifling, limiting, taking agency away from artists, that you were giving them a structure that was similar to multiple other people. But on the other hand, we’re always working with limitations and structures. And so this is being very transparent about that, and formalising it. As you’ve described and which happened in this case, with limitations you wind up having all of these different responses to it. In a way, the limitation is what allows you to see the diversity of approaches. As opposed to if we had just asked everybody to do their own work, we wouldn’t have the framework of comparison to then be able to see the wide variety of approaches to a single structure that are going on. So I guess for me, it’s a confirmation that this can be useful and that it doesn’t necessarily have to stifle creativity. It can instead stimulate individual creative ways of addressing the challenge or limitation that’s been given to them.

Salty: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think it is an infinitely expansive exercise. Were there any projects that were particularly memorable to you? Or that you were really intrigued to see how they would progress? 

Harrell: There were interesting, different developments that occurred. For instance, Laura’s project was the first one to be realised. And as a result, it was a nice example to have floating around as other people were figuring it out. Partly because it was a very simple project, making this AGNES VARDA FOREVER flyer with her friend JJ. It wasn’t like a heavy lift, and it was a response to something that JJ had already done. Something that I’m always trying to emphasise within the program is, if you make things public, as opposed to how we normally think of artists making work privately in a studio, things start to happen that are unexpected and opportunities start to present themselves. 

And that’s what happened with Laura’s project: she puts up these flyers with her friend JJ. And pretty quickly, there’s lots of different people posting it on Instagram who don’t even know whose project this is; I keep running across them myself. The Hollywood Theatre in Portland becomes excited about it, because they like to show Agnes Varda. They track down Laura and JJ, and invite them to do an interview based on it as well as curate something, and they’re getting promotion from the Theatre. They got connected to Agnes Varda’s daughter and son. All sorts of different things occurred as a result of this fairly simple project that was made public. 

Salty: Because $100 could print 550 AGNES VARDA FOREVER posters.

Harrell: And Laura has checked on Google searches and suddenly, in the United States, there’s more Google searches for Agnes Varda in Portland than anywhere else in the country. To me, that was a really great example project to have, to show that you could do something simple, easy, fun, and that it would also lead to all of these other things, these funny, interesting connections.

It’s been interesting talking to Kiara about her project with her cousin, Jordan. It’s been a good experience for Kiara to think about how she might work, how she could collaborate with somebody like Jordan. From a plan for making a project together, I think it has now expanded to a much broader set of things that she can do. You can start a small, simple project, and then it leads you to other projects. In Laura’s case, one version of that is happening which is more external. In this one, it’s more like realizing, Oh, here’s my nine-year-old cousin, I could do projects with him. Kiara’s working on a virtual exhibition with Jordan and shooting video together and things like that. 

This idea that happened with Justin paying Herukhuti for one minute of his time is something that I’ve been thinking about—retroactive projects and valuing people for their time. On the one hand, we could say $100 is not very much money, especially for a knowledgeable adult professional. But if we change the increments of time that the person’s being paid for, so in his case, reducing the payment conceptually to one minute, then suddenly $100 seems like at least a reasonable amount of money for one minute of time, as opposed to $100 for all of his life’s work. 

As the artist, there are different areas you have control over. Instead of feeling like you are stuck with reality as it’s been presented, you start to realize that you can change it; you can go back in time, you can shrink time, you can work with all of these things that become very empowering. Justin’s project gives us an example of how to work with areas that normally artists don’t think of themselves as having agency over. Instead of being like, I don’t have enough money, I can’t do it, we can say, Well, we’ll just shrink what the expectation is, you know?

Salty: He made a very tangible statement about labor. I’m also thinking about the range of people who ended up being the final commission people. How do you think that commissioning a nonartist changes the way they think about art, their involvement in art, and what art can be?

Harrell: I think that was an interesting opportunity. I was hoping at least some percentage of the students would be working with nonartists. I’ve always used this as an example to try to flip my own understanding—if, say, a dance choreographer came to me, and said, Hey, I like the way you move, will you be a part of my dance performance? And I’d be like, I’m not a dancer. They’d be like, That’s okay, you just have to come to these rehearsals, and then we’re performing it, and you just get to be a part of it. And I’ll be like, Hm, that sounds like fun, sure, I’ll do it. 

