Harrell Fletcher

Harrell Fletcher on Art and Social Practice,

Art as Everything and Everywhere,

Art in Public Spaces and in the Education System,

Engaging Communities and Connecting People Together


Harrell Fletcher


Harrell Fletcher’s work is thoughtful and engaging. His art embedded in Social Practice makes us appreciate, notice everyday things, moments, points us towards thinking about meaning, about the world around us, learn about objects, surroundings, perspectives, and connect with people, friends and neighbours, as revealed in his projects such as ‘Some People From Around Here’ in collaboration with Jon Rubin, placing large scaled portraits of a local community on a highway in Fairfield California, or ‘Hello There Friend’ where the artist walked around cities with friends and collaborators depicting on billboards found objects. 
By working outside the space of an art gallery, Harrell Fletcher sees art as everything and art as everywhere. Transforming the everyday and activities into art, committed to sharing art, his projects shine a light onto people’s expertise, passion, life or what they hold dear.

The artist's projects provide an environment for communities to get involved in creativity, citizens to participate in sharing parts of their lives, like with ‘Learning About the World at the Grocery Store’, or with ‘Learning to Love You More’ in collaboration with Miranda July, which pre social media, the web based project prompted people to make art, and through ‘The People’s Biennial’ with Jens Hoffmann, showcasing art in cities across the USA. 

Through the realm of education, the importance of art and its role is established, such as with the project KSMoCA (the King School Museum of Contemporary Art) with Lisa Jarrett, where a museum is set within a school, and with Fletcher founding the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University, generating art’s power to be interdisciplinary and socially immersed.

With projects ‘The American War’, ‘Before and After 1565: A Participatory Exploration of St. Augustin’s Native American History’ and ‘The Other America’, historical moments that might have been overlooked are brought to the forefront, and through billboards such as with ‘It’s Time To Read Orwell Again’ commissioned by 'For Freedoms' , and a poster for ‘Artists Against the Bomb’ @ Pedro Reyes, Fletcher’s art highlights concerns the world experiences. Projects ‘Made In India’ and ‘Unknown Number’, globalisation and humanity sit at the core of those works. 

Publishing books and writing accompanies Fletcher’s art throughout. The artist's books based on his projects and work, include, 'The First Four Years of the King School Museum of Contemporary Art' , 'Collective Museum Collection: University of California, Santa Cruz' When There Are No Borders Between Art and Teaching' , 'The American War' , 'Learning to Love You More' , 'An Incomplete and Subjective List of Terms and Topics Related to Art and Social Practice Volume 1' , and 'Between Artists: Harrell Fletcher/Michael Rakowitz'' , amongst many others, and texts in books include 'Some thoughts on writing a manifesto' Project ‘Some People Press’ runs workshops and produces books by formerly incarcerated writers.

Working either collaboratively or on his own, Harrell Fletcher’s significant and impactful art, projects, books, workshops, programmes, reveal the empathy and care the artist carries through onto his art, with the art exposing those attributes. 
Harrell Fletcher’s commitment to pushing the boundaries of what art is thought to be, replacing what could be advertisements with art images onto billboards, showing how life and all that is within it, is either art or can be remodelled into art, engaging in conversations, brings people together, in an art form that can make us all connect. 

With that spirit of connection, Harrell Fletcher shares and writes below about some of his projects, what they mean and who he has collaborated with. Amid intertwining art and social practice in his work, the artist paves the way for us all to discover our surroundings and beyond...


What led you to art, and with reflection, what was one of the first things or moments you attributed as art?

I always liked drawing as a kid and started taking photographs when I was about ten years old. I grew up in a small agricultural town in California that didn’t have a university or museum, but my family knew a couple of artists so I had them as models. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to have a regular job, and so I saw becoming an artist, and possibly teaching art, as the only way to avoid that, especially after it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to become a professional baseball player (that dream died in junior high).

How would you define Social Practice in relation to your work, and how did your art procedure develop into working with communities and engaging art with other disciplines? 

