Monday 24 October 2016

The real criminals 'never see jail'

Jeff Greenspan is behind some of New York's most-talked about art projects and has authored some interesting footnotes to the US primaries. He spoke to Donal Lynch

Published 11/04/2016 | 02:30

Jeff Greenspan came to art via the corporate world, where he worked for Facebook
Jeff Greenspan came to art via the corporate world, where he worked for Facebook

The mugshot has been described as 'the portrait that nobody wants to pose for.' Certainly none of the subjects in Captured: People in Prison Drawing People Who Should Be sat for the artists in question. In all cases, however, that would have involved the leading lights of corporate America sitting in prison for a while while the petty thieves and murderers rendered them immortal in pastels. And the whole point of the project, according to its authors, is that the biggest criminals "never serve their time."

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Captured is the brainchild of Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider, a pair of New York-based activists, who've been responsible for a number of headline-grabbing projects. They list the "offences" it's claimed the companies' executives perpetrated, alongside the actual crime of the convicts who drew them. Goldman Sachs, for example, is accused of "mass deception" and "stealing taxpayers money" and the portrait of their CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, was painted by Ryan Cragg, who is currently serving a 15-year sentence in Texas for murder.

The project has been been written up on both sides of the Atlantic and has spawned a limited run of 1,000 books, which sold out in a little more than a week after going on sale. All profits have been donated toward efforts to get Bernie Sanders elected. "He is the one candidate who stands up to corporate America and he is authentic", Greenspan says. "(The project) started off to be only displayed on the internet, but we wanted it to do more than raise awareness. Awareness is not the problem - with a flip of your finger on your mobile you can be aware of Syria, the Panama Papers, anything you want, and you say to yourself 'it's all too big for me to fix so let me just watch the Real Housewives.' We wanted to actually help get something done with the project."

The New York native also has an almost Banksy-like knack for pot-stirring visual polemics. In 2015 he and Tider fused a four-foot bust of NSA (National Security Agency) whistleblower Edward Snowden to a pillar within the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park, a memorial to prisoners of war who lost their lives during the American Revolution. They chose the location "to draw parallels between those who fought for the ideals America was founded upon, and whistleblowers like Snowden". Authorities removed the sculpture but not before it had become a cause celebre.

"We were anonymous and it looked like we weren't going to be caught", Greenspan recalls. "Then we came into contact with Ron Kuby, a famous civil rights lawyer. (Kuby) said 'I can get your statue back - it does not belong in police custody.' Tider and Greenspan agreed to plead guilty to being in the park after dark. "We each paid a $50 fine. But it meant our names were on court documents, and that's how we (were revealed as the authors of the project)." The head is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum, which seems an apt resting place.

Greenspan's other notable works have included corralling tourists and New Yorkers into different parts of the same street by creating lanes for each, and an app called Hindur, which simulates the constraints of an arranged marriage - you only get one swipe and you have to swipe right. It launched on Valentine's Day this year, inviting users to ask themselves if the never-ending choice provided by most dating apps winds up leaving us ultimately alone.

Greenspan, who is single, grew up on Long Island and has also lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London. Years of improvisational comedy have honed his knack for a one liner ("God placed our sexual organs just far enough away from our own mouths to make sure we have a healthy economy"). He recently made a series of posts about an encounter with Republican primary candidate Marco Rubio in Miami in the 1990s. "Marco told me he was a top" Greenspan quips. "but he flip-flopped on the issue." The campaign have dismissed his sexual claims as fan fiction. "Au contraire" Jeff says. "I was no fan."

He has spoken all over the world - including at the Offset conference in 2014 in Dublin - but he came to art via the corporate world; he has worked as a creative for Facebook, amongst other companies. "When I started out I thought [corporate work] would be a canvas for my points of view. I eventually realised instead it's an often-tedious amalgam of client feedback, compromises and committees. I started performing improv comedy 15 years ago. I try to take the things I'd learned from improv and the things I've learned from advertising; the theatrics and manipulation of emotion, to focus attention on what I want to talk about. Right now, that's primarily issues concerning social justice and activism. The money I take from corporations helps me do that. In the days of old it was the Church that commissioned art, and here in America, corporations are the new Church."

Greenspan is still trying to get a ticket for the upcoming Sanders-Clinton debate in Brooklyn, where he recently bought a new apartment. He believes the Sanders rhetoric about the European model of social justice. "Of course I am not experiencing the day-to-day of living in Europe but (Europeans) don't seem as burdened. Americans work more for less. The little scraps of vacation we get we're encouraged not to take. Fewer than 50% of Americans even own a passport. That says a lot about what an insular country it is."

The most notorious subjects of the Captured book - the Koch brothers (billionaire industrialists who have been accused by all sides of attempting to buy the election) - have now been turned into a mural on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Greenspan is heartened that fellow street artists haven't significantly defaced it. There is one epilogue to the story that he'd be eager to see, he tells me. "Soon, the building the mural is on is going to be knocked down," he tells me. "And I'd like to see that; the wrecking ball going through the Koch brothers' faces. That would be something." @JeffGreenspan @AndrewTider

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