I wouldn’t feel like this person is a choreographer and I’m not, and maybe I’m being taken advantage of. Instead, I would see it as them extending an opportunity to me, and in a way doing this repositioning for me, where I get to embody an experience that I wouldn’t normally have. And so I would be appreciative of that. I wouldn’t feel like I had to get paid, or have equal billing or something like that. I would just feel glad I got to have this interesting experience. This is hypothetical and I could imagine it happening with lots of other things too where somebody was, like, Oh, we really like the way you cook string beans, will you come to our restaurant and cook the string beans for a night or something? I’ll be like, Okay, I’ll give it a try. You know, I don’t expect it to be my profession. But I like to have the experience of it. 

And so I was hoping that by framing it through an art lens with nonartists, they would have this moment of thinking of themselves as having this capacity to do art, even if that wasn’t their profession or identity. And partly what I thought would be interesting is the discussion about it, where you get to ask, Well, what do you think? Is this a problem? Is this fun? Is this stressful? It could be different for each person. And an interesting question to pose to someone could be like, If we were to look at this thing that you do, surfing, or whatever it is that you’re already doing, but we reframe it as an artwork, and you get paid for it—how would you feel about that?  How does it change things for you? Is that positive? Would that be something you desire? Is that something that feels shameful or guilty? Which seems kind of like what happened with the person Bri commissioned. And then talking it through and, asking, Would it be a problem if you were being paid by a surf company to do this? Oh, it’s only a problem if you’re being paid to do it as art because artists shouldn’t be paid? Because you shouldn’t be paid to do things you like, or what is it? What’s coming up here? And how does it apply to other circumstances? 

Salty: I think what this did was create at least 13 new conversations about what art is, and definitely many more, because the commissioned folks will be telling their family and friends, Hey, I just got paid $100 to do this, and those people might ask, How is that art? It adds more definitions of art in an expansive way. Would you do this project, again, with a different amount of money?

Harrell: Potentially, if I had access to other amounts of money. I have done things that I called re-granting, starting back quite a while ago. One of the first ones that I did, where I formally thought of it like that, was in 2005 when I got the Alpert Award. I was given something like $50,000, and as part of it, I decided I would re-grant a chunk of that money. I can’t even quite remember how much I ended up re-granting, maybe $15,000. And so I selected a bunch of artists, and I gave them little grants of $1,000 each. I didn’t have specific conditions about them commissioning anyone or anything, it was just like a grant to do their work. 

Salty: Did they have to apply?

Harrell: No, it was like the MacArthur Genius Award. They didn’t know, it was out of the blue. They suddenly got the award, and it was called the Earthling Award.

Salty: So in a way you were being a curator, except when the curator does it, it’s part of the job. But when you do it, you get to claim it as an artistic action.

Harrell: Yeah. There have been other circumstances where I did that in different ways, like offered up chunks of money that I got. In the case of the $100 Projects, it was strictly out of my pocket. But this year, I did get part of the U.S. stimulus money, the check from the government. So I got some extra money that came in out of the blue, as was the case for millions of other people in the U.S. I thought, What do I want to do with this money? And this was one of the things I thought I could do with it. Next year, I might not be in the same boat. So I don’t know that I would repeat it exactly.

Salty: How do you think that it would be different if it was $10 instead of $100?

Harrell: I think you could do it with really any denomination. But you have to then reframe what you’re going to do with it. Like, in what circumstances does $10 seem valuable? And so I think that you have to recognise that because there is wealth inequality in the U.S. and in the world, the value of money is not constant. Any amount of money means different things to different people. If a person has millions of dollars, then $100 is not going to be very valuable. For a person with very little money, literally on the street with 15 bucks in their pocket, suddenly $100 will seem like a lot of money. When we think about children, they aren’t allowed to work, they don’t automatically have money. They may have an allowance, maybe their parents give them some money. But even if so, it’s usually in pretty small amounts, and even with that, it varies. But if you start with the idea that you’re working with a kid, then maybe $10 will seem like a reasonable amount to do a project with. 

