Billy vs. Matt: A Red Hot battle in a box


William Hessian and Matt Semke have known each other since they were classmates in Winona State University's art department. As their friendship developed, they also had a curious rivalry that culminated in the desire to pummel one another. "It was stupid but simultaneously fun because we were so evenly matched," Semke explains.

The wrestling inevitably resulted in a trip to the emergency room, so the two eventually settled on a less violent form of competition: art battle. Paint has replaced the bloodstains as the two now compete against one another on the canvas, creating art in a live setting, and allowing audiences to determine a winner. In years past, the friends have made art with 10-foot brushes, used ink-filled SuperSoakers, painted while sledding downhill, and destroyed the loser's artwork with axes. All of these competitions have included face-to-face interaction with a crowd, giving an element of showmanship typically missing from an art show.

But for "Billy vs. Matt: Round 13," they've opted to eliminate any interaction, letting the art stand for itself--but not without a novel approach.


This weekend, the two will huddle in homemade wooden boxes with eye holes. They will be creating their art away from the public eye. When a piece is finished, the boxes, as Hessian puts it, "Will get up and Fred Flintstone to another location, leaving behind an original work of art." In place of direct interaction between the artists and the audience, the "winning" art will be determined by donations (half of which will go toward a local homeless organization).

"There is always an unintentional desire to persuade voters by interacting with them," Hessian says. "The boxes remove the artist from the equation. [They] allow us to be there, without really being there. If we are lucky, it will make the work itself more mysterious."


For Semke, the process of creation is as equally interesting as the art. "The challenge of being in that small space will definitely help produce some interesting pieces. I'm a lot more interested in the process of making than the end result, anyway. Plus, I think it's hysterical. We cut little eye holes into the boxes the other night, and I couldn't stop laughing."

As ridiculous as it may seem, the experiment blends artistic inspiration with performance, and is a perfect pairing for the jovial atmosphere at the Red Hot Art Fest. As attendees peruse booths exhibiting photography, paintings, jewelry, and zines, plus a stage of live music, they will also see two non-descript boxes in the grass. Whether they stick around to witness an art drop is up to them. To continue Hessian's earlier thought, "A project like this asks not only for the viewer to participate, but asks the viewer to actually figure out what is going on." For those who show a little patience, an affordable piece of work with a memory behind it may be their reward.

As for the negatives to their two-day box residences, the artists brush them aside. "Art is always a sacrifice of mind, power, and time. Why not toss in physical sacrifice?" says Hessian. Semke expresses similar sentiments. "The idea of being in a box all weekend making things does not sound like a sacrifice to me." Their only concern seems to be that their confining painting hutches will detract from their chance to enjoy the rest of the festival. "It might be hard for us to socialize, since we'll be in the boxes the entire time," Semke laments.

Footage from past Billy vs. Matt art battles is available on Semke's website.


Red Hot Art Festival
Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.