The term Social Practice wasn’t being used yet when I was going to art school, it developed about ten years after that. The first MFA in Social Practice started in 2005 at the California College of Art, and I ended up starting the second one two years later at Portland State University. There had been lots of precedents for Art and Social Practice, but they were somewhat scattered and marginalized in the history of art.

I was very influenced to work in socially engaged ways by the photographer Wendy Ewald, who’s collaborative book, created with children in Appalachia called Portraits and Dreams, I had encountered in the library of the university I started my undergraduate degree at, Humboldt State University (There was a great art book library there). Around that same time I also experienced a performance by John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, which is a theater group made up mostly of people who are, or have been, homeless. Those examples and many others lead me away from the idea of working in an isolated studio making objects for galleries, and instead to thinking about collaborative and participatory ways of making art out in the everyday world.

I guess to answer the first part of your question, for me Social Practice is a type of art that prioritizes public engagement, site and situation-specificity, interdisciplinarity, and that can be presented in both art and non-art contexts. I think of it not just as a genre of art, but also a different systemic paradigm that is very different from the current status quo art world version. I see Social Practice as a liberatory approach that gives much greater freedom and agency to artists, allowing them to operate both in the art world (if they want to), and outside of it, with no need for commercial gallery representation, making objects in the hopes of selling them to rich people, and waiting for curators to present their work. 

Instead, in the case of Social Practice, artists can make work in any context—a park, a school, a prison, on the radio, the internet, or on a tee-shirt, etc. etc. The art does not need to take the form of an object and might instead be an event or activity. The possibilities are really endless and it allows the artist to take creative agency over all aspects of the work they are making including how and where it is presented, how it is distributed, who can own it, etc. Its sort of an expanding of the boundaries around what is and isn’t the artwork.

Many of your projects are outside the space of an art gallery, such as with ‘Some People From Around Here’ or ‘Hello There Friend’ and also ‘Learning About the World at the Grocery Store’.
Can you share with us about your experiences and collaborations of creating art outside the confinement of a set art space, and on art in public places?

I loved seeing art in museums and galleries when I was younger, but as a young art student and emerging artist it became apparent to me that the opportunities for showing work in those art world contexts were going to be really limited. I was also really interested in art books and loved how accessible they were in libraries and used bookstores, but having a book published seemed about as unlikely to me as being able to show my work in a museum. 

I decided to take matters into my own hands and started making one of a kind books that I could loan to people, they were sort of like portable exhibitions. I made a lot of those then started producing Xerox publication and giving those away. I was also doing self-initiated performances and site-specific installations. Eventually those publications and projects, by being so public, caught the attention of curators, public art administrators, and publishers and they started commissioning me (and people I was collaborating with, especially Jon Rubin in the early days) to produce various projects that relied heavily on social engagement.

'Some People From Around Here', Harrell Fletcher Collaboration with Jon Rubin, 1997, Interstate Highway 80 Fairfield CA, City of Fairfield, Fairfield Arts Commission. Portraits (six, 8x 8) of people from the local community, painted on plywood and installed along the I-80 Freeway for three months, where an estimated 10 million people saw it while driving by. Both Harrell Fletcher and Jon Rubin were artists-in-residence in the city, and wanted to highlight the people they met as well as that their experience of the city was forged through the people they encountered throughout their stay. 


In some ways I think I found making my own studio/gallery type object based work embarrassing. I often enjoyed making the work, but I was self-conscious about showing it because it seemed to be saying, “look at the weird stuff I’ve made, appreciate it, buy i!” I realized I felt more comfortable putting other people and the things they considered interesting and important into the spotlight.

I also realized that by doing work that involved direct research, which in my case usually meant walking around in a place where I was going to do a project and talking to people (something I call “the hanging out method”) that I was able to have interesting experiences and learn about things that were normally outside of my day to day life.

In many ways by doing project based socially engaged art I’m able to set up small scale versions of the ways that I’d like society to function. The grocery store project you mentioned in your question is an example of that, its something that I imagined I’d like to encounter in the world and by thinking up and initiating the project I was able to experience it. Often times I’m making work in a way so that I can become an audience for it, because I’m not making it on my own, and in many cases don’t know what the content of the final work will be in advance. I also was lucky that people and organizations were interested in commissioning and supporting me to do projects like that all over the world.


