Coilhouse Interview: Molly Crabapple Discusses Art, Occupy, and "Shell Game"

In September of 2011, shortly after launching a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, our intrepid chum Molly Crabapple locked herself into a hotel room in New York City for a week, eventually filling 270 square feet of paper-covered wall with her art. Yesterday, IDW published  The Art of Molly Crabapple, Vol #1: Molly Crabapple’s Week In Hell, a book chronicling the whirlwind project (with beautiful contributions from several more Coilhouse friends: photo documentation by Steve Prue, a cover shot by Clayton Cubitt, and a foreword by Warren Ellis).

Last week, Molly returned to Kickstarter to launch Shell Game, a crowd-funded art show about the massive ongoing international financial meltdown. For Shell Game, she plans to create “nine giant paintings about the collapses and upheavals of the last year, then rig out storefront like a gambling parlor and display them to the city and the internet for a week.” Shell Game is an experiment of sorts for Molly, who is keen to fund large scale, labor-intensive work without having to depend on wealthy collectors. This type of crowd-funding is, she hopes, “a way of finding Medici in the crowd.”

“The Great American Bubble Machine” by Molly Crabapple, the first of nine in her Shell Game series.

As they did with Week In Hell, $1 contributors get to peep at Molly’s progress through a backers-only blog with livestreamed painting sessions, and those who donate larger amounts receive incrementally impressive artistic rewards. With well over a week still left to go, the campaign has already raised well over 50K through backers small and large. DANG.

Today on Coilhouse, Molly Crabapple tells us more about the Shell Game campaign, and shares related thoughts about the nature of Occupy and the future of art… and vice versa.

Molly’s “Vampire Squid” stencil, as seen at various Occupy camps all over the world.

You’ve mentioned that, until 2011, you weren’t comfortable with making political art, that you were “afraid of being hypocritical, propagandistic or boring.” Can you tell us a bit about the specific thought process that changed your mind? Was there some particular catalyst, or was it a gradual shift in perspective?
I’m an essentially capitalist little hustler who likes Louboutins and who draws frivolous things, sometimes for very rich people.  For a long time, I felt this if I made “activist art” it was straight up radical posturing.  I didn’t want to win cool points on someone else’s movement.  So I’d donate money or sell work for charity, but hide any subversive thoughts in a whole lots of illustrative metaphor.  My thoughts started changing when I painted The Box in London.  Suddenly I was drawing straight-up parodies of the British class system on the walls of what would be one of the world’s most depraved nightclubs, while being given a privileged view of the student occupations by the unspeakably brilliant journalist Laurie Penny.  Suddenly avoiding politics in my art seemed like a cop-out.  Wikileaks, Wisconson, and finally Occupy Wall Street meant that upheaval was hitting America.  I had to engage.

Has there been any criticism thrown at you about your means of involvement? If so, how do you engage with that? 
I’ve had a few people call me an evil latte liberal or whatever, but honestly, who cares.  The idea that you have to be a vegan saint to care about having a vaguely just world is just a way of making sure no one does anything.

(Amen!) In addition to having various pieces of your art proliferate as posters and tee shirts among Occupy activists, you’ve been physically present at various protests and encampments ever since the #OWS movement kicked off last autumn in NYC. What’s one of the most poignant personal experiences you’ve had during your time in the NYC encampment?
Zuccotti Park itself was a marvel. I live in Wall Street, and Zuccotti went from a sterile, ugly, unused square to a mini-city built on mutual aid. To me that was what was most amazing about OWS– the infrastructure. There were grey-water systems and a free-clothing-store, a children’s play area, a library, a Spanish language newspaper, a tree hung with the helmets of the teamsters, and other unions who supported the occupation. The links that were made between labor and young radicals still make me sentimental and teary.  When Bloomberg threatened to clear the park one night, and thousands of people –from AFL-CIO guys to fabulous Brooklyn party promoters, stayed up all night in the freezing rain to hold their ground– it was fucking solidarity of a type we see all too little of in this city.

