When Artists Turn to Craigslist, the Results Are Intimate, Disquieting, and Surprisingly Profound
It’s 2011 and Kenneth Tam is standing in a dingy Los Angeles apartment having a conversation with a man in a cardboard box. “Your body is not bad,” says the box-man, an aspiring photographer the artist had met via the “Casual Encounters” section of Craigslist. “And yet you’re a little guarded. I still want you to be able to get into a situation where you’re in a room with another naked man, and see how comfortable you would be allowing them to touch you.” Things don’t go exactly that far, but in the end, Tam has acquiesced to stripping out of his jeans and underwear and allowing this stranger to slowly, almost tenderly peruse his rear.
It wasn’t the first time Tam, the artist, had found himself in a strange place—emotionally and otherwise—thanks to Craigslist, the no-frills website launched in 1995 and used since then to find everything from used couches to new lovers. After idly experimenting with the site’s artistic potentials while in New York, Tam became more invested in it as a graduate student at the University of Southern California. In Los Angeles, he found an oddly willing audience for his offbeat requests: to have someone shave him on camera, for instance, or to allow him to film a couple’s casual dinner at home while he sat, silent, in the background.
Kenneth Tam, still from The compression is not subservient to the explosion; it gives it increased force, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Craigslist has proven a blessing for a generation of artists, a seemingly bottomless well of eccentricity. Artists have used it to cast projects, or for open calls: Eva and Franco Mattes, for instance, are currently using Craigslist to find someone willing to turn over his or her private phone (with a few years’ worth of photos and videos) for $1,000.
The site encourages niche obsessions to blossom, and makes it especially easy to pursue serial photography projects. Eric Oglander has fastidiously collected images of mirrors for sale on the site, compiling them into a thematic book. Borden Capalino culls poor-quality photos of battered furniture and uses them as the basis for gnarly, quasi-grotesque mixed-media paintings. Penelope Umbrico treats the site like an open-source image library, as in the self-explanatory series “TVs from Craigslist.” In these cases, there’s a certain voyeurism involved—an image of someone’s lumpy La-Z-Boy and a fumbling attempt to make it sound worth buying—without the risks of direct engagement.
Almost all of the artists used the same adjective to describe Craigslist—seedy. In some cases, that’s a boon for artmaking.
Tam himself eased into thinking of Craigslist as a way to meet people. At first, he was treating the site simply as a place to acquire and circulate sculptural materials: He’d buy used IKEA furniture, change or augment it in some way, and then sell it back again on the site. “I liked that I could disseminate it, beyond my control, and let this stuff surf on the Craigslist economy,” he recalls.
The artist Brian Rochefort has found the site to be a similar resource. “I started off buying a few minimal pieces of furniture for $20 to $40 and spraying them with automotive paint to look like high-end Memphis Group furniture,” he explains. That experiment proved fruitful, and he moved on to ceramics. “I searched Craigslist for vessels and kitsch piggy banks to rework, to take away their identity and subvert their form. Their origin wasn’t important to me. Reglazing a $20 vessel and selling it for a few thousand—I thought that was incredibly funny and exciting.”
What happens, though, when Craigslist becomes a form of relationship-building? Tam, like most people, had his first experiences with the site for more mundane, non-artistic reasons: looking for cheap, used goods. “I was using it all the time,” he recalls. Picking up an item at a stranger’s house was like entering “a weird portal that deposited me into really interesting social environments.”
The artist realized that these sort of interactions could be leveraged into something that was choreographed—and documented. That led to a series of early Craigslist videos, including I no longer worry about shoes being worn inside the house (2010), in which Tam engages in odd, dance-like movements with a man named Jeffrey, who also swaps clothing with the artist, and teaches him to do a headstand. (“He was someone who made a living doing odd jobs on Craigslist,” Tam says, “and my post seemed like just another gig for him.”)
For Cathy (2009), Tam posted a Craigslist ad offering cash to a couple who would let him observe, and film, an ordinary dinner in their home. “It became an odd, uncomfortable evening for me,” he admits, “though Cathy seemed totally fine with it. It was such a strange, strange encounter.”
The resulting video—in which its subjects eat fried chicken and chat while Tam perches on a chair in the background—left him conflicted. “I felt very ashamed of what I had done,” he says. “I couldn’t explain what was happening. And I think that’s part of the work: this uncertainty of what this relationship is, and the feelings of discomfort.”
Tam was making these videos in Los Angeles, and he believes the city’s demographics are what made Craigslist so successful for him. “A lot of the people I was encountering considered themselves actors,” he says. “There’s this surplus labor in L.A. So, despite how strange it was, people there are very familiar with being in front of a camera. People will always think anything could be their break—even this weird art guy showing up at their doorstep.”
“That’s part of the work, this uncertainty of what this relationship is—and the feelings of discomfort.”
