Thinking Inside the Box 

James Hacking's recycled, kinetic street art

When artist James Hacking was snubbed by the establishment, he did what any disenchanted art school grad would do: He learned to think inside the box. But instead of scouring the classifieds for a desk job, pleated khakis and a Chrysler mini-van, Hacking began rummaging through dumpsters. Armed with an electric screwdriver, a power saw and a collection of discarded action figures, Hacking started constructing large, elaborate, interactive plastic boxes that he placed on random Boise street corners.

"I don't know why I put these boxes out, besides the fact that it's a response to the white cube, as they call it, the modern gallery. A response to maybe being 'rejected from it' or not being allowed in that arena," explains Hacking.

For four years, Hacking has continued to create these 3-foot-tall street installations made from varying colors of Fisher Price-esque durable plastic. With an array of cranks, pull-chords and handles that propel toy cars and action figures, the boxes seem more like 3-D pop-up art books than piles of haphazardly welded trash. And that's probably because there's nothing haphazard about Hacking's method.

Bent over his leather-bound sketchbook at his usual Flying M table, nursing what is most likely not his first mug of black coffee, Hacking meticulously shades in drawings of gear belts and pulleys. Though these sketches are merely blueprints for the final boxes, they help give structure to his ideas and provide an overview of the materials he might need.

"I'm not fabricating, I'm just putting this puzzle together, if you will," says Hacking. "There's this dialogue, this process, between me and the materials that I find in the trash, and we figure out how to marry my vision to them."

But Hacking hasn't always been drawn to the dumpster. In 1997, he graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in painting. Hacking spent a number of years traveling and painting murals, including one at the Roosevelt Market off of Warm Springs, before he started working on what he considers one of his most important projects to date: Wal-Merica. Installed in the Flying M in 2004, this giant map of the United States was adorned with repackaged Barbie dolls, GI Joes and Star Wars action figures stylized to represent various American identities. Though the show was a success at the Flying M, it was rejected from inclusion in the Idaho Triennial—something that greatly affected Hacking.

click to enlarge James Hacking takes it to the streets. - PHOTO BY JOSH ROPER

But in this rebuff, Hacking found relief. He decided to discard the conventions of the white box, and instead create his own colorful mini-museums. Because most of Hacking's portable, interactive street-art pieces have been installed on the sidewalk outside of Flying M, they've still allowed him to access a broader, more diverse audience than the typical red wine-brandishing, bespectacled gallery set.

"We don't really think about how important the audience is for art," notes Hacking. "Most of the decade I've been looking towards addressing, or making, art that's interactive. There's always been some type of kinetic quality ... something that invites people to touch it."

His work breaks down typical art-viewing conventions by encouraging people to physically interact with his pieces, but it also invites vandalism and a juvenile appetite for destruction. When Hacking disassembled one box he'd placed on Sixth and Main Streets downtown, he found a collection of trash and cigarette butts crammed inside. Though his audience might be wider, it's often comprised of people nescient of art school concepts like "interactive street art" or "street installations."

"This is not your modern arena for showing art, this is virtually a box outside the box," explains Hacking. "When something that could be considered art is out of context, in an environment that's different, it's really challenging."

That's not to say that these concepts haven't taken hold in larger metropolitan cities. Random alleyways in New York City, Los Angeles and London are filled with layer upon layer of wheat-pasted posters, stenciled art and woodblocked graffiti (painted wood bolted to street signs). Performance art and random 3-D installations also add to this colorful tableau. Though some artists, like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, have gained such a level of notoriety that their work has been neatly folded into the art establishment, most street artists don't seek recognition and operate solely under the cloak of darkness. Boise has seen a sprinkling of this type of street art, but has yet to embrace it fully.

"There has been this rise in the last few years of some graffiti and stencil art, but everything seems to be pretty contained here," notes Hacking.

One obvious reason for Boise's scarcity of street art is the harsh punishments handed down to illegal graffiti artists. Add to that rumors of two public art installations that were reported to police as bomb threats, and it seems like Boise citizens are still unsure how to interpret street art when they stumble across it. Even at the Flying M, known as a meeting ground for a wide array of artistic types, owner Lisa Myers is still unsure exactly how her customers interpret Hacking's boxes.

"Every once in a while I'll walk by and see people out there playing with it, which is pretty fun," says Myers. "Most people, I don't think, even realize it's there. You're used to seeing all the newspaper boxes and just walk on by. But if you stop to look at [Hacking's boxes], they're so funny and well thought out and playful and interactive."

As Hacking's method has evolved to include breaking down his old boxes and refashioning them into newer, more elaborate ones, he's taken up stop-frame animation to document his process. On his YouTube channel,, he painstakingly photographs every step of his process, imbuing found materials with life by showing file cabinets inching forward on their own and gears settling themselves into place. Recently, he's been editing a large stop-frame film project titled Re-Use, which took him six months to shoot. Making films while he's creating his boxes adds an additional layer of complexity to his process, but Hacking enjoys having a physical manifestation of his work, especially as his materials continue to weather, evolve and re-emerge in new forms.

"This was just a bus stop on the way to the landfill. It's documented. It exists somewhere. It just doesn't exist physically," says Hacking.

Though Hacking still has a collection of boxes waiting to be displayed this winter, his stop-frame animation shorts have been occupying the majority of his time. He's toyed with the idea of showing Re-Use in a more traditional white box setting, but will most likely end up projecting it on the side of a building downtown. It seems that, in the end, it's just not street art without the street.

Hacking's Birth of Cool is currently on display outside the Flying M Coffeehouse, 500 W. Idaho Street, 208-345-4320.

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