Hal Niedzviecki, "Pop: Product: Person: Cultural appropriation in the ad age", Adbusters (Vancouver), no. 21 (Spring 1998), pp. 22-30

By Hal Neidzviecki

It's like this: You're born, you watch TV, and pretty soon you want so bad it's eating you up alive. Like so many other members of the TV generation, I do battle not just with the ubiquitous and occasionally endearing externalized supplications of the ad world, but with my own internal, infernal need to consume.You can't escape the imagery of your own weakness, you hum jingles, you refer to incidents in last night's wacky sit-com, you eat greasy chips by the handful until your stomach bloats and your saliva tastes like the ocean. Suddenly, you're an adult, and you find that the better part of your mind is filled with trash -- snippets of movies, trivia about the medicinal properties of the marshmallow, and a yearning for canned soup whenever it rains. 

And yet, despite having every comfort attended to, you, the over-educated, over-privileged individual that you are, seem to be depressed about the very things that have always taken care of you so nicely. Add to this our latent discomfort for ardent anti-consumerism. We're not the kind to protest or earnestly work for change. We see irony in everything, and, as a result, we laugh off our own inability to actually make meaningful sacrifices like, say, giving up smoking. To rationalize all this, we decide that chronic consumption and the religion of capitalism aren't themselves evil. After all, what would we, the self-deprecating, angst-ridden junior members of post-industrial society, do without mass production, without pop culture and junk food and a series of rusted-out vehicles that we excuse for their smog belching capacity by giving them cute names like Betsy? And so, we slough off the question of actually changing our behavior, by deciding that what needs to be changed is the perception people have about the consumption complex. If everyone could be as sardonic and compromised as we are, things would certainly appear much improved. Listen, I'm not kidding here. From Arkansas to Athabasca, aging hipsters are struggling to come to terms with something much more complicated and obscure than how to live life. What's at issue for me and for millions of people around the world, is how to perceive consumptive culture, how to make it sorta, kinda, almost not so bad. We are the foot soldiers in an image battle that can't be won. Welcome to the culture wars, Nineties style. 

Brash youngsters Art Club 2000 make the scene in New York's American Fine Arts Gallery, displaying their Gap concept art exhibit, a satiric in-joke: the gallery resembles a Gap store, with pseudo-fashion shoot glossies of the gang dressed up in Gap outfits, and an analysis of the garbage (garbology) of your average Gap outlet; Swiss-based Jerelyn Hanrahan tours the world with her "Gesture as Value" bank machine, a money dispenser adjusted to accept and spit out gestures -- artist fashioned 'bills' that aren't worth much at the local grocery store; Juniper Tedhams of Austin, Texas converts Chicago's Randolph St. Gallery into a faux mall display for her 48 projects -- the "good things" that Martha Stewart's lifestyle magazine Living recommends bored rich women produce for their own edification (these include the fan trellis, quinces, and valentine lollipops); Russian expatriate turned New York art stars Komar and Melamid poll the citizens of various countries on their art preferences, and produce the results of each country's most and least preferred painting. They release a CD and book to support their art-for-the-people inclinations. 

We're two years away from the turn of the century. Creativity is consumed by consumerism. For every Martha Stewart there are ten Martha Stewart satirists whose high-price parodies earn them a pretty penny. Culture is on a tread-mill, and no one seems to be breaking a sweat. Why should we? We're just recycling and rearranging, depicting what we see, reinterpreting our journey to nowhere. At some point it stopped mattering that one product simply equals another product, that irony is to culture what candy is to kids -- it makes you sick, but you just can't stop eating it. 

One gets the sense that there was a time when all of this was fresh and new instead of being as stale and hopeless as it seems to be today. But when was that? Was it Warhol soup cans paying homage to the bought and sold of everyday? A recent retrospective of Keith Haring's work shows the nerd painter being arrested for his subway graffiti, this radical image somewhat difficult to reconcile with the shrewd fellow who marketed his simplistic but appealing visual sensibilities through the conduit of the Pop Shop, an eighties phenomenon which, unlike Haring himself, continues on today. "I'm interested," the now New York based Juniper Tedhams tells me when I call her up, "in authoring desire equivalent to the desire I see created in magazines." 

