My Own Private Utopia: An Interview with Patrick Killoran

© Patrick Killoran. Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar), 2003.

© Patrick Killoran. Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar), 2003.

We’ve heard about these places, micronations, tiny republics of one, whose borders are not quite legal and whose leaders are madder than the norm. Stories circulate about a country founded on a sea-surrounded gunner platform or a desert colony of hippies living in a network of crumbling domes, and we might even believe these stories, believe in the radical self-sufficiency they describe. Whether or not the stories are true doesn’t worry anyone. We know, unconsciously, that micronations don’t mess around much with the real, that they are content with being obstinate fantasies, just as we know that these micronations are not aimed inward at a short-lived mental utopia, but outward, towards us, towards us as an us, a missive about ourselves to ourselves sent from that electrified no man’s land between mass delusion and private pathology.</p>

Micronations are not what initially drew me to Patrick Killoran's public project, Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar), an artwork which, on the face of it, seems extremely remote from the shut-in world of first-person states. In fact, the initial interest came about because of the work's jumble of civic-minded and self-denying gestures. Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar) takes the form of a lost wallet, or wallets, which have been purposefully scattered, or "lost," throughout various international cities. A few might be found and returned, but more likely they would be riffled-through and tossed, or maybe tossed and that's it. But if you did find one, then you would experience the work, and if not, past tense summaries are about as close as you'll get.

Before you get the wrong idea: Killoran's work wasn't a test of public morality in that painful and highly questionable candid camera sort of way. The wallet was a delivery device, and returning it was a bit of problem, mostly because the home of the wallet's owner wasn't exactly a real place, and even more confusingly, the owner didn't exist either. The man is Thomas Swallow, who is supposedly his fifties, and who, upon closer examination of the ID in the wallet, bears an uncanny resemblance to Walt Elias Disney. Alongside receipts from local restaurants and business cards, a discoverer of the wallet finds something else: money from the "Reserve Bank of Tierra del Mar," an obviously fictional country, and here we return to micronations.

But my interview with Patrick began with my initial interest, in the work's complex and paradoxical relation to publicity and privacy:

John Menick: Although Lost & Found is a work that exists outside of the gallery space, and can be considered a work of public art, its main themes seem to be discretion and secrecy. Our wallets are among our most private possessions, even more precious than a purse or backpack, and here that privacy is put at risk. Can you describe what led you to make a work that is so much about the exposure of privacy?

Patrick Killoran: I was included in the 1998 Biennale of Sydney, and part of my duties for the show included being on a panel at the Gallery of New South Wales. It was one of those classic art world moments where there were way too many speakers and the event had gone on for hours; but there I was sitting on stage having to look enthralled. The audience looked exhausted -- like a zombie convention. When my turn to speak finally came, I could not imagine going through an explanation of all of my work. So I took my wallet out of my pocket and threw it into the audience.

The gist of what I said after throwing the wallet had to do with breaking the power relationship between audience and speaker by throwing something so personal. I recall feeling very uncomfortable watching the audience look through my wallet. It was all very dramatic and silly and I cringe because I must have seemed like such a brat. However that initial gesture left a deep impression on me. It planted the seed of what would become Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar).

Jonathan Watkins was the curator of that Biennale. Five years later, I found myself proposing Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar) to him for Ikon Gallery’s offsite program. Over that five-year period, I had mainly employed a strategy of modifying objects that people recognize from everyday life. All of those works dealt with private space and how we filter out other people. Like the interior of a car or a letter, the wallet's interior is really reserved for one person. Allowing someone to go through your wallet is quite intimate. The wallet was a form I wanted to work with but it took a long time for me to decide how to do it. However, Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar) also represented a shift in strategy. It introduced a type of narrative and imagery that did not exist in my work previously.

In Sydney you acted alone, the relation between you and your audience was very one-to-one. However, in Birmingham you are involving an institution in your gesture. How did Ikon initially react to this shared responsibility? What was the process like while developing the project?

Performance art has a tendency of using the artist’s body as the "source" of the work. This concept of the artist as source is something I wanted to avoid. In most of my works, I have deferred that experience directly to the audiences’ bodies. In the project Lost & Found my tactic was to generate a fictional character as a way of removing myself as a source. Although I am the one "losing" the wallets, what the finder contends with is the fictional character I have created.

In terms of completing the project, the fundamental decisions were made at the meeting with Jonathan. I had completed a rough version of the wallet. It was really the craziest idea I proposed that day and I was shocked when he chose it.

The discussion that followed orbited the fact that I wanted to make it impossible for the wallets to be returned. Almost everyone suggests placing a note inside "if lost please return" with the address of the institution. For me, this was too much like an advertising technique. It had been done before as guerilla marketing. Plus, having the wallets returned would create a sort of relic, which I also wanted to avoid. All these strategies were "conceptually tight". This was the sort of tactic I was taught in school. It had to go beyond that, to a new place. After many games of pool, Jonathan agreed that this was the core of the work. We had to lose an object that had nowhere to go.

Once I lost the wallets, the police freaked out, the heads of precincts began to show up at Ikon. They were infuriated. In the UK most lost wallets end up at the police station. I guess if dozens of identical wallets begin to turn up it is a bit unnerving. Debbie Kermode who ran the off-site projects bore the brunt of the police hysteria, while I watched from the rafters, again feeling like a brat. As time went on, the police wanted to disassociate themselves from the piece and I suspect it was because they realized that it did not warrant such a reaction. When the other incarnations of Lost & Found would appear in New York, Vilnius, and Chicago, the police did not even blink and eye.

