A discussion with Keri Smith, illustrator, guerilla artist, and author (Wreck This Journal, Living Out Loud), covering a whole big messy palette of topics: street art, blogs, advertising, creative commons, the arranging of books, phenomenology, and the simple pleasure of noticing some of the things under our feet.

JR: What are some of the jobs (or projects) you’ve worked along the way to get where you are now?

KS: To me art and life are not separate. A few years ago I made some drastic life changes, (got married, left my home in Canada, and moved to the US). Ever since then, my work has been about deconstruction of various kinds. I started out as a freelance illustrator, doing mostly editorial work. Over time I started to feel that the work lacked meaning; it was rare that I got a topic that I felt passionate about. I began to realize that I was not fulfilled unless I was using my ideas in some way. The path out of this was to start writing my own ideas and putting them into book form. While I still do some editorial work, I see myself moving away from that completely in the future. Right now I am mostly interested in ideas, and not as concerned about the execution/final product. I have been investigating street art which has taken me on a wonderful journey that involves some really fascinating concepts regarding public space and our relationship with it. It began with looking at the work of street artists, and led to phenomenology (the study of things in relation to their surroundings), which led to the human senses and how they connect us to nature, psychogeography and the concept of random movement, Guy Debord and the Situationist movement, and new methods of reclaiming public space by incorporating the senses.My experience of guerilla art has been life altering and unexpected. I started out by chalking quotes in various places, with the hopes of just getting people to think a bit while going about their daily lives and at the same time add some texture to my surroundings. Over time it became addictive and my methods grew to include stickers, found objects, notes and guerilla gardening. What fires me up now is the oversaturation and over-exposure to corporate imagery we have in North America on a daily basis. It bothers me that we have no say in this and yet guerilla art (a form of creative expression) is deemed illegal and subject to prosecution. I feel strongly about working to eradicate the perception of the guerilla artist as vandal. I do not seek to “vandalize” my community but instead to add to it in a beneficial way. The work I most respond to is often work that both causes one to think differently about their surroundings in subtle ways, and work that fits into or has its roots in everyday life (of a conceptual nature). All of these ideas led to me to create two new books, The Guerilla Art Kit and Wreck this Journal, both coming out in a few months.

It’s interesting how violently some people react to street art— in particular, graffiti and stickering. But the same street art, if shown in a glossy street culture magazine, or in a shoe ad, or hung in a gallery, or maybe packaged in an over-sized $75 coffee table book, is suddenly Art with a capital A.

I believe this is because we live in a culture that is obsessed with commerce. Unless something has a monetary value attached to it (which allows us to place it on a value scale), it is useless to us so we label it delinquent, trash, or unworthy. If it is free, it can have no value. Lately I have been researching the concept of gift economies and open source which speaks to a new way of perceiving ownership and the exchange (and value) of goods and services (and information). Value is attributed on an individual basis, and not by an economic machine (which we have no say in). This results in a more democratic experience. I also think people fear street art because they feel it is something they cannot control. That lack of control is scary, so they choose to demonize it. If they were to embrace it, some interesting things might happen.

Shephard Fairey has described his Obey Giant project as an experiment in phenomenology.

When we perceive our immediate environment as expressive and alive we are encouraged to engage our senses and in effect wake up to the present moment. Hopefully this reminds us that we belong to the earth, not the other way around; we are an active participant in it. As an artist I take a somewhat shamanistic approach to the world, perceiving the objects and landscape as animate and expressive. Everything around me tells a story or becomes a part of my own story, we are connected. Even the garbage, especially the garbage, which I am constantly collecting on my journeys and using in some way to tell a story.

If you could have any kind of 6th sense…

I think in our current culture we do not make use of the senses that we have. I have been working on developing mine to a greater degree. If I could have another one to add to it, it would be a heightened intuition. I believe that all of our senses are under-used. When we partake in passive activities on a regular basis, our senses become underdeveloped. The senses are what connect us to the animal world and the earth, and by not using them on a regular basis, we begin to perceive ourselves as separate from it. We are no longer a part of the earth, but merely users (and passive participants) of it, (therefore able to abuse it). I believe that by reengaging the senses in a conscious way, we begin to feel a connection to our world in a time when many of us feel disconnected. Philosopher David Abram says, “the body is my very means of entering into relation with all things.” By simply slowing down on a walk in our neighborhood and noticing the things under our feet, we can open ourselves up to feeling like an active participant in the world, and in turn be able to respond to its needs.

