Friendly Fire

Vested Interest of ‘Friendly Fire’

San Diego Artist-Provocateurs Gear Up for the Republican National Convention With Their Wearable Political Statements

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August 07, 1996|LEAH OLLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — With the Republican National Convention beginning here on Monday, downtown is aflutter–with red, white and blue welcome banners, huge inflatable elephants bobbing from hotel balconies and a palpable sense of anticipation, for the commercial as much as the political event.

Restaurants in the heart of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, soon to be besieged with delegates and media, are advertising convention specials like “Elephant Stew.” A festooned trailer parked on the main artery sells “Donkeys Don’t Surf” T-shirts and other officially licensed paraphernalia.

In the eye of the impending storm, a notorious group of local artists on Monday quietly opened their own downtown red, white and blue-trimmed shop near the convention center, selling wearable wares that give convention-goers a different sort of welcome–more a trick handshake than an earnest squeeze.

Under the brand name “Friendly Fire,” Louis Hock, Scott Kessler, Elizabeth Sisco and Deborah Small, working with costume designer Cheryl Lindley, have produced a line of mock bulletproof vests in 14 versions. Available in both adult and children’s sizes, the vests all feature black, quilted-satin backs displaying a shooting range target and a boldly stenciled title.

On the front, the “Queer Vest” sports rainbow-striped fabric, while the “Bottom-Line Vest” uses plain burlap. The “Affirmative Action Vest” is straight black and white, and the “Democracy Vest” shimmers with gold lame. Other vests are named after such political touchstones as Rodney King, Roe v. Wade and James Brady. The $25,000 project was financed by L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where the vests will go on display beginning Aug. 25.

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“They’re clothing, they’re art, they’re emblematic. They’re about raising questions,” Hock said. The self-described “Dada-capitalists” will be producing and selling the vests (at $40 each) at the store at 519 Island St. through the end of August.

Rather than signing up for a token time slot in the officially sanctioned protesters’ lot across the street from the convention center, the artists mailed snappy promotional packages to 3,800 convention delegates and 500 members of the press. The fold-out brochure–complete with detachable order form and gimmicky faux-brass bullet–takes its cues from direct-mail advertising, but the sales pitch is anything but mainstream: Buy Friendly Fire, the copy urges, “When the illusion of protection is all you can afford.”

Even when tongue-in-cheek, the voice of commerce speaks loudest of all in our culture, the artists reason. “The most privileged citizen is the corporate citizen,” Hock said.

The work may look commercial and act political, but, says MOCA curator Julie Lazar, “it has aesthetic value, and that’s how we perceive it. It’s art that has symbolic meaning, and that’s the job of the museum, to bring thought-provoking, high-quality work to the public.”

The artists, who also work individually in video, photography and installation art, have collaborated, along with a handful of other artists, in varied configurations for nearly a decade. Addressing hot-button issues in unexpected, often controversial ways has earned them a national reputation as activist-artists par excellence.

In 1988, while San Diego was hosting the Super Bowl, Hock, Sisco and artist David Avalos took advantage of the media spotlight to launch a counterattack against the new, chamber of commerce-inspired marketing slogan, dubbing this “America’s Finest City.” They mounted slickly designed posters, captioned “Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation,” on the back of 100 city buses where they circulated for a month.

The poster showed two undocumented workers being handcuffed by a Border Patrol agent, as well as the hands of a dishwasher and a hotel chambermaid. Designed to expose the hypocrisy of immigrant-bashing and scapegoating in a community whose tourist industry depends on undocumented laborers, the poster hit plenty of raw nerves. Financed in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the poster also generated heated debate about appropriate use of the public agency’s funds.

In 1990, the group (this time consisting of Hock, Kessler, Sisco and Small) made bus bench posters that questioned the use of excessive force after a rash of police killings. Though the local police department deemed the killings justified, the artists challenged the accountability of the department and called for a more rigorous system of external review. Playing again off the city’s self-congratulatory slogan, the artists headed the posters of silhouetted human shooting range targets, “America’s Finest?”

Hock, Kessler, Sisco, Small and performer Carla Kirkwood mounted an exhibition and pair of billboards again critical of police procedures in the deaths of local prostitutes in their “NHI” (No Humans Involved) project of 1992. The following year, Avalos, Hock and Sisco staged “Arte Reembolso/Art Rebate,” for which the artists appeared sporadically for a month at local pickup spots for day-laborers and handed out signed $10 bills. They described the procedure as a return of tax dollars to this country’s unrecognized taxpayers, generating the most scathing response yet of any of the collaborations.

With “Art Rebate,” the artists say they wanted to point out the positive impact of undocumented workers on the economy, as illustrated by the recirculation of the marked bills. The work was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, for an exhibition that was, in turn, supported by the NEA. Major controversy erupted when local politicians learned of the connection, and this time, even the endowment scurried to distance itself from the project, declaring that U.S. currency was unacceptable for use as an art medium.

“Friendly Fire” undoubtedly will spark lively debate, including, as with all these artists’ work, a discussion of whether or not it’s art.

“That’s always a question with art, historically. The answers evolve with the significance of the work in the public domain,” MOCA’s Lazar says. “Part of the intention of the work is the public dialogue. That dialogue is not to be defended, but to be learned from by all of us who participate in it.”

* “Friendly Fire,” 519 Island Ave., San Diego. (619) 696-FIRE. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Through Aug. 28.

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