Scurrying around his N.E. Alberta Street studio on a recent, sunny Saturday afternoon, the high-energy, rail-thin Borrello reaches into a crowded cabinet. "Here's something I want to show you," he says, turning around and holding out a strap-on dildo made out of a long, menacing pistol barrel fastened to a set of pink ceramic testicles. "It's a gift from Chief Kroeker."
To a certain degree, Borrello is joking. He made the piece "Prosthesis for Instant Manhood," several years before either he or Kroeker moved to town. But now the provocative appliance serves as a prototype for an innovative project Borrello is spearheading called "Guns in the Hands of Artists"--a project that Portland's new police chief has thrown his support behind.
Kroeker is currently working within the sometimes stubborn bureaucracy of the police bureau to provide Borrello with parts of guns which would otherwise be destroyed and discarded. In turn, Borrello will distribute the parts to artists who will incorporate them into their work.
Guns in the Hands of Artists doesn't have a prescribed agenda, but is simply intended to weigh in on the swelling debate on firearms in America."The media talks about guns as either pro or con, either for them or against them," said Borrello. "But that kind of dialogue only goes so far. I want people to be able to look at guns from different angles, from different perspectives. Art is not so political or dogmatic. You can be quiet and contemplative when you're looking at a work of art."
Four years ago, Borrello coordinated a similar project in New Orleans. That project transferred a quarter-ton of police-seized street guns into the hands of 75 artists, including the late William S. Burroughs. The artists transformed the barrels, stocks and clips into sculptures, stark memorials and theatrical, stage pieces. Borrello launched his efforts for a similar project for Portland after several bullets whizzed by his head and pierced the corrugated walls of his N.E. studio. Yet he had trouble finding a reliable source of gun parts. Ceasefire Oregon, the non-profit organization which coordinates the statewide gun buy-back program, did not want any of their weapons returning to the streets--not in any form. In addition, previous Chief Charles Moose simply didn't want anything to do with the idea.
Undeterred, Borrello cajoled a $5,000 grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council. When Kroeker was hired last December, Borrello found an unlikely ally. Not only did Kroeker agree to help, but he visited him at his studio twice.
Kroeker actually tried to start a similar program several years ago in Bosnia, where he was working as part of the International Police Task Force. Kroeker lobbied U.N. officials to convert some of the weapons seized after the fighting into a peace memorial. But, Kroeker explains, the ongoing and heavily armed conflicts between ethnic rivals put the brakes on the project.
Even with Kroeker's full support, however, Borrello must jump through several hoops before the project can proceed. The police bureau currently destroys approximately 800 confiscated guns a year. The agency brings them to a foundry where they are unceremoniously melted down into blobs of metal, plastic and charred wood.
Kroeker is also concerned about liability issues. "I have to make sure these parts are completely non-functional," he says. "I've seen criminals build guns out of empty barrels and virtually nothing else."
Kroeker is also ready to face the controversy that seems to come with anything involving guns these days--especially the kind of barbed issues that artists can raise.
"I'm sure some of the art will be provocative, embarrassing and even offensive to certain segments of society," Kroeker says. "You put something in the hands of artists and you never know what you're going to get. But that's fine, too. It's a little risky, but it's worth it."