Tedhams's assertion illustrates the fundamental perception culture makers espouse in order to reconcile themselves to a world where rebels and conformists are one and the same -- chewed into a masticated pulp by the jaws of capitalism. This twenty-seven year-old artist sees something in the living, breathing culture of product that appears to be more vital than social encounters, living as she does in the centre of the new world. She thinks that if she can somehow boil down the essence of what she sees in consumer culture by portraying it as the abstraction of art, she will expose desire, the carnal truth of existence all creators hope to lay bare. And, to the benefit of myself and everyone like me, she will create a perception of antagonism to consumerism that is, in fact, a sly thumbs-up to our own weak complicity. 

Juniper Tedhams isn't evil. None of the creators discussed here are stupid or even uninteresting. In fact, they remind me of myself, my peers, our contradictions. I'm picking on Tedhams because I recognize in her thinking a line of reasoning that seems all too familiar. What Tedhams sees in the pages of Living, Cosmo, and Home and Garden (what so many other artists see in so many other aspects of ad culture), is a valid representation of the product world. She sees flash, glitz, glamour. But what she calls desire, I interpret as desire's placebo, need. Here's what I figure: Need can be taken care of. The credit card, and the 1-800 number are all you need to make your transaction. But desire is more complicated. 

Take the work of Paul Lukas, who puts out the zine Beer Frame, subtitled "The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption." His funny periodical, a Consumer's Report for the warped, is famed for its critique and analysis of weird products like Pork Brains in Gravy. 

"Consumerism becomes an intensely personal experience for most people," he tells me via email. "My work taps into that personal level -- my product obsessions may not be yours, and yours may not be the next person's, but most people relate to the notion of product obsession, because most people are similarly obsessive, even though they often don't realize it until someone like me comes along to point it out for them." 

What Paul is describing is the bizarre way we actually convey truths about what we are as individuals through brand identification. Like his contemporaries and all too aware peers, Lukas positions himself as both a critic and a fan of consumer culture. His critical position -- one that artists working with consumer icons repeatedly fall upon like hungry wolves eating their own young -- is that by making the consumer perceive the extent to which their own identities and choices are decided upon by ad culture, the artist is implicitly but not explicitly in opposition to this bad thing. Undermining this is Lukas's muted lust for the whole idea of being able to buy whatever you want, whenever you want it. The result? The Beer Frame book: pop culture pablum for the consumptive masses, published by a Random House subsidiary. 

Like the Martha Stewart project, Beer Frame is a veiled commentary on the beneficent power of what is, after all, our own iconography -- the everyday landscape of stuff. These projects fall short because desire comes out of an inherent compulsion for self-knowledge: knowledge of life not as a series of product choices, but as the one shared absolute that compels us to understand and express our dissatisfaction despite the fact that we have everything we need and should probably just shut our mouths and "be happy." 

"One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset -- the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of 'authenticity'," writes the Las Vegas based art critic Dave Hickey in his most recent collection, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy. Hickey is America's foremost thinker on the relationship between consumer culture (what people want), and art (what, theoretically, people desire). Hickey helps us to better understand Detroit based multimedia group AWOL. Their recent project, a short, violent film cast entirely with G.I. Joe dolls, is an excellent example of his twisted insistence that you either love the so-called perfection of the sunset sinking over the desert, or you love the gaudy landscape of the desert gambling oasis. You can't love both, and either passion is representative of a lie told to the self. 

"The movie we made is our ultimate fantasy as kids for G.I. Joe," explains twenty-seven year-old Greg Fadell of AWOL. "We tried to make our fantasy real -- when we were making the film we kept saying to each other, yeah, remember when we used to do this or that?" 

And so the work stands as both parody and capitulation -- a love affair with the kind of nostalgia one only feels when confronted with a childhood product that, itself, is a stand in for a whole other set of 'authentic' cultural constructions surrounding the idea of boyhood. 

"We have no political agenda," insists Fadell, adopting a by now familiar tone. "We take G.I. Joe to heart, we don't create anything we are halfway about. If you look at it in a corporate way, some corporation made money off of G.I. Joe, but the way we look at it, you take what they offer and you change it -- you make it your own -- it's about your memories, not the product." 

