It is highly unlikely that you or I will ever be wealthy enough to acquire a piece of art from Damien Hirst. The provocative British artist, who first made a splash in the 1990s for formaldehyde-filled-tank sculptures occupied by preserved animals, is one of the world’s most successful living artists, with works sold in the tens of millions of dollars.
Now, in a new partnership with Snap (Fast Company’s Most Innovative Company of 2020), Hirst is bringing one of his most iconic motifs to the platform—and enabling you to make your own. An interactive tool to make your own Hirst spin painting is launching today to raise money for Partners in Health, a nonprofit focused on healthcare access for everyone.
Hirst debuted his spin paintings in 1992 during a gallery show. He rigged up a circular plate atop a drill. And for the low price of £1, visitors were allowed to toss on paint to create swirling abstract works that he and artist Angus Fairhurst would then sign.
“The way that I looked at spin art [was] . . . as an artist, you sit in a studio with a blank canvas and a tortured soul. The blank canvas is really intimidating,” says Hirst. “With spin art, if you get something moving between you and art, you get art without the angst.”
Hirst saw spin art, with its colorful splashes that sit somewhere between tie-dye and Jackson Pollock, as a democratic approach to painting. “Anybody can make a good one,” he says.
To this day, Hirst has a spin art rig set up in his studio, and he’s invited many people to make their own over the years. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel himself visited the studio, and sometime thereafter, Hirst agreed to collaborate with Snap on something around the 2020 Cannes festival.
These artist partnerships are relatively common for Snap, as the company explores the future of augmented reality. With 75% of Snap’s 229 million daily active users trying its AR tools out every day, Snap has brought AR mainstream in a time when most of the tech industry is still debating how and when such a future could come. Snap sells AR ads, of course, and the engagement of these products is off the charts. Yet, as cofounder Bobby Murphy put it to me late last year, he and Spiegel know there’s a lot still to explore about what AR will be—and self-expression serves as the anchor. “If you said to me, ‘The only thing AR will ever amount to was this beautiful new way to experience someone else’s imagination through your own eyes,’ that would be enough for us!”
Snap leverages artist partnerships to push its own boundaries and force its own development team to think about its technologies in new ways. In 2017, Snap teamed up with Jeff Koons to build giant, augmented reality balloon dogs hidden across the world. And over the past two years, Snap has worked with Christian Marclay, Alex Israel, and Harmony Korine on experimental projects, debuting these collaborations as installations to make a splash at Cannes and Art Basel.
Hirst’s Snapchat Spin Art would be debuting at the Cannes Film Festival this June, had the festival not been canceled due to COVID-19. In any case, after he agreed to the project, Snap developed a prototype for Hirst’s Spin Art, then shared the project with Hirst for feedback.
Hirst thought the basics of the interface were right—you tap and drag your finger to splash paint onto the canvas. But he suggested some tweaking regarding the canvas’s spin speed and even its thickness. He also requested more colors. Snap had proposed four in the demo, but Hirst—having used Snapchat quite a bit with his own kids—knew that Snap could bring in a broader range of colors to choose from, and so he suggested that. He also wanted black and white options, because the two-tone spin paintings are some of his favorites, he says.
The one thing he couldn’t decide was if the paint should actually splash off the canvas and all over the rest of your view in Snapchat. “I want to make it feel like life,” he says. “[Spin art] throws off more paint than it keeps on.” But ultimately, he decided that a clean approach, in which the extra paint just disappeared, was better.
The Spin Art filter launches on Snap today—you should find it as an option in the photo filter carousel. After selecting the filter, you can drag the canvas wherever you’d like it to appear in your room. Hirst suggests that children are the best at it, “almost like a viewer of their own work,” while “control freaks” will find themselves frustrated if they don’t assent to the randomness. And whenever you’re done working on your masterpiece, you can swipe up to make a donation to Partners in Health.
Read on for an abridged transcript of the rest of our interview with Damien Hirst.
Fast Company: How did you get started working with Snap?
Damien Hirst: Evan visited my studio, that’s the first meeting I had. But obviously I’ve been using Snapchat previously as a way to keep in contact with my kids. Whenever I text them, they don’t respond. And on Snapchat for some reason they get back to me. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I was thinking [this partnership] is gonna be good for my kids.
FC: What about spin paintings appealed to you?
DH: I did a show with my friend Angus. We were both dressed like clowns. I gave people an option to buy my spin paintings—I did that for a pound. I made some, hung them on the walls, sold them, put prices on them. I always invited people to make their own.
FC: Is there a difference between a spin painting you make and one someone else makes?
DH: It’s a funny thing. I had an assistant paint spots for me. When they left, they wanted me to give them a spot painting. I said, “Why don’t you make your own? The only difference between one by me and one by you is the money.” And they say, “I’ll never sell it!” I say, “No no, you make one, and it’s a gift from me.” They say, “No, I want you to sign it!” It’s a funny concept, of where the art ends . . .
FC: This is a constant debate, right? Because in your studio, you don’t literally put every pigment to the canvas of your art.
DH: I see it like an architect—you wouldn’t pay a premium if you had a Frank Gehry house, and he put down the bricks.
I want to carve a chair from marble; I don’t have the time to go for 15 years to learn how to be a marble carver for one object. It’s not like I’m going to carry on carving marble. I want my art to compete with everything in the world, to be able to be influenced by and cross-referenced.
Very quickly, you have the skills needed [to be an artist]; you just have to use the ones you’ve got. As an artist, a lot of people don’t like that. You could almost say, charge a premium for paintings made by me, but they’re all made by me!
FC: So, if I make a spin painting in Snapchat, does that mean I can call it a Damien Hirst?
DH: Yeah, of course. I’ll sign it for you! [laughs]
FC: I do see a parallel, in artists having assistants to execute a vision, and of all the assistive digital tools we have today, like Photoshop.
DH: It’s infinite, isn’t it? It’s something that’s been around for a long time. I remember someone at an opening came up to me. I hadn’t met them. They said, “Wow, you’re Damien Hirst! It’s so great you’re an artist!” I said, “Don’t tell anybody, but I’m not really an artist.”
They were like, “What? Don’t tell me that!” I’m only joking, but it’s a career as well. Damien Hirst Artist [is] on the passport, but the idea is it’s something deeper. [It’s an ideology] you can’t trick people or be in it for the money; you have to be in it for the art. [People] have a huge belief in artists for some reason.
It’s a powerful thing. I believe in art like you believe in religion, but it’s funny, how the idea that you don’t make your own paintings 100% can be a little bit of an issue. But no artist ever has. [This issue] only happens in art; it doesn’t happen in any other area. Anyone working anything. Chefs in a kitchen—you don’t mind that anybody else preps the food for you.
FC: So much of your art is about facing death and mortality head-on. Do you need these works in a world where we already face so much death? Doesn’t that message just get superseded by the global pandemic?
DH: It always does. You can’t forget art is a kind of leisure activity. You’ve gotta have food on the table in order to enjoy art. There are basic human needs. If they aren’t met, you don’t have time for art. Even primitive art! People were living in caves before there were cave paintings, but at some point there’s enough time going around that they think, “We can make our cave a little bit better.”
It’s nice to do these charity things, because you realize, even though this is going on, you can give something. People will give money to get a little bit of art. I think without life . . . there is no art. But without art there is still life. I think life’s more important than art, is what I would say.
FC: Any last advice on making spin paintings?
DH: I think the secret is knowing when to stop.