Greg Lundgren, founder, Artists for a Work Free America, explains why.
During an art opening in the late winter of the year 2001, Seattle-based artist and urban planner Sarah Kavage suggested that Seattle-based writer Anne Elizabeth Moore meet someone named Greg Lundgren. "He's a genius," she said by way of introduction. Between the two of us we know loads of geniuses, so this is hardly a distinguishing characteristic.
In Greg's case, however, not only does he turn out to be a verifiable genius, there is even more: Greg also enjoys robots, works more than anyone else we know, and speaks very rapidly. As the founder of both Vital 5 Productions, a Seattle-based gallery, and the Artists For a Work Free America, he almost has to talk fast, as there would hardly otherwise be time enough in the day to get out all the things that should be said. Doing an interview with an interesting local personality seemed innocuous enough, but we had no idea that Greg would have so much great stuff to say about art, commerce, and the American work ethic. So much, in fact, that the interview (already lengthy enough) was almost impossible to edit. Melding our questions into a singular Matte voice, then, seemed the easiest way to cut down on readers' confusion -- the Midwestern timbre and lilt of our voices are surprisingly similar anyway.
Up With Roaches: Vital 5 Productions
LUNDGREN: ... [Gesturing.] That's our bar, it works really well for serving beer and wine -- you could drive a car in here, these both open up. We drove a hearse in here for our Halloween party. This is the store -- which we need products for. These are our AFWFA shirts that eventually we'll sell, but right now it's just a matter of getting the word out. I've made about 500 T-shirts, maybe a little bit more. What all of these racks are going to hold are cans of soup that artists take the labels off of, and they make their own labels. Jason Puccinelli's doing one: Kidney Stone Soup. You know, things that are just terrible. I'm making Roach Party, where you just cut the lid off and tip it on its side and leave it on your kitchen floor. [Laughter.] 'Cause, you know, roaches have a really hard life and, once in a while you should just let 'em party. Then we'll make color Xeroxes of them and have soup cans, you'll have bleach bottles and all these different products. It's a mockery of art as a commodity. Like most galleries are, you know, it's like a Gap store.
What was this place before you moved in?
This building was built for the World's Fair in 1961, and used as an exhibition space for some Asian thing. My understanding was that it was called the Gateway Building. It was a real estate office for 23 years, and then European Motors was here from 1988 to 1998. It was empty for a year and a half. I got the keys in October, opened in December. I signed a three-year lease, which may or may not be renewed. Probably not. It'll probably be torn down. (ed. note: This is in fact the case.) It's too bad. How much work do you do on a building that you know is going to be torn down? I don't know. All the work you can.
Day Jobs Kill Dreams: Artists For a Work-Free America
Are you ready to put on your quack hat?
Quack hat. I mean, the AFWFA has two totally different sides to it, it has the total Dada element of just, "This is the most ridiculous organization that could possibly exist in the world and it's not to be taken seriously at all and it's just to counter all the polluted information that exists in media." Part of it is just sticking your finger in the air and putting out all this propaganda that doesn't really make sense and makes people confused and makes people -- did you see Adbusters' "Cyborg Manifesto"? AFWFA is kind of that similar idea of, it's not something that you have to believe in, or not believe in, but it's something that encourages a dialogue. You know, "What's the role of work in our society?" Some people say, "Yeah, that's the best thing and that should happen," and some people are, like, "What do you mean, that could never happen," and other people are like, "Well, you work more than anybody I know, so you don't live this thing," and so there's that idea of opening up that dialogue. Some people are really offended by it, they think that you're a fascist or that you're some really evil political group or something. And that's really not what it's about, it's just a matter of putting out an idea and having people talk about it.
AFWFA started with a protest that we did at the Federal Building [in downtown Seattle] in 1995. We got about a hundred people down there with T-shirts and signs and stickers and little booklets to hand out and we protested on a Monday. It was great.
What were you protesting?
Work. We had signs printed -- Mondays Should Be Fun Days, Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams -- all these great little slogans and everyone was really confused. Everyone was walking by, going, "What's going on?" But that's the mechanics of it. Ultimately, it's something that I do believe in, which is what makes it scary.
Let's back up for a second. AFWFA is Artists For a Work Free America. Mission statement, bottom line, one-word description ...
