Diary of a Short-Order Art Cook

Working in Place Gallery's "On Demand"

The writer onsite at "On Demand."

The writer onsite at “On Demand.”

Last week, I checked out Place Gallery’s current show, a three-exhibit grouping of interactive works that riff on the general theme of wish fulfillment. To my surprise, participating artist Michael Reinsch invited me to come back and work a shift in his exhibit, “On Demand,” a service counter that sold artwork hastily made to order—a gallery equivalent, if you will, to fast food.

After attending a brief training with Reinsch, I reported for duty on Saturday afternoon, donning the booth’s uniform (a teal polo shirt) and standing by to serve up whatever art Place’s customers requested. Here’s my four-hour diary.

2:10

The whole third floor of the mall is steeped in bright, blank silence. I arrive at Place Gallery, greet the volunteer on duty, and survey my workstation, brimming with paints, markers, paper, specialty tape, and even kiddie craft gear like googly-eyes and pipecleaners. From the customer’s side, there’s a Specials board, room for a queue, and an order counter with a register.

The volunteer wants to buy a book from the Gallery and put the transaction through the cash register, but we can’t seem to make the machine behave. It’s locked in “error” mode, emitting a high-pitched whine. We try 20 or so key combinations before I insist that we give up and just keep a ledger. These are the little liberties of working a non-corporate gig; if this were a Starbucks, I guess we’d be stuck listening to the alarm.

2:15

The volunteers change guard, and the new one, Phillip Bone, busies himself making a sandwich-board sign for the entrance that explains that custom art can be made while you wait. He tells me to think of a “special” to offer. I’ve started slicing into neon post-its with a box cutter, and quickly decide that these will be my “special.” I decide to laminate them, call them “neon vignettes,” and list them on the Specials board.

I immediately realize that I may already be breaking the spirit of this experiment by choosing too-tidy materials. Pre-cut adhesive squares? Just call this box cutter, Ockham’s Razor.

3:03

I see a smiling woman in a smart peacoat looking in the gallery window. I wave her in, she walks over, and I briefly explain what I’m doing. In a European accent, she politely declines to order anything.

3:10

Two teenage girls come in and one orders a five-line poem. When prompted for topics, she picks Love, Nature, and Death. Michael Reinsch, On Demand’s artist, has trained me to compose poems from a binder that has suggested text organized by topic—but when I look for it today, I don’t see the binder.

“Do you want it ‘on book’ or ‘off book’?” I improvise to my customer.

“Off book,” she emphatically replies.

I spend about 30 seconds typing the following poem on my laptop, then another 30 writing it onto a piece of sketch paper:

The salamander oft stays under
waiting for the summer’s splendor
So I’ll wait, my love, forever
Til death hast pulled you thither
and summer never comes.

I’m confident that this poem contains key customer-satisfiers. “Salamander” is unexpected and fun to say. “Thither” is an obvious poet’s word. Since the poem closes on a sad note, it feels less glib and clichéd. My teen customer seems happy, and she and her friend make wishes at Katherine Groesbeck’s birthday cake display before taking off. After that, the quiet descends again.

I start to wonder if a different setup wouldn’t draw more business. Adrienne Huckabone’s film projections, the most actively alluring display, are in the rear of the gallery, cordoned off from passers-by. The volunteer station is in a confrontational spot, and my store-front is some 15 feet in from the front door…

I have to check myself. Art logistics and business logistics deeply differ. A film is best utilized in a front window, but best appreciated in a dark corner. A service counter is more convenient when it’s near you, but more surreal and mysterious when it’s far away.

3:30

Phillip puts up the sandwich-board, moves his desk to the side of the room, and eats a sandwich. My customer-service side mildly freaks out realizing the first hour has elapsed without prominent advertising. (Think of the profits lost!)

3:44

I directly beckon to a couple in gray hoodies. They smile back, then break their stare and walk away.

3:46

Another couple stroll about 4 feet in the doors, then turn around. “Don’t be afraid!” I call after them, but that only quickens their getaway pace.

