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How a Halifax indie artist got James Franco to help her with a school project

June 19, 2015

"I was trolling him and he was trolling me back, which was funny."

In 2011, Allison Higgins was studying at NSCAD University in Halifax thinking about the concept of fame in the art world. For her graduation show, she knew she wanted to collaborate with an art celebrity, and the name James Franco kept appearing on art blogs. Higgins also thought he was hot, so she took a guess at Franco’s Yale University email address.

“He was a celebrity, but at the time, he was trying to be a fine artist, as well,” says Higgins, “His name was coming up a lot and he was almost like this cartoon version of an arts celebrity.”

Guitarist of Halifax’s anti-pop four-piece Old and Weird, Higgins crafted an email to Freaks and Geeks‘ Daniel Desario himself asking if he’d like to collaborate with her. “Okay,” he replied only a few hours later, “What were you thinking? Do I need to travel there, or can I send you some stuff? Peace.”

“I was basically like, ‘I’ll give you my grad show,’” she says, which made Franco both the curator and subject of her year-end graduate exhibition at Anna Leonowens Gallery. Soon, Franco sent Higgins a list of things he planned to ship to her, which included three Franco-made home videos, framed Polaroids of himself, “some drawings and photos of bananas and things,” paintings, collages, comics and “plans to build a Papier-mâché James bust.” He added that she would also need “3 Budweiser bottles, and white Gucci shoes.” He ended up mailing the shoes.

When the box arrived in Halifax, Higgins says she and her friends opened it like it was Christmas morning. “I was never expecting to actually get a response,” she says, “I thought the project would be about me trying to get in touch with James Franco. So I’d kind of squeal every time he sent me an email, because he was still a celebrity and I never really got over that.”

For the exhibition titled “James Franco,” Higgins performed the actions in his videos, like throwing coffee on a list of his weekly activities. She created the Papier-mâché James, a simulacrum representing identity and absence, and fed it what he usually ate, as instructed. The result was a bizarre look into Franco’s world, which seemed self-analytical and slightly vapid.

“I don’t think it was great art,” Higgins says, “I think it was more like, I was trolling him and he was trolling me back, which was funny. It was also like, you know, celebrities are real people.”

Around this time, Higgins started jamming as Old and Weird with Danika Vandersteen and Hannah Guinan, now with drummer Cheryl Hann. All have backgrounds and professions in the arts: Vandersteen is a visual artist and leather tailor, Guinan is the Director of the Khyber Centre for the Arts in Halifax, and Hann is a comedian (formerly of Picnicface) and performance artist.

“I think because we all have an arts background, we’re excited about doing things that are wildly different,” Higgins says on the motivation for the project. “Because of that, it feels like making music is also wide open. There’s no format, you don’t have to be one type of songwriter. We make the art for our music, like the album artwork. It doesn’t feel like fine art but it’s part of it.”

Old and Weird photo by Melissa Richards

Since the Franco thing, Old and Weird has released at least seven solid projects from singles to full-length cassettes, and have collaborated live with bands like Moon, Heaven for Real, and Dirty Beaches. Their non-traditional melodies and harmonies, asymmetric lyrics and unpredictable rhythmic patterns are as challenging as they are groovy. Pleasence Records will soon be releasing an Old and Weird split with Toronto’s equally unconventional New Fries.

“We’re trying to push our songs a little more,” says Vandersteen, “Things develop on a smaller scale, like, we find one way of playing guitar, or like one funny thing, and we see where that can go. Also James Franco is currently in my hometown of Guelph.” The actor has been spotted filming a TV mini-series. “I’d just like to say I have a connection with him as well,” she says.

[bandcamp id=”3327309498″]

Higgins adds: “It was funny that people used the exhibition just because of James Franco, just because he’s a name, and it could be used for exposure. Because the project itself was really shitty and boring, so it proved its intention, in terms of celebrity. The art world is kinda gross.”

The Franco experiment was picked up by local media, and then France-based magazine, Her Royal Majesty, re-published the project materials: “Overall, I think it was mostly fun,” Higgins says, “When you’re famous, people can have lots of ideas about you.” If Higgins could collaborate with another celebrity now, she says she’d ask Hugh Grant or Leonardo DiCaprio.

Old and Weird is currently in Toronto for NXNE: they play a barbeque this evening, a showcase at Smiling Buddha tonight and an afternoon show tomorrow in Toronto, if you want to get weird.

All photos and videos courtesy of Allison Higgins except where noted.

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