999 Borats
999 Borats an Art Project As Audacious As Its Subject

Cross artist Oli Goldsmith’s pop-art sensibilities with a dash of the absurd and “Web 2.0” technology, and out pops: 999 Borats?

Best known for his award-winning music-video ‘In Repair’ and album art for Canada’s Our Lady Peace, the prolific and experimental Toronto artist Oli Goldsmith is known for the ease with which he works across the media spectrum. Oli has shown his fine art internationally, recently was an Artist in Residence at the Drake Hotel in Toronto and worked as a Senior Designer for the CBC.

Goldsmith describes his artwork as “mixed-media combines”, a nod to one of his key influences, Robert Rauschenberg. From his Artist Statement, “Oli eagerly experiments with a multitude of techniques – combining old with the new; creating unique hybrid forms in the process.”

Journalist Betty Ann Jordan writing for Elm Street Magazine described the process of looking at Oli’s canvases “…like taking Zeitgeist 101.”

Digital line art, found and sampled photography, iconography and text, invented catch-phrases, original drawings and poetic ramblings layer with expressive painting to create a distinctly rich, colourful and energetic style.

Goldsmith’s latest project to create 999 original portraits of the fictional Kazakh journalist, may appear at first glance the bizarre result of an obsessive fan gone off the deep end! (and absurdity is certainly no stranger to his palette), but Oli is quick to explain that there is more to the project and his motivations behind it than first meet the eye.

What is 999 Borats?

999 Borats is a project that originally began as a group on Flickr.com; to create, like the title suggests, 999 original portraits of Borat. Whereas most groups on Flickr (like the pop-surrealism one I run there) are forums for discussion and group postings, I saw the potential for starting one that served more as an online gallery, one where the audience could follow and comment on the progression of the work as it evolved.

“That’s my favourite thing about Flickr and the Web 2.0 stuff in general these days: I can just throw up ideas … and immediately have an audience for it. I love it, and it’s doing good things for my art and letting me try out ideas I might not have otherwise.” from Torontoist.com Interview by Marc Lostracco on 999 Borats.

Based on the great response the project was receiving it grew into something a little more expansive and I decided to create a website (www.999borats.com) dedicated to the project. In the spirit of the project’s exploration of using the Internet as a venue for potentially more engaging exhibition of art, I created a unique and freely downloadable screensaver that connects to the website and automatically presents the latest Borat portraits as a video montage. I am also introducing features like voting on your favourite portraits and a forum for feedback. I’m interested in the audience being able to become engaged in the creative process rather than passively observe the end result, and I am trying to use technology to make that possible in new ways.

I have really begun exploring the Internet’s potential both as an art medium (www.popsurrealism.tv, another net-based project of mine which exists purely online and focuses on live experimental video has recently been short-listed for a Rhizome.org commission), as well as a venue for showcasing both artwork and the process involved in making it. 999 Borats seemed like an ideal project for me to explore using the net as gallery – a project that in the physical world wouldn’t have been as practical, interactive or fun to do.

Though the net provides a means for exhibition, the portraits themselves ARE real one-of-a-kind artworks that will be available for purchase affordably through the 999Borats.com site. Current plans are to price them at $100 each, but some form of bidding process is something I am currently exploring as I’ve already had overlapping interest from people in certain works and want to create a system by which people have an equal chance at purchasing them.

The completion of all portraits is set for July 1st, but a means of securely ordering works will be in place by early June. Details will be announced on the site and I suggest signing up for the electronic newsletter for the absolute latest info, some special offers and other free content.

Like my large scale canvases, the Borat portaits merge traditional techniques (paint, pastel, graphite and india ink, etc) with inventive use of digital output and transfer processes. They are between 8x10 and 12x18 in size on a range of art paper, canvas and other collage and mixed-media surfaces mounted on museum board. Each original is signed, numbered and embossed with an original seal created for the project.

I also plan on releasing a book of the full series upon completion and may make limited edition giclée prints available as well. For details stay tuned to the site.
Borat #1000

There will indeed be a final Borat #1000 to complete the series. This is something I knew I wanted to do from the start, and knew I wanted to make it something a little outlandish, even ostentatious to top off a project that already seemed a tad over-the-top.