3:30 to 3:50

mini-canvasesWith fidgety hands, I’ve begun to “prep cook” four canvases. I use red-wing blackbird hues (black, red, orange) and quick kanji-like brush strokes while trying to make eye contact with passersby. I leave my new masterpieces to dry.

3:58

I decide to visit the surrounding galleries (Mark Wooley and People’s Art) and pitch my service. At Wooley, a cluster of people are crowded around a computer, laughing at an image search. They ask me if I, like Reinsch, am selling makeout sessions. I say it’s not on the menu, but I will negotiate. They promise to come over. The gallery attendant at People’s also seems eager. Confident that this networking will bring some business, I return to Place.

4:05

Settling back at my counter, I ask Phillip—a 2-year veteran of Place—if it’s always this slow. He says, basically, yeah, describing the mall as “a bastion of comfortability and sameness” and Place as a startling departure from that model that most mall customers can’t process. I ask Phillip how he defines the gallery’s success, if not by profit or traffic. “The amount of publicity an exhibit gets, or the level of quality of the work,” he says.

4:22

I briefly leave my station to embark on a fruitless quest for food that meets my persnickety diet requirements, realizing that the mall seems palatial and futuristic if you’re not in it very often. Feeling almost lost, I hurry back.

4:42

neon_vignettesThroughout my afternoon, I’ve laminated several post-its. I’m just about to snap a photo of myself with giant googly eyes when exhibiting artist Jamie Marie Waelchli swings by. She asks for Michael, but I mis-hear her and point her to Gabe. I realize I’ve done this completely without thinking, letting my chippy customer-service acumen kick in without my intellect. I apologize.

Jamie orders a one-color “neon vignette” and another of my specials: a one-minute “free-form singsong.” When I ask her for a mood or theme, she says “life changes,” and asks to sing along with me. “Major to minor, or minor to major?” I ask. She says she’ll follow my lead. I start humming a slow, dirgelike minor tune, then gradually quicken and brighten it, stomping my feet faster as the end of the minute approaches, and stopping by sustaining a high note. I think, “This is what a customer probably wants from a song.”

4:53

I try to wave another couple in; another walkaway.

5:09

Having made more “neon vignettes” than I will predictably sell, I begin to contemplate pocketing a few—which would make me THAT kind of employee. (“Whoops, we made one extra pizza. Can I just take it home to my roommate?”) I resist the impulse to pocket any of my creations; Michael can sell them later.

5:21

The gallery curator (and one of my favorite contemp-art philosophers) Gabe Flores swings by. I hate to say it, but I tell him I don’t think anyone else is coming. He says Place gets the least traffic of the three Pioneer Square Mall galleries.

“At the other galleries, they know what they’re supposed to do,” he says. They stand in front of each piece of artwork almost silently counting, ‘one alligator, two alligator, three alligator,’ then they move to the next. Here, it’s so spacious and so undefined, and they have to walk into emptiness. Most people are terrified to navigate emptiness.”

Another key truth? Most artists are permanently changed when they’re called upon to become customer servants. The first time you’re asked to be lightning fast and totally selfless, it comes as a shock to your artistic mind. The idea that your own pace may be too slow, your own opinion irrelevant, becomes an insidious sub-script that undermines the very spirit of artistic expression. If you adapt too well, all your processes may be shrunk into a perfunctory shorthand to avoid boring or burdening your customer with too many details. Where art is often about questions, service is always about answers. Behind a counter, you create quick solutions almost before problems arise—and the next thing you know, you’re not painting any more; you’re just laminating post-its.

5:44

By the time Gabe and I stop gabbing, we’ve covered a lot of theoretical ground and I’ve started cleaning up my workstation. Now there are no more wanderers to try to wave in, and Phillip is also getting ready to close. I total up: 1 $2 poem, 1 $1 piece of fine art, 1 $1 song performance. $4 total. “But your work today was priceless!” Phillip exclaims. That must be his artistic side talking.

 

 

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