We believe that all people are artists and that our society tries to box us into a work culture that is very damaging. Most of the world's problems are founded upon expression. Some form of lack of expression, some form of miscommunication. Some form of repression, some form of people not being able to communicate. Whether it's in the family, whether it's in the government, whether it's in some group of friends, I think most of the problems come from a lack of self expression. Or a lack -- a miscommunication -- of expression.
Artists for a Work Free America is saying: You don't have to go to art school to be an artist, you don't have to be a great painter to paint, you don't have to be a great writer to write, but that is something that makes us human. I believe in that. The timing of AFWFA is such that, we're on the cusp of this technological revolution that challenges the role of humans in the world. It's like, if you have a robot that can build a car and you're a blue-collar worker, you're like, "OK, I've been building cars for 20 years and now I've got this machine that does it," or "I've been a gas station attendant," or "I've been an accountant and now people buy this accounting software and they don't need me"; technology threatens people's purpose as humans. We take pride in, "I'm a plumber," or "I'm a lawyer," or "I'm a doctor," and that's what our identity is, those work-driven things. Technology is only going to challenge that even more.
But on the other hand, technology creates more work.
Thirty years from now, we're going to have lots of people who are nurses. They're nurses to computers, they're nurses to robots, they're out there taking care of robotic technology, they're out there taking care of mainframe computers; that's what their role is. Of course, there'll always be places for humans to work, but I'm talking blue-collar workforce, that accounts for, I don't know, half of the American workforce, if not more. And that's getting wiped out.
It's changing but it's an opportune time to question what makes humans unique. If you have this computer that can calculate ten million chess moves per second and beat the best chess player in the world, well, what is our capacity as humans? To do the things that robots could never do and that's to be goofy. To play and to dance and to sing and to create art. Robots might be able to create a painting but I don't see it as a form of robotic expression. It's not based on joy. It's not based on emotion.
What AFWFA is preaching is that we should accept robots and let them take over all these boring-ass jobs because it's going to liberate humans from doing all the stuff that we were never designed to be doing in the first place. The first story I wrote was called "Horse Power." It used the model of the workhorse on the farm -- the horse was a strong horse, and he pulled a carriage into the town so the kids could get candy and he pulled the plow in the field so they could farm and he did all these things that made him feel really important, a contributing factor to this mechanism. And then, the farmer buys this tractor. The tractor can do his job better than the horse and can do his job faster than him and can do ten times what he can do. So this horse gets really depressed and goes out looking for a farm that will employ him, because he's a workhorse, because his brain is so convinced that that's what his role in life is, to plow the fields and take trips to town. Finally he has this discovery that it isn't natural for a horse to be on a farm with a saddle on it doing all this work. That's not natural. There's no such thing as a workhorse.
The tractor of the 21st century is the computer. And that tractor is very threatening to a lot of people. It's like John Luddite, the whole Luddite revolution. It's not like smashing all these machines, saying, "These machines are stealing our jobs!" Because, you know what? Let 'em have them. We were never designed to be workhorses and I think that we'll find our true spirit by being unemployed.
I don't know, it's all crazy theories. But there is a truth to it. The world would be a better place if more people goofed around. It would be a better place if people wrote more, people did silly stuff in the streets. People are like, "I'm not a musician, I don't know how to play the piano," and it's like, "No! Everybody has that capacity to do that!" I think that it's about our breaking down those barriers. The AFWFA, our mission is to break down those barriers, to say you don't have to be the best at something to do something. You don't have to have the best voice, you don't have to be able to paint. You know, I can't paint a real-looking deer, but I'll draw a deer that looks like a third-grader's deer. It looks stupid and it's not something that anyone's going to brag about, you know, but I'll do it. I think that's what it's about. There's a lot of freedom found there.
Do you believe in the dignity of work? Going back to socialist ...
I'm not an anarchist. I don't believe that society should disintegrate. I'm not saying that everyone should just throw down their timecards and walk out of their jobs. It's more a matter of saying, "How would you like the world to be?" In an ideal world, how would it be? Would it be that you worked twenty hours a week and you get to play with your kids? I'd like to have kids, but I don't wanna have a kid and have it in daycare forever, you know? That is what it would be if I were to have a kid now. I think that people's priorities are really out of whack. If anything, we just want to reassess the role of work in our lives. Why are people so compelled to feel like our value is based on how much money we make every year. Our value is based on what position we hold on the corporate ladder. Our values are really based on work.
