"Tell me about yourself, and you might mention where you're from, the music you prefer, perhaps a favorite writer or filmmaker or artist, possibly even the sports teams you root for. But I doubt you'll mention brands or products. That would seem shallow, right? There's just something illegitimate about openly admitting that brands and products can function as cultural material, relevant to identity and expression. It's as if we would prefer this weren't true..." — Rob Walker, Exhibition Essay, As Real As It Gets, 2012.
Journalist and author Rob Walker has a long history of projects that look at the intersection of designed objects and consumer behavior. Formerly of the Times Magazine "Consumed" column and currently found at Design Observer, Walker coined the term "murketing" in his 2008 book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, to describe the blurred strategy between marketing and entertainment used to sell products without the associations of an overt branding campaign. Walker's current project swings to the other side of the spectrum, examining brands so compelling they don't need physical manifestations: he has curated "As Real As It Gets" at New York's Apexart about imaginary brands and fictional products. I talked to Walker over email about some of the questions the exhibition raises about our complicated relationship with things.
The show, in many ways, seems like a continuation or synthesis of your own speculative design projects with your different tumbleblogs. The majority of your own practice exists exclusively in the virtual sphere, for example your recent Significant Objects project with Joshua Glenn, where thrift store detritus was listed on eBay along with fictive narratives of their history in order to demonstrate the subjectivity of value (and ...
At a time when so many Americans are disgusted with the personhood of corporations, it's surprising that more persons don't move to secure their expanded rights. Dan Graham notes, “Jasper Johns was the first American artist to fully understand that the newly subjectivized advertising icon and the gestures of Abstract Expressionist painting—which struggled against the cultural domination of this new form—were virtually identical.”1 The place of the (white male) individual and his potential for transcendence had already merged with corporate strategy. Warhol began operations at his Factory in 1962, and by 1966 Foucault proclaimed that man “would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” In 1978, the band Devo told The SoHo Weekly News that they’d decided to “mimic those who get the greatest rewards out of the business and become a corporation."
According to Bernadette Corporation, “Mock incorporation is quick and easy … no registration fees, simply choose a name (i.e. Booty Corporation, Bourgeois Corporation, Buns Corporation) and spend a lot of time together. Ideas will come later.” Bernadette Corporation was founded in 1994 as "the perfect alibi for not having to fix an identity."2 Similarly, the Bruce High Quality Foundation employs a post-individual aesthetic while using the language of a endowed institution as opposed to a corporation. Yet the post-individual kernel is clearer in the Foundation’s mission, which presents itself as the arbiter of the estate and legacy of “the late social sculptor” Bruce High Quality. The Foundation is founded on the negation of an already fictional identity. The Icelandic Love Corporation, based in Reykjavik, adopts the title of a corporation without jettisoning their identities.
Corporate art practice challenges stale narratