Toronto-based Oli Goldsmith has embarked on a project both daunting and bizarre, but surely to the delight of pop culture afficionados: he’s creating a thousand portraits of…Borat?
Yep, Borat. A senior designer at the CBC, former Artist in Residence at the Drake Hotel and creator of Our Lady Peace’s Spritual Machines album art, Goldsmith has now set his sights on the infamous character created by Sacha Baron Cohen. The artist spoke with Torontoist about how the idea came about, and why anyone in their right mind would want to make 999 individual portraits of the fictional Kazakh journalist.
Explain what 999 Borats is.
The 999 Borats Project is something I have from the start referred to as an “unashamedly cheesy experiment in pop-art idiocy,” meant in a light-hearted way. It has become something more than that in many ways, but at its core it still can be described as such. The idea was to create 999 original “portraits”—using a mixture of art-making techniques and approaches (not putting any restrictions on myself there) but done generally pretty quickly, and all with a modest size of between about 8″x10″ and 12″x18″. And to use the internet, and specifically Flickr at first, as a means of having an audience follow the progression of the work. The ridiculously ambitious aim was to create 999 “original” artworks at a smallish scale with the the one restriction that they all be in some shape or form a portrait of Borat.
And that seems like a crazy amount of work.
The vastness seemed honestly not too daunting when I first had the idea. I like to be prolific and a little extreme—and it gets me into trouble far too often! I like to work on many pieces at once in my general art-making, and I saw this as a sort of freedom where with so many pieces I really could try some crazy stuff and not worry about ending up with, say, ten masterworks that I had to plan out carefully.
That’s not to say that the work isn’t something I’m not really pleased with—I am, so far at least. I try to take away restrictions because the free flow that occurs is usually when the best stuff happens, and it does so because you aren’t worried about getting it right. In a lot of ways, I try to get myself out of the way when it comes to creative work. It may sound weird, but I realize that many artists worry about whether an idea is a good one, whether they should do this or that or whether their work is meaningful. These all serve to just stifle and are self-inflicted roadblocks—obstacle illusionsn I like to call them). I really see no point in questioning things.
What will the last Borat be like?
A key idea was that there would indeed be a Borat #1000, and that it would be life-sized, really slick, framed, and over-the-top! I had plans that maybe this would be a piece made for sale, but quickly decided I liked the idea better that it would be something of a “prize.” I did intend from early on that I would indeed sell the originals—that #1000 would be a grand incentive or something like that. Like the golden tickets in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, I thought I might put a golden seal on the back of one randomly chosen of the portraits—that kind of thing.
What do you have planned for the works when they’re done?
I decided a little later that making a book of the works was something I wanted to do, so that’s definitely going to be happening. I may also be making limited edition giclee prints, available for less than the originals. I certainly won’t try and hide the fact that it is a project intended to gain some exposure and sell some work in the process, although the work will be very affordably priced.
Are all 999 Borats going to be for sale?
Yep, they are indeed, but I am still working out the logistics. Currently, I am planning on each being $100 for the originals. I do have a philosophy or comfortableness in my work that is in line with Warhol’s Factory, and even more so that of Takashi Murakami, who has a factory in a much realer sense, with hundreds of employees and automated systems in place churning out work.
I may stagger them in sets in an eBay auction or it may be a flat price for all originals, but I am going to be addressing this feature on the website very soon. I recommend people sign-up for the newsletter if they want the first chance to buy them when the works become available. I have also created a screensaver that is available as a free download right now.
What number are you at today?
Approximately 220. I know—it sounds low still, but it is a lot of work and I have recently been able to get back to making them more frequently. I expect it will be about 2 more months until they’ll be finished, and I will also be implementing things like voting for your favourite Borats and the ability to get first dibs on the originals for an affordable price.
What media do you use in creating the Borats?
It, as most of my work is, is a hybrid of digital transfers or output of some kind. Digital images are either printed on a giclee printer or solvent transferred onto primarily fine art paper.
It isn’t a surprise that my work typically is a hybrid of digital techniques and traditional forms. A central dichotomy in my art has been that I have used computers and technology as a core aspect of my art-making practices since I began, and I also have an entrepreneurial element in my attitude and ambition. Yet, I love the tactile act of physically working with materials, painting, and I have a deep love of “the art object” as a singular original physical thing. At the same time, I am fascinated with the antithesis as well—the notion of an artwork existing purely digitally. Or mass produced as replicas or automated variations.