If you have a friend that's been unemployed for four months and he just sits around and hangs out -- you know, people are mad at unemployed people. It's like, "You're not doing anything, you're not contributing, I'm out there, I'm working." And somehow that does have a bearing. It does. And I want to know why people have that. I mean, it's nice to have streets and it's nice to have mail that gets delivered and it's nice to have all of these things, but as an ideal I think we should start to work toward something that makes human life better. I think that if people started to petition for having a 30-hour work week or if people started to say, "I work, but I'd rather be doing this," or if people painted for a couple of hours a night instead of watching some crappy TV show, you know, it's -- it's a matter of putting that issue on the table.
I think that what scares people is the question, "What am I going to do?" I think that a lot of people would sit around and watch Oprah for the other ten hours a week, or they would sit around and just do nothing, or play video games. Because people feel like art isn't accessible, that art belongs to some elite. That galleries are for rich people to go to buy art and that people that paint or are making things are trained or they're born with some gift. Bullshit. I started off as a really crappy artist and now I'm just a kind-of crappy artist and in 20 years I'll probably be an OK artist, and that's fine. It doesn't have to be that everyone paints crazy, wonderful things. There are musicians that are really good and some just suck, but it doesn't mean that the ones that suck shouldn't make music. I would rather see someone that's a really crappy musician that had soul and heart and emotion than see someone who's technically perfect but with no expression or humanness. That's something that a robot could do. You could train a robot to play some composition electronically, but it doesn't mean that it has soul, it doesn't mean that it has heart. I'll take bad art that has personality over good art that is lifeless.
It sounds like you define work as a very specific thing: You're going to some specific place and people pay you ...
What I define as work is something you do solely for income. Things that you would not do if you didn't get paid. If you went into your job on Monday morning and they said, "OK, we're not going to give paychecks out anymore, and everyone is just going to do this because it's fun and we like it, and because we think we're doing something good in the world. So, we're not going to pay anyone and we don't care how you pay your bills or feed your children but you're not going to get paid." How many of those people would stay there and go, "OK, well, I'll get a night job to pay my rent because what I'm doing here I really believe in. I think that it's important." How many people would stay at their jobs? Not a lot.
To me, that's what work is. Here, I'm very busy and I do a lot of stuff but Vital 5 doesn't make any money. It just eats money. That's all it does. AFWFA eats money, these things don't make any money and I don't get paid, but some people might say that it's work. I spend time at Kinko's and I go around and put posters up on walls, but that's something I do because I want to. Because I need to. So to me, that's what work is, you wouldn't do it on your free time; you do it because you need money.
I think prisons should be where people work. I think if you've got a million people incarcerated, let them work. If you've done something really shitty, you should work. Work should be punishment for doing something wrong. You know, if I was president, instead of Nike going to Indonesia and paying little kids to make shoes, I'd say, "Hey Nike! Why don't you open up a plant next to the prison and these people, they'll work for free. They'll work ten hours a day." There are probably some moral issues there.
They employ convicts in, for example, telemarketing.
Yeah, it's happening more and more. There are a lot of people that are threatened by that. There are a lot of construction crews, road crews that are private that bid for a job and then the prison bids on the same job, and the prison bids their labor cheap and they get the job. So, there are a lot of people who are fighting for this work. But no one should be doing this shit. No one should be raising their hand, going, "I wanna do that and I'm mad because a prisoner's doing it." So, you know, there are a lot of issues like that, that are ... weird. I'm not even proposing to have a solution. It's not a matter of having a solution. It's a matter of saying, let's just examine our culture, what we live in, what we have to do.
So how do you suggest beginning that examination?
I definitely believe in voluntary simplicity. Do you really need to spend $150 on a pair of shoes? Do you really need to have two cars? Do you really need a five-bedroom house when there are two people in it? I think there are a lot of ways you can simplify your life that aren't painful, that are really simple. I'd much rather have Fridays off than have some luxury item.
