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The Tipping Point 

Artist Josh Greene waits tables to fund other people's art. But wait, it's not that simple.

Wednesday, Jul 4 2007
Josh Greene is a wiry 36-year-old artist working as a waiter at a high-end San Francisco restaurant. I can't tell you the name of the swank eatery, because he doesn't divulge those details. But let's just say it's the kind of establishment where folks order up to 11 courses, and two people will leave $400 lighter in the wallet.

One night a month, Greene sacrifices his tips — between $200 and $300 — as a grant to another artist in a project called Service-Works. Around 25 hopefuls a month submit pitches to the program through Greene's Web site. He chooses one lucky proposal each round to underwrite and displays the idea online. Service-Works' FAQ page notes that while anyone can apply for Greene's stipends, he doles them out based on his taste alone.

"I am most interested in funding small projects that may involve exchange, interaction, storytelling, and problem solving," Greene writes. "I have a particular fondness for projects that grow out of and deal with real-life situations, be they political, personal, or environmental. I also enjoy work that incorporates risk, humor, pathos, and absurdity."

Through Greene, the gratuity on, say, veal ribs could be instigating a broad array of unusual art concepts. Helena Keeffe used her $256 to call for writers interested in crafting "the speech that shocked the world," a fictional oration given by an apologetic Bush. A group of sixth graders at San Francisco's Rooftop Elementary responded with the winning ideas. Keeffe hired a Bush impersonator to read their riffs on the President for audio recordings that run with his photo. The results are comical. For example, one student has George W. explaining, "I know I have been a bad president ... I have eaten too many Twinkies. It gives you high blood sugar!!"

Another Service-Works applicant, Trevor Shimizu, put Greene's $300 into offering free "therapy sessions." Four different women stand with their backs to the camera, listing off a litany of frustrations in his videos. The best venting comes out of a legal secretary named Bonita R. Williams, who rips up a stack of printer paper as she complains about a boss who "has to ask me [to do] these most stupidest, and most idiotic things that he can do himself."

Greene started Service-Works a year ago to "bridge the gap between my art career and my service industry career." It had a built-in shelf life of one year, but he keeps extending the project as the submissions continue to hold his enthusiasm. "I like the fact that I can do something that doesn't involve a gallery or an exhibition space or a grant from someone else," Greene says. "Part of the structure is that these grants are small. So if you apply for a $200 grant, most likely you could probably do your project anyways."

The devil's advocate, of course, would ask how are these weird little projects art? "I usually don't get caught up in what makes it art and what doesn't," Greene says. "For me it's more like what's an interesting experience."

In addition to clearing plates, Greene lectures at art colleges and has a history of compelling social art ideas. He once constructed a life-size "living room" on a vacant lot in downtown Seattle. Back in 1999, when a girlfriend broke up with him, he wrote French artist Sophie Calle to see if he could sleep in her bed to help ease the pain. Shortly thereafter, Calle shipped him her bed, sheets, and pillows. Greene slept on it for the next six months. "If there's no engagement, it's akin to writing in a journal," Greene says over coffee in the Mission, "which there's nothing wrong with, but writing in my journal has never seemed satisfying." (When Greene did jot down his thoughts in 2001, he picked someone randomly out of the phone book and sent the man anonymous letters from Europe.)

Local artist Joseph del Pesco recently included Service-Works in the Collective Foundation show he curated for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. He's collaborated with Greene on numerous occasions, and says Greene's work is also a creative response to the burden of administration that conceptual or social artists have to endure. "They're not necessarily producing commodities or things that can be sold," he says. "This country doesn't have much of a support network for this kind of thing."

The amount of tip money Greene makes in a given evening determines the name of the artwork the waiter funds. In the "$210 Project," Jenny Zhang wrote a short story over 21 days and sent the results to some unconventional recipients (her grocer, "a young man I met on the Caltrain three years ago," her local video clerk). In "Kara Hearn's 231 Dollar Project," Hearn made hilarious clips acting out all the characters in her favorite scenes from Grease, Gladiator, and E.T. , videos that are now bonus DVDs when you rent these films from Four Star Video. Greene's dry-as-sherry writing — in which he describes the night he earned the tips for the corresponding project — accompanies each project.

One of the most thought-provoking Service-Works entries came from a gay artist named Stuart Keeler. Keeler spent five years documenting homophobic slams in Chicago, cataloging 32 items total. For "Stuart Keeler's 215 Dollar Project," he created a dozen stainless-steel plaques noting the date, time, and exact wording of the slurs, and he placed these markers at the scenes of the crimes.

The Oct. 5, 2005, plaque reads, "On my way to work a man bumped into me. I said, "Excuse me.' He replied, "Shut up, faggot.'" On Aug. 11 of last year, at 9:43 a.m., "A woman asked me at this location, "What time is it?' I replied, "I do not have a watch ... sorry.' She replied, "Get a life, queer boy.'" The markers serve as both a reminder of the subtle ways hatred weasels into conversation and the absurdity of ignorant snap judgments. Instead of composing a dry rant on the subject, however, Keeler created droll conversation pieces for Chicagoans to consider.

Keeler is a self-described public artist, and his work has been exhibited around the country. He says that normal grants for a studio artist range from $1,000 to $5,000, with institutional grants getting up into the $20,000-$50,000 range. So why put in an application for a measly $200? "We don't really have the National Endowment for the Arts like it was," Keeler says over the phone from his current residency in Atlanta. "So it's up to us to band together and create these ideas and put them into the public realm. Josh's work is really exciting because it borders between a socially based art agenda, a new genre of public art, and the other side where he's become an organization to instill work and be a benefactor in a really interesting, non-freaky, and non-controlling kind of way."

"With larger grants they'd want to know the gauge of steel, the font title, they'd want to see every plaque in advance," Keeler adds. "There's such a fine line between telling them too much and not telling them enough, which can kill a piece. [Service-Works] was a pretty open and democratic process."

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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