I guess the most extreme example would be the idea of freely distributing an artwork as a desktop image for your computer. It is almost as if the art is theoretical, it exists as bits of data, can be duplicated without limit, move through space and networks, potentially spread vastly in this virtual way, but it is difficult to define quite how it even exists.
With all the pop culture references out there, why did you choose the Borat character?
To be honest, at first I looked at the selection of Borat as essentially an arbitrary choice. The idea was a pretty random, ridiculous one that may have seemed silly or pointless, but that’s part of what made me like it. However, as is the case in many areas of my art-making, I don’t really know why and choose not to worry about it so much as many of those answers come to me later as I “get to know” the artwork. People will also often point out things that make perfect sense but which I wasn’t reflecting consciously on at the time.
Did others understand your choice?
I posted a little blurb and link about the project on Saatchi’s Your Gallery site and had someone immediately reply that it seems a pretty dumb choice; that Borat was just a stupid bit of pop “debris”; that he certainly wasn’t an icon; that I was wasting my time. I found the response interesting as the fellow had pointed out what probably drew me to Borat in the first place—that he was a good example of a disposable celebrity, I suppose. He’ll probably soon be relegated to the 2015 Edition of Trivial Pursuit or be part of an $800 Jeopardy question.
Have you always incorporated elements of pop culture in your work?
My earliest art making focused more definitively on topics of mass media, consumerism, and the like. It’s perhaps my relationship with this subject matter that makes such a concept attractive to me. I took Media Studies in high school and had been highly affected by the exposure to people like Noam Chomsky and Marshall McLuhan. Overall, I feel my work has grown to become a more inward reflection of that outer world as a whole: more personally psychological yet still connected to the role media and celebrity play in all of our lives.
I think Borat, perhaps more than most other “celebrities,” attracted me because he is such a crafted “character” or art piece unto himself. Borat is largely about is that awkward, un-staged, charming-yet-crass cariacature created by Cohen—he acts almost as a comedian and anthropologist—and how his “planned improv” encounters shed a fair bit of light on Western Culture and how we are taught to act and react on social cue. People relate both to him and his unsuspecting victims, and we feel awkward for them both. It evokes interesting things about human nature that aren’t often so cleverly put on display.
How important was your Flickr account to this project?
I am pretty active on Flickr.com and admin a group on pop-surrealism there. I thought, why not create a group and treat it more like an art gallery—just allow my own works and make it a forum where I could add the works as they were completed while continuing to share future details with an audience as I figured out just what I might want to do with this thing. That’s my favourite thing about Flickr and the Web 2.0 stuff in general these days: I can just throw up ideas and work without the same commitment on many levels as in the tangible world, and immediately have an audience for it. I love it, and it’s doing good things for my art and letting me try out ideas I might not have otherwise.
Do you have a particular favourite out of the Borats you’ve created so far?
I definitely have favourites, for different reasons. Some embody the satirical spirit of Borat’s excitement about America; his naïve charm or his crassness. But I haven’t set out to make works that specifically reflect these things outright. Some I like more for their artistic merit outright, while others I like as they connect to his persona in some way. I can’t say I have a single favourite, and there are hundreds yet to go!
Do you know if Sacha Baron Cohen is aware of the project?
I don’t know if he is. I’d certainly be happy for him to know about it and may seek to get in touch with him or send a copy of the book. Of course, it is legally questionable that I do this project in the first place without his permission, but I have joked that he is too busy being sued by everyone else to sue me! I would hope he not take offense, but really I see no moral reason why he would. Hopefully he will find it enjoyable and maybe even buy some portraits!
Is there something about Cohen as an artist that attracted you to his work and felt it compatible with your own?
I am an artist and person generally who is drawn to the absurd; to strange ideas, and I view humour as an intriguing and vital part of human nature. It is in many ways a crutch, yet it is also in many ways spiritual. Humour and the absurd has always been a part of my work, and I can relate and appreciate Cohen on that level.
I get that sense about Cohen that he knows he is revealing things, yet maybe opening up more questions about where we are as a global society now. I guess this is a parallel in a sense that I find appealing in Cohen’s work as Borat especially. He hints at a deeper meaning in his comedy and craft. He subtly reveals things about human nature, and I like my work to do that do.
