(1 March 1999, Playa del Carmen, Mexico)
“Should write about last night before it’s gone. Made about 30-40 little watercolours of flowers, some fish, a few butterflies. What I ended up doing was an Anonymous Fairy Act, with Janice [Anderson]’s help. I drew and painted the little pictures on the beach, cut them up in the hotel room. The smallest was about 1 cm square. So. Very small. Put them all in one of the twenty-peso, woven purses I’d bought, a yellow one. I called the purse my ‘portfolio.’ I borrowed masking tape and took the little watercolours around the hotel. Some I photographed and took away, some I left where I installed them. I put a tiny watercolour on the risers of the circular staircase, where they were nearly invisible. But not quite.
I dressed for the occasion and locale: early evening on 5th Avenue in ‘downtown’ Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where Playa locals hustle and hand out hundreds of small flyers every night: for restaurants, tours, etc. Visiting Playa as a tourist, I found the hustling and the flyers at times funny (Buanita blondie! Special price for you! Hey honeymooners [to me, Janice, and Michael all together]! Welcome K-Mart shoppers!) and at times invasive (Sexy! Come here, buy, buy, buy!). Annoying or funny, they have to do it, to make a living. The bus for locals in the countryside was a flatbed truck, no roof, no seats, wooden planks for sides, compared to our $50 US bus tour, which was a roomy, air-conditioned bus with seat belts, ‘personal comfort settings’, etc.
All this was in my mind as I prepared my portfolio and myself for the performance to come. Anyone on 5th Avenue who wanted to give me a flyer or sell me something would receive a small watercolour and a smile. Started slow. Reactions:
– bleached blonde Mexican man, young 20s, looked at me with wide-open amorous eyes and kissed my hand
– a little girl of about three years accepted the painting and calmly put it in her mouth
– a nun collecting for missionary work seemed startled, but took the watercolour
– a man on the beach selling maracas asked what it was, and thanked me
– an aggressive man in front of a restaurant wouldn’t take it in his hand, as he was too intent on trying to physically pull me into the restaurant – I tucked the painting in his shirt pocket as Janice pulled him off my waist
– a child of about seven or eight took a painting from Janice solemnly and wordlessly after solemnly and wordlessly giving me a flyer
– a man of about twenty-five or thirty, selling hair braiding, asked what it was and then said thank-you, seeming pleased and surprised
– a man ran after me asking why was I giving him the painting, did I like him? I tried to explain the project – giving something to people who were working hard to sell things
– I gave a painting of a tiny fish to man selling blankets – he asked, ‘what is it?’ I answered, ‘a fish. He said, ‘thank-you.’
– We put a tiny fish on a display of food outside a restaurant called ‘100% Natural’ and a flower painting in the change slot of a red payphone
Most people accepted the paintings without registering surprise. Most said thank-you. No-one rejected the watercolours. Obviously I was offering the gift as a substitute for the normal system of exchange (see Mauss). The interactions were fleeting and based on my presence as a tourist, which shaped the way that merchants and vendors viewed and approached me. In almost every case where an attempt to sell was being made, my offering of a painted flower, fish, or butterfly temporarily halted the types of language used. Stopped the jovial beseeching and pressure to buy. Instead, people on the street said ‘thank-you’ or ‘that’s very nice.’ And I guess I did it to be nice, but more to do something that would reorient the moment, the relationship, to give something other than money, which I did not in fact have to give, but no doubt would have been preferred, and probably better in all practical senses.”
From my journal, March 1999.’
Flowers for Flyers was a flawed project. One might say that I did the project to make myself feel better about the irreducible economic differences between me – a student, broke, but not so broke that I couldn’t afford a plane ticket – and the local people, who have little choice but to pressure tourists for small amounts of money that will make a big difference to their daily quality of life. This was my first experience visiting a developing country as a tourist, and like many others I was struck by the proximity of poverty, need, and generosity, openness of spirit, as I had been in Brazil. But as my primary point of contact was the street, and the economic basis for communication, the best means I had to engage was through the experiment of finding out what would happen if, instead of bringing out a wallet of money, I brought out a “portfolio” of tiny works of art to give away. But Flowers for Flyers was an important step in my developing approach as an artist, to take the place or site in which I found myself, and respond and react to its particular circumstances, and invite that space’s users into my experiment.