Feature Image: Lucy Bowen (NZ), Fan Art of Tara Benedict, 2014, acrylic, moustache on canvas, from swap #6
What is fan art?
Fan art is when someone is a fan of something or someone, and chooses to express their fanly feelings by making art based on that thing or person. Usually it’s of a celebrity or musician, or sometimes a comic book character. It’s kind of a mixture of the desire to make a likeness of a person as tribute, and a kind of labour-of-love-as-proof-of-dedication activity. It’s often breathless and enthusiastic and done by people with dubious drawing skills.
How did Love Your Work: Fan Art Swap begin? What is the concept behind Love Your Work?
Love Your Work: Fan Art Swap is a project where people send in biographical information and a photo of themselves, I swap their details with another participant and the two fans create fan art of each other. This could be visual art or something else. Then I document the work created and send it out in the mail.
I started the project in 2006. I’d been interested in fan art for a few years previously, sparked by a moment in Napoleon Dynamite when Napoleon presents his crush with a drawing of her. For a while all my friends got bad fan art drawings of themselves for their birthdays. At the time I thought this was both a hilarious and thoughtful gift – sorry guys! Then I became interested in the interaction between the drawer and the drawee. Presenting someone with a drawing of them is such a weird and awkward interaction, but at the same time everyone seems to love getting a drawing of themselves. I wanted to see what happened to the dynamic when it became a fair exchange between peers rather than a fan-to-celebrity unilateral transaction. It was a bit of a social experiment, I just wanted to see what people would do, and I thought the results might be hilarious – which they often are.
I’ve noticed now, unlike in 2006, when I use the term ‘Fan Art’ people mostly recognise the term. It has obviously been around for decades at least. But I think sites like deviantart have had a lot to do with fan art being recognised as a particular genre of cultural production.
Regardless, people seem to instinctively know it when they see it. People who have participated in the Fan Art Swap seem to have intuitively understood what it is, and the swap gives them a safe space and permission to fully explore the weird quirks of the genre without actually terrifying anyone.
Who participates in the swaps?
People who like fan art, or making things and exchanging things! I’ve always stressed when seeking participants that the prerequisite skills are fan skills, not formal art skills, so there’s a vast range of technical ability. It’s also an international swap, so I’ve had people involved worldwide.
For you, what is it that makes fan art great?
That it’s painfully sincere, it draws heavily from pop culture, the painstaking yet failed attempts at likenesses, and just the sheer amount of labour and love that goes into it. It still constantly surprises me with its delightful weirdness.
Admittedly the swap itself isn’t without an element of pastiche, but that breathlessly enthusiastic aspect that is ever-present in the art created keeps it honest.
Do you see a certain place within the art world that Love Your Work fits into? For example, there is something reminiscent of both outsider art and Mail art, as well as relational aesthetics, in a way.
Ha, bang on! Yes, the mechanics of the swap through the postal service was inspired by Mail art. Mail art was attractive to me partly in reaction to the major social media networks that were emerging in 2006 (Myspace and Facebook). I’ve thoroughly embraced social media now, but at the time I had reservations. The first swaps were determinedly snail-mail. Eventually I relented and started allowing digital submissions, so now I’m getting a lot of fantastic video work.
I was working as the graphic designer at the Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth at the time I began the project. Looking back I was obviously influenced by the art I was surrounded by. Some of the curators were working on a bunch of exhibitions concerned with relational aesthetics – for example, Charlotte Huddleston curated the exhibition Linked: Connectivity & Exchange, exhibiting artists like Liz Allen. I’ve had a longstanding interest in Design for Social Change as part of my design background, so I often end up drawn to socially-based art practices. I tend to describe Fan Art Swap as a social art project.
Where the project sits in the art world I’m always a little hesitant about addressing. I’m still not sure this project sits particularly easily within the art world. In some ways it’s unashamedly pop, and pop isn’t particularly fashionable.
Have you got any memorable moments you could tell us about, from the history of Love Your Work?
The first piece of Fan art I made, of Angela Meyer, was nearly lost when her boat sunk off the coast of Aruba. The sea must be intent on claiming my fan art, because there’s something by David Urquhart bobbing around in a bottle in the Tasman Sea, hopefully finding its way over to me from Australia. Drus Dryden sent a baggie of chest-hair clippings (it sounds weird… and it was! Especially the email exchange in which we discussed which bits of the body would be acceptable to shave his fan’s initials into. But it was also a wonderful piece of fan art). Last swap there was a piece so terrifying I couldn’t sleep with it in the same room as me, but the fan absolutely loved it. These are the awkward/brilliant social interactions Fan Art Swap is made of.
Recently, Love Your Work has been concluding each swap session with an exhibition/party – has this changed the dynamic of Love Your Work: Fan Art Swap at all?
I’d been hesitant for years about having an exhibition because I wanted the swap to be more about making the work and the exchange, rather than about creating work for an exhibition. But last year I concluded the swap with an exhibition/party. This meant that those who came along got to see their fan art exhibited for the first time. And for the first time I got to see their reactions. A few people got to meet their fans, which is the main reason why I’m doing the exhibition again this year. Drawing a stranger in this way is an oddly intimate experience. Many people who have participated have mentioned that by the time they have finished their piece they feel like old friends. So when participants meet their fan in person they tend to become quite excited and animated over meeting them. The whole swap is obviously a contrived/mediated situation, but the enthusiasm is sincere – they kind of become fans of each other by the process of making. It’s neat.
Where can we find out more about Love Your Work?
www.loveyourwork.org – The project website where you can find documentation of all the work from previous swaps and news regarding upcoming swaps.
facebook & twitter: fanartswap
fanmail to firstname.lastname@example.org