I don't have any answers, but I do like the idea of saying, "Let's look at this, let's look at the way we're living. Let's look at the environment we've created." And it's not something that you just drop or change overnight, it's not that you can't get people to rally and quit their jobs and stop the machinery. Of course, it has to run. You need people to pick up the trash and you need people to make vegetables and things so you can eat. You need all these things. But there are ways of trying to change people's consciousness a little bit. Maybe that's why I consider it kind of a Dada thing, because it's not really going to happen and it is probably just a stupid battle to mount, but to me somehow it's held enough validity to keep going.
AFWFA was started as a performance piece. It was gonna be a one-day thing and then be done. But we started writing all these handouts, and printing T-shirts and making all these slogans, and we started going, "You know what? There's some truth in this, there are some things I really do believe in." And I think that's what perpetuates it, and it'll always be going on, on some level. Maybe no one will like it. Maybe people are going, "Give it up and stop, that's just enough of it, you know, robots aren't taking over the workforce. People are gonna watch Oprah, they don't wanna paint, they don't wanna be a part of your little world," and I'll probably still do it. I'll still spend the money that I make at work to pay for it.
That's what makes people funny. The robot would never follow my business plan. My business plan sucks. I have a really bad business plan. But that's what makes the world more interesting.
Do you have a day job?
I'm a glass designer. Would I do it if I didn't get paid to do it? I'd do a lot of it. I get to draw, color, and talk about art. I wouldn't do it as much if I didn't get paid for it, but it's a nice deal. It allows me to do things like this and I get health insurance. I don't wanna be doing it forever, but I realize you have to pay bills. I don't live in a tent. I'm a consumer, too. I buy stuff.
Sell Out Now: Creating Consumables for Consumer Culture
Who is the audience of AFWFA?
There's this one guy in Alaska who really likes what we're doing. [Laughter] And then there's a guy who specializes in coup d'etats in New York who also likes us. The audience is really pretty much nobody, or anybody. I mean, we do a lot of tagging, put up a lot of posters, a lot of it is just a network of friends around the country. I send a box of T-shirts and little stories to my friends in New York and they kind of distribute them to their friends. I have friends in California and friends in Oregon. Anyone who says, "I'm curious about AFWFA," I'm like: "Hey! Here's a box full of shit." You know, maybe someday, Urban Outfitters will want to carry AFWFA T-shirts ...
[Balking.] Would you want that?
Sure. You know, why not? There's enough shit that's being sold, or if some really evil company wanted to sell AFWFA stuff that would make me a millionaire and would let me do Arbitrary Art Grants once a month for the next 20 years, I'd say, "Yeah," you know? People are gonna buy shit, people are gonna buy Backstreet Boys albums, Britney Spears T-shirts, why not buy an Artists For a Work Free America T-shirt instead?
I don't have a problem with exploitation at all. It's propaganda, it's designed for the masses. I would love to be 80 years old and walk into some high school and see 50 kids wearing AFWFA T-shirts. Having AFWFA backpacks on, going "I'm not going to college, I'm gonna start a commune out in the desert." To me, everyone else corrupts everyone else. I might as well, too. Everyone has their own idea of what they believe in.
It's like food: Everyone eats. But you have a choice about what you eat. If you want to eat garbage or if you want to eat 20 pounds of beef everyday, you can. That's your choice. But you can also eat stuff that's good for you, you can eat things that aren't filled with pesticides. You have a choice. People don't fucking realize that we have a choice about what they can eat and the same thing goes for consumption. People are going to consume, there are going to be stores and there are going to be malls forever. But you do have a choice about what you consume.
Basically, I see America as this big bird's nest that has a million mouths that are all open going, "Yahh yahh yahh," like they want something and they don't even really care what it is. Whatever is brought in mother's mouth they'll eat. So, why not do something that you think has a purity to it? It's propaganda. It's meant to be. I'd want every person to have an AFWFA T-shirt, just armies of people.
Yet your propaganda doesn't strive for immediate change.
As propaganda it's much more aggressive. You know, the propaganda is ridiculous. If you look at our poster Alarm Clocks Kill Dreams, it had this picture of this guy having this nice dream and there's this big bomb coming at his dream bubble. When people see it they say, "Yeah! Fuck! Alarm clocks are evil. Alarm clocks suck. I hate alarm clocks. They make me wake up when I don't want to wake up. That's my favorite time of the day, when I'm having some cool dream and it's like 8:00 in the morning and I'm floating and flying and then it's like [makes an alarm clock noise]. And the reason that alarm clock is doing that, is that I have to be somewhere that I don't want to be, to make money so I can pay for my tiny little apartment and pay for my car insurance." It's all work-driven.
But as propaganda, calling for a hatred of alarm clocks is a little obtuse. What would some of your immediate objectives be?
Do I want people to buy more art? Yeah. If people spent the amount of money that they spent on clothes at Nordstrom's on fine art, then we could ...
You could employ all the artists in Seattle.
Yeah, it's a given that people are always going to be buying shit. But if we could change the direction of what they're buying. It's a matter of changing what people consume. And at least adjusting that. I don't have any credit cards, well, I have an American Express. And it's pretty cool. It's like, I'm afraid of getting into debt because I'm pretty bad with money. If you have a card like American Express, you have to pay it off every month. But at the end of the year you get this list that says, "This is all the shit that you bought that was food. This is all the shit that you bought that was clothes. This is all the shit that you bought on car repairs. This is all the stuff." And so for year 2000 I have this thing that says that on my American Express card I spent like $13,000 on all this shit. And you look at it and you go, "I spent $7,000 dollars on cocktails!" And it's like, "Whoa. That's a good barometer." And a lot of it is stuff that I do need, probably half of it's at Kinko's or Home Depot, but you look at the people who make a lot more money than us, that actually own homes, that have that kind of income. I think it would be astonishing, just to say, "Whoa! Do you really . . . ?"
You know, people do spend $20,000 a year on clothes. No problem. Like Elton John had a $100,000-a-year fresh flower habit. Seriously. You've got to get one of those American Express sheets and then you go, "Damn, do I really need to spend $100,000 on cut flowers?" And it's like "No." If you take all that shit that people buy, take that $10,000 that people just buy crap with and take 25 percent of that and have them support the arts -- maybe it's going to a show, maybe it's going to a gallery, maybe it's buying an art book, maybe it's buying a postcard. If you were to redirect that, you could have a cultural revolution where people are making tons of stuff. You know, think about all the artists that I know are waiters, or they make burritos, or they work in a record shop. And they're doing shit that robots could do. They're doing dumb, dumb, dumb jobs when they could be doing something really cool. If you look at any musician, any musician that you like, any band that you like, for five years they were working at Taco Time. And creating the coolest albums that people have heard in ten years. It's like, fuck Taco Time. Those people should be making music. They should be painting. And the reason why they can't is because there isn't that consumer base.
However, there remains this myth that the best art is created through adversity.
Oh, despair and struggle and pain and suffering. Yeah, for sure. But I don't think that's going to go away. Pain and suffering, I don't have a remedy for that yet.
Even when we're not working, there will still be pain and suffering?
If you have a 100,000 artists, you're still going to have ten of them making millions and millions of dollars. Everyone loves them. You're going to have some of them that nobody likes. You know, Van Gogh could live an ideal model of Artists For a Work Free America, where everyone's an artist and he'd still be the poor kid on the block. You know? And he's still trying really hard and he's painting great stuff but no one's buying it and it's, you know, Theo was taking care of him, he didn't have to work and he was still a crazy, loony guy. He sat around and painted. He wasn't happy, he was horribly depressed. I'm not saying that everyone's going to be rich, but if you could create more of an industry out of art, sure, why not? How many people in this town work as secretaries? There are more secretaries in this town that there are artists, people that make a living off of art. I read somewhere that in Seattle the median income for a working artist, an artist that works full-time, is like $16,000. Fuck, I'd be out getting a job.
So, you don't espouse any sort of refusal of the creation of products. You're just looking for, what, a shift in thought?
A shift. I'd like a shift. You know, it comes in two sizes. There's the shift of the consumer, saying, "Instead of buying all this shit that I don't need, I'd like something that I think is valuable." That is really devalued in our society. So a lot of it is consumer-based as far as what people are buying. And a lot of it is creation-based, which says, "Don't be afraid of art. Play around. Throw some paint around and don't feel like it's some exclusive thing."
