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Getting Friendly

A New Local Art Book Makes Networking Personal, Political, And Aesthetic

Frank Hamilton
HEADS UP: (from left) Peter Quinn, Richard Baxstrom, Todd Meyers, And Gillian Quinn are among the friends behind friends and friends of friends.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 8/17/2005

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On a hot and humid early Saturday evening, local husband and wife collaborators Peter and Gillian Quinn opened their Mount Vernon home to a small cadre of fellow artists, writers, academics, colleagues, and acquaintances. Peter fired up veggie dogs and turkey burgers on the grill, and a spread of coleslaw, guacamole, chips, drinks, and tomatoes covered a table in the downstairs kitchen. Old friends caught up with each other, new friends mulled over the surprising thrills of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, and discussion of creative works in progress bounced around the house.

It was a fittingly convivial thank you for work completed over the past year, and especially about a month earlier, when many of these same people occupied the Quinns’ kitchen on the Thursday night before Artscape to help complete the debut publication of Creative Capitalism, the publishing wing of Peter’s Projector7 LLC design/video/experimental media company. Peter received an advance run of 200 copies of the art book titled Friends and Friends of Friends to sell over Artscape weekend, but they weren’t entirely complete. Plastic nubs had to be glued into the inside front cover to secure the accompanying CD-ROM; all 200 copies of the accompanying CD-ROM had just been duplicated by two of Peter’s students at the Maryland Institute College of Art. So people hunkered down at the kitchen table in a mini assembly line, gluing nubs, affixing CD-ROMs, restacking books in boxes.

The book wasn’t the only item being prepared for Artscape. At the bottom of the stairs, Gillian sculpted the large papier-mâché heads that some Creative Capitalism booth workers would wear over the weekend. Labels had to be affixed to the Creative Capitalism hot sauce to be sold at the booth. And, last but not least, labels needed to be applied to the Creative Capitalism bunny teeth.

“You know,” Peter shrugs while holding up a package of the plastic teeth as if he was in a Coen Brothers movie. “For kids.”

Say what? “I see aesthetics as political, because I feel that the dialogue that takes place working in a media outside a literal language media is this other semantic,” Peter says, probably not trying to sound like a 1960s academic Marxist but doing a pretty good job of doing just that. “And just participating in that is political, because it’s not something that is necessarily a commodity.”

Even in this contemporary market of highly specialized niches, Creative Capitalism isn’t an ordinary art press, nor is Projector7 the average creative design company. And Friends and Friends of Friends isn’t a standard coffee-table art book. Yes, it is a 6-by-7-inch, full-color publication that contains images of art, work gathered merely by Creative Capitalism asking its friends to ask their friends to submit work. But aside from that threadbare organization leitmotif, the book is nearly impossible to categorize.

And that’s exactly what the organizing team behind it was trying to create. “When I helped out selling [the book] at Artscape, when people asked what it was, I said, ‘It’s art as social network,’” says Jason Bottenus, one of the four-member design and editorial team. “Literally, the coming together of all these people from everywhere to make this item, but with no real ‘This is the intent’ other than it as itself. There was no big-brain thing. There was no, ‘We want you to do work that is within this parameter to get into this book.’ It’s you connected to you connected to you and so on.”

“And that’s what happened,” Peter Quinn agrees. “What blew me away when it all finally started to come together was, Oh my god, this is actually what we intended. This is an uncontrollable aesthetic that is being created in this network of people that never would have worked unless they would have contributed it blindly to us. And that’s the kind of weird thing—the book is about the book.”

That statement feels like one of the most obvious clichés ever uttered if taken purely at face value. All books are about the book. Moby-Dick is not The Story of O. Archeology of Knowledge isn’t about gardening. It’s obvious that something called Friends and Friends of Friends would be about, well, friends and friends of friends. Thanks for the clarification.

It’s only once you start delving into the book and spend time parsing through its images that what it achieves is a subtle act of subversion. The book includes 125 artists (including City Paper contributing photographers Uli Loskot and John Ellsberry), but leafing through, it’s not so much the breadth of the work Friends contains that strikes you, but its depth: Something really different is going on here. And the editorial team arrived at this goal after winnowing down more ambitious projects into something they could more readily and feasibly achieve.