Dave Hickey would probably disagree with AWOL's inclination to mythologize the G.I. Joe doll as a film (and spin-off photographs) in which success is bringing childhood fantasies to life. For Hickey, the AWOL film is the sunset, and the G.I. Joe doll is the unholy, earthly beauty of Vegas at night. If we are stuck with the iconography of North American products, Hickey would argue, we can at least be honest about it, and not make it oblique and boring through some culturally accredited appeal to sentiment. (One strange note for the record: Fadell calls me a few days after I talk to him to tell me that although he had previously spoken of G.I. Joe, the AWOL collective officially refers to the figures used in their work as "dolls" and does not in anyway represent the Hasbro toy company). 

As a child, the G.I. Joe helicopter was my prized toy. The AWOL movie and photos encapsulate an undeniable longing that can be seen in almost all attempts to reconcile pop, product and person. But when you get right down to it, AWOL is working in the tried-and-true dogma of the TV Sunday night movie. Go for the heart-strings and then release it straight to video. Whatever happened to my old battered helicopter? Why do people pay hundreds of dollars for Star Wars action figures still in their packages? There is the perception of value here, the sense that product is worth more than we think it is; the value of product, AWOL is suggesting, is the sum total of our collective memories. AWOL's art leaves us with the perception that commodity could actually be in cahoots with desire after all. 

Toronto painter Ben Walmsley recently completed a body of work consisting of human-size liquor bottles he describes as "anthropomorphic." The still-lifes have a beauty to them that goes beyond simple product identification. Walmsley locates in these seemingly generic images a morose depth. He articulates in his liquor bottle series the malaise that AWOL and Beer Frame hint at but turn into dismissive camp. There are twenty-two layers of paint used to achieve the green of his giant sized Tanqueray Gin bottle, and each one seems to eliminate the glitz of the previous layer with the end result being that Walmsley's evocation of our common landscape is not one of larger-than-life want, but of pure, unmitigated sadness, the sadness of losing our sense of desire under the need that covers over everything that matters. After ten minutes of back alley wanderings, I end up in Walmsley's studio, a converted garage. 

"Pop art made commonplace the heroic or the sublime," says Walmsley soon after sliding the door up just enough for me to duck under. "But I'm not exalting my subject matter, because that way of looking at the product is now ubiquitous in advertising. I don't feel abused by ad culture -- I often find it provocative and even interesting at times. I'm not going to go out and deface billboards. What's the point? It's the imagery of everyday life that we are dealing with here. So for me, this is part of a personal line of exploration, the personal put into the public realm." 

Although Walmsley employs rhetoric similar to AWOL, Tedhams, Beer Frame and others, his work maintains an authenticity that beguiles skepticism born out of the intrinsic annoyance of being served up the same mass-produced crap recontextualized to look like the sunset. Walmsley's paintings exhibit not just the in-joke savvy of art world appropriations, they also have a beauty in their own right, a sense of place and history as their own kind of objects. They are as close as we can come to an individual approximation of what Dave Hickey terms "fake honesty." 

Click. Click. The postcards of Germaine Koh are snapshots she finds in the garbage. The cards stand as little messages, found reminders that our experiences are inevitably reduced to product. "A lasting impression is an elusive thing," Koh explains via email. "I'm more interested in minor epiphanies, everyday moments of reckoning, surprising thoughts that interrupt daily routine, however fleetingly." 

Koh's project, with its goal of minor disruption of routine, evokes the Swiss based Jerelyn Hanrahan's bank machine with its participatory necessity. Set up in various spots across the globe, the bank machine has been known to lure in passerbys hoping to make a transaction. Once confronted by the faux ATM, their lives are disrupted in a startled, gee-whiz way. Whether or not these spectators participate by putting the machine through its paces and ultimately collecting a gesture (or offering one of their own), seems almost beside the point, just as recognition in Koh's postcard/snapshots is far less important than an almost embarrassed vertiginous sense of the sameness of where we live. Consider Painting by Numbers: The Search for a People's Art, the project of two Russian expatriates, Komar and Melamid. A few years back, they decided to travel the world and poll people on their art preferences and then make art based on these polls. Through this, they would be subverting the commerce of the art world and encountering the people. In a 1994 interview in The Nation, Alex Melamid proclaimed: 

