Artist Ivan Cash ’08 encourages connection and curiosity in the digital age.
By Kris Dreessen
A few years ago, Ivan Cash ’08 had an idea to bring strangers together — using a digital tool that can often make us more insular and detached.
Cash created Selfless Portraits, an interactive art project that invited Facebook users to receive a random user’s profile picture, draw it and welcome a stranger drawing theirs in return. He posted the finished pieces on the project’s website and social media. Bloggers and news outlets embraced the idea and shared links until the project went viral. Ultimately, 50,000 people in 153 countries completed the project.
That’s a lot of curious strangers.
“The incredible response from across the world shows we’re all hungry for meaningful connections, beyond these shallow blips. In our increasingly digital world, I’m convinced human connection is more important than ever. Even if it’s a facilitated connection with a stranger,” says Cash.
Cash has built a successful career as an interactive public artist, speaker, filmmaker and advertising professional on such nontraditional projects that spark attention and discussion about social inequality and reclaiming life in a technology-driven world.
“It’s never been easier to reach out to thousands of people in an instant, and that provides a lot of benefit,” says Cash. “At the same time, because of that possibility, it’s harder to have a deep connection because it’s so easy for us to be scattered. Technology is a canvas, and we are at an interesting reflection point. What is the other side of the promise of this golden age of technology? The other side is burnout and isolation, despite having so many avenues for connection.”
Cash has gained wide acclaim for his projects, including Selfless Portraits. His work has been featured in TIME, CNN, The New York Times, Wired and other publications and received multiple Vimeo Staff Picks and Webby award honors, partly for its enthusiastic public reception. His work has also been exhibited internationally, including a five-pound note stamp he designed that highlights England’s wealth disparity, now in the permanent collection of the V & A Museum in London. In 2016, Cash was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 artist. He often gives lectures and leads workshops on creativity for companies, other creative professionals and universities.
To help support his independent art projects, he has run Cash Studios, based in Oakland, Calif., since 2013. The agency develops nontraditional marketing campaigns for brands like Coca-Cola, Netflix, Uber and Airbnb, including short films, social activations and other content. In 2011, Cash created Coca-Cola’s most liked Facebook post of all time, with more than 18,000 likes.
“I have had a combination of luck and some sort of intuitive force that allows me to have a sense of what will gain traction — the secret sauce,” says Cash. “A project can be featured on a blog and then it goes viral. I try to make projects that are inspiring, a little bit unbelievable, and stop you in your tracks.”
In fact, that’s how Cash set on his path, while he was still a student at Geneseo.
While taking a screen-printing class, Cash used a famous political portrait as a base for a New York Knicks basketball team shirt. He made and sold (a lot of them) outside Madison Square Garden during winter break. He was subsequently arrested for selling merchandise without a permit, then featured on many sports networks, including ESPN. While the story is complicated, the message in those 15 minutes of fame was clear.
“Even a broke college student could create a project that could be seen by the masses,” says Cash. “You don’t need a certain level of expertise or a big budget to make work that engages people.”
While Cash’s projects run the gamut — from asking strangers to share the last photo on their phone to developing glasses that block out digital screens — his work focuses on the human experience and finding ways to be in it.
“At our core, we all want to feel accepted and valued,” he says. “My projects have an underlying goal to facilitate that.”
He wants to inspire people to reach out to each other and be surprised.
“When I reflect on some of the richest, most exciting times of my life,” he says, “it was because I was spontaneous. I was open to connections.”
STRANGERS AGREED TO DO WHAT?
A (small) sampling of Ivan Cash’s offbeat public projects that bring us together in unexpected ways:
• IRL (In Real Life) glassesCash’s glasses block out digital screens. Cash raised five times more than he needed on a crowdfunding site to develop and manufacture IRL glasses.
• The Passenger ProjectHundreds of passengers on commercial air flights share their dreams, hometowns and dream vacations and draw pictures of luggage items on papers Cash hands out during the flight. He posts the results online and invites anyone to download the same PDFs and contribute to the project.
• The Last Photo ProjectHundreds of strangers all over the world have shared the last photo they took on their cell phones and a story about it, which Cash shares via a series of short films. They represent a snapshot of true daily life, seen by millions of viewers.
• No Tech ZonesCash erected street signs banning tech in specific urban areas. The project went viral when people who encountered them photographed and shared them on social media.
• Snail Mail My EmailMore than 2,000 volunteers transformed emails of strangers into more than 30,000 handwritten letters — and then mailed them to the recipients all over the world.
Watch Ivan’s TEDx talk on The Art of Human Connection: