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Kickstarter Superheroes: the Less Important Portraits of Jeremy Bailey

Jeremy Bailey rewarded his top Kickstarter donors by making portraits of them using augmented reality technology that essentially turned them into digital Transformers and Mechwarriors.
Nadja Sayej
Κείμενο Nadja Sayej

Back in the winter, a time most of us would prefer to forget, Toronto new media artist Jeremy Bailey did what most artists do these days—he started a Kickstarter campaign to fund his art. With the help of 104 backers, he managed to tie down over $8,000 to create new work by late February.

To reward the gracious donors who are keeping Jeremy’s art alive, he produced portraits of his top funders that you can flip through at the top of this article. Now he is having his first New York solo show, showcasing these portraits of Kickstarter backers as man-made machine superhero-types. After all, if you’re giving cash to artists on Kickstarter, don’t you want to at least look like a superhero? You sort of are, in a way.


Bailey has been on YouTube longer than most of us, he has shown at the Tate Liverpool in England, and the New Museum in New York. Software-meets-performance art is his game. So here’s what he has to say about his mom, vanity, and generosity, all in one killer picture with a ton of candy color.

VICE: Your bio says you're a Toronto-based new media artist “who makes custom software in a performative context.” How do you explain that to the casual YouTube (or otherwise) observer?
Jeremy Bailey: I borrowed those words from another writer, but the gist of it is that I often do demos of software I write in character as "Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey." Those demos are a performance that I sometimes record as a video and share on YouTube.

Where did the name Less Important Portraits come from?
Less Important Portraits is the second part of a project I launched in February called Important Portraits. Important Portraits is a performance and series of augmented reality portraits I created for Kickstarter as a response to their increasing role in the history of art and patronage. If you look at that history, art was first funded by the church, then by the wealthy and powerful, then by governments, and today, as of 2012, Kickstarter is the largest funder of the arts in the United States. But if you look at the way patrons are recognized on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, the patron is invisible; often a tiny icon or user handle is the only indication that someone has made a contribution.


To rectify this problem, I set about celebrating backers that contributed to my project with grand portraits in the style that wealthy powerful patrons were once celebrated, and just like artists from the past I used the latest augmented reality technology to demonstrate my technical ability as an artist and to empower patrons to reveal their inner essence—as any good portrait should do.

Kickstarter backers are typically pretty anonymous. How did these backers feel taking the spotlight in your project?
They were mostly excited, though some were very self-conscious and worried that I would make fun of them with the augmentations I was adding. I worked very hard on each portrait to maintain the humor people expect in my work but also to empower each in a way that turned the patron's perceived weakness into a strength. I even came up with a mantra for the project, which is: empowerment through humility.

OMG, WAIT. They look like Transformers! Intended?
Transformers, Gundam, MechWarrior… there are many references for a common trajectory of human evolution, which is the eventual merger of man and machine. For me, drawing out these references is a playfully literal way of pointing out that my work is often about the melding of humans with machines. Giving someone a gun for an arm is also an amazing way to make someone feel powerful.

How did you photograph them? Did you make house calls or did you collaborate on the photograph of the image together?
The Less Important Portraits (people who paid less) were photographed by the subjects themselves, using a little three-step guide I created. The more expensive portraits (those in the inaugural exhibition) were photographed with the help of a talented team of professional photographers whom I dispatched in various cities around the world.


Was there anyone who wasn’t happy with their portrait?
I got mixed reviews from my parents. My mom thought she looked too old, but I had several people who saw her portrait tell me it was their favorite—so I think she's come around to liking it. She's a beautiful woman in her 60s and I think she looks great in her portrait.

Who paid the most? Who are they and what do they do?
Marla Wasser, she a wonderful woman and a lifelong art collector in Toronto who has more recently been active as a curator and an art consultant.

Are people vain, or is generosity somehow always connected to self-interest?
I fundamentally believe that all people are vain and that as long as they are aware of it then it’s a wonderful thing. Being vain to me simply means being self-aware. True vanity is reflecting deeply on one's identity. Loving oneself can also mean learning to love one’s flaws, and therefore learning to accept flaws in others. Can I suggest world peace follows?

Sure. You decided to show the portraits of people who paid the most. How did the others feel?
Actually, I have shown nearly everyone now that Less Important Portraits has opened in Brooklyn. The difference is simply in the scale of the portrait in the physical world. If you paid less, your print size was smaller. The really important thing about this is that the portraits are all the same size online. We are all equal online, but in the physical world there is still great inequality. Hopefully this insight is not lost on those who have been involved with the project.


Do people who meet you for the first time think you’re different than they expected?
Yes. I have met many people who think I'm an egocentric maniac and then find out that I care about them more than I care about myself.

That’s nice. So after this New York solo show, what’s next for you, Mr. Bailey?
I want to come out with a line of e-cigarettes that don't look anything like any e-cigarettes you've ever seen before. They're going to be bubble gum flavored and shaped like dolphins. When you inhale they will make clicking sounds, which people who are looking down at their phones will be able to use to echo-locate themselves so that they can avoid obstacles.

Less Important Portraits runs until July 7 at Devotion Gallery, 54 Maujer St, Brooklyn NY 11206.

Follow Nadja on Twitter: @nadjasayej

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