Books

Who’s to Blame? The Office of Blame Accountability

A view of the Office of Blame Accountability installation at the San Diego Museum last Thursday (courtesy the artists & Loudmouth Press)

Co-founded by Carla Repice and Geoff Cunningham in 2007, the Office of Blame Accountability (OBA) is, according to the pair, “not an office … it’s just life.” If you think that definition sounds nebulous then you’re right, because these “Blame Accountants,” as Maya Pindyck describes them in their new book, founded the cleverly named group in 2008, when they felt they lived in a country “filled with apathy, injustice, victimization, and oppression — a country deeply rooted in systems of corporatism and nationalism.”

A street poster by the Office of Blame … though Gen-Xers were the original 2K hipsters, so I don’t understand this one but point taken. (via gagventures.gagcrew.com)

The premise of their project is simple. The Blame Accountants set up shop (which consists of a table with a typewriter and a red phone) in public (often outdoor) areas where there is “a high frequency of collective blame.” These places have included Ground Zero, the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and Wall Street during the September 2008 stock market crash. These Blame Accountants invite passersby to document their blame, what it is specifically for, and their own role in the finger pointing.

As part of the project, this year Repice and Cunningham have published a book of their findings. It’s an attractive publication with page after page of filled out forms filled out by participants. Considering the project isn’t complete, it feels like a record of how far they’ve come.

As part of the promotion of the book, Loudmouth Press convinced the team to place blank forms on the streets of New York. My first exposure to the project came when I encountered a row of these illegally posted forms on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The responses were sometimes unexpected and often thought provoking. Some people blamed liberals, others hipsters, the right-wing was a favorite punching bag, then there were a bunch of tirades against daddies — it is Williamsburg, after all — and one even blamed his father for his own small penis (coincidentally there is a form with the exact same complaint in the book). Sure, the posters are a form of illegal advertising for the book but they transcended what is normally a one-way communication to engage the public in a new and interesting way — in other words, the sales pitch worked but it was secondary, if not tertiary, which is a brilliant ploy.

Performing in San Diego

Apologies to the Office of Blame (original non-PhotoShop’d photo provided by the artists & Loudmouth Press)

Last Thursday, the Office of Blame took over a historic European painting gallery at the San Diego Museum of Art as part of the institution’s Summer Salon Series. I spoke to them the following day and they described the scene as a “DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] inside a museum” with a waiting room and a line outside. When people asked them why so many of the tables were unmanned, the pair responded in character that it was the result of “budget cuts” and the “recession.”

“I think where the office takes place, in which context [is important] … like when we were at the Democratic and Republican conventions [in 2008], a lot of what people were finger-pointing and coming up with were political issues, solutions, accountability within that [context] … it was a more outward thing … when we were on Wall Street [it was the same]. But when we do it on any given day [and not during a special event] the personal becomes political, people are more likely looking at their personal lives,” Repice says.

“In the public spaces with no angle to it, we get more [blame] for family members and past experience, and trauma, personal trauma, and that sort of thing,” Cunningham says.

I was most fascinated by their unique perspectives on the 2008 political conventions that took place during a time when galvanizing political narratives were being stoked by the media and the country was confronting what felt like an epochal change.

“We saw how the news made it look, what they were choosing to see and what they were choosing to shoot, focus on, and spin. It was amazing. At the Democratic one, there was tons of participation and it was very easy to get people to go on and on and on. At the Republican convention, we got one delegate, one Republican person the whole time,” Cunningham said.

The cover of “The Office of Blame Accountability” book available through Loudmouth Press.

Repice agreed with her partner’s assessment. “They basically would walk by and say ‘no, no, no, no, no, our lives are great, we have no blame, blaming’s bad,’ but then all the St. Paul [Minnesota] residents were coming as much as three times a day saying ‘we want the Republicans to leave St. Paul.’ So the locals were using the office and the journalists [too] because they were being censored,” she said. Among the celebrity journalists who approached them was MSNBC pundit Joe Scarborough.

One of the things I expected to find in the book were images of the artists and examples of how they solicited responses from the general public. They explain the omission was intentional, because they don’t consider themselves performance artists but would rather view what they do as facilitators who are facilitating a space for the public so that something could happen.

They told me they started the street pasting in May of this year, and they wish they tapped into this more public and anonymous forum earlier. The street posters are often filled in many times and sometimes show signs of people crossing out other people’s answers. The street responses, unlike the ones in the book, are more aggressive. Having myself discovered the project on the street, without a desk or the artists anywhere in sight, I found the book a little tame in comparison. The examples in public are often filled with anger or hilarity, in contrast to those in the book which lack the same bite — the cloak of anonymity, as anyone who uses the internet knows, stops people from editing themselves.

The artists say the whole project fits into their general art practice. Both of them are painters, and they are concerned with the notion of public space, interruption, as well as, compassion and empathy. The project continues to grow and they are happy with the more recent life the project has had in the world of street art and in public institutions. They seem happy to continue along this path.

I put them on the spot and asked them to verbally fill out their own form as they spoke to me over Skype:

Cunningham: I blame myself today for smoking too many cigars last night.

Recipe:I blame myself for changing my ticket and leaving in two hours [from San Diego] because it’s a beautiful day outside.

Their answers seem a far cry from 2007 when the project started and when most artists I personally encountered would almost instinctively answer “the Bush Administration.” It made me wonder if the Office of Blame returned to the political conventions in two years if the Republicans wouldn’t be more forthcoming about who they think should be blamed, and, of course, I wonder what the Democratic delegates would say and who the journalists would be complaining about. In other words, the Office of Blame shows no sign of going out of business anytime soon.

Office of Blame Accountability (Loudmouth Press, 2010) is available on Amazon.

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