Meanwhile, around the same time, the artist Laurel Nakadate was also experimenting with the site as a way to generate work. She had previously focused on “chance encounters in real life,” she says, meeting men at grocery stores, parking lots, or in her own apartment building, and then asking them to sketch her portrait on camera, or dance to Britney Spears songs.
But for her 2009 “Lucky Tiger” series, Nakadate took playfully suggestive self-portraits, and then found men via Craigslist who were willing to “cover their hands with fingerprinting ink and touch the photographs while discussing them and passing them around,” according to the artist’s New York dealer, Leslie Tonkonow. Nakadate would later depend on Craigslist as a casting resource—for a feature film shot in Kansas City, Stay the Same Never Change (2008), as well as a Performa project she staged in collaboration with James Franco.
Laurel Nakadate, Lucky Tiger #20, 2009. © Laurel Nakadate. Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artowkrs + Projects, New York.
Sophie Barbasch is an heir to Nakadate’s internet-enabled relational awkwardness. The young artist has never been keen to meet anyone off Craigslist in real life—safety concerns, she says—but she has eagerly incorporated their thoughts, and voices, into a series of books and other works. “I’m positioning myself as an anthropologist,” she says, “trying to find out about men.” (Interestingly, she says L.A. was a Craigslist wasteland for her—“people are not into playing the game there”—whereas she has had good luck posting in cities like Dallas or Minneapolis.)
Barbasch will leave a simple request in the site’s “Strictly Platonic” social forum: “Tell me why I’m a good girl,”or “Please send me a picture of your bed.” The resulting texts and images—sans the respondent’s names or email addresses—are collected in a series of small books, now some 20 in total. In some cases the material has simply proven too bleak to publish. When she asked the Craigslist community to “tell her the worst thing they’d ever done for money,” the results disturbed her. “I don’t know what my purpose is, as an editor, putting that out in the world,” she says.
The Craigslist ad Sophie Barbasch posted to collect voicemails from strangers. Courtesy of the artist.
For the audio installation Goodnight Call, Barbasch provided her phone number and asked strangers to “leave me a goodnight voicemail before you go to sleep at night as though we have been together for years.” The results vary between mildly disturbing and slightly heartbreaking. “Hey, how you doing, it’s just me,” one man says in a soothing whisper. “I hope you had a great weekend by yourself. Sorry this business deal is just taking a really long time, but I wanted you to know I’ve been thinking about you…”
Barbasch doesn’t respond to her platonic suitors, and she doesn’t let them know they’ve unwittingly stumbled into an art project. “I’ve kept my distance, because it was never really about a connection between two people,” she explains. “If I’d entered into communication it’d be a little more resolved—building relationships, as opposed to speaking about lonely, disconnected people.”
The photographer Terry A. Ratzlaff has met his share of the lonely, but in a more face-to-face manner. In order to find subjects, he would either post or respond to Craigslist dating ads—most often in the “Men for Men” section of “Casual Encounters” (a portion of the site reserved for fleetingly brief assignations).
I asked Ratzlaff to tell me a bit about one particularly queasy image of a man named Kurt, who is photographed naked in a barebones hotel room. “I walked in and Kurt was sitting in a dark corner of the room in clothes that appeared to be a size too big for him,” Ratzlaff recalls. “When he spoke he mumbled, mostly. I don’t think he really made eye contact with me until I asked him to look into my lens. He had some really interesting things to say about past relationships and interactions on the web; he then asked me if I would be naked while I made photographs. I said no. As I photographed him for the next hour, he was eager to undress.
“He laid on the bed, as pictured, and the entire time he played with himself in a very casual way. I remember sitting in my car afterwards thinking to myself that this was the start to a new chapter of work in my life: I had never made images like that, and I had never been so uncomfortable while making work. His images haunted me for the next few weeks as I continued the project.”
Terry Ratzlaff, Kurt, Denver, Colorado, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
One of the interesting aspects of Craigslist is the way it has changed (and stayed the same) over the span of over two decades. The site’s aesthetic is intentionally lo-fi, a sort of time capsule of early Internet design. A straw poll of social-media friends made it clear that people are still comfortable buying and selling goods—trucks, mirrors, furniture—and scouting for new roommates on the site. But at the same time, Craigslist’s dating forums have been seriously overshadowed by dating and hook-up apps, from OkCupid to Tinder and Grindr, that at least present the veneer of greater safety and security.
“I met a man who wanted naked photos with his six Yorkshire Terriers—to make into a calendar for his husband.”
Almost all of the artists I spoke to for this piece used the same adjective to describe Craigslist’s reputation—seedy—the digital equivalent of a roadside bar with wet carpets and some unsavory characters huddled around the pool table. In some cases, that’s a boon for artmaking. “It’s really like the Wild West, early days of the internet,” says the artist Matthew Morrocco, who has used the site to find gay men in New York willing to pose for nude portraits. “I once met a man who owned a cupcake business and wanted photographs of himself naked with his six Yorkshire Terriers—to make into a calendar for his husband. I met a guy who lived in a small crawl-space between the first and second floors of a four-bedroom apartment. Craigslist makes for interesting interactions, but also more anonymous ones, which can feel threatening.”
