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Into the Fray, but Not Without Protection

A consortium of San Diego artists blurs the lines between art, politics and fashion with its line of 'Friendly Fire' vests.

August 25, 1996|Leah Ollman | Leah Ollman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

On Day 1 of the "Friendly Fire" project, the door was open, the fan was blowing, and a pseudo-sweatshop-cum-retail store in the heart of downtown San Diego was ready for customers, any kind of customers--sympathetic, enraged or just curious. Anything but apathetic.

In the back of the small shop, just a few blocks from where the Republican National Convention would erupt in a week, two seamstresses sat at their machines, turning out a line of vests designed to blur the boundary between political statement and fashion statement.

According to the creators of "Friendly Fire," a consortium of San Diego artists-activists, wearing a "Friendly Fire" vest should make you feel empowered, not just embellished. The project has been set up under the sponsorship of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, where a related installation opens today.

The mock bulletproof garments, with shooting-range targets on the back and 14 thematic fronts, have nothing to do with fall fashions' trumpeted colors and everything to do with this election season's hot issues--affirmative action, abortion rights, gun control, immigration and more. The vests are for sale, but the artists--Louis Hock, Scott Kessler, Cheryl Lindley, Elizabeth Sisco and Deborah Small--are not simply lusting after convention-time profits. They want to compete in "the free market of ideas."

But how to enter into a political debate that is already choked with rhetoric, in a city with more elephants underfoot than pigeons?

"With wicked humor, with absurdity to match the absurdity of what's going on," Small said.

"Friendly Fire's" fashion arsenal includes a "Democracy Vest," shimmering with gold lame, a tie-dyed "1972 Vest," a "Millennium Vest" with a print of glow-in-the-dark dinosaur skeletons, and, playing off of San Diego's motto, an "America's Finest City Vest," in south-of-the-border and north-of-the-border versions. Buttons down the front join a barbed-wire print with either striped Mexican serape fabric or a print of the American flag.

"Election politics offers the spectacle of protection," reads the coy brochure the artists mailed to 3,800 convention delegates and 500 members of the media in early August. "Friendly Fire offers the cloth of hope."

The ad hoc group, whose members range in age from 38 to 48 and who also work individually in video, photography, installation, costume design and community organizing, opted for a tone of savvy, satirical ad-speak for the project. Head-on confrontation just wouldn't work, Hock said.

"You really can't use a strategy like that because then you're just tossed in the street with everyone else. You have to use a strategy that causes people to rethink an association between the issues and the political parties. You can't use the same line of rhetoric, the same views, the same angle of approach. The issues would get lost in the crowd."


Three days after the "Friendly Fire" store-factory opened, the project made its first appearance in the press. The group also received a fan letter , via e-mail, thanking it for adding "truth and light to an otherwise very dark public discourse." Delegates were beginning to receive their brochures in small, unmarked envelopes, padded to protect the marketing grabber inside, a solid brass sculpted bullet.

Is it art or is it commerce? These days, with demands that culture pay its own way, art, like so much else, has embraced the mantle of spectacle, and the line is harder and harder to draw. Wanting to be heard, but not "marginalized and controlled" in the designated, fenced-in protest zone across the street from the convention center, the artists came to an age-old conclusion: Money talks.

"What we're talking about is who has access to politicians," Sisco explained. "Because of the hideous amount of money politicians have to spend to get elected, it's the people who bankroll them, the business concerns, the corporations. So by setting ourselves up as that type of voice, we, in a sense, model who it is you have to be in order to gain access."

"Instead of Big Oil or Big Tobacco," Small added with a laugh, "we're Big Art."


By Day 4, a hate letter had arrived at the store, addressed to "UN-Friendly Fire." A delegate sent his mailing back with the message, "Keep your puerile trash!" The fake bullets, the group heard from police in Sacramento, were setting off metal detectors in the capitol building. A delegate in Connecticut threw his packet on his front lawn and called the bomb squad.

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