What are some of the best/worst parts of being your own boss?

Good: not having a regular schedule. Waking up with the sun. Cooking and eating healthy food. Playing hooky. Choosing what work I want to do everyday. Experimenting with whatever I want. Throwing myself fully into an idea. Saying no when necessary. There is a certain tension that is created when you don’t know what the future will hold. It can be incredibly motivating for some; you throw things out into the world and see what happens. It’s kind of like gambling, only healthier. I love that I can reinvent myself and my work whenever I want. Not so good: paperwork, feeling isolated from other humans (I work alone all day), dealing with money, lack of security.

You’ve talked about being a bibliophile. How do you arrange your books? Alphabetical or by subject? By size, by color?

By locational groupings according to how they are used (this was not a calculated thing, it evolved). When I work, the books that are most inspiring to me (artists I want to emulate, experimental works, reference books or theory) are next to or on my desk (sometimes on the floor where I like to work most). Fiction (which is a constant for me) is closer to the bed, with some poetry. Nature/traveling/practical books are in the living room where they can be read during the day/over breakfast (there is also a selection of leftist magazines in the bathroom). I also have a portable library in the car (yes, it’s true), for those times you get stranded or are waiting for something. This includes some poetry (ee cummings, Gary Snider, Kerouac), some Emily Carr, and a few others. I love the idea of having books with you at all times. How wonderful to experience a well-written poem while waiting for something. It can shift your whole perspective in a few minutes.

What’s one of the most frustrating experiences you’ve had with how your work was received? How did you deal with it?

This doesn’t apply to my personal work, but instead to a project I created entitled Ad Free Blog, which is a site that allows people to take a personal stand against the use of blog ads. What I didn’t know when I started is that it is taboo to question or criticize advertising in North American culture. I was not prepared for the stream of personal attacks or the barrage of anger that resulted in my posting my feelings about the subject. The whole experience was really good for me in so many ways. I learned that at some point in life you have to take a stand on something that is important to you, and that it is impossible to please everyone. If you take a side on something, and share your opinions there will always be people who disagree with you. The fact that I stirred things up is a good thing. My intent now is to keep the dialogue going, and work at creating awareness about the effects of advertising in our culture.

It seems one of the big initial draws to blogs was that they’re authentic, honest, fresh, ‘vox populi.’ Do you think ads and sponsors influence the content of a blog?

I think this is inevitable. The most common reaction I get from bloggers who have ads is, “but I won’t let the advertising affect the content. I have control.” We only have to take a historical look at other popular forms of media (eg. magazines) to see that over time the content is affected. If a magazine’s survival depends on ad revenue, then it will never include any content that is in contrast or appears antithetical to the advertisers’ best interests, (read: selling their product). Over time we may begin to associate our own survival with the ads, and that is a very slippery slope when it comes to maintaining an authentic voice. All major media is impacted by its advertisers. Everyone agrees with that. Why is it so hard to accept that it will happen with blogs?

It seems trust, intent, and authenticity are huge factors in how people evaluate all this content.

This is what the adfree blog concept came out of, a need to differentiate. In the same way that magazines like The Sun, and Ms. have done. I wanted to let my readers know that anything I mention on my blog is done because I feel strongly about something, (not because I am getting paid to do so.) It is true that authenticity stems from the integrity of the author, and that is a trust that is earned over time by readership. I will say this: on a personal level, I am much less apt to trust a reader’s voice if they have advertising on their site. This is because I have personally (on many occasions) have been offered money and gifts to mention products or companies on my blog. As a reader if I know someone is receiving money for those ads, how do I know that their endorsements (or opinions) are personal or “sponsored”? I think people do not believe that there are any strings attached to advertising and I believe that there are. I want to raise the question, “what is the greater cost?”

