Skip to content

To busy to kiss a tree, read Tolstoy, think of your dead stepmother? This artist will do it for you

u:\My Pictures\selects\horvitz-bored.JPG

David Horvitz in Times Square in New York. He himself doesn't seem quite sure whether his latest project arose out of boredom or artistic inspiration. (Photo courtesy of David Horvitz)

u:\My Pictures\selects\horvitz-book.JPG

David Horvitz was paid $400 to read Anna Karenina, the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy, near an abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island, New York City. (Photo courtesy of David Horvitz)

u:\My Pictures\selects\horvitz-snow.JPG

Following in the footsteps of the established genre of "mail art," David Horvitz tried to send snow to a friend in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of David Horvitz)

u:\My Pictures\selects\horvitz-tree.JPG

David Horvitz was paid $100 to kiss a moon tree in Philadelphia. (Photo courtesy of David Horvitz)

David Horvitz has a proposal. Several of them, in fact. For $1,626, he will travel to a small Japanese island and mail you an envelope filled with its special star-shaped sand. For $1,335, he will venture as far south as possible in South America and send you a photograph of the ocean. For $2,500, he will hire a skywriting plane, make a video of it writing “I’m bored” up in the clouds, then send you a copy on DVD.

Horvitz, 25, offers these and other unusual exploits on the Web site davidhorvitz.com, which he started recently. On a bit of a lark, he decided to ask visitors to underwrite his dreams and musings, though it’s unclear whether--or why--a complete stranger would want to finance his desire to travel around the world. “I didn’t really think about that,” Horvitz admitted. “I just made it available.”

No one’s yet paid to send Horvitz on the road with his passport, but many have forked out for some of the site’s more affordable offerings. “If you give me $3 I will send you an empty envelope,” reads one. “It is like sending you nothing. Or at least, it is sending you something that has traveled a journey that is the distance from me to you.” Four people have paid to receive empty envelopes.

For $10, Horvitz will “think really hard” about someone he has wronged and then send that person a letter of apology. Twelve people felt that was money worth spending.

Considering that Horvitz would like to be paid for activities like travel, meditation and reading, it would be tempting to call him a slacker. But Horvitz has held several jobs since growing up in Los Angeles and graduating from the University of California at Riverside as a cultural studies major. He’s worked as a photography assistant on a Hollywood movie, managed a band on tour and had a book of his photographs published. After moving to New York last September to be with his girlfriend, Horvitz worked as a cook at a Japanese restaurant for several weeks before he quit to focus on his Web site.

Depending on the response to his offerings, Horvitz could be back on the job market soon. So far, his biggest buyer has been Renée French, a 44-year-old comics writer and illustrator who lives in Sydney, Australia. French paid $400 for Horvitz to take a train to a desolate area and read Anna Karenina.

In an e-mail interview, French compared Horvitz to J.S.G. Boggs, the artist who used his hand-drawn copies of U.S. money to make purchases. “The transaction became the piece,” French said. “David’s work appeals to me in the same way. I love the idea of the artifacts of interaction being art.”

It may seem rather nervy to ask people to pay good money and receive little but the “artifacts of interaction” in return. But Horvitz says that getting rich off the ventures isn’t a motivation--or an expectation. “I would like to make money,” he said, “but I don’t want to make that the priority. I’d rather it be about me going out and doing something for someone else and then sending them something in return.”

Whether this project arose out of boredom or artistic inspiration--Horvitz himself doesn’t seem quite sure--many visitors are drawn in by the thought-provoking offerings that make the site feel bigger than one person and the random acts he is willing to do.

“I really love his stuff,” said Gary Rutz, an IT project coordinator from Athabasca, Canada. “How many of us have sat on a bus, or found themselves alone reading a book or even just looked at the sky and thought, ‘This is a moment, not more, not less, a moment that could be shared or offered, but somehow because we are not connected, it remains only ours.’ Yet David has shared his moments, offered us a share of his moments, and thereby we get to belong with those moments as he lives them.”

Rutz has paid Horvitz $10 to photograph a New York City mailbox (Horvitz sent him a copy) and $30 to buy a meal for a homeless person (Horvitz sent back a receipt, exact change and the name of the person he fed). If money were no object, Rutz would buy even more.

Intriguing as it may be, Horvitz’s endeavor strikes some as less than totally original. Jonathan Gilmore, an art critic who teaches philosophy of art at Yale University, suggested that Horvitz’s project is related to the established genre of “mail art,” which uses the postal service as its medium.

“Horvitz also seems to draw on a well-entrenched practice of performance artists engaging in works in which they passively enact whatever action is assigned to them by others,” Gilmore said in an e-mail, adding that “his work follows in the line of those artists for whom travel and risk-taking served as the substance of their art.” Dutch-born artist Bas Jan Ader, for example, took photographs as he wandered from urban Los Angeles through industrial sites, along the highway and to the edge of the ocean.

The ultimate meaning of Horvitz’s work may be in the minds of those who purchase it. Oddly, perhaps, few seem to respond to Horvitz as a scam artist just looking for a free ride--even though several of his offerings seem to serve no other purpose than to satisfy his unbound curiosity and wanderlust. For instance, he asks for $1,300 to “go to Cuba before Fidel Castro dies,” just because he wants to be able to tell his children and grandchildren about it.

Still other offers focus on the buyer. For just $1, Horvitz will “sit in silence” and think about you for one minute. “That one is my favorite,” Horvitz said. “I have to stop and sit there. It’s kind of like meditation.”

More than 20 people have paid for Horvitz’s silent thoughts. One person requested that Horvitz think about his stepmother Arleen. “She was 83 years old and passed away on February 24, 2008, at 3:32 am Pacific Time,” he wrote to Horvitz. “I was holding her hand when she died. My name is Jim, but don’t waste your time thinking about me.”

Even those who don’t buy anything have found the site compelling.

“I have to say, as a visitor to the site, there is something tempting about your offers,” Sanden Totten, a producer for Minnesota Public Radio, wrote to Horvitz. “The fact that I don’t have the money prevents me from clicking ‘Buy now,’ but it’s hard not to entertain the thought, which is more than most products are able to get me to do when they ask for my money.”

E-mail: sra2119@columbia.edu