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Jacob’s letters 

Artist Luis Jacob takes spam mail and finds the human connection in it. Sue Carter Flinn betters her life by checking it out.

The text covering the walls of the Khyber Ballroom looks familiar. Each letter, each word, each sentence, all written in black or hot-pink shiny plastic tape, spreads across an L-shaped portion of the gallery in manic urgency; only after a second or so do the messages become clear. Someone has written direct responses to some of the most popular and annoying email spam offers: “I got a potent new bust enlargement formula and nothing happened,” “I avoided bankruptcy and nothing happened,” “I increased sex drive and intensified orgasms and nothing happened.” These disillusioned words tilt up and drop down in a somewhat random fashion, as if their author worked quickly or had to leave suddenly—perhaps he got a better offer elsewhere?

The author is Toronto artist Luis Jacob. His exhibition Just Do It! aims to investigate how we’re all connected through this unconventional and commercially driven community.

“I wanted to work with this idea that there’s a community of people who receive the same email—that same spam, but the way in which we receive it is each of us at our own little terminal at home or at work or wherever,” he says while in town installing the work. “Even though we might be considered a community, we are completely splintered. We don’t think of ourselves as a community, just as an individual sucker who gets this email and then deletes it.”

By responding in a public setting, the work conjures empathy, something that the broadcasted emails lack. “I wanted to respond in a way that really emphasized the low-tech, handmade personalized aspect,” he explains. “And I almost wanted it to seem like a confession. ‘I lost weight and nothing happened.’ So I wanted it to have an almost absurd and slightly pathetic sense of confession. I thought that labouriously making each letter would suggest that, right?”

He points to various confessions—increasing your penis size two inches, losing 25 pounds, making $5,000—observing that many of the statements are connected to self-measurement. “Everything is there to remove what you need to remove, and add what you need to add.”

Earlier this year Jacob was given Now’s best public art award for Flashlight, a utopian “modified children’s playground” in the outdoor Toronto Sculpture Garden, where a solar panel powered a disco ball, and two Muskoka-chair bicycles, when operated, powered a LED sign that lit up with the words “Everybody’s got a little light under the sun.” Currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario, his Habitat, five active living spaces defined by furniture and accessories, suggests usages such as reading, meditation and music, boldly challenging the no-touch boundaries of museum etiquette.

Jacob’s interest in open, collaborative forms of education—he also formed the Toronto’s volunteer-run Anarchist Free University—may partly stem from his studies of semiotics and philosophy at the University of Toronto. He hasn’t taken an art course since grade eight, a fact he believes opens up his practise to new possibilities.

“I tend to think of myself as more free in the sense that I don’t kind of think of myself as an artist, or my work, in terms of media restrictions and stuff like that,” he says. “Many people are trained to think of themselves as a painter or a sculptor, or a photographer or a printmaker, rather than an artist. It’s very liberating to not think of myself in that way.”

This is not the first time Jacob has presented Just Do It!—there are photos included of Toronto and Vancouver shows—but it is the largest show to date. While installing at the Khyber, Jacob started to make connections with, and to see his work as a response to, a piece by Halifax artist Michael Fernandes. Room of Fears is Fernandes’s compiled list of fears, solicited from the public, and transcribed on gallery walls. Jacob stops to press down a bubble in the tape, and says, laughing, “Yeah, except mine is a wall of disappointment.”

Just Do It!, until February 12 at the Khyber Centre for the Arts, 1588 Barrington.


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