Growing up, it’s often drilled into us that we shouldn’t talk to strangers. But if you ask interactive artist and filmmaker Ivan Cash, it’s a notion that should be reconsidered—and even squashed—as we get older.
Ivan has made a name for himself and his firm, Cash Studios, by encouraging interactions between strangers. In 2011, he launched Snail Mail My Email, which entailed hundreds of volunteers around the world handwriting strangers’ emails and then sending the physical letters to the intended recipients. The free community art project resulted in the mailing of over 7,000 letters in a five-day span in 2014.
Since then, he’s embarked on several other initiatives that aim to connect strangers. For ‘Last Photo’ Project, he asks people in various cities to share the last image they captured with their phone. The ongoing series will be re-evaluated when he reaches ten cities; he’s at six right now. (And in case you’re wondering: The last photo on his phone is a receipt from the business where he dropped off his monopod for service.)
Another one of his current projects is called Selfless Portraits, co-created with Jeff Greenspan. Over the past two years, more than 50,000 people have submitted art depicting a stranger’s Facebook profile picture. The entries range from simple sketches to more elaborate efforts like a wood-block print, an illustration done in the style of a Simpsons character, and a permanent tattoo. Yes. A permanent tattoo. Joey in San Francisco had Amarildo in São Paulo’s likeness inked on his lower back.
In the mini-documentary that Ivan created about the process, Joey describes the imagery: “[Amarildo’s] got these sunglasses, he’s crossing his arms, he’s got this attitude, he’s got a cigarette in his mouth.” When Joey ventures to get the tattoo, he adds: “In a way, it’s interesting because [the tattoo artist] is now, whether he knows it or not, a part of this connection. He is the mediator between me and Amarildo. So now this connection is three-fold.”
Starting last Friday, as part of the Airbnb Haus at the Sundance Film Festival, Ivan is bringing a physical adaptation of Selfless Portraits to Park City, Utah. ‘Strangers Drawing Strangers’ will run through January 31. Anyone can walk into the Airbnb Haus, have their Polaroid taken, then grab a Polaroid of a stranger out of an envelope, and start drawing on one of the tables lined with supplies. Towards the end of the Festival, visitors are encouraged to return and pick up the drawing that was made with their visage.
(We’ll be sharing more details of the Airbnb Haus and ‘Strangers Drawing Strangers’ in the coming days.)
The subject matter for Ivan’s projects can be traced back to his childhood in Marlboro, a small farming town in upstate New York. “A lot of my work deals with connecting people, and I think that interest comes from knowing very intimately what it’s like to be lonely,” he says. “As a kid growing up, at times, I didn’t feel like I had any close friends.”
He continues: “I grew up without a TV, without video games, no junk food. I just wanted to fit in, be a cool jock, but that never really materialized. My dad is an artist, and I had some shame around that. No one else’s parents were artists. I was just this weird kid with the weird dad who wore weird t-shirts. … But I feel like that always gave me an outsider perspective.”
That outsider perspective has served him well in his career, which developed organically since he graduated from SUNY Geneseo with a degree in communication. In 2008, he was arrested outside Madison Square Garden, where he was selling t-shirts he designed that implored Knicks fans to fire then-coach Isiah Thomas. They stated: Don’t hate the player or the game—hate the coach. “That opened my eyes to the fact that anyone—even a broke college student—could make a viral campaign,” he recalls.
It was that kind of ingenuity that helped land him his first job in advertising. He worked at agencies in San Francisco and Amsterdam before deciding to devote his days to freelance projects. Snail Mail My Email was started a week after Ivan quit his advertising job in Amsterdam.
Today, his client list ranges from L’Oreal and Coca Cola to Facebook and Airbnb. As an avid traveler, he is anticipating getting familiar with Park City and interacting with those who wander into the Airbnb Haus. “I’m excited to see how people respond and react,” says Ivan of the ‘Strangers Drawing Strangers’ installation. “Selfless Portraits has been very successful on the Internet, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that translates to real life and if people are equally as enthusiastic. I don’t have a need for [the drawings] to be a certain way; I’m just curious.”
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This is a guest post by Anh-Minh Le who is the editor in chief and cofounder of Anthology Magazine, as well as a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle and SFC&G. She is also an Editor at Large for California Home + Design. Travel and design are among her passions, and browsing Airbnb listings never fails to give her a serious case of wanderlust.