Stunning Dunning Unveils His ‘Signature Project,’ 1M People Strong

More than 300,000 people have literally affixed their names to one artist's vision.

Patrick Dunning in "The Signature Project." Photos: Ingrid Butler.

Move over Sunday in the Park with George. There are incalculable ways to harness the power and presence of pure visual art with the arresting and urgent immediacy of performance. Add in a palpable sense of humanitarianism and social justice and you will understand the work of Patrick Dunning, whose stunning The Signature Project runs through March 25 at the Sheen Center (18 Bleecker St.)

The project, Dunning told me, began in 1992, when he stepped away from a rapidly rising career as a painter to create a single painting featuring more than one million signatures of ordinary individuals from all around the world. The Signature Project, as a performance, has a mixture of art, music and dance as it retraces Dunning’s quest to unite millions of strangers within a single work of art. And, of course, there are stories to tell behind those signatures, and secrets to unfold.

I asked Dunning to provide me with his bio — some contextualizing — and he demonstrated precisely the kind of heart, whimsy and seriousness of intent that you might imagine:

I’m Irish, an artist, but more importantly, I’m from Dublin, Ireland. It’s the fastest growing city in the world. You see, every day it’s doublin’. Ba-boom! Get it? Dublin. Traveling is in my DNA…

This year will be my 78th drive across the US. I have a passion for science and one day I’m hoping that we have the ability to defy the restrictions of the speed of light and fly at will to distant galaxies in the blink of an eye. The wonders of what must be out there.

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The core of The Signature Project, which is directed by Eric Paul Vitale — who signed up after witnessing a one-night-only presentation of the show — is the mural itself, a behemoth that measures 76 feet by 36 feet. It is, in a specifically theatrical sense, a multi-sensory on-stage tapestry blending art and technology, with the audience joining more than 300,000 people whose signatures are already affixed, literally, to Dunning’s vision.

For tickets to The Signature Project, click here.

And now, 5 questions Patrick Dunning has never been asked:

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?

On my way to the airport at 4:30am with a Lyft driver who happened to be a writer. He wanted to know what got me up in the morning — I told him about The Signature Project and he asked what was driving me to make art and theater? It was interesting how he was driving me to the airport so I could fly to another state to perform and earn a living and I was paying him money so he could have a little more time to write.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?

After a show, I was asked, “What drugs are you on, can you get me some?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?

This one.

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A million signatures, a million stories — but in the time-frame of a performance, how many individual stories can you tell? What about the story behind a signature makes it compelling enough to tell?

I obviously don’t get to hear everyone’s story. That would be an impossible feat, but I do tell as many stories as I can. Some have visual opportunities to them and others can best be told by sound. A compelling story for me is when the emotional impact is greater than the sum of the parts. Most good stories are simple.

How do you ensure that the composition of all the signatures — the demographics of the people — reflects the American melting pot? What if this or that audience is more or less ethnic, or more or less diverse? Does it matter?

The diversity in my artwork comes from interacting with different communities throughout the US. It’s not something that I seek out, it just happens naturally. My national tour has taken me to countless tiny towns and major cities in 49 states over 25 years. It all balances out in the end.

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A mural that is 76’ by 36’ is monumental. Is there a physical limit to how big a piece of art can be? What if I run a foundation and I want to commission you to create a mural featuring five million signatures instead of one? It would be 380’ by 180’.

A feature of this artwork is that it is designed to physically fold in on itself (think Origami) and become sculpture-like with a smaller footprint. Once you see the show you’ll understand how this works. You’ll also find out how The Signature Project isn’t just signatures. Some panels hold an infrared painting, some hold ultraviolet images, one is even a musical instrument. The signatures are only what you can see first; look deeper and you’ll see so much more. Like life itself. In terms of size, there’s little physical limit to it’s potential. This specific artwork, The Signature Project, has the ability to increase in size outward (physically) and inward (with all its contained possibilities). It’s a concept that I included in the original design.