“I’ve tried other sites but never gotten the same result,” admits Barbasch. “I think we have certain expectations of what Craigslist is—which is to say anonymous, and no-strings-attached. If you’re posting on a dating site, I guess that people don’t feel as free to express themselves, because an in-person encounter is implied.”
Kenneth Tam, still from Breakfast in Bed, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Tam has started using Reddit as an additional resource to find subjects and collaborators—most notably for the nine-week filming process for Breakfast in Bed, a hilarious and moving series of male-bonding exercises between strangers whom the artist met and placed in various situations. Tam wasn’t meeting people on Craigslist who “were willing to commit for an extended period of time.” But on Reddit, he was. “It has its own particular demographic—more tech-savvy, a little more educated, overwhelmingly white, male, and straight, probably. And you have a lot less anonymity with Reddit, a certain amount of accountability. Craigslist is meeting needs: ‘How much am I getting paid, and how long is this going to be for?’”
But Craigslist continues to thrive in the unlikeliest of places, including the oddball cable hit Nathan For You. (After its third season aired, ARTnews made a smart call: “2015’s Best Conceptual Artwork Is a TV Show on Comedy Central.”) On the series, the protagonist Nathan Fielder stages a sick inversion of a reality show in which he positions himself as an expert who is called in to improve a struggling business. Fielder’s ideas are inevitably convoluted, and terrible. In the just-launched fourth season, he helps a local restaurant owner skirt a sports arena’s policy against selling outside food—the plan involves defrauding both a medical doctor and a security guard, and commissioning a wearable fat-suit filled with boiling hot chili. To reboot a moving company in Season 3, Fielder hires laborers by convincing them that lifting heavy boxes—without being paid—is actually a great substitute for going to the gym.
The engine that often propels these idiotic business makeovers is—you guessed it—Craigslist. The site is Fielder’s lifeline, a way for him to instantly access everything from part-time ghostwriters to prospective massage therapists with active warts. For one of the most recent episodes—the full plot of which is too hopelessly complicated to explain here—he takes to the site’s “Talent” section. “Seeking large man who has cremated his mother,” his post runs. “Paid gig.”
Nathan Fielder , Season 4, “The Anecdote,” October 19, 2017. Courtesy of Comedy Central.
Tam says that Nathan For You confirms his theory about why Craigslist is a fruitful tool in Los Angeles. “When I was watching the show, I definitely recognized that kind of person who’ll agree to weird stuff as long as there’s a camera crew there,” he tells me. “It somehow makes sense to them.”
What kind of labor pool is actually out there for an aspiring artist trawling Craigslist, I wondered? As an unscientific experiment, I posted two equally implausible posts soliciting $15-an-hour contributors for an art project—one in New York, and the other in Los Angeles.
My nonsensical post was made by an “established” video and performance artist working “at the intersection of food culture, post-Internet theory, and modernist dance.” I was seeking “open-minded, physically flexible collaborators” for a new piece about “contemporary politics and sensuality.” The only rough prerequisites were a driver’s license, ability to lift “awkward objects,” and “an underlying sense of docility and obedience.”
“Seeking large man who has cremated his mother,” the Nathan For You post runs. “Paid gig.”
If Tam’s experience showed that Los Angeles was a goldmine for “surplus labor” among the acting community, my casual trial netted a different sort of respondent in both cities: struggling artists and art students. A “movement artist” was interested, but wanted to see examples of my portfolio. A pastry chef and art blogger with rudimentary Spanish skills was open to learning more; ditto a “freelance actor with an interesting face” and a background in “performance art, pranks, and viral videos.” A student at Otis College of Art and Design wrote, as did an artist who had previously assisted on projects for Jeff Koons and Robert Gober.
Did I feel a little wrong and icky even reading these eager responses? Of course I did. “There are some ethical considerations that come up,” Barbasch tells me, “and that’s an open-ended question that I deal with from time to time.” Nakadate’s work has—wrongly, in my mind—often been accused of exploiting the sad, lonely, and lackluster.
But what makes something art, rather than simply taking advantage, is the understanding that we’re all sometimes pitiable or odd or yearning for something large and strange that we can’t put into words. (Nathan For You works, in part, because Fielder’s own persona is just as socially maladjusted as any of his unwitting collaborators.) When Tam made Cathy, as well as his earliest Craigslist videos, he felt like he was “literally stepping into this weird soup.” But the understood truth is that we’re already all simmering in that weird soup together—no matter how we casually encounter each other.
Header image: Craigslist posts submitted by the author to gauge interest in an imaginary art project.