Through his wife, Peter Quinn met a group of Johns Hopkins University academics about two years ago, including JHU anthropology Ph.D. candidate Todd Meyers, who has an undergraduate degree in art and has contributed to Chicago’s New Art Examiner and the forward-think aesthetic publication Parachute. After many a weekly chat, they decided they wanted to try to create a publication.

“One of the ideas was to come up with a journal that was based on artists and scientists,” Quinn says. “It would be a coffee-table book for the general public, but it would be inserted with really academic scientific writings about specific environmental issues that are going on and reactions to current policies, as sort of an infiltrating [of mainstream debate]. So we started meeting about this idea of, ‘OK, we want to present this idea of a journal that would pick up certain environmental subject matter, and we would deliver it to artists to respond to.’ So we started investigating, how do we start a book? Who do you talk to? What are the questions we need to be asking?”

Using the high-quality publications of MIT Press and Princeton Architectural Press as models, Meyers and Quinn tried to find an appropriate venue for their environmentally aware idea to no avail.

“One day it just sort of broke apart, and I said to Todd, ‘Look, I’ve got this idea,’” Quinn says. “‘It’s called Friends and Friends of Friends. It’s the same thing, but forget the scientists, forget the political content. We’ll start at this very basic point of all these people that we know who are doing art.’”

From there, the project took shape. The first call for submissions went out last summer (and the editorial team fielded submissions until a week before Friends went to press in June). But making the call open to any and all work coming through the internet grapevine was a difficult shape to convey.

“One of the difficulties we faced early on was trying to convince people what the project was,” Meyers says. “One of the things we did early on is I was writing up a description of the project, and every time that I would sit down to write it, I was faced with trying to explain, How do we create this thing where it’s not a kind of genre? Or, It’s not like something else? All these different genres of art and design, all these different ideas which are from different political registers but are not necessarily something that’s just something that really explicit. Friends and Friends of Friends isn’t a theme book, it’s more a nexus of all these different ideas and images. And the conclusion that we came to is that that alone is a pretty unique political statement, in that we can bring these things together and not have that sort of wonkiness of one note that is most dominant.”

That nebulous quality is exactly the feeling that creeps under the skin while looking at Friends and Friends of Friends. While every book is about itself, it’s also a given that almost every art book informs you what it’s about before opening the cover. Whether an artist monograph, an exhibition catalog, a movement examination, or a glossy thematic volume, art books by their very nature inform you what you’re going to be seeing inside their covers usually within four to five pages of opening them, after the forward.

And while Friends and Friends of Friends contains an introduction and forward from Quinn and Meyers, respectively, each turn of the page is a surprise. The absence of a curatorial overview encourages the brain to project questions onto the work contained therein: What makes an artist decide to submit this piece when he or she can offer anything in their oeuvre? And then you start noticing very minor themes emerge: a number of people turned in bloodied self-portraits. Few of the pieces even remotely qualify as still lifes; many are more interested in the figurative works, especially the human body doing some action.

Situating everything in a single book also strips the work from any extraneous contextualizing markers. Some of the work here wouldn’t look out of place in white-walled gallery space, some wouldn’t look out of place in a museum, and some feels pulled directly off the walls of an underground DIY exhibition. Looking at everything in the continuum of Friends and Friends of Friends literally puts everything on the page, and it’s a refreshingly haphazard approach to looking at visual language.

And this very sort of product not-product is exactly what Quinn and Meyers hoped to create. They’re already thinking about a second volume, and have started the submission process for the second Creative Capitalism publication, Notebook, a volume of rough sketches in all their guises, from written to visual to time-based. It’s a project that compresses a number of endeavors and ideas, but such mental calisthenics is why Quinn left his old advertising job two and a half years ago.

“When I left my job, I wanted to start my own company,” Quinn says. “And part of wanting to start my own company was trying to figure out how what I want to be doing is different from what I was already doing. I wanted to work with nonprofits, academics, artists, work on art projects, things like that. Where I was working, whatever came my way I had to work on. I do a lot of different things, and I’m trying to find a way to make them become one.”

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