by Domenico Quaranta
originally published in Italian by Exibart

DQ. Let’s start from Bootlegs. When did you start to make them? What’s your manufacturing process?
ED. I started making the Bootlegs during the fall of 2001 and held my first “sale” on West 24th Street in Manhattan in October 2001.
Most of the Bootlegs are made through a combination of painting and collage. I paint the background, collage on a print of the main image, and cover the entire canvas with clear acrylic to create a “brushstroke” texture. However, the process varies for each piece. The “Damien Hirst” and “Christopher Wool” Bootlegs are entirely hand-painted and I use a different acrylic coating for paintings where the original has a slicker finish like “Gary Hume” or “Inka Essenhigh”.
The photo pieces are all my own creations. For “Vik Muniz” the original is a photograph of a portrait of Sigmund Freud drawn with chocolate syrup. I traced a picture of Muniz’s piece with chocolate syrup and then photographed my chocolate drawing. For “Cindy Sherman” I replaced Ms. Sherman’s face with my own self-portrait using Photoshop. For “Barbara Kruger” I found an image from the 50’s similar to the type of picture that she would use and overlaid the words “Who’s the fairest of them all” using her trademark white-on-red lettering.

DQ. The art world is accostumed to fakes: whether to fraudolent fakes (sold at the same price as the originals) or to declared ones. But art fakes always try to be true to their originals; you amaze the art world with the ‘cheap’ copy, small and quite uniform in the style, sold out at a low price.
In this way you subvert the rules of counterfeiting, but also the rules of that market of bootleg CDs and handbags you are trying to emulate. What's the real meaning of this project?
ED. I’ve been fascinated for a long time with bootleg merchandise - both the underground economy for producing and marketing bootlegs and the differences between the original and the knock-off copy. For example, I love the variety of the fake Louis Vuitton fabrics, which range from realistic LV’s to some pretty far out designs.
I was interested in taking the economic model of the bootleg and applying it to the world of contemporary art. I like the idea of making pieces for people who are interested in contemporary art but can’t afford to collect the real thing.
I also like the way the Bootlegs play with the art market. The Bootlegs are produced in unlimited editions. They are not numbered, and when I sell out of a particular design I make more. Therefore, a more popular design will be less rare than an unpopular one, and therefore the less popular design may potentially be more “collectible”.
The Bootlegs were also a reaction to the whole gallery system, which for a young artist is pretty depressing. I didn’t have to send out slides hoping to get a show and then hand over 50% of my sales -- I could just set up on the street, sell my paintings, and keep all the profit. It’s a much better way of doing things. When I sold my Bootlegs outside of the Whitney Museum during opening week of the 2004 Whitney Biennial (including copies of work from many of the artists in the show) I sold fake Whitney Biennial T-shirts that listed the names of all the artists in the exhibition, including my own. Although I wasn’t officially in the show, I considered my artwork to be a part of the Biennial.

DQ. How do the counterfeited artists react to your work, and how about the art market?
ED. Most of the artists have been flattered to be “Bootlegged”, particularly the younger artists. It’s a sign of a certain level of success in the artworld. Some artists have been critical of my technique (“You got the blues all wrong!”). I’ve copied the work of more than 80 different artists, and only two have asked me to stop. I think the work inhabits a gray area of the law and I’m not sure how the case would come out if I was taken to court, but I respect the wishes of artists who don’t want to be copied and stop when I’m asked.

DQ. Don’t you think that Bootlegs, considering the art work is on the same level of other cult objects, could compliment the art world as opposed to irritating it?
ED. When I started the project, I had no idea what the reception would be in the art world.
The first day I set up on the street I was terrified that some dealer would call the cops on me. Much to my surprise and relief, most people enjoyed the project. I thought that most of the people buying the Bootlegs would be young people who couldn’t afford the real thing, but actually a number of serious collectors have bought pieces from me. I look forward to the day when possibly one of my Bootlegs will be more valuable than the original piece that was copied.