'Hello There Friend', Harrell Fletcher, 2013, "“Hello There Friend” is an ongoing series of works in which I go for a walk in an unfamiliar place with someone. On this walk, my companions collect details of their surroundings and present them to me. The result is a conversation through the often overlooked details of an unfamiliar place. On these walks, I took pictures of the objects which were then turned into billboards in the area that they were created in. My collaborators in Los Angeles were: Beatrice Red Star Fletcher, Kelly Bishop, and Jenni Stenson.  My collaborators in Tokyo were: Tomoko Yamashita Smith, Leo Smith, Hana Smith, and Beatrice Red Star Fletcher." —Harrell Fletcher https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/296


'Learning About the World at the Grocery Store', Harrell Fletcher, 2010, Saraga Market, Indianapolis, IN. Commissioned by non-profit art center Big Car, to create a project in conjunction with the city's festival on food systems. 'Learning About the World at the Grocery Store', held in Saraga grocery store, where Harrell Fletcher saw was "set up so that most of the aisles are identified by geographical areas–India, Mexico, Venezuela, Iraq, etc., and contain food products from those places." asked the local community, "shoppers who appeared to connect with the geographical locations named on the aisles" to share and create presentations "about various topics related to their countries origin–politics, histories, personal stories, and of course cuisine." Some participants offered food samples or did cooking demonstrations. https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/607


The power of art itself separated from a constructed parameter, can also be seen in ‘The People’s Biennial’ both 2010 and 2014. Can you tell us about this project and what it questioned.

That was a curatorial project that I did with Jens Hoffmann. For the first version we were interested in two things—finding work that otherwise would not show up in an art context, and making the work accessible in the local places it was made. We worked with arts organizations in five cities around the US, specifically avoiding art world hubs like LA and NYC. In each of the places we spent time exploring—looking for art and artists who might normally be off the radar, and then we also advertised and organized events where people could bring us their art to consider. It had sort of an Antiques Roadshow vibe to the events. From all of that we selected about five artists from each of the five geographical locations and included them in an exhibition that then traveled to each of those five places. Its a little complicated, but it was a really interesting experience and we encountered a lot of amazing people and work. One of those artist, David Rosenak, I ended up keeping in contact with since then, and helped get almost his whole body of work (about twenty paintings) into the collection of the Portland Art Museum. I also just completed working on a book about his work as well.

For the second version we worked with an art center in Detroit, Michigan. We again wanted to locate art and artists who were not yet recognized by the art world, so we asked about twenty established artists from across the US to select a local artist they knew and liked and then we created small exhibition spaces within the larger art center space so that each pairing was able to have a little collaborative show.

In both cases I was interested in using curatorial strategies to disrupt the status quo in order to create a more inclusive version of the art world.

'The People’s Biennial', Harrell Fletcher Curated with Jens Hoffmann, Supported by Independent Curators International, 2010 https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/493

'People’s Biennial 2014', Harrell Fletcher Curated with Jens Hoffmann, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 2014-2015, https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/1470


‘How did ‘Learning to Love You More’ come about?
You were working with a digital platform at the beginning of the internet becoming more widespread and before social media, how did a web-based project compare to previous works in regards to how you felt and connected with it?

Learning To Love You More, or LTLYM was a participatory web based project that I created with Miranda July. Yuri Ono did all of the web design and uploading of the content. Both Miranda and I had done various smaller projects that used assignments as a way to get people to create work. Neither of us was very tech savvy, but luckily we were able to work with Yuri and she was amazing at all of that stuff. We started the project in 2002, which as you point out was a time before social media and things like Youtube, so web based user generated content was not as common as it is today.

We were excited about the potential to allow for participation from anyone in the world who had access to the internet. We wanted to keep it simple so we just came up with assignments (eventually seventy of them) and people responded by doing the assignments and creating a report which were then made available on the website. It naturally grew as people participated and shared what they had done with the people they knew, who then wanted to participate themselves. Eventually we also made a book version and several exhibitions from the reports that people produced. It was important to us to always credit everyone for their contributions and we even came up with some micro-grants to help support some of the people who participated in the project. 

Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July; Yuri Ono and  web designer, Learning to Love You More, 2002-2009: https://www.sfmoma.org/theme/ltlym/


The book that accompanied the web project: https://harrellfletcher.com/learning-to-love-you-more


It’s a real art how you write about your projects on your website, it doesn’t feel like just a description, we perceive what was sensed, we get to know about the people you have worked with. You have also published books as part of your projects. 
How much does writing fuel your work?
And can you share with us about ‘Some People Press’ publishing books by formerly incarcerated writers. 

I appreciate that observation. Yes, writing has always been very important to me and it has always been a part of my practice, but usually in ways that were supportive of an art project. But now I’m actually spending more time doing writing for its own sake, contributing to publications and working on books that address various subjects. I actually am considering writing a book called “What’s Wrong With The Art World” (if there are any interested publishers out there let me know). I also wrote a book of terms and topics related to Art and Social Practice which some folks have found useful and I’m working on a second volume of about 100 terms and topics not covered in the first book.

Some People Press is a project that I have been working on for the last couple of years with Laura Glazer at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, which is a minimum security prison located in NE Portland, Oregon. Its organized as a weekly writing workshop, but all of the participants, who are incarcerated at the prison, are writing their autobiographies. When they are released and have finished their manuscripts we publish them as on demand books that can be purchased internationally. We have the first two books almost ready for publication and about ten more that are in various stages of development. The sales from the books will be used to continue the project and to help support the writers as they navigate the reentry process which can be vary challenging, especially in terms of finding work. Its been a really fun project for me. I enjoy spending time at the prison working with the participates, and a lot of the writing that has come out of the process has been really amazing. In the past I’ve also worked on an artist-in-residence and a comedy project at the same prison, some of that work was documented in a book called Conceptual Art in Prison.


Some People Press: https://www.somepeoplepress.com


Some of your projects pertain to historical moments. Can you tell us about those projects such as ‘The American War’, ‘Before and After 1565: A Participatory Exploration of St. Augustin’s Native American History’, ‘The Other America’ and your observations on art’s role to put forward important historical elements and bring to light narratives.

The American War was a project I created in 2005 after a visit to do an artist residency in Vietnam. I happened to visit a place called The War Remnants Museum that was an attempt to represent the Vietnam War (or The American War as it is referred to there) from the Vietnamese (or at least Vietnamese government’s) perspective. It was during the US wars with Iraq and Afghanistan, and in both of those cases there was limited documentation available from the US media of the horrors and atrocities that were taking place. I thought that it would be important for more people in the US to see what I had experienced at The War Remnants Museum to help give some perspective on the impacts that occur during US war initiatives, so I rephotographed all of the images and text in the museum and then, when I got back home, had them printed and framed and used them to re-create the museum, which ended up touring around the US (Texas, Virginia, NY, Massachusetts, CA, Minnesota, etc.) in various forms. In each location I organized an event that went along with the exhibition that brought together local people who had experienced the war in someway so they they could tell their stories about it. Working on that project was a great way for me to learn about a significant historical event that I previously had been fairly ignorant about.

The other projects you mentioned were also opportunities for me to learn about specific histories through a variety of sources and then to make what I learned available to the public in various forms.

Before and After 1565: A Participatory Exploration of St. Augustin’s Native American History, Exhibition for Crisp-Ellert Art Museum St. Augustin, FL., Harrell Fletcher, 2012 https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/470

The Other America, Project for The Past is Present, Curated by Jens Hoffmann, Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, Harrell Fletcher collaboration with Katherine Ball, 2013. Highlighting Martin Luther King’s historic speech at Grosse Pointe South High School https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/299


It’s wonderful to read about a museum set within a school, how did KSMoCA (the King School Museum of Contemporary Art) start, what have the students explored, and what are or have been some of the collaborative exhibitions and workshops?

KSMoCA is a collaborative project that I’ve worked on for the last decade or so with Lisa Jarrett and a wide array of other folks, from MFA students to grade school students, and from famous international artists to school teachers and administrators. We were asked by a principal at the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Elementary School in NE Portland, Oregon to think about developing a potentially long term project that could combine the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA program with the public school.

