The word is art everywhere

Artists Dan Murphy (left), Anthony Smyrski in Murphy's home studio. Smyrski says Megawords is seeking impact, not fame.
Artists Dan Murphy (left), Anthony Smyrski in Murphy's home studio. Smyrski says Megawords is seeking impact, not fame. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)

Megawords, a project of two Philadelphians, gets a mega- boost with a Pew fellowship.

Posted: July 27, 2012

Megawords. It's a mega-word. It's two Philly artists engaged since 2005 in a long-running "experimental media project."

Which is what, exactly?

A whirling world of art installations, projects, and events. An abandoned newsstand, converted to distribute their magazines. An old storefront, turned into an artistic event space. The future may bring films, Web stuff, apps. At the heart, there's a print magazine that comes out at least twice a year and does unprecedented things.

Megawords is its own mega-world - a world that has come to a big turn. On July 3, the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage gave Megawords a prestigious $60,000 fellowship in the arts. Mainstream institutional recognition!

"We're trying to do art on our terms," says Dan Murphy, 36. "It's meant to blur boundaries and experiment with the tensions between fine art and everyday life."

Fellow Megaworder Anthony Smyrski, 32, says they "want to tell the stories about life in cities around the world . . . . Art is not just in a museum."

Megawords was organic right from the start. As of the late 1990s, Smyrski and Murphy were hanger-outers in the Center City art scene; with common interests and similar circles, the two eventually began to work together. At one point, needing an intern credit for his graphic design bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of the Arts, Smyrski interned for Murphy. Eventually, they made their partnership formal.

In recent months, Murphy and Smyrski have drawn increasing institutional attention. They landed space, for example, at a Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibition by photographer Zoe Strauss this year. They took two rooms and made a living room-like space for visitors to sit on couches, write on a chalkboard, and flip through the latest edition of their magazine. The artistic twosome welcome such chances.

"Arts institutions are always fun for us because then we get to push against the space, see what we can or can't do," Smyrski says. "A museum or institution has different ideas, so there's some friction - in a positive way."

"It's not really us rebelling," Murphy says. "It's all an experiment, the entire project."

At least in the foreseeable future, the project will continue to be their self-published Megawords magazine.

"The magazine is something that we always come back to," Murphy said, adding that it's largely free of parameters. Smyrski agrees: "The only real rule is that we do two a year, and that's just to keep us moving. We actually feel liberated by it."

Individual issues are unthemed, and contain photos from Murphy, Smyrski, and contributors. Past photos have depicted parties, abandoned buildings, and storefronts. Today, the duo produce at least two issues a year, in self-financed runs of 2,000 to 4,000 copies. The publications are free of advertising and distributed for free, at various sites and hand to hand, through friends in the artistic community.

"We're clearly doing art," Smyrski says, "but it's discussed in a different way in a museum than when it's handed to you on a subway or in a coffee shop. We want to do both."

At an exhibition at the Maine College of Art (MECA) Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Portland, Megawords will distribute copies of a new issue, play experimental film recorded in the early days of the project, and invite visitors to write and draw on a wall that bears the legend MEGAWORDS in chalkboard paint.

The exhibition includes photography from the magazine, printed separately; found objects; and material (as yet to be determined) that ties thematically or aesthetically with the publication. In some cases, objects photographed in the magazine may be on display. Printing plates used to make the magazine may also make an appearance, in an exploration of the magazine itself.

"I wanted to leave it open-ended. I didn't want to restrict them in any way," says ICA director and curator Daniel Fuller. "I'm giving them a space and letting them do their thing, which they've been doing for a while, and doing really well. I definitely didn't want to step in and put a box around it. I just wanted to give them space to make something wonderful."

As part of the ICA exhibit, Murphy and Smyrski will participate in workshops with MECA students and faculty, as well as in separate activities for K-12 students.

Melissa Franklin, director of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, wants the reach of Megawords to keep expanding.

"We work in a global world these days," Franklin says. "So it's about this idea of connecting Philadelphia artists to the conversations that are going on around the country, around the world . . . . They're meeting people, they're thinking, they'll bring those ideas into Philadelphia. It's about expanding their networks. Expanding their dialogues."

The money, split between the two artists, is not a project grant: They plan to use it to support their daily lives, freeing themselves to focus on their work. Murphy says part of his money will go to paying the bills; Smyrski envisions a trip around the world, alongside more mundane costs like buying windows for his home.

"We don't have really good ways of supporting artists in our society," Franklin says. "It's about identifying the most talented individuals working in our community . . . . It's about funding the source, recognizing the value of the artists to culture."

That points to the success of Megawords. Smyrski says it's seeking impact, not fame, "challenging the way people live, and their relationships to their environments, and the people around them."

Murphy agrees: "I'd like to be remembered as this project, as people who tried to explore the space, to make people think. Not in the art world, necessarily. We participated in trying to put out new messages with the tools that we have."


Contact staff writer Jonathan Lai at 215-854-5289, jlai@philly.com, and on Twitter at @elaijuh.

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