Fear and anxiety seem like the sworn enemies of creativity and inspiration. Do you have any jujitsu tricks for coping with fear and anxiety?

I have an aversion to the term “fearless creating”, because I don’t think any human is ever completely fearless, and to me it is a way of denying what is really there. We are given the trait of fear as a biological gift, (and, yes, it can get completely out of hand sometimes). There is always that moment of slight hesitation (or overwhelming dread) when starting anything and I tend to take a more Buddhist approach, acknowledging the fear is there, but working alongside it at all times. One of my favorite quotes is by Wendell Barry, who says that “little nagging of dread is your first bonding with the unknown wilderness you are about to enter into.” Isn’t is interesting to refer to it as a bonding? The fear becomes more like a companion of sorts! Ha ha!

Hm. It’s not often we’re reminded that fear has a purpose— it’s hardwired into our lizard brain for a reason. So maybe it’s more about acknowledging it and re-focusing it than just quashing it with mantras and pastel-colored pills?

I think that it is challenging for North American culture— to understand the idea of “embracing” discomfort. We are taught from a very young age to avoid it at all costs. Take a pill. be happy no matter what. Everything should be convenient and comfortable. We think of sadness or fear as a kind of disease. The thought of sitting with discomfort or pushing ourselves into the heart of it on purpose scares the crap out of us. And over time we learn to stop when it gets a little “uncomfortable.” I am a perfect example of this, and the only way I work through it is by going into the discomfort and learning that I can exist there. Yes, it is hard. Everytime. And that’s okay. I’m still here. It didn’t kill me. You can only learn by doing.

List some of your favorite quotes.

For us, there is only the trying.
The rest is not our business.
(T.S. Elliot)

The only way to find your true self is by recklessness and freedom.
(Brenda Ueland)

Imitate nature in her manner of operation.
(John Cage)

We cover the universe with the drawings we have lived.
(Gaston Bachelard)

Much of your work deals with helping people discover ways to become more creative and inspired. But do you have any advice for the person who maybe feels overwhelmed by too many ideas? Say, someone who has so many ideas, they can’t keep up with them— we’re talking lists and books full of project ideas— and so s/he feels a sort of anxiety about not ever being able to catch up… (ahem) Not that I might know this person. Or be this person.

I am this person too. What a wonderful gift to have too many ideas as opposed to not enough! I learned a long time ago that the idea of sitting down and writing a book is completely overwhelming to me. But to sit down and write an essay… yes, I can do that. So if I want to write a book, I will write many “essays.” It’s all about breaking it into little chunks. You never know where a small idea will lead you. I like to look at everything I do now as an experiment. By this I mean I will start something without knowing exactly where it will lead— knowing where something will lead is a form of control and it doesn’t make for interesting work. But allowing for learning and unexpected things to occur along the way, now that is something.

The trick is allowing yourself to head in the direction that you are drawn to. So what if you are drawn in a hundred directions? What peaks your curiosity, makes your stomach flip, or gets you riled? Asking this question is a good way to weed out some ideas if there are too many. And then just start heading in that direction. The best ideas will find you, not the other way around. I write down all ideas in my journal. If I go back to them in a couple of months, and they still excite me, then I know there is something of value in it. Time to investigate further. Treating something as an investigation takes the pressure off to make something great. I think more often than not, we get stuck because we are trying to make something great/perfect (sound familiar?) Instead, I try to make something, anything, even if it’s crap. Celebrate the crap! Feature the crap.

Because sometimes that crap leads to fertile ground for new material, right? And your technique of starting small and breaking things into chunks sounds a lot like Michael Leddy’s granularity method: break down larger projects into manageable chunks, and things will be far less daunting. Seems like common sense, but it’s so easy to forget. In your book, Living Out Loud, you have included a section on “How To Make A Living Doing What You Love.” Do you think there’s any danger of taking something you love, and thru the process of making a living out of it, turning it into something you no longer love?

