ArtBlitz LA’s Peter Maloy met Rich Watkins and Lara Salmon, the organizers of The Airmail Project, which launched as part of Pasadena Art Night. The two engaged in an interview on our behalf to discuss the project, which is a global collaboration where artists from different cultures, countries and continents created works together.
Tell us about the Project.
We called The Airmail Project a global art experiment. It’s 16 artists from 16 countries collaborating by post. What that means in practice is each of the artists starts a piece of work, then sends it by post to one of the other artists; the second artist works on the piece and sends it on to the third artist; the third artist finishes it. So each of the 16 pieces of art in the show have been worked on by three of the artists. We asked for pieces to be done Letter sized so they could be easily posted, but other than that left things deliberately open to artistic interpretation. We didn’t define what it means to “start” or “work on” or “finish”, artists could work with any medium they wanted, and were free to change what came before.
As someone who has travelled a lot myself, one of the things I love about the project is the journeys that the papers go on – for example one of my favorite pieces was Way Beyond Home: started by Andile in Cape Town with an illustration, got screen printed by Nini in Shanghai and was finished off by Rosie, a New Zealand painter.
How did the project start?
I’ve long been fascinated by creative process and love how interestingly structured projects get to interesting outputs. I find it hard to pinpoint the birth of an idea but I remember seeing something on twitter about an artist mum who finishes her 5 year old’s sketches. Also, I used to play the surrealist game Exquisite Corpse (where three people complete a figure), and love The Postal Service who famously collaborated by post on song writing.
But an art project isn’t just an idea. The actual project started when I was talking on Skype with LA artist Lara Salmon about something totally unrelated. I mentioned the idea and she said: Let’s do it. That was January 2014 – by mid February we had all the details of the project locked down and 16 artists from all around the world who wanted to join in.
You have artists from all over. How did you find them?
Lara has lived in Lebanon, and I have lived in Shanghai and Colombia – so it was relatively straightforward to find the first three artists. Also Rosie from New Zealand is my close friend as well as a fantastic artist, and Lara’s mum has known Marianne from Mexico for years. Then we started sending out a lot of messages calling for applications – both through our own networks and through social media. A lot is made of social media as this fantastic tool to connect with people, but our experience is the opposite – Maria (our Hungarian artist) came through a social media connection but the other 15 are all through our own personal networks. I think perhaps because we are asking artists to work in a new way, it’s asking for a lot of trust in the project and the other artists. This was relatively easy when dealing with friends of friends – so Ben from Malaysia, Dean from Australia, Anastasia from Ukraine.
The downside of this approach though is that you are limited by your network and we really struggled to find African artists. One thing was clear: we definitely couldn’t do a global project and not have an African voice! I must have sent 15 emails to art schools and art magazines with no response. But in the end the trail went from a designer I know in London, to her artist friend who lives in Cape Town, to Andile who is a renowned ceramicist and keen illustrator. As soon as he heard about the project he was in. About the same time we had found a Nigerian artist through a connection I had from a visit to Lagos. In England we have a saying: you wait all day for a bus and then three come along at once.
Another issue we had to navigate in the project is when people count as “from” a country. It felt disingenuous to flood the project with Londoners and Angelinos with tenuous links to different places. But on the other hand we live in a world where people do travel around without annihilating their identity. In the end we decided artists needed to be born somewhere and identify as from that place to count as a legitimate representative. So for example Robert is Swedish but lives in Denmark and Tara is Iraqi but lives between London and Lebanon – and we are OK with that.
Was there any drama?
Haha. Chasing 16 artworks around the globe, yes. We had our first parcel go missing somewhere between Cuba and Malaysia, but probably the biggest drama was when the Nigerian artist had to drop out of the project half way through due to other commitments. After all the drama finding African artists the first time it was relatively straightforward to find a replacement – Andile sent a few emails out and within a few hours we had the wonderful Muso from Zambia on board – but it did mean time was short to be ready for the exhibition.
Sadly Muso’s parcel vanished en route to Lebanon and we didn’t have time to start from scratch. Luckily he had taken a high-resolution photo of the work and so we ended up having the second and third artist work from a print. Also one of the pieces, Sleeping, was started by Nini in China worked on by Henk from Holland but got stuck in South African customs for four weeks (and counting!). It didn’t make it in time for the LA show and so we ended up showing the 5 pages of increasingly frantic facebook messages, which I think speak to the project pretty well.
How do you feel about the final work?
I think one interesting thing about this project is that you don’t have to be in love with all the final work to enjoy the show. You can begin to unpick the stories and the work invites you into the process of it being made. For me there are four or five of the pieces I just am totally in love with as final pieces but I cant escape from the enchanting stories in the others. One of the moments I love is with Muso’s portrait of Lillian Cingo, a South African nurse who takes healthcare to poor rural areas. He sent the piece to Tara who incorporated an Arabic love poem into the piece. I just cant think of any other situation in which this kind of cultural collision would occur.
I think many of the pieces are incredible and there is a real variety in styles. Even the few pieces that you could argue don’t quite hold together as coherent pieces are stimulating to think about. If you forced me to name a favorite I might say Ligero Ascenso Interno, either because I worked on it or because I’m in love with Fede’s work.
Where can we see the work?
Well, we were delighted at the opportunity to show at the Louis Jane Studio in Pasadena – the work is on display until the end of October and opening times are 11am-3pm Monday, Tuesday and Friday.
Each step of the work in progress can be seen at theairmailproject.tumblr.com and the final pieces will be up there soon too. You can also see more about the individual artists and find links to see their solo work.
We have a show lined up in Beirut for December and potentially other countries after that. I’m also hatching a plan for a phase 2 of the project, where instead of one large global project we start local versions of the project in lots of places around the world. I think all the artists were really energised by the collaboration and I’m excited to see more artists get involved. Anyone who is interested should email me on email@example.com
By Rich Watkins
Photos Courtesy of The Airmail Project