"We -- my partner and I -- were brought up with the idea that art belongs to the people . . . and I still believe this. I truly believe that the people's art is better than aristocratic art, whatever that is."
Painting by Numbers illustrates, through its rather disheartening collection of 'preferred' landscapes, the extent to which product identification, as Lukas describes it, functions to obliterate individual aesthetics. For most people in the world, the ideal painting "product" features a landscape, and some soothing colors, say, blue, green and a splash of rusty orange. But polls and preferences deal with need, not with the true territory of art -- a desire that can never be expressed through ratings and questionnaires. The New York Times Book Review ran a cover story on the dynamic duo's recently released book. The reviewer's conclusion that the book is "not so much a statement as it is a litmus test," fits nicely with my own sense that what Komar and Melamid are really about is a whole lot of nothing. They, more than any of the artists discussed in this piece, illustrate the way art comments on the world of commodity from a perspective of self-serving false moralism. Is there a way out of this? Max Schumann, on the phone from the New York art-book retail outlet Printed Matter, delivered this soliloquy to me: 
"There are two different ways of appropriating consumer culture: people who uncritically incorporate signs, ads into their work. Done uncritically this just shows the corporate mindset. I think there are more effective appropriations. Keeping in mind that appropriation is an art term, an art strategy to try to bridge the gap between high art and pop culture, when that strategy is within the institutional context, the edge is taken off -- it's art, and art is harmless. More interesting are the subculture groups who don't identify themselves as artists -- they don't recognize the institutions they are making product for, there's that attempt to get away from the fetish object of art."
For Schumann, valid social change is made possible only outside of the art structure. The creators discussed in this article recognize this. They all share the motivation to escape from "the fetish object of art." Nonetheless, what Schumann is really talking about are guerrilla interventions; that is, not people who deal with perceptions, but people who deal with the way things actually are. Art, which is solely a matter of perception, has a much more difficult time instilling in people a negative attitude toward product -- so shiny, so made to please. Art that appropriates the trappings of product almost always ends up in a moral half world. That's why the works described in this article both celebrate and repudiate the consumer culture they address. Don't forget, this is our art, our legacy for the hyperbolic future. This work is a potent representation of our post-industrial guilt. 

C'mon, something like Beer Frame suggests, it's not our fault, it's okay for the consumer to get out there and consume, as long as we do it with irony, as long as we get the joke. No wonder these nineties-style art appropriations often seem to act as nebulous homages to us unwitting consumers, victims and profiteers of our own passive participation. Needless to say, the "real" people these artists so long to communicate with aren't swayed, they don't suddenly start to accessorize their consumption in that revelatory, art-has-shown-me-the-truth way. We want Mariah Carey and Tickle Me Elmo and 4x4 trucks to drive to the Price Club in. We want Beavis and Butthead (those contemporary adolescents who represent an uber-generation of consumer so immersed in Tedham's sense of desire, they have themselves become a consumptive product). 

And what is left for us? Or rather, what do we leave for ourselves? Our art is a metaphor of pseudo-rebellion, of the artifice of cool, and it speaks eloquently, vapidly, redundantly, to the slacker twenty-something generation I seem stuck in for eternity. If nothing else, this art highlights the delicious confusion of images to be found everywhere -- inside and outside of the gallery, it is difficult to tell the difference between art, advertisement, and product. 

Films, even foreign ones, even arty ones, often manage to escape the art world. Maybe that's why they seem more successful than any other medium in capturing the pivotal interplay between need and desire. Director Viatcheslav Krichtofovitch's recent Ukrainian/French feature Friend of the Deceased takes a fittingly morbid approach to consumer culture at the end of the millennium. Set in the crony capitalist Ukraine, it features a mild mannered translator amidst a retinue of seedy import/exporters and corrupt nouveau entrepreneurs. When his wife leaves him for a high-roller, the translator hires an assassin with his last handful of American dollars. His victim? Like so much of our late twentieth century pop art, his victim is himself. 

-- With thanks to Germaine Koh for taking the time to point me in so many directions. Hal Niedzviecki is editor of Broken Pencil, the guide to zines and underground culture in Canada. He is author of Smell It (Coach House Books, 1998) and editor of Concrete Forest: the new fiction of urban Canada (McClelland & Stewart, 1998).