July 17, 2002

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culture shocked
by katharine mieszkowski

Orange juice

YOUR FRESHMAN YEAR at U.C. Santa Cruz, you sign up for an introductory art class. Within no time you're scheming to take an oversize, papier-mâché orange on a road trip across America.

A half orange, three feet in diameter, cut into six slices might seem like an unlikely magic carpet, but this is no goofy Sunkist marketing prop. This orange is going to propel three Bay Area art students around the United States this August.

Slices of the orange have already been spotted having lunch in restaurants in downtown Santa Cruz and posing for snapshots with passersby. The orange has a natural charisma. It's a bit of a ham and a definite conversation piece. Can anyone resist asking a college student why she has a huge orange slice protruding from her backpack? If nothing else, it's a great excuse to talk to her.

And that's the point. She wants you and everyone else to talk to her about the orange. Get it? "It's really about meeting people and making fun of ourselves as artists," 19-year-old Molly Berger from Berkeley says.

To bring their orange to the people, Berger, Melania Vargas, 19, and Emma Schutz Fort, 20, have raised about $2,000 in the past year from family, friends, and other students. (Berger and Vargas are friends from Berkeley High School. Fort, who's from Chico, met Berger at Santa Cruz.) The current plan is to spend the month of August traveling around the country by train; the tickets alone will set them back $1,800. But a car trip still hasn't been ruled out.

The Orange Project started as an art-class assignment. The task: show time and motion. Fort and Berger took the orange around downtown Santa Cruz and photographed puzzled strangers interacting with it. "People were just willing to be with it," Berger says. The students presented their slides in rapid succession, like a flip book, to show, uh, time and motion.

From art class at Santa Cruz, the orange snowballed. Where else could they take it? How would people around the country react to it?

The fundraising to find out has ballooned over the last year. For $15 a pop, the artists sell neon T-shirts advertising the Orange Project. Some 250 patrons of the orange have sprung for one, including a few strangers responding to fundraising pleas on Craigslist. Their next money-making scheme is a family garage sale. Hey, how about a fresh-squeezed orange juice stand?

Which begs the question, why an orange anyway? "Fruits are very bright and vibrant in color," Berger says. "We chose an orange because it's such a happy color."

But the artists realized this wasn't an entirely satisfying explanation, so they toyed with this high concept to publicize their great trip: "The orange slices are like the different slices of America that all come together in a great orange," Berger says. But they scrapped that sound bite as too contrived, too much of a cringe.

"It's supposed to be fun. It's not about being a pretentious artist," says Vargas, the filmmaker in the group. "The process of what we're doing is a lot of what the art is," Berger adds.

Among their many plans: They'll photograph people they meet and ask them to write a little something about what they think of the orange. They'll update their Web site periodically to chronicle their travels. And when they get back, they'll cut a mockumentary about their adventures to goof on the myriad attempts other artists have made to capture America and have a gallery show to showcase their great caper.

If that sounds like a lot of fuss about an orange, supposedly there's a museum in Texas exclusively dedicated to works about oranges. Fort, Berger, and Vargas haven't located it yet, but they hope to make it a stopover on their journey. Maybe one day their orange could retire there, smudged and battered from the road, but still representing.

But isn't the Orange Project just a little too wholesome to come off without trouble? Won't this all end badly in some dusty bar in Texas? (Never mind that everyone involved is too young to legally drink.)

Or maybe before the trip even begins, one of our orange wranglers will abscond with the funds from the joint trip bank account. She'll send the other two artists a Polaroid of a Longhorn steer with an orange slice impaled on each horn in an envelope postmarked "Cut and Shoot, TX."

The ransom note: "I have your precious orange. And it's safe – for now. But if you ever want to see all six slices together again, deliver $3,500, in unmarked bills, in a brown paper bag to a barrista named Lulu at the Center City Café at Burning Man. She'll be wearing an orange tank top, an orange tutu, and nothing else. If she doesn't get the goods by midnight on August 31, your precious citrus fruit burns with The Man! P.S. America IS beautiful, suckas!"

E-mail the Orange Project at lunarcy692001@yahoo.com. E-mail Katharine Mieszkowski at kmad2000@hotmail.com.