After a bit investigation if was revealed that most of the students at the school had never been to a museum, so rather than try to create more field trips to the Portland Art Museum, Lisa and decided to just create a contemporary art museum inside the school itself, so that, like in the case of the school library, the students would have everyday exposure to the museum and its functionings.

Over the years we have invited artists like Hank Willis Thomas, Layla Ali, Monica Mayer, and Byron Kim to create exhibitions and public art projects at the school. We also have them do workshops with the kids, and lectures about their work. It has been satisfying to create situations where both the artists and the kids find value in each other. I think beyond the actual work that we do at the school, which is the main priority, we are also offering a model for how local institutions like a university and a public school can share resources, and how the art world can create greater access to everyday environments and people.


 KSMoCA, Martin Luther King Jr. School, 4906 NE 6th Ave. Portland, OR. 2014-ongoing


You founded the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University, what are some of the discussions, hopes or concerns about the world or their surroundings that students want to/have looked into?

Yes, the program is now sixteen years old. I wanted to create an MFA program that was encouraging of collaboration, interdisciplinarity, and working outside of the status quo art world. Many of the student who have been in the program didn’t come from art backgrounds and instead studied and or worked on social work, conflict resolution, farming, dance, writing, disability studies, etc. Their interests have been all over the map. Many of the graduates have gone into arts education, have become professors teaching socially engaged art, and work on projects through grants and commissions. Many of them have been interested in activism and incorporate that into their work. But I have always been insistent that Art and Social Practice is not the same thing as Art and Social Justice. There is no political imperative that needs to be included in the work of students in the program, even though many of them do include it, and that’s fine too.

What are your thoughts on AI and technology being more and more part of our world, of the arts, and could affect education. Do you think the arts will be able to counter that charge?

I think there have always been technological developments that at the time seemed like threats to art in one way or another. It was like that with photography, which for a long time was not considered “art” partly because of a fear that it would eliminate a need for painting. But painting has survived and actually expanded a lot because of photography. I think AI will probably be no different than that when it comes to art, but how it will impact disinformation attempts in regards to politics might be a different story. I guess you just always have to be wary of the possibly hidden agendas of information you are consuming, and avoid jumping to conclusions based on single and unreliable sources. 

With both your projects ‘An Unknown Number’ and ‘Made in India’, you are looking at the notions of humanity, globalisation and value. 
And with ‘It’s Time To Read Orwell Again’, you designed a billboard for the For Freedoms project, for people to consider politics and what was happening in the USA at the time. You participated in Artists Against the Bomb. 
Your art and projects address socio-political issues, can you take us through some of those projects and your thoughts on the impact art has/can have on politics and for change?

An Unknown Number was a piece I made for the Shanghai Biennial. I was brought in a few months before the exhibition opened to try to find a local project to produce. I was given a tour of the building that was being retrofitted to become a museum where the biennial would be taking place. I happened to get the tour right after lunch hour and all of the construction workers were taking naps all over the building in kind of haphazard ways. I was a bit shocked because in the US its not so common for construction workers (or anyone else to take afternoon naps, though personally I’m a big fan of napping myself). It kind of looked like a crime scene with dozens and dozens of dead bodies strewn all over the place. I took some photos just because it was so striking.

After that I started to wonder about the construction workers and wanted to know more about them and what they thought about their work on an art museum building. Somehow I was never able to get permission to go back and interview them, but I made a request for a biennial assistant to do that for me after I left. It turned out most or all of the workers who were asked didn’t know that the building was going to be a museum or that the biennial exhibition was going to take place there. I requested that the biennial would give the workers that information and also offer them free passes to the biennial exhibition. Communication was not great and I don’t know if any of that ever happened, but the photos I took of the workers napping were shown as part of the biennial, in an attempt to raise awareness of their contribution to the museum for people who visited the exhibition.

An Unknown Number, Harrell Fletcher, Project for the 2012 Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai, China, 2012 https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/218


Made in India was a project that involved trying to return the money from the purchase of a rug that had been made in a factory in India to a worker in that factory. Its a bit complicated to explain all of the ins and outs of what happened, but I went there and did give the money to a worker I met at the factory and he was very happy to receive it.

