Text by Eloi Desjardins

Going to art openings and benefit events, Mike Patten meets with well-known artists in the visual arts scene. Once introduced, Patten takes out a small pocket computer, a Palm-type PDA, makes a quick demonstration, then, with explanations out of the way, asks the artist to improvise a small drawing on the device. Artists are often a little uneasy producing anything on the small screen unprepared, but curiosity and a chance to try out the gadget usually overcome their hesitation. Most accept the challenge, some even take a liking to it. The resulting sketches are as likely to reflect the work and style of the artists who take part as to be surprisingly different from it.

Titled The Celebrity Series, the project began a little more than two years ago; some of the drawings were given a first showing on July 23rd, 2005, at Neutral Ground, in Regina. Patten managed to involve more than seven hundred artists, whose sketches can be viewed on-line, on his Web site, at www.mikepatten.ca. Most of the drawings one sees in the collection are by emerging and established artists from Montreal, where Patten lives, including Michel de Broin, Isablelle Hayeur, and Geneviève Cadieux. There are also a large number of drawings by Canadian artists, such as Germain Koh, Rebecca Belmore, and Michael Snow, while some international artists — Orlan, Su-Mei Tse, Ben Vautier — have also contributed to the project.

Drawing has been instrumental in relational art before, and artists involved in social interventions have used drawing as a pretext for engaging the public. As a medium, drawing has the advantage of being accessible to a general audience that may be less familiar with contemporary artistic practices. The fundamentals of drawing are relatively easy to grasp and its language is almost self-evident. Drawing has long formed the basis of artistic training. One has only to recall its role in the development of Western art, in the Italian Renaissance, as in the rivalry between the Florentine and Venetian schools (drawing vs colour), to grasp the enormous influence that drawing has had on distinguishing artist from craftsman.

In The Celebrity Series, however, drawing is not really used to communicate with a general audience, nor to promote relational practices. The Palm Pilot initiative served rather to create contacts with visual artists, especially with those having a certain prominence in the field. Though not uninteresting in their own right, the drawings are not themselves the centre of interest. The project's significance partly resides in Patten's talent for involving such a great number of well-known artists. The drawings are the visible trace, evidence of Patten's encounter with each artist. The project's goal is to create an interactive network between Patten and the art milieu. Each drawing helps catalogue the encounters Patten has had. It's also a way of sharing the possibilities of digital art on hand-held devices. In other words, to exist, the project exploits the celebrity of the participating artists while also lending value to their work. For their part, artists whose drawings figure in The Celebrity Series gain visibility — "There's no such thing as small publicity." Viewers familiar with the visual arts derive great pleasure from recognizing drawings made by artists whose work they know, as they do from the surprise of discovering drawings that are quite different from the artist's usual production.

Art has often been criticized for cultivating a fetish for the object, a criticism that extends to the monetary value attributed these objects through commercial speculation. The price of a work of art follows the artist's celebrity quotient in the Kunst Compass. Big names get the greatest number of entries. The Celebrity Series reminds us of this aspect of the art scene. The project doesn't focus on criticizing or decrying the correlation of artists' reputations with the value of their work, but, in a way, using the Hollywood term "celebrity," Patten's project highlights the "glamour" aspect of the visual arts world. However, stars in the visual arts need not fear the paparazzi just yet — most people don't know the names of the leading contemporary artists, let alone recognize them.

In post-modern times, the vast majority of artists have developed an unmarketable artistic production — Land Art, performance, relational art — and turn to public institutions, foundations, and grants to finance their productions. Alongside this type of art, many artists also produce work of "domestic" dimensions that individuals may purchase through specialized galleries. Collectors participate in the artist's work while acquiring an object for the collection. The possession of "bourgeois" items is no longer the ultimate goal of such purchases; rather, the collector hopes to possess a part of the artist's notoriety or status. That is why, having bought a painting by Jackson Pollock, for instance, a collector will say of the purchase, "I just bought a Pollock!"