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Oracle Corp. blew into town last week and threw itself a business party -- Oracle OpenWorld -- at the Moscone Center. Larry Ellison, the CEO of the $230 billion company, took over both convention center buildings for the week, paying a quarter-million dollars in rent, plus union wages for stagehands.
Kicking off the trade show with a burst of generosity, Ellison announced gifts averaging $15,000 each to 40 nonprofit organizations nationwide. Lucky recipients in the Bay Area include the San Francisco Zoo, in support of two bald eagles for one year, and UC Davis, for studying cervical cancer and mice.
"We're mindful that not everyone has shared in the bounty of the Information Age," said Ellison.
Oracle is giving away $1.2 million in cash grants this year, which works out to about 1/20th of 1 percent of Oracle's profits last year. By contrast, many Fortune 500 corporate foundations give away 5 percent of their assets every year. Last year Wal-Mart gave away $65 million.
Ellison's bounty apparently doesn't extend to visual artists, either. Looking to put an aesthetic gloss on his trade show, Ellison made a deal with 14 San Francisco sculptors who work with a local nonprofit called ArtSpan. He commissioned them to make a sculpture garden in front of the convention center. They created monument-sized works, some of which cost many thousands of dollars in materials and took months to produce.
For their labors, Ellison cut each artist a check for $400.
Gale Jesi, who curated the "Sculpture Walk" for Oracle and co-sponsor Yerba Buena Alliance, says that is pretty good pay, considering that visual artists are often willing to work for free.
Artist Silvia Poloto says $400 is a "decent" fee for a month's work. When asked if Oracle could have afforded more, she says, "I do not want to go there."
Not all the sculptors were happy with the arrangement, however. ArtSpaners Jonathan Russell and Saori Ide decided to express their displeasure with the treatment of artists by perpetrating a gigantic hoax on the exhibit's sponsors: They fabricated a virtual artist from scratch in order to make a political statement.
Jesi spent months coordinating the exhibition after selecting the artists from two dozen local applicants. Russell and Ide each had individual artworks in the show. Unbeknown to Jesi, however, artist Aron Amos, whom she had selected to make a huge kitchen chair, was a phantom created by Russell and Ide. The two pranksters made up a fictional résumé for Amos, claiming he was from Scotland. They set up phony e-mail and voice mail addresses. They sent Jesi pictures of art that Russell had exhibited in other cities, claiming credit for Amos. They even persuaded a friend to impersonate the elusive Scottish sculptor.
Jesi says Amos was incredibly hard to get in touch with; when she finally met him he stared awkwardly at his shoes and mumbled. She thought he was socially challenged.
When it came time to put up the chair, Russell and Ide arrived with 900 pounds of welded steel and rebar. It took a dozen people to assemble and raise the monstrous thing.
"Gail was very helpful," says Russell. "She really pitched in with the manual labor. We started to feel guilty about hoaxing her."
When the artists spontaneously revealed the deception to Jesi, she took it well. After the shock of being hoaxed wore off, she made them sign forms assuming personal liability for the artwork.
Suddenly, the ontological meaning of The Artists Chairbecame significant, too. It was not just a chair anymore. The artists circulated a limited edition of a statement attributed to Aron Amos in which he complained that the new Internet economy is driving visual artists out of San Francisco. Artists are losing their cheap apartments and work spaces to the heat of the real estate market, the nonexistent artist wrote.
"There is currently a feast taking place in San Francisco. The gold rush of money ... is fueled by the Internet. Is there a seat or a place for visual artists at the table of this feast?"
Soon afterward, however, Aron Amos' cover was blown when Yerba Buena Alliance, without consulting the artists, released the statement to the press under Russell's and Ide's names. Amos was dead. But Russell and Ide were now entitled to split an extra $400.
Meanwhile, dozens of companies flogged their wares inside the Moscone Center, surrounded by logos, products, and technobabble. Periodically, wired people streamed outside the hall to escape the barrage of e-business. There, on the grass of Yerba Buena Gardens, they were given the chance to confront the chair, though the deeper ramifications of the artwork were no doubt lost on most.
Russell says the chair is, for him, a shrine to the unknown artist, a monument to the victims of the Internet. He and Ide are leaving the steel to rust in place -- to deteriorate like a culture that decides to ignore its artists.
How much, by the way, would Russell and Ide charge Ellison for The Artists Chair?
"We spent $5,000 building it."
"How about $60,000?"
"No, wait, $75,000!"
"Yeah, Ellison can afford it."