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Guerilla artfare

Naomi Havlen

Last New Year’s Eve day, a performance-art piece was on display at the intersection of Main and Mill streets in Aspen.You may not have noticed it, and that’s partly the point. But for 10 straight hours, five Mexican men were paid to carry a folded American flag. Each man held the symbol of the United States in his gloved hands while crossing the street and then, relay-style, would pass it to the man waiting on the next corner.Some onlookers wondered whether this was some sort of protest or political statement. But to Aspen artist Rick Magnuson, who hired the men and photographed the event, it was art mixing with life.”You can’t tell when art is going to happen,” Magnuson said recently. “Life and art are so intertwined that you can’t tell the difference between them. That’s what I try to get across.”For “Mexploitation” and five other pieces of art, Magnuson received a 2004 Belmar Award for Achievement in Art and Design. Only four other people in Colorado were so honored in the art category, and five people received the award in the design category.”Mexploitation” wasn’t an arbitrary demonstration. In fact, several messages were gleaned from the day. The most poignant, said Magnuson, was when people – especially those in pricey fur coats – walked by the men carrying the flag as if they didn’t exist.”No one ever sees these men,” said Magnuson, while looking at a photo of one of his hired workers carrying the flag past a woman in a long fur coat with a shopping bag. “She probably just spent $5,000 at Tod’s. These are different worlds.”And though there was a language barrier between Magnuson and the men, the symbolism of America being supported by Mexicans but their being underappreciated was easily understood.”These guys said, ‘Yeah, we work hard,’ and they thought it was interesting and weird,” he said. “But by the end we had become friends.”Letters leading to controversyRick Magnuson has been a Community Safety Officer with the Aspen Police Department since 1996. As a CSO, he does not carry a gun. Rather, he is paid to interact with the public, whether it’s riding a police department bike around town or responding to traffic accidents.His first venture into art was in 1998; some of his earlier pieces include books of artwork from the masters, like van Gogh, clamped shut with enormous bolts. Magnuson’s work has twice been included in the Aspen Art Museum’s Aspen Valley Biennial, and it has been shown in London and Los Angeles.In recent years, his work has become notorious for its sneak-attack qualities. “Christmas #1” and “Christmas #2,” for example, featured dollars bills fastened to trees with safety pins at various local parks. The trees ended up bare except for the safety pins.In 2001, “I dare you to steal this $100″ created a struggle between Aspen Art Museum patrons’ desire to steal the $100 bill and their conscience telling them not to. Eventually, someone exchanged the $100 bill for five $20 bills.Magnuson’s work continues to cross the boundaries of normalcy and public interaction – sometimes to his detriment.”Dear Osama,” which is currently part of an exhibit of work by Coloroado’s top artists in Lakewood, Colo., didn’t go over so well with his APD supervisors.Soon after Sept. 11, 2001, Magnuson sent 55 letters addressed to Osama bin Laden and George Bush at fictional and bizarre addresses. There was one to George Bush at “OXOXOXOXOX” in Massachusetts, and another to Osama bin Laden at “Charitable Donation Inside” in Massachusetts, among other locations. Inside the envelopes were Associated Press articles about terrorism investigations and other current events.Since Magnuson’s project came together as the nation was panicking about anthrax being sent through the mail, the letters were taken very seriously.”I was using [the government’s] conduit to send information they’re giving out to us back to them, and they were intercepting it,” he said.Twenty-three letters were confiscated by the Secret Service and the Counter Terrorism Department, Magnuson said. And since his return address in Aspen was on each envelope, the artist was easy to find.Aspen Police Department officials were notified of the letter-sending, and a response by Assistant Police Chief Glenn Schaffer was placed in Magnuson’s employee file.”It really ended up being a collaboration with the U.S. government, because it involved so many different agencies,” he said. “It’s their reacting to the piece by investigating me.”A short film of Magnuson’s had similarly serious overtones. In “Blowjob,” which was screened at Aspen Shortsfest in March, Magnuson climbs a tree with a leaf blower, blowing golden Aspen leaves off the branches.The piece comes across as comical, until the viewer realizes the soundtrack is the 911 calls from the sniper attacks in Virginia. Then the message becomes a menacing, unexpected one. This, said Magnuson, is a perfect example of art meeting life.”Art has gotten tamed by the institutions that support it, and I don’t think that’s healthy,” he said. “Art should be raw and untamed.”Life going around in circlesWinning awards for his art isn’t something Magnuson ever expected.”I never thought I’d get an award for the things I do,” he said. “I’m lucky they don’t put me in jail for some of the things I do.”Rather, being recognized only helps Magnuson’s credibility. “The next time I want to do a project I can say, ‘Look, I’ve done these things in the past,'” he said. “It might make raising money easier.”This is important, as Magnuson admits it’s hard to afford some of the things he’d like to do. The five laborers he hired for “Mexploitation,” for example, cost $1,300.Nevertheless, Magnuson continues to make statements with his art. In June 2002, a number of motorists dialed 911 to report a Ryder moving truck that appeared to be endlessly circling Aspen’s roundabout.It was Magnuson. He had rented the 24-foot truck and drove it around and around – 1,200 consecutive laps – while videotaping the trip through a fishbowl on the dashboard. The 12-minute video, “Swim,” combines this footage with television images shown through the fishbowl.Although the television images were commonplace – sports, war, sex – what struck most people who watched the video was the death of one of the fish in the bowl. No one reported being upset by the images of war and death on the television screen.”It’s repetition – how trivial we all are,” he said. “Life is like going around in a circle, and nothing really happens and then you’re gone.”A pretty bleak outlook on life, some might say. “I don’t see it as bleak. I see it as having fun with the time you have,” Magnuson countered.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com


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