Maryland Institute College of Art interactive media senior Christopher Tate thought he alighted upon a wily way to repay his college loans last November when he came across a Polaroid of comedian Carlos Mencia with two unidentified men. He tried selling the photo on eBay for something akin to his tuition debt, just to see what happened. He expectedly didn't get any bidders, so earlier this year Tate, 26, decided to explore the idea of treating this found piece of celebrity culture detritus as an object-qua-internet meme performance piece and is now trying to unload it for $1 million. Yes, you read that right: 1 million large for a found photo of a comedian with his arms around two other guys (see photo, above right). Tate has started documenting all interaction he has as a result of his Million Dollar Polaroid web site (milliondollarpolaroid.com)--as in, he, much to our chagrin, took our photo during an afternoon conversation at MICA campus. And while he's really not sure what, if anything, is going to come of this endeavor, he admits he is "going to keep going with it until I feel like I've beaten the idea to death."
City Paper: How did all this start?
Christopher Tate: I was on my way to school and I found [the Polaroid] laying on the street between Maryland and Charles on Preston. And it was lying face up, and I thought, This is weird and kind of random. So I just picked it up and took it home, and later that day I thought I had to do something with it. So I put it on eBay and I didn't really expect too much from it, but I was kind of pursuing a very small performance gesture. Put it on eBay, wrote him [Mencia] a letter and said, you know, "I'm selling your picture." And I thought maybe something would come of it. It didn't sell.
CP: How much were you asking for it?
CT: I think the price I had set was the cost of the listing. So like $1.50. I then received a letter from some woman with a copy of her picture, and she explained that it was actually two of his fans, they paid $20 for the photo. So that adds so much more meaning to the photo. And it didn't sell and I took it off eBay and I talked to some friends, and they said, "You should make the price a lot more meaningful, like, maybe the costs of your tuition loans." And I was like, why not? So I listed on my web site, wrote Carlos again, and did the same for Oprah, Howard Stern, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O'Donnell, saying, "I'm selling this picture, proceeds go toward my college tuition loans, I thought you would find this kind of funny, maybe you could mention me on your show or something." This was in December. Nothing came of that.
So I was like, OK, I'm going to try to make a real event out of this. And I was thinking about Alex Tew, who is the guy who did the Million Dollar Homepage. And I thought why not go with the Million Dollar Polaroid, kind of look at a million dollars as an object rather than an actual amount and using that as an entry point for people to become interested, as you've so illustrated by e-mailing me. So I started with the web site and started writing letters to more media icons.
CP: Saying what?
CT: Explaining the project and saying that the proceeds go toward my college tuition loans and other things deemed necessary, like health insurance, which I haven't had in four years, future graduate study loans--and that I'm really interested in the interactions that result from me trying to sell this photo. People's stories, the fact that Google denied my request to use their checkout service. And I've been publishing video letters, I published my first one the other night, and am making use of all of the video networks--Reverb, YouTube, MySpace--and publishing every letter on all the networks. Basically reading the letter that I sent to Carlos Mencia to the camera, almost like a video diary.
CP: Google turned you down?
CT: Yes. Before I started the web site and when I was thinking about the whole million-dollar thing I found out Google had a checkout service and that they were advertising no fees for 2007. So I was like, "OK, I'm selling this whole performance piece, would you guys allow me to do this, and since it's such a high price can I get away from the fees? What are the fine lines?" And they wrote back something like, "We respect artists and blah blah blah, but we can't sell this picture." They replied that it didn't fall within their acceptable-content guidelines--that, basically, the image was pornographic in nature and similar to prostitution. I can only assume it's because Carlos has his arms around two guys. And I was just, "Are you kidding me?"
CP: Did they actually see the photo?
CT: I totally sent them a link to the site and an attachment. And they were like, "Nope, sorry, it's adult content."
CP: So have you just stopped barking up that tree?
CT: I'm kind of using it as fodder. When I published the ad in [local zine] Catatac I got an e-mail from a young web-savvy person who was really intrigued by Google not letting me use their checkout service, and he really wants to help me explore that aspect of the project by using social networking services to promote an anti-Google thing. I'm going to appeal Google again and really stress that it's not a pornographic image and it's not prostitution. Right now I'm using their advertising services, which I think is kind of funny--I can't sell this through the site, but they'll let me make money for them.
CP: Why are you taking donations at the site?
CT: Basically to help the site pay for itself. I'm already broke, but I'd really like to keep it going but I really don't have the money to keep doing things.
CP: Have you heard back from anybody you wrote letters to?
CT: Not yet. I just sent some more letters the day before yesterday and I'm kind of banking on at least hearing from Carlos Mencia's publicist, because I got her address, and I figure that since I articulated in the letter that I'm selling the picture of him, that that crosses some kind of boundary--I'm not exactly sure what--but I'm expecting something to come out of that.
CP: Other than me, have you heard from anybody else?
CT: I get e-mails that are like, "What the hell are you doing?" I've started to get people in the street who are like, "You're that guy selling that picture. What's your problem?" And a lot of people, when I first tell them about it, ask me how I can do this and what the legal ramifications are and, Why do you think somebody would pay $1 million for this picture? But when I try to explain to them that I don't consider it to be worth a million dollars, I just consider it this concept rather than an actual amount--$1 million is supposed to mean something, you know? It's this entry point, and by the end of the conversation people are like, "OK, good luck."
CP: Do you actually expect to get one million bucks for this Polaroid?
CT: [laughs] I kind of want to say yes and I kind of want to say no. If some very rich person is like, "Yeah, I'll buy your piece of artwork for $1M," while in some ways that would be the goal for the piece, the real success would come through what's generated from my efforts--what feedback I get from people, what kind of letters get sent back to me. One of the challenges I'm facing now is articulating that it's not just the Polaroid that's $1M--it's the whole thing, all the documentation, the videos, all of that stuff.
CP: Are you worried at all about hearing from the two unknown fans in the photo?
CT: I'm hoping to hear from those two guys. I'm so looking forward to hearing from them. What are they going to say? "Give me my photo back?" or "Can we help?" Whatever it is, I would love to have a conversation with them.
CP: What happens if Carlos Mencia's people call and say you've got to stop doing this?
CT: I would seek legal counsel. By using his name it's entered touchy ground, but I would definitely seek legal counsel and see what my options were as a seller of this kind of found object and try to work it out with them.
CP: And what if his people call up and say, "This is great--Carlos wants of piece of it?"
CT: I would say, "Let's get together and work something out. Let's get together and document the meeting and video it. If you want to support this and talk about it on your show, I'll give you a cut of the pie." That's cool.
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