And similarly, there’s other kinds of circumstances in which $10 might seem like enough. For instance, if you said to someone, Okay, here’s $10, I’m going to commission you to buy something in this convenience store, and then we’re going to put whatever you happen to purchase in an exhibition, with a label we make. And so somebody goes in and buys a bag of potato chips and comes back out, and they’re like, Okay, I did it. I’ve even got seven bucks to spare. And you say, Well, you can keep that for your work, and we’re gonna install this bag of potato chips in the exhibition; can you tell me what you want on the label? With something like that, suddenly $10 would work again. 

So it’s just really a matter of framing, and sort of resource matching, where you match the project to your resources. And so you have to figure out how you do the best possible match to create the best work, given whatever the resource happens to be? Which could be $10, $5, $1, or $100, $1000, $10,000. It can keep going in all these different directions and people can make amazing work. I personally believe that someone can make amazing work for $100. And somebody can make horrible work for a million dollars. And every possible thing in between.

Salty: It occurs to me, though, that the resource of $100, in this case, does not really include a fee for the labour of the commissioned commissioner, as in the student.

Harrell: Right. And that’s because in this case, it’s a school project, it’s an assignment. And normally, you wouldn’t get paid to do an assignment in school. If I had extra money, then maybe we would have made that part of it. And maybe that would have been interesting to say, Okay, you get $100 for yourself, and you get to commission $100. If it was a non school based project, then I think that would make more sense. But because it is within a school assignment, on the one hand, you could say, I’m being asked to do this additional labor. But our program is not just the classes or requirements that involve grades or credits. I sort of see it as much more inclusive—kind of everything that happens during the three years that’s attached to the program is part of your education. It’s a broader sort of view that’s not about just paperwork and grades, but more like an immersive cultural experience. 

When students select someone for our weekly Conversation Series, they’re not paid to do that. In the real world, you might get paid to do that, if you were working as a programmer for an institution. In this case, it’s a chance to flex those muscles and sort of learn about what goes into inviting someone as a speaker. So it has to be understood within the educational context, in which case, the idea that the professor is giving money from their pocket is unusual to begin with, that’s not part of what normally occurs. We’re already tweaking it quite a bit. So the assignment was a twist, but it was still within the framework of graduate school assignments. 

Salty: Another thing that I love about this is that it stretches one’s imagination in terms of our relationship with money— it momentarily turns money into this thing that can make you and someone else happy through the act of creative gifting. 

Harrell: Yeah, I had the experience pretty early on, beginning to work with project budgets, when I was collaborating with Jon Rubin, Larry Sultan, and other people that Jon and I were collaborating with in the Bay Area. When we were still in graduate school, or just out of graduate school, we started getting project budgets that were pretty big, like $10,000, $30,000, pretty big chunks of money. This is in the 90s. And I was someone who, at that point, made $10,000 a year—that would be my total income. 

And so suddenly, I was working with a project budget that was three times bigger than my yearly income or something. I recognised that it wasn’t my money—a portion of it was mine that I was getting paid a fee for, but the rest of it was money that I got to use to create a project with. And it became fun to be able to spend $1,000 on something that I personally couldn’t spend $1,000 on. But with the project money I could. 

It gave me the sense that money is relative, not static, and it means different things to different people in different contexts. It gave me this chance to have fun with money, which seems very privileged, and it kind of was, but it was the circumstance that I got as a basically impoverished artist working with what seemed like big project budgets when I was still in my 20s. It gave me a fluid, flexible feeling about money that I think in some ways allowed me take more risks, to feel like I could run out of money and still be okay, to spend money on things—basically my work—that could seem kind of frivolous from a broader public or maybe a family member’s point of view. I wanted the students to get a little bit of that feeling.

Salty Xi Jie Ng (she/her) is an artist, program alumni, and editor of SoFA Journal. She is based in her home country, the tropical metropolis of Singapore. 

Harrell Fletcher (he/him) is the co-founder and director of the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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