Hell yes! It is a HUGE challenge to not let your art turn into a commodity. I am of the belief that art and commerce are opposite energies and should never have been connected. And yet I am trying to survive in a culture that is completely commerce-oriented, (a fact which I constantly fight against and am hoping to change). The only way I have found to deal with it myself is to completely separate the act of creating, and the act of selling my creations. They are completely different experiences, (I do not enjoy the selling part and do less and less of it as time goes on). If you try to create work to bring in money, the work will be contrived and not very interesting. You may be able to sell it, but is it an honest representation of who you are? Is it the kind of energy you want to put out into the world? As an illustrator or designer, the greatest challenge comes when you are asked to alter your creation by others (the client). This becomes more of a personal challenge to stand up for your ideas when you feel strongly about them.

This brings to mind an article of Tibor Kalman’s (from Print, 1990); if you don’t mind indulging me, I’d like to paste a chunk here:

We have to forget what we learned in design school about appropriateness. We have to dump all those awkward phrases taught at overpriced seminars on “Getting Your Message Across to the Client.” We have to learn to listen to our gut instincts instead of corporate rhetoric. We have to be brave and we have to be bad. If we’re bad, we can be the esthetic conscience of the business world. We can break the cycle of blandness. We can jam up the assembly line that spits out one dull, lookalike piece of crap after another. We can say, “Why not do something with artistic integrity or ideological courage?” We can say, “Why not do something that forces us to rewrite the definition of ‘good design’? Most of all, [it] is about recapturing the idea of that a designer is the representative— almost a missionary— of art, within the world of business. We’re not here to give them what’s safe and expedient. We’re not here to help clients eradicate everything of visual interest from the face of the earth. We’re here to make them think about design that’s dangerous and unpredictable. We’re here to inject art into commerce. We’re here to be bad.

Has there been any situation in which you had to pull out of a project to maintain the integrity of your art? Or a situation where you encouraged a client to be braver?

I love that Tibor quote! Before I answer the question, it made me think of another story. I was really excited to be asked to speak at a huge design conference a few years ago. I had developed a lot of ideas and opinions about this career and I was flattered to be asked to share them. Over the course of my career I have moved so incredibly far away from the things that I was taught in school and at some point I had consciously decided that I was going to experiment with doing the opposite of all of it. When they sent me the pamplet for the conference, I went down the list of topics that people where going to talk about which included, “how to create a kick ass portfolio,” “landing the top clients,” “targeted promotion and you,” “make lots of money,” and so on. I had a moment of panic. Obviously the organizers had not researched my methods very well. I realized that I was going to be getting up in front of a few hundred designers and telling them the opposite of all of these things, like “Don’t promote,” a concept that is in direct opposition to the whole premise of the business.

Do work you feel strongly about and put it out into the world. Reinvent the wheel. Fuck the money. The quest to make money has gotten us nowhere as a species and is killing the planet. Find out what it is that makes you want to stay up all night and work, and do that. Because that is what people will respond to and that is what will give your life the most meaning.

Look at all of the people you think are great— they did not become great by trying to “target an audience” or trying to make money. I had absolutely no idea how my ideas would be received. And at that moment I figured out that I was so different than these other speakers that I might as well just be myself. I had a lot of performance anxiety at the time and I jumped right in feet first. At the end of my talk, I was swarmed with people. Now I am going full hog in the direction of my rebellious thoughts about illustration and design and the world.

That’s fantastic. I think audiences are tired of being targets; tired of being served up mediocre slop based on demographics.

But to to answer your original question, “Has there been any situation in which you had to pull out of a project to maintain the integrity of your art?” Yes, many in fact. Recently, I was asked by a large corporation to travel across the country and do talks on creativity for young women. Which sounds like something I would love to do but the catch was that I had to read a bit of copy which they provided (mentioning a product). After I refused I realized that it might have been a great opportunity for me to speak out about the damaging effects of corporate sponsorship to these young women and I was kicking myself. I do love the idea of infiltrating these companies and undermining their message without them knowing it, (in the style of the conceptual artists the “Yes Men”). If it happens again, I may take them up on it, just to shake things up a bit. As my career progresses, I am less able to take on illustration jobs with companies I don’t believe in. It makes it harder financially (I do not make a lot of money), but in the long run it feels better. I still have my own contradictions, and the drawn lines continually shift, but I remind myself that contradiction and growth are natural states of human existence and we will hopefully never be free of them both. For that would make us uninteresting and stagnant.