But in your question I sense something deeper about the involvement of the institution. Ikon provided more than logistics, press and funding. For many, institutions provide the framing of what is and is not art. I wanted to see what would happen if I used the institution to make an event that was meaningful but was not framed as art. The wallet was not displayed in the gallery. The institutions I have worked with seem to look at the project as one big experiment.

It's funny to think you had inadvertently designed a piece whose ideal audience was the Birmingham police department. Although, in a sense, the work turns everyone into a kind of amateur detective, especially when one considers the actual contents of the wallet. But before speaking about the contents, I wanted to ask you to describe the responses to the work in the different cities.

I am not sure we can gauge the reaction. It was not observable, because of the work’s scale and how it was disseminated. It was my intention to make a piece that would produce hundreds of outcomes. Yes, the police reacted and threatened to arrest me, but that is only one reaction. At best, I can only say that I have watched people find the wallets and I have watched people ignore them. But this all seems opaque. The police in Birmingham said that people were removing the fictional money and trying to change it into British pounds. In New York and Chicago, it was virtually a non-event and the only accounts were coincidental. For example, in Chicago someone attending the opening at Hyde Park Art Center said that she had witnessed group of people trying to get a wallet that was behind a fence. They were using a stick to try and slide it close enough to them to grab. I remembered throwing one wallet between the bars of a fence. I should point out that Chicago’s wallet, Lost & Found (Shangri-La) drew from a different narrative based primarily on the imaginary country of Shangri-la.

In some instances, other people help me lose wallets. For example, when I could not attend the group exhibition 24/7 in Vilnius I had accomplices lose the wallets. As you can see, these accounts are all just fragmentary, so I am not sure I can make definitive conclusions about the audiences’ response.

However, I must confess that the wallets are designed with a narrative in mind, or at least a sequence. I have always assumed that at first people believe the wallet is real and for a short time they react accordingly, but then when they study the contents they realize that that the wallet is fake. Your comment about amateur detective is interesting because the finder first tries to solve the problem of how to return the wallet. Like any good mystery it brings them into a story that is far more complicated. Who would go to all this trouble? What is this wallet?


© Patrick Killoran. Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar), detail, 2003.

© Patrick Killoran. Lost & Found (Tierra del Mar), detail, 2003.

And who is this guy from Tierra del Mar? And why does he resemble Walt Disney? Not only does it become apparent that there’s a fiction being told, but also that everything in the wallet circles back to some form of utopianism. I know it’s hard to gauge, but what kind of reaction do you think this utopian narrative would instigate from a member of the public?</p>

This fellow's name is Thomas Swallow, named after a British utopian author. His photo on the ID is Walt Disney. The money and any official documents found inside the wallet are fabricated. These articles are mixed in with real items from the cities where the wallets are lost.

Thomas has a religious charm and fortunes displayed in the front window of the wallet, but in the back pocket you will find a card to a strip club and a condom. Thomas is a man of contradictions. He is a citizen of Tierra del Mar, which is a reference to a "country" that Ernest Hemingway’s brother attempted to create on a large raft in the Caribbean. Needless to say, this micro-nation failed. I imagine that when someone scrutinizes the wallet’s contents, they find an entire world, something that has detail and unfolds endlessly.

As I said earlier, I did not want the wallet to be "the artist's wallet." In addition, I wanted to make it impossible to be returned. So when I asked myself, where is a place that we cannot go? Utopia was the answer. What I am instigating is an event where the finder goes from doing a practical task of returning (or stealing) a wallet, to suddenly discovering an imaginary world. The inside of the wallet is imaginary, while the outside was material and tangible. The intimate space houses our aspirations and desires. I like very much, that the discovery of this imaginary world is the same moment the wallet becomes immobile.

However, I should say that this is only one way Lost & Found is experienced. There are some people who never look inside or who happen to see multiple lost wallets as they walk through the train station or park. All of these experiences are valid. Still, I do not think I have answered your question: what am I instigating? I should go back to the idea of the amateur detective. The wallets are clues or evidence. At first, the case appears easily solved but after further investigation the case changes. It shifts from a practical problem to a metaphorical one. Whose wallet is it? Now the wallet is theirs.

One of the most complex qualities of the project is how it embodies the contradictions of utopia: namely, how it stresses that utopia always has a boundary over which someone can never cross. Utopias are always exclusionary. For example, I think Disney represents a utopian vision – I'm willing to give it that – but it's not a utopia many have a place in. Utopias are, in a sense, like Hemingway's micronation. Micronations are often designed for a select group – add outsiders, and it would collapse. To come back to my initial question, I'm wondering if this uneasy mixture of extreme privacy and utopia is an attempt to assess critically contemporary utopianism?

There is a tension between the lofty ideals of the world represented inside the wallet and the ethical decisions facing the wallet’s finder. I am trying to differentiate between actualizing utopia and acting on your ideals. The choice to return a wallet is not utopian because utopia exists within the imagination. Returning a wallet is not a fantasy, but it is an ideal one can actually negotiate. Utopias are utopias precisely because they are unattainable. Like the fortune cookie slip in the wallet says, "Utopia is always far away."