The Orwell billboard was a request from Hank Willis Thomas and For Freedoms, and the Nuclear War is Bad For Kittens poster was a request from Pedro Reyes and Artists Against the Bomb. I was happy to participate in both of those projects because I like those artists and organizations, but it was a bit daunting to try to come up with ideas that would be both impactful in service of the issues the projects were attempting to address, while at the same time being conceptually and visually interesting to me as artworks. I’m not totally sure how the ideas came to me, but I like being given assignments like that, and creating work that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own.

Made in India, Harrell Fletcher collaboration with Wendy Red Star, Project for Art Gallery of Mississauga, Mississauga, Canada, 2009 and IDEA Space at Colorado College, Colorado Springs, CO, 2010 https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/485


'It’s Time To Read Orwell Again', Harrell Fletcher, Nashville, TN James Robertson PKWY N/S @ Nissan Stadium, Facing East October – November 2018 https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/1887


Harrell Fletcher for 'Artists Against the Bomb' @ Pedro Reyes "In this poster, Harrell Fletcher acknowledges the impact and engagement of meme culture by joining the image of a kitten, with a sentence that dumps the weight of the serious nature of a nuclear catastrophe imposed on the tiny cat." https://artistsagainstthebomb.org


Would you like to share about any up-coming projects?

Mostly I’m just working on Some People Press and various writing projects at the moment. I also spend a lot of time going on walks with my partner Sarah in my NE Portland, Oregon neighborhood and at the Oregon Coast. We do a lot of foraging for edible mushrooms and stinging nettles, etc.



Mt. Hood Walk, On Foot: An Educational Art and Social Practice Journey from Portland to Mt. Hood, Portland State University Portland, Oregon,

Harrell Fletcher, 2014 https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/915

Harrell Fletcher received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He studied organic farming at UCSC and went on to work on a variety of small Community Supported Agriculture farms, which impacted his work as an artist. Fletcher has produced a variety of socially engaged collaborative and interdisciplinary projects since the early 1990’s. His work has been shown at SFMOMA, the de Young Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Wattis Institute, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the San Francisco Bay Area, The Drawing Center, Socrates Sculpture Park, The Sculpture Center, The Wrong Gallery, Apex Art, and Smackmellon in NYC, DiverseWorks and Aurora Picture show in Houston, TX, PICA in Portland, OR, CoCA and The Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, WA, Signal in Malmo, Sweden, Domain de Kerguehennec in France, The Tate Modern in London, and the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. He was a participant in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Fletcher has work in the collections of MoMA, The Whitney Museum, The New Museum, SFMOMA, The Hammer Museum, The Berkeley Art Museum, The De Young Museum, and The FRAC Brittany, France. From 2002 to 2009 Fletcher co-produced Learning To Love You More, a participatory website with Miranda July. Fletcher is the 2005 recipient of the Alpert Award in Visual Arts. His exhibition The American War originated in 2005 at ArtPace in San Antonio, TX, and traveled to Solvent Space in Richmond, VA, White Columns in NYC, The Center For Advanced Visual Studies MIT in Boston, MA, PICA in Portland, OR, and LAXART in Los Angeles among other locations. Fletcher is a Professor of Art and Social Practice at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.


The Knowledge, A Project for Portland State University Portland, OR, Harrell Fletcher,  2010, Funded in part by the Regional Arts and Cultural Council, The Knowledge was selected as one of Americans for the Arts 2010 Outstanding Public Artworks.

"located on a large blank wall at the corner of SW 5th and Hall on the Portland State University campus. I worked with Avalon Kalin on the project and we contacted as many people on the PSU campus–students, faculty, staff, and asked them to recommend a book that they used in their teaching or studies that was available in the PSU library. We then pulled those books off the selves, stacked them up and had them photographed by Motoya Nakamura. The photo was then enlarged by a billboard company and attached to the wall. A plaque is included with all of the names of the people who participated in the project."—Harrell Fletcher https://harrellfletcher.com/projects/472


All Pictures copyright and courtesy of Harrell Fletcher