Despite romantic notions about the lonely artist's solitary struggle in his garret or loft, art has a fundamentally social aspect. The art experience, after all, happens somewhere at the intersection of viewer and work--in other words, art needs an audience. The genius of Greg Lundgren's Vital 5 Productions is that it realizes and exploits art's social aspect, by gathering us together to cheerfully upset some pretty deeply (however unconsciously) held notions about art and the art world.
Lundgren--an artist born in Bellevue, who escaped to Southern California to study aerospace engineering but ended up studying art, and then escaped back to Seattle six years later--manages this with a tremendous sense of fun, sophistication, and subversion. Most every show at Vital 5, in its most recent incarnation from winter of 2000 to fall of 2002, had some goofy but still profound undercurrent: art that you couldn't actually see, art by fictional artists, portraits of critics, portraits of rich people's dogs, fashion fashioned out of paper and plastic bags. The point is that everything you take for granted about the art world is a construction and is therefore up for grabs: the provenance of the work, the inspiration for the work, the meaning of the work, even the price of the work. In 2002's Overdrawn, one of Vital 5's most infamous shows, the art was not purchasable; you could only take home a piece from the show--which had work donated by local artists--if you had an overdraft notice from the bank, or an ATM receipt showing a negative balance. In short, the work was only available to the most marginalized of collectors, the very broke. I walked away with a very nice mousetrap print by Gary Smoot.
The idea of value has been one that Lundgren's played with frequently over the years, not least in the Arbitrary Art Grants sponsored by Artists for a Work Free America, one of the projects that clusters under the heading of Vital 5 (on any given day, it might be the other way around, Vital 5 clustering under the heading of AFWFA; things are flexible over there). For each grant, the public was asked to do or make something--a poster for a missing object or person, a musical performance on a specific street corner--and then the prize money was awarded in a perfectly random manner. The surprise of these events was not only how many people were galvanized into participating--there was, after all, $500 at stake--but how much work and interesting thinking went into the work when there was such a slender chance of winning (not unlike, when you think about it, the traditional grant process).
That value is an arbitrary construct is a slippery idea that could undermine the whole art enterprise, but Lundgren and company (which includes Jeff Scott and Iris Stevenson and a lot of others who came, got hooked, and stayed) instead used this irreverence and possible irrelevance to reinvigorate the largely stagnating Seattle scene. The Friday-night openings at Vital 5's South Lake Union gallery--a former World's Fair showroom--were almost always packed, not only with art-gallery regulars but also with all sorts of self-confessed philistines. To have made exhibition openings fun again--too many are dreary, stressful affairs--was no small feat.
This was partly because you never quite knew what to expect, whether it was fake dog poo on the floor or being groped by Santa Claus or being given life everlasting in Jason Puccinelli's Immortality Clinic. It was sort of theater-y, sort of performance-y, so that no one was surprised when Vital 5 branched out into theater with three performances of Manslaughter, a "degenerate play" that took place on Westlake Avenue with the audience inside the gallery, looking out through the storefront windows. Manslaughter took place in real time, and was by turns touchingly hopeful, excruciatingly boring, and really exciting--one of the weirdest, coolest theater events of 2002.
At the moment, Vital 5 exists only on the web (at www.vital5productions.com) while Lundgren looks for a new space and plans new plans--all, so far, on his salary from his day job designing stained glass. We are thrilled to have him here, thrilled that he prefers Seattle's pioneer-town opportunities to the pretensions and successes of Los Angeles. But we wish he would hurry up, already. Friday nights have got awfully ordinary again.