The fine art of conversation with strangers--Oprah and Charlie Rose and Barbara Walters know it well.
So does Italian artist Franco Angeloni, irreverent artist-in-residence at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.
So do Brigette Burns and Brian Kennon, the two Southern Californians whose chats charmed Angeloni into giving them each a 10-day trip to Europe--air fare and hotel included--as part of his oddball performance piece, "Win A Trip To: Roma or Amsterdam Contest by Franco Angeloni," funded by Grand Central's exhibition program.
Burns, a Laguna Beach artist, will fly to Amsterdam and Kennon, who teaches animation at Cal State Fullerton and lives in Cerritos, will wing to Rome, dates to be decided. Angeloni lives in both cities.
The contest winners were announced Saturday night at Grand Central, where a related, provocative gallery installation by Angeloni is on view through June 24.
"Really, this is all about philosophy, about how you approach life," Angeloni said of the conversational combat for the free trips, all in the name of art.
For the last two months, Angeloni approached life by chatting up Southern California locals. He set no rules for his contest. He did not prepare standard interview questions. He simply sat, yakked and soaked up the vibes.
"The art that is sold in galleries or seen in museums is not the only art that's happening in life," he said. "It is an art to be able to see where art lies. Of course, seeing it requires a lot of willingness and the wish to know on our part."
Gail and Richard Reiser of Laguna Beach also had a dose of Angeloni's art.
In theory, they were the trip winners because their talk of global issues and culture seduced Angeloni the most. But they let Angeloni charm them into passing the prize to finalists Burns and Kennon, who had traveled less and seemed more in need of the tickets.
All this artful persuasion serves to bring people together and humanize life, Cal State Fullerton gallery director Mike McGee said.
"People have even been coming up to us at school and asking if this was a sham contest," McGee said. "That's the kind of dialogue Franco wants."
And the kind of border-crossing connection Angeloni favors. He is already planning to work with the Reisers on a performance project involving homeless people, for potential launch later this year. Richard Reiser works with the homeless at Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach.
Whether that project will be as in-your-face as Angeloni's earlier work is an open question. His previous stunts have included trying to interest women he met in the Czech Republic in taking him on as their pimp; creating a fake one-room, red-light district in a small southern Italian town; and telling tourists in Rome the crumbling Coliseum is a fake.
Always the entrepreneur, Angeloni wore Heineken, Appia and Miller Light bottle caps on his shirt on a recent Wednesday because the manufacturers paid him to do so, he said.
This blending of commerce and artifice is meant to provoke reaction and interaction. It's reminiscent of the self-promotional strategies of Mark Kostabi, the '80s art darling and former Cal State Fullerton student who paid assistants to produce his paintings.
"Franco has a lot less hype than Mark Kostabi, who is actually quite popular in Italy," McGee said.
Over the last few weeks, as Angeloni trolled for trip winners, he spent hours with the contest's 20 finalists, chosen randomly from more than 400 entrants who stuffed their names into large cardboard ballot boxes in his gallery installation--one box each for single women, single men, married couples and unmarried couples.
An assistant, David Michael Lee, videotaped the finalists' chats.
Angeloni jawed with folks from Los Angeles, Rancho Santa Margarita and Corona del Mar.
He interviewed the geography-challenged: "One of them even asked me if Amsterdam is in Italy," he said.
He was moved by a young man studying theater at UC Irvine.
If this sounds like a contempo version of the '50s TV game show "Queen for A Day," in which the best sob story could snag fur coats and refrigerators, it is less maudlin and more subjective by far.
"This decision was very hard for me," Angeloni said. "I've been friendly to a lot of people and they've been friendly to me.
"Of course they were friendly because they wanted to get something from me. I told them, 'Please don't take this as a personal thing.' "
The personal may become public. Angeloni plans to compile his "Win A Trip" data, including the videotaped conversations, into an exhibition catalog and/or CD-ROM.
Meanwhile, in Grand Central's gallery, he changes components of his sparsely installed exhibition daily.
One component is an assemblage of pasta boxes interspersed with boxed manuals on how to build a career in the Mafia, meant to stir discussion of stereotypes.
Another includes an array of cardboard cartons containing flags from Israel, North Korea, Italy, China, Canada, Mars, Piselland and more. Piselland is the made-up name of 1,500 square meters of land that Angeloni bought between Rome and Naples.
"Its flag will cost you $144," he said.
"It's a gift, believe me, a gift. What I sell my art for is really nothing."
Angeloni also sculpts and draws. In Europe, he derives most of his income from work as a graphic artist.
In the future, another crafty con may involve persuading California wineries to produce, bottle and label a wine specifically for him.
"I'll try to weave a seductive way to get them to do something for me on the basis of a cultural exchange," Angeloni said.
"You really do have to be tough and enterprising. But that's life. And I do it with pleasure."
"Franco Angeloni Recent Work." Cal State Fullerton Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233. Through June 24. Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.