Toward a new Public Conversation on Addiction and Recovery

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

Henry David Thoreau

Fifty/Fifty is a traveling series of interdisciplinary, social practice art projects, including Free Ice Water, Free Hot Coffee and Free Hot Supper. Fifty/Fifty creates and contributes to dialogue on addiction and recovery, through local, regional and national events. Inspired in part by Thoreau’s three chairs, the trio of projects start from the space of self- and shared reflection (Free Ice Water), then migrate to active outreach and conversation (Free Hot Coffee), and culminates an opportunity for a larger dialogue with diverse and often unexpected audiences (Free Hot Supper). Part conceptually based performance art, and part turn-of-the-century medicine show, Fifty/Fifty engages multiple audiences including galleries and museums, research universities, and addiction and recovery communities. Fifty/Fifty consists of a series of public events and workshops, site-specific publications and custom-made “Recovery Roast” coffees unique to each site-specific community.

Fifty/Fifty at The Brink Liverpool as part of the Liverpool Biennial Fringe - September 2016

Essay by Lauren Ross, Curator

John Freyer wants to speak with you

… over a jar of water, a cup of coffee, or a plate of spaghetti. And whether or not you are aware of it (it’s fine with him either way), he regards your time together as both an offering and an artwork. Freyer’s particular blending of conversation and small acts of kindness might seem like a curious approach to art-making, but it is rooted in several traditions, drawn from inside and outside of contemporary art.

The offering up of gifts or services is commonplace in contemporary art making, or “art practice,” to use a more fashionable phrase. Relational aesthetics is the term applied to a relatively recent turn in art-making in which artists choreograph discrete, live, interactive events, often focused on trade, barter, or gift economies. The distribution of goods or services—such as giving away home-cooked meals or free haircuts—is considered an artistic act, akin to a performance, except that the audience members are engaged as active participants rather than passive observers. Similarly, social practice is a term broadly applied to an approach in which artists wish to grapple with and directly affect societal problems, such as economic or social inequity. Often, such artists work within disadvantaged or troubled communities, seeking practical solutions to help ameliorate adversity. Typically less concerned with traditional artistic objects (paintings, sculptures, etc.), both of these approaches instead focus on establishing environments, situations, or conditions in which some type of event or exchange can occur. Both stem from the desire to withdraw art from rarified and elitist realms, and make it more accessible, useful, and relevant.

Freyer draws on these relatively new realms of relational aesthetics and social practice, as well as one far less commonly looked to by artists: substance abuse recovery. Freyer was already basing his artwork on various conditions of his own life, and after seeking help for alcohol dependence in 2013, it didn’t take him long to realize that his experience in recovery similarly could serve as the foundation for art. His first foray into this notion was offering up ice-cold water to needy, often homeless, individuals in Richmond, Virginia. From there his actions grew gradually and thoughtfully in scale and scope. The components of Fifty/FiftyFree Ice Water, Free Hot Coffee, and Free Hot Supper—are selections from his continuously developing body of work inspired by the culture of recovery. This particular recipe is unusual, but Freyer’s seamless blend of contemporary art theory and recovery teachings reveals how many principles they share: the desire to operate as part of a community, the desire to give back / pay forward, and the understanding that healing can only be achieved with a holistic approach.

The typical substance abuse recovery process includes therapy sessions and group meetings. Dominated by the acts of talking and bonding, in part they serve by helping participants realize that they are not alone in their trials. Individual meetings are less important than their repetition and serial application. People in recovery realistically cannot expect a single meeting to end their dependence. They are taught that it is a lifelong process, a full-scale commitment that is best approached a single day at a time. Freyer’s approach is also deliberately based in the repetition of modest gestures. A refreshing glass of water, a warming cup of coffee, or a nourishing meal… each lures in participants with the promise of comfort, but leads to the more crucial offerings of human interaction and fellowship. They remind participants that they are not alone, and employ the power of simple connection. Freyer doesn’t expect a lone event to transform participants’ lives or the communities where he stages them. He asks little of the outcomes of these sessions; in fact, he may not expect anything of them at all after their conclusion. But by repeating them over and over—even with a different set of participants each time—he is building a series of creative services with the potential to have a cumulative effect on one small corner of the world. For this reason, the application of the somewhat trendy term “practice” to describe Freyer’s work feels especially appropriate; his is an ongoing journey, not an isolated outcome. Practice, not perfection. Small steps, taken one at a time.