New York

Simon Grennan & Christopher Sperandio

American Fine Arts

While Simon Grennan & Christopher Sperandio’s latest New York show may not have been the first time the collaborative team invited the public to articulate its experiences through artmaking, it did mark the pair’s foray into the phantasmagorical, quasi-mystical aspects of contemporary American life. To produce this project, Manchester, UK–based Grennan and New Yorker Sperandio placed ads in the local newspapers of New York, Glasgow, and Bordeaux (Fantastic Sh*t was also presented at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts and Bordeaux’s Musée d’art contemporain) soliciting written testimonies of encounters with the supernatural.

The seminal moments of each account were converted into pictorial-narrative analogues: uniformly framed 60-by-40-inch silkscreen-on-paper posters designed to be viewed with 3–D glasses (provided by the gallery). In the piece based on respondent Ann Dickinson’s first-hand testimony, a Christlike figure emerges from a background of red and green patterned wallpaper and appears to drift beyond the confines of the depicted room—a deadpan, kitschy representation of Dickinson’s sublime spiritual encounter. The artists deliberately built paradox into their provisional team-based method: while they endorse collective, socially based models of artmaking, in Fantastic Sh*t they put a mildly ironic spin on the ideology driving their earlier projects, such as We Got It, 1993, in which they joined forces with unionized workers at a Nestlé chocolate factory in Chicago to design and produce a new chocolate bar.

If artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Lincoln Tobier set up frameworks in which an event or situation can unfold (setting in motion a theatricality that resembles “real life,” but that actually points back to the artificiality of the framing device itself), Grennan & Sperandio peel back the framework’s skin so that “outsiders” are fundamental to the project’s very conception. Their methodology is contingent on a radically extended collaborative process in which authorship is displaced onto—and, to a certain degree, happily serves—a set of distinct voices. For example, José Gonzalez, one of the respondents, believes that his wooden bowl gives Yes and No responses, channeled through outer space, to his questions, and that the bowl led him to discover a hidden corpse; his account is interpreted as a humorous yet disturbing twist on the still-life genre—a pair of eyes (presumably José’s) stare at a bowl emanating mysterious rays.

By acting as brokers of other people’s experiences, Grennan & Sperandio open themselves up to the accusation that they are exploiting people simply to make so-called progressive political art. But it has become evident that as they reconfigure the terms of artistic collaboration, they are also poking fun at the nature of their own cultural partnership, and by extension, at the earnestness of art as agitprop. For example, in Cartoon Hits, 1996, a project sponsored by London’s ICA, the two worked with thirteen ICA members to recreate their “true-life” stories in comic-book form: the cover of this publication featured cartoons of Grennan & Sperandio in shackles, anchored to the bottom of the ocean, and surrounded by piranhas bearing the faces of ICA members. Similarly, in Fantastic Sh*t, didactic panels in the style of comics introduced the project and the artists to the audience, and also offered a revealing narrative about the business relationship between the artists and their dealer—a reflexive gesture that placed the critique of art-world institutions in the realm of comedy.

Joshua Decter