DQ. Talking about cults: you designed the website, a fan site conceived as a conceptual work of art.Why did you choose Matthew Barney? Do you think that the contemporary art system has developed the ability to build up its own stars, and to make them as strong as music or cinema stars?
ED. I don’t think art stars are likely to achieve the status of movie or pop stars. There’s a real problem of distribution. If you don’t live in a major city (or at least a college town) you don’t really have access to contemporary art, but you can see the latest blockbuster at your local multiplex and buy a CD at the mall. Occasionally an artist will make it into popular consciousness - Picasso, Dali, Pollock, Warhol, maybe Damien Hirst or Francis Bacon in England - but it’s a pretty small number compared to stars in other areas of the arts. The position of the “art star” in contemporary culture is actually something that drew me to the Bootleg project. There’s a huge market for fake Gucci bags and 50 Cent CD’s, but if I was selling my Bootlegs in downtown areas (instead of gallery districts and art fairs) I probably wouldn’t sell a single painting becuause no one would know who John Currin or Elizabeth Peyton is.
I chose Barney as the subject for my “fan site” because although he doesn’t have the name recognition of Andy Warhol, he is probably the best-known contemporary artist. He also has many of the traditional qualities of celebrity - model good looks, a pop star girlfriend, etc. What I find particularly interesting about Barney is that because his films are screened so rarely, most people only know his work through photographs. Of the people who have actually seen his films, I think a very small number understand the symbolism, or even the plot. In spite of all of this, he is one of today’s hottest artists.
The project is, for me, more about fandom and its role in the art world than it is about Matthew Barney. However, to the casual web surfer it appears to be a completely legitimate web site. This play between reality and artifice is very interesting to me. It’s like some of Andy Kaufman’s best pieces where you know that to some extent it’s an act, but you can’t tell where the line is drawn.
I was also amazed by how much information I could find on the internet about Barney. I found a web site the other day that has pictures of his and Bjork’s bed, I found pictures of him with his dad at the opening of his Guggenheim show, I found the address of his studio. All of this information is out there if you look hard enough.

DQ. One of the main issues of your work is the question of identity: the building of identity, the counterfeiting of identity, the distruction of identity. But, quite odd for a guy who describes himself as fanatic, falsifier, copier, your name is always overexposed: you tatoo Eric Doeringer?s moles, sell copies of Eric Doeringer’s CD collection, paint Eric Doeringer’s favourites in Eric Doeringer’s style. Are you trying to demonstrate that we are just the nodes of a network, or that building up a public identity means losing your private identity?
ED. It’s funny because I never rarely think about “identity” as a subject of my work (the self-portrait series is an exception), but I’ve been included in several group with “identity” in the title and obviously it’s something that is in the work. I think I’m most interested in the ways that identity is constructed through material goods, and to what extent supposedly superficial things actually tell us a lot about a person.

DQ. Another key issue is illegality: you make fake paintings and pirate CDs, you put into bottles items whose possession, sale, use, and/or transportation across state or international borders is illegal (Contraband) and make marijuana water pipes to show them as sculptures (Smoke Filtration Systems aka Bongs): are you testing the limits of freedom in today’s democracies, or are you suggesting that art is always illegal?
ED. I’m interested in boundaries and “gray areas”. For example, in the US prostitution is illegal, but where do you draw the line? Should a kissing booth be legal? A striptease? A lap dance? A hand job?
In New York you’re not allowed to drink alcohol in the streets or parks, but its generally accepted that if you keep your bottle in a paper bag the police won’t hassle you. There are all kinds of weird laws (or things that effect their enforcement) like you can’t sell a “bong” but you can sell a water pipe for tobacco use. There are a lot of shops (and again, I’m talking about the US - I don’t know the situation in Europe) where if you ask to buy a “bong” they’ll throw you out of the store.
With the Smoke Filtration Systems, I was saying, “Here are these huge bongs, but if we call them ‘sculpture’ does that make them ok?” Usually one hides the bong in a closet or under a bed. The Smoke Filtration Systems are too large to be hidden, and as works of art they ask to be prominently displayed.
The Contraband project grew out of CD2002 and the Smoke Filtration Systems as well as my interest in the art market. They are sculptures, but by buying, selling, shipping, or displaying them one is committing a criminal act (although, again my interest in gray areas, possibly not: if you buy or sell the bottle that contains fireworks in New York you are breaking the law, but across the state line in Connecticut fireworks are legal). The “illegal” objects are sealed in the bottles with a thin layer of red plastic. All you need to get them out is a sharp knife, but then you have destroyed the sculpture. Does the piece’s value as a work of art serve as protection from the dangers of the object inside? Does the fact that someone pays $1,000 for a sculpture containing $10 worth of marijuana serve as proof that they are buying it as a work of art instead of to smoke it?

DQ. Among all your works, Bongs is my favourite. I like the cheek you show creating marijuana water pipes exhibited as sculptures that you describe as inspired by Escher, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, it reminds me the cheek of another guy who made the same thing with an urinal... Rather, maybe you even beat him in terms of brashness, because you create and test your pipes. What do you have to say about this project?
ED. Well, I talked a lot about the Smoke Filtration Systems in response to your previous question. I would just add that I see a certain value in acting contrary to expectations. A lot of people, myself included, go through a period of constructing bongs in high school or college. You’re supposed to grow out of it and get on with your life, but instead I decided to push this stupid hobby to the extreme. It’s the same with the Bootlegs. No self-respecting artist is supposed to sell his work on the street (it’s the only thing worse than exhibiting your work in a cafe) or paint on cheap pre-stretched canvasses, but I found a way to make it work.

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