This last Borat portrait will be a huge life-sized canvas, executed really slickly with a thickly varnished top-coat, professionally framed with a thick custom canvas floater. Borat #1000 won’t be for sale however, it can only be won. To be in the running sign up for the newsletter on the site where I will announce the final details of the contest. I’m strongly considering going about it in a “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” style way, putting a golden ticket on a randomly chosen Borat original, that sort of thing.

Why Borat?

When I posted a little info about 999Borats.com on Saatchi’s online “Your Gallery Blog” someone immediately responded essentially that it was a pretty dumb choice, that Borat was just a stupid bit of pop “debris”, that he certainly wasn’t an icon, that I was wasting my time.

The response I realized actually (somewhat ironically) really captured key themes I wanted the project to reflect upon. I certainly admit a fondness for Cohen’s controversial character Borat, but I admit the choice at first was somewhat arbitrary – any number of celebrities might have been appropriate candidates - however there are some specific things about Borat that made him a great example of “manufactured celebrity” and the fleeting nature of such – themes I wanted the project to embody.

I am drawn to Cohen’s skillful job at crafting a multi-faceted character that is audacious, funny, idiotic and charming, while acting as a vehicle that reveals so much about Western Culture, stereotypes, and how Westerners are ‘taught to act and react’ on ‘social cue’. Cohen (via Borat) acts almost as a comedian and anthropologist at the same time – his broad appeal I think for many is that people relate both to him and the unsuspecting characters he encounters. You feel awkward for them both and it evokes interesting things about human nature that aren’t often so cleverly put on display.

As an artist I can also relate to the way Cohen weaves interesting ambiguity into the messages and implications brought about by purposefully allowing uncertainty into Borat’s improvisational interactions. I sense Cohen knows he is stirring up meaning without fully explaining (or even knowing himself) what precisely his message is. In the same vein my work is created in an improvisational and stream-of-consciousness method.

On the whole my finished artwork tends to portray what hints at a narrative evolving along with its underlying themes, but I intentionally avoid spelling it out (to myself or the audience), or for that matter worrying about what a work is trying to say while making it. I find the more I step back from the creative act and let it happen of its own accord, the more interesting (and ultimately meaningful) the results.

Why So Many?

(In my art) “…there’s a narrative or a flow, but I don’t completely connect the dots. Having grown up in the digital era, I find this kind of chaos to be a calming kind of white noise.” As quoted from an interview in Elle Canada Magazine by Editor Noreen Flanagan.

The excessive nature of the 999 Borats project in its sheer volume of work expresses this theme of mass-media driven chaos, the barrage of imagery and information we are all subjected to - something all of my work touches on to some extent. The projects bold ambition aims to reflect on the excesses of mass consumer culture in part. It is also clearly following an Andy Warhol type of pop-art tradition, but with the distinct difference in that each takes a radically different approach to its form and presentation with each work.

This is something that I chose to do (not only to avoid hours of monotony! although having so many portraits certainly allowed a freedom to experiment with form and technique that appealed to me) but also to reflect the trend in mass culture and media towards a strong consumer yearning to express individualism within a cookie cutter society.

Whether in the form of custom cell phone skins, a unique shade of veneer on your condo kitchen counter, a clip-art decorated MySpace page or one of the recent corporate attempts to cater to this demand ala mod options on new cars (i.e. “build your own” Mini Cooper), etc.

I don’t view this trend as a ‘bad’ thing overall, and the writing is on the wall so to speak with all things “Web 2.0” (something this very project grew out of on Flickr.com) that Alvin Toffler’s predictions from “The Third Wave” about how consumers would soon also be the producers of their content and so-called “Mass Media” would become more about micro-casting to increasingly varied niche audiences. In this sense I am all for it, but I find the transitional phenomenon of corporations giving what is essentially the illusion of choice with very narrow parameters in which to carve out an individual image equally fascinating and unnerving.

From Torontoist.com interview by Marc Lostracco “My earliest art making focused more definitively on topics of Mass Media, Consumerism, etc. It’s my relationship with this subject matter perhaps that make such a project (999 Borats) conceptually something I am interested in. I took media studies in high school and had been highly affected by being exposed to people like Noam Chomsky and Marshall McLuhan. Overall, I feel my work has grown to become a more inward reflection of that outer world as a whole: more personally psychological yet still connected to the role media and celebrity play in all of our lives.”
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