Art is really an important part of our culture. It's a really important part of human development and communication. But so many people are followers, there'll be 50,000 people that will go to a rock concert and see U2, but there's not that many that go, "I wanna start a band." People are afraid. People are really scared to death.
Even more so with visual arts, I think. Music is pretty unintimidating compared to looking at paintings in a gallery.
I have clients at my other work, my job, and I'll be like, "You know, I've got an art gallery and we're having an opening tomorrow night, it's going to be really fun. There's going to be music, and there's great work in there, and it's just a really neat environment." They're like: "Oh, I'm too old for that." What? You're too old for what? You're too old to learn, you're too old to have fun, you're too old to be in an art gallery? What is that? Or they're like, "Oh, I don't know anything about art," or "I can't draw." I hear that all the time. "Oh, you're the artist, I don't know, whatever you think." It's like, no, have an opinion. I don't care if it's with crayons, I don't care if you don't feel like stretching canvas and painting some oil masterpiece. People are really intimidated by art and that translates into a lot of problems. It translates into a lot of people being angry and unhappy. It translates into a lot of relationships just sucking or marriages failing.
One thing AFWFA calls for is communication.
AFWFA is something that I don't really understand. It's something that I believe in. And I'm not sure even why I believe in it -- well, I know why I believe in it. I don't know where it's going. I like little fake organizations. I like writing letters to people on Artists For a Work Free America letterhead. I like having a stamp and people think that it's a company, you know. It's really fun. As far as the activity of AFWFA, we have the propaganda, which is T-shirts and stickers and stories and posters, mainly. And postcards. That's kind of the main thing. We have a starter-kit which has all that stuff combined in it, which is your introduction to what it is.
Fund Some Homeless Guy: AFWFA Arbitrary Art Grants
LUNDGREN: We're having our second Artists For a Work Free America Arbitrary Art Grant, which is a $500 award given to some random person working in a certain medium.
On what basis do you select winners?
Last year it was a cooking timer in a backpack. Someone walked around and when the timer went off they stopped, found the person creating music standing closest to them, that person got the money. In that case it was a 50-year-old woman playing plastic spoons on some steel grating.
Was she there as part of the ...
Oh, yeah. It was the same day as the opening of the Experience Music Project. We try to stage them around other events. We try to take some other media event and attach ourselves to it, 'cause we don't have any money. So that was the opening day of the Experience Music Project, but it isn't really that experiential. It's something that you have to pay a lot of money for. So the Arbitrary Arts Grant was like, "You know what? Make an instrument out of anything, come down, sit on a street corner and just do it." There were homeless guys who were asking people for money and we're like, "Come over here, you might win $500," and so these guys were banging the shit that they had together. It was really cool. It was just this big noise. There was this one woman that had this rubber chicken that she turned into a whistle and was pulling the leg on the rubber chicken. People had all these weird instruments they had made.
We're trying to help people do things they normally wouldn't do, which is kind of a liberation. And you're also doing it in public, so there are thousands of people walking by us going, "What are those guys doing?" But they're like, "That's kind of cool." I think that the more that you do stuff like that the more that people identify with it.
The function of a standard art grant, I think, is really whacked. Five hundred people submit something, wanting this little bit of money, and this jury says, "This person deserves the money, but these other people don't." So we do it arbitrarily. 'Cause I think that the homeless person has just as much of a chance to do it. If he'd had won that $500, whatever he did, that would be art. If he went out and bought 100 40-ouncers, or 50 40-ouncers and got a hotel room up on Aurora and invited all his friends to shower and get drunk, you know, that would probably be a lot cooler of an art piece than, "I'm gonna go out and buy a new canvas and a paintbrush."
We're doing a film grant in June, which is the same thing -- just someone making or pretending to make a film on this corner right out here -- during the Seattle International Film Festival. So, you get 100 people or 200 people or I don't know how many people are going to show up, but it's been circulated pretty well. And they're going to be out there making movies and it's going to be a spectacle and it's going to be really fun and people are going to drive by, going, "What the hell is this?" And people that are doing it are like, "What the hell am I doing?" And someone gets money.
Want more of Greg Lundgren and Artists For a Work Free America? Read the rest of the interview in Matte Magazine Issue 1.