An Ad Agency for Thinking

Not yet a book, not quite a website, it is difficult to pin down the Artist as Citizen project into any particular media. It is equally difficult to pin down its creator, Richard Reiss. Off the bat, he asks me not to make this review about him. He also refuses to state his opinion. About anything. “Us having opinions isn’t interesting, it’s exploring people’s opinions and beliefs in a way that will give you a fresh take on the issue that’s interesting."

But let’s backup.

The Artist as Citizen project is a collaboration of a guest editor, a donor and an art student with the end goal of creating something that makes people think. The students are generally design-minded undergrads, interested in fields that relate to popular commercial media. When they graduate, they will become the image-makers of the world, likely doing gigs as fashion photographers, graphic designers and ad agency creatives. The guest editors are prominent members of the art community who want to see a concept executed from its inception, and the donors are the kind of art collectors that are as interested in the process as the finished product.


The first Artist as Citizen project takes the form of portraits and interviews of a prominent climate scientist and the creative director of a Hummer ad campaign. Reiss and his partner Ian Umeda developed the idea together and, on this project, Reiss serves as guest editor. Guilherme Cunha, an undergrad at the School of Visual Arts, was chosen as the art student.

When explaining why he proposed a juxtaposition of science and advertising, Reiss mentions the New Yorker issue in which Hummer ads run alongside a piece on Elizabeth Kolbert’s book about climate change. He describes the art project as “a way to see the issue across the scope of all the moving parts, as opposed to a separated experience which you have if you read a lot of traditional media where there will be an article about an issue, and as long as you’re engaged in reading that issue, the rest of the world disappears, including the advertisements in the magazine."

When asked about the name “Artist as Citizen,” Reiss explains, “the reason I chose [it] is to immediately place the person doing the work in a frame with other people.” Artists are not beholden to an ethical standard, but “as soon as you accept being a citizen you have a scale of responsibilities.” These responsibilities are particularly significant for the world’s future image-makers. “You want to create a vanguard that’s thinking as a citizen,” he says.

To provide a better sense of the project, Reiss pulls out a photograph of Wallace S. Broecker, the rumpled Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences from Columbia University, surrounded by weathered photos, a “Grandpa” mug and a pink polka dotted stuffed animal of some description wearing a sign that says “I am the climate beast and I am hungry.” He then pulls out a photograph of Ilya Rozhdestvensky, Creative Director of Modernista Advertising Agency, a lightly unshaven man donning purple shades and a Russian style fur hat with earflaps. The photos sit next to each other.

"Whose side are you on?"

Reiss smiles at the question, “I’m on the side of thinking.”