Phoney art

On a late, sunny, Saturday afternoon several months ago, I was invited to a meeting in Clark Park in southwest Detroit, to witness a "handoff." This kind of activity was much more common in Clark Park decades ago, better known then as "Crack Park." It has since been cleaned up, filled with picnicking families, the occasional community festival and local artists who rest their bikes amid the tall trees.

Detroit artist Sara Blakeman and curators Ben Hernandez and Kathy Leisen have chosen the park as a fine place to wait for a call from Ben Good, who happens to be out of town. Blakeman's cell phone rings at the appointed time and she answers. On speaker mode, she is careful not to say too much about the drawing she scanned and e-mailed to him earlier, instead letting Good try to decipher its elements on his own. She clarifies, leaving a great deal of doubt about her intentions in creating the drawing. It's up to Good to take from it what he can. She confirms some small points: objects in the image, the figures, the setting. Good, a fellow Detroit artist, ends the conversation excited, ready to take the next step.

It might be more accurate to call Hernandez and Leisen the instigators, rather than the curators, of Telephone, an elaborate, collaborative art project involving some major local talents. Hernandez and Leisen have set rules based on a kindergarten activity of the same name. Simple and wildly entertaining, "Telephone" requires youngsters to sit together in a circle. A leader whispers an extended phrase into the ear of a single player, whose job then is to relay that phrase, verbatim, to the adjacent player. And so on around the circle, one whisper after another. The phrase finally returns to the source and is announced to the group. Somehow, "Ben Franklin was a wise old man" is transmuted into something like "Great big seagulls, lookout Stan!" Shouts, cheers and affirmations follow, acknowledgement that sometimes getting it wrong is getting it right.

Nearly three decades after their own kindergarten experiences, Hernandez and Leisen overlay the rules of "telephone" onto a collaborative activity involving a dozen Detroit artist-friends. Beginning with a collaboration of their own — a short, experimental animation — they invited artists to respond to each other's work, one after the other, creating a group show perhaps more truly "group" than other exhibitions describing themselves as such.

Each artist, in a designated order, has three weeks to get his or her contribution off the ground before the next in line is invited to see the progress, with only limited exposure and conversation. The curators shepherd the project, bringing the participants together on a strict schedule, making sure they meet deadlines and adhere to the rules. At the hand-off, the art could be a mere sketch or nearly complete. If it's in progress, the artist on the receiving end can ask one question of the creator. In particular, it seems like the Blakeman and Good hand-off, accomplished remotely via a phone call, stayed true to the initial concept: Make art, have fun. Clark Park is a somewhat ironic and vibrant setting for making a creative exchange.

Since the rules dictate each artist can only see work created by the preceding artist on the list, the resulting exhibition at Eastern Market's Johanson Charles Gallery winds its way through uncertain art-making terrain, mapping constriction and elaboration. With the artwork presented in the order it was generated, the show emphasizes the pre-eminence of process, the mysterious, individualistic artistic response to the world and a way of working, filtering information through sense, ability, understanding and misreads.

Contributing to the project are Detroit art scene mainstays Matt Blake, Maurice Greenia, Graem White, Frank Pahl and the aforementioned Blakeman, along with a mix of up-and-comers such as Brian Pittman, Carrie Morris, Mary Beth Carolan, Ben Good and Nick Jones. As a whole, these artists take themselves and their work very seriously. To convince them to use a peer's work as inspiration says a lot about their faith in Detroit's creative community and the success of the project. The show includes a wide range of media, including a large number of sound-producing works and a puppet show by Morris on opening night.

While each work can be appreciated individually, it is the position of a single work within the conversation that defines its meaning most. Those aware of the scheme will invariably look to see what element each artist has carried forward or rejected. And it's most interesting to see the threads picked up, carried by several artists and then surprisingly dropped or diminished downstream.

As an experiment, Telephone calls into question what art making is or what art should be. Similar to the important lesson in the kindergartener's game, our inability to hear correctly or completely and our inability to relay information perfectly aren't flaws in the design of communication, but part of the design itself. The game of our youth attempted to instill a level of comfort in uncertain outcomes. It revealed that, even at the age of 5, we really needn't trust others to get it right because, try as we might, we might not get it right ourselves. In the end, we can find joy and comfort in our shortcomings. Unfortunately, our institutions in the following years teach us otherwise.

In his popular book A Whole New Mind, author Daniel Pink lists "play" as one of six attributes our society needs to compete in a global, off-shore, outsourced economy. He says that without it, we've lost our ability to improvise, to run fast and free, and subsequently, the skills to innovate. Maybe Telephone is more serious than we imagine.

opens at 7 p.m., Friday, Sept. 7, with a shadow puppet performance by Carrie Morris at 8 p.m. and musical performances by Patrick Elkins, Pigs in the Ground (San Francisco) and Charlie Draheim at 10 p.m. at Johanson Charles Gallery, 1345 Division, Detroit; 313-483-1158.

Robert Andersen is a recovering artist and filmmaker. Send comments to [email protected]