You are known for creating the artwork for Our Lady Peace’s Spiritual Machines album. How did that come about?
I was showing work at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition and my work was spotted by Sony Music’s Art Director—I also got my first “gallery exhibit” from that show. I guess she had taken some of my cards and a couple months later I got a message about a potential album cover project. I basically got the job on the spot as they had considered lots of slick photographers and more traditional work, but distinctly wanted to do something unique and different. It was great because I really did have a huge amount of artistic freedom and, not that there weren’t difficult moments and some disagreements, but ultimately it was as close as you could ever hope to just making “art” like usual, but having it be a commercial project.
And their video for “In Repair” came after that.
The video was something that also came up suddenly at the end of an incredibly intense month spent creating a huge amount of artwork for the finished packaging. Raine [Maida] asked if I know anyone who could animate this stuff. There was something ridiculous, like two-and-a-half weeks until it needed to be done, and though I’d done some experimental video work and was learning the tools, I had never done anything remotely near such a project in that medium. But I like to learn by throwing myself into a situation where it counts, and it was needless to say, a very intense, but very exciting period seeing it come together and really work.
I had been through so much and was so drained by the end of the whole month-and-a-half of twenty hour days that I really didn’t know what I had when it was handed into Much Music, literally a minute before the cutoff for that week—truly my style. But after decompressing for a week, it was great to see it climb the charts and get such amazing feedback. When it was nominated for a Juno (as was the packaging) and was up for six Much Music Video Awards, I was so pleased. Then to find out that it actually won the two biggest ones—Best Director and Best Video—I was thrilled and really proud that people had responded so amazingly well to my first attempt.
You were an Artist in Residence at the Drake. What did that entail?
That was a cool thing, for sure. It was more about the video side of the work I do—the experimental stuff and live video mixing. The technical setup at the Drake for this kind of thing is excellent, actually. They have video feeds running throughout the place, so I could do a live mix in the Underground and it would be routed to multiple screens downstairs, projectors on the main floor and a huge one on the patio up top. I do it in a way very similar to a DJ, but with mini DVD players filled with loops and video clips of my own experimentation and I use a video mixer to combine and manipulate them live. I also ended up doing a TV spot for them which is pretty cool and experimental.
More recently I did a more ambitious thing there with a friend of mine Sol Friedman. As part of the Drake’s NuitBlanche lineup, we did live video and music mixing at the same time. I have been making music for years, at first more as a hobby, and am just now starting to release it for sale via iTunes (details will be on my website soon).
What other projects do you have lined-up?
One big is a project called popsurrealism.tv. It actually gives an idea of what my live mixes are like. But the basic premise of this project is that is it is a live, neverending time-based artwork in the form of a streaming media ‘channel’ distributed in the form of a free screensaver. Utilizing QuickTime as a core container technology, I will create an ever-changing and evolving hybrid—essentially a video and audio mix initiated by myself as I add video, VR, flash, net ‘sampled’ live streams, etc. The evolving feed will stream from my server straight to users’ desktops where they may passively or actively experience the ever-changing work.
Another very exciting thing I have been wanting to do for ages is producing canvases with embedded flat panel LCD displays, and the price and technology is now making it feasible. Paint actually edges-up and sometimes over parts of the screen so it is an amazing effect. I have some works up already through an online store I’ve been setting up with my wife, Caroline. I am planning to offer upgradeable content—you’ll be able to buy SD content cards, each with hours of video and audio. Ultimately, I’d like to do something similar where the screen in the painting is directly hooked to the internet and streams fresh content to your painting from my server. I love the idea that you come down for breakfast and look up at your painting and notice that suddenly there is a new character in the lower left and that suddenly the colours have shifted!
Where can someone go if they want to buy some of your prints?
I have a print shop up and running at the online store as well. It is currently limited in scope, but I am aiming to have most of my body of work available in a number of sizes and at affordable price points. I also have a limited edition of 100 copies of my first art book available on the site which features loads of full colour imagery (over 70 works). There will also be prints of Caroline’s artwork and merchandise such as art clocks and shirts with my characters that will be available shortly. It is a venue we are running to both sell our own products, but also things from suppliers we like—creative products that have enriched our lives and that we want to share with others.
In Toronto, Oli shows with Parts Gallery on Queen Street East, and MUSE Gallery on Yonge Street, near Summerhill. On the west coast, he is represented by Gallery Jones in Vancouver.