For personal moments… god, there were so many.  But here’s one. It was an unseasonably warm night. I sat in the park, listening to a kid play viola and another kid recite poetry, reading a book from the People’s Library, eating free ice cream scooped by Jerry himself.  It had all the hope, all the loveliness, of a new world.

“We Are All In This Together” by Molly Crabapple and John Leavitt

 Are you concerned (as many news outlets and fellow activists seem to be) that Occupy is losing steam, or may eventually succumb to either infighting/fracturing from within, or brutality/indifference from the outside? 
Yes. While I don’t go to general assemblies myself (while I respect consensus-based decision making, I’d rather stab out my eyes than deal with it), I’ve heard plenty about the infighting.  And I also fear the news cycle moves so fast that Occupy will be so three months ago and people will have moved onto the election or Kony2012 or something else.  I hope that even if the organization doesn’t survive, the spirits of solidarity and mutual aid and just talking to each other and giving a fuck survive.

 What do you think can be done to ensure the movement’s survival? Its success?
Oof!  I just draw the pictures- not organize the movements.  I think being outward facing, and not getting caught up in lefty terminology and internal bullshit is crucial.  You can’t be the 99% if you’re obsessed with purity.

Do you plan to creatively depict that aspect of the movement?
Honestly, I’m not sure.

This isn’t the first Kickstarter project of yours that’s been a raging overnight success. How do you feel about your Week In Hell project, now that it’s done? 
God, grateful.  Incredibly grateful that at a time when I was probably clinically depressed and certainly fed up with my own artistic bullshit, I got the opportunity to lock myself in a room and draw till I had broken on through to the other side.

Do you think this burgeoning concept of crowdfunding/micropatronage is a flash in the pan, or sinking into the cultural groundwater? 
I think that people supporting each other without getting their tastes validated by large corporations is here to stay.  Thank god.

Are you, personally, hoping to be finished with “asking the permission of rich people” to create your art… or are you still open to working as a hired gun?
While of course I would love to have the opportunity to always make exactly the art I want, how I want it, I live in the same imperfect world we all do and only get to do this sometimes. Which frankly, is more than almost anyone gets. I’m still a working illustrator.  Probably always will be.

“May Day” by Molly Crabapple and John Leavitt

 You’re going to be tackling huge, complex, and in some cases, literally riotous paintings that depict very specific and unique situational environments: Goldman Sachs… Greece… can you give us any hints about how you envision any of them? 
My painting on England shows the protesters as foxes and the Metropolitan police as hounds.  I’m currently working on The Hivemind, a painting about hacktivists that portrays them as bees.  A few fat cats as wearing ill fitting bee suits.  They represent HBGary.

Can you give us a shortlist list of Occupy-related activist/artists and resources that we should be tuned into?
R. Black, Susie Cagle, and The Illuminator are all making badass Occupy art.  Occuprint is doing gorgeous prints of the Occupy posters, including my May Day one.  And god bless the People’s Library.

Molly in an Occupy Bandana by Matthew Borgatti

2 Responses to “Coilhouse Interview: Molly Crabapple Discusses Art, Occupy, and "Shell Game"”

  1. Coilhouse Interview: Molly Crabapple Discusses Art, Occupy, and … | Occupy Wall Street Info Says:

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  2. Jamie Says:

    Great interview, I think it’s awesome that Kickstarter is behind this project and I hope Coilhouse updates us here when it’s complete. Also…

    “The idea that you have to be a vegan saint to care about having a vaguely just world is just a way of making sure no one does anything.”

    I love this quote. I feel that looking down upon anyone who’s not a TOMS-wearing locavore bicyclist (insert your own OWS/hipster/liberal stereotypes as you see fit) just marginalizes those who are more at the fringe of the movement and trying to see if it’s for them. The 99% is supposed to be INclusive!