Like Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” It seems like there’s a new wave of socially-responsible artists and design studios that are using hybrid tactics, like taking commissions from major corporations, and then sinking those funds into things like doing pro bono work for non-profits. Do you think there are ways of working within the existing structure?

The answer to this comes down to a personal decision based on your own belief system. There are countless examples of people who make it work, and there are examples of others who feel that to take corporate money is in effect supporting the corporation and therefore harmful. As an artist at some point you have to figure out where your own lines are, and also know that they may change along the way. Here’s what I wrote on adfreeblog.org about taking ad money and donating it to charity:

“It seems at first glance a viable option, but as I sit with it I still have some problems. This has to do with what kind of energy I want to put out into the world, and that I choose to be accountable for all of it. I do not wish to contribute more to the rampant consumeristic culture that we already find ourselves in. By supporting these companies in any way I am giving them more power over the world in which I live and effectively saying to them “I believe in what you are doing.”

In a recent interview (in Stop Smiling), Will Self said, “We’re in a non-ideological phase. We are living in an era when our opinions are of no consequence whatsoever.” Is this true?

I’m not sure if this is what he is referring to, but there is a definite shift in the technological realm away from the individual and towards the collective, (a topic I have been researching at length lately). This is evident with the advent of community-based and social networking sites like Flickr, Digg, YouTube, Wiki, etc. which involve a decentralization of content, media and power (and one might add opinion, wherein the opinion becomes collective instead of individual). I’m referring to Web 2.0. It is a very exciting change that we are in the midst of right now and the potential impact on the future of the world is huge. It would be wise for us all to pay attention to it. There is a great website that discusses digital ethnography. Watch the video, the machine is us/ing us. [ed: also of interest: this response to the video]

I’ve seen the video. Well-done, and it raises some interesting questions. Especially in regards to identity, authorship, and copyright theory. I noticed Michael Wesch released the clip under a Creative Commons license (where folks are free to download, distribute, and edit the clip, as long as there’s attribution and the activity is non-commercial). How do you feel about copyrighted work vs Creative Commons work, as an illustator, as a street artist, and as a citizen of the web?

The answer to this is very complicated and because these developments on the web are new, we are going to have to reinvent copyright completely. In terms of how it applies to me, I am certainly a traditionalist. The reason I got into these concepts is because of a lecture I attended by Bob Stein about “the future of the book” which at first upset me. The format of books is going to change drastically in the next few years and no one really knows what it is going to look like, (but many are trying to figure it out). While I cling to the current format, (I would say it is the medium I respond to most), I am aware that it is not always helpful to cling to the old. If something is going to evolve I want to be involved in the development of it somehow. I want to have a say in what it’s going to be. I have always believed in releasing my ideas into the world and not always having this connected to money. On another level, I feel like my ideas come from others and get filtered through my lens, so are they really mine in the first place? It is strange to take ownership of something that came from another source. I am now willing to consider some new ideas in this arena. I think we cling to copyright because we are afraid of letting go of the ego, (and yes, I put myself in this category). And maybe this is something we need to look at. There are so-called ‘primitive’ cultures that believe that all art or creative acts come from the universe (or some kind of god), the artist is just a vessel it travels through. There is no sense of ‘authorship’ in these cultures and the art belongs to everyone. I’m not saying this is what we should do, but it might be valuable to look closely at these cultures and learn from them. What would a new concept of copyright look like in the future? I am not sure of the answer to that. I can tell you that I am very inspired by the open source mindset and at the same time a part of me is still clinging to my ego. But I do know that I want to live in a world based on values of sharing, collaboration, and gift giving. So I’m going to open myself up to that possibility by experimenting with new mediums and formats.

It’s pretty standard to wrap up an interview with the question, “do you have any words of wisdom for…” But I’m curious— has there been any golden nugget of advice that’s been passed along to you that served as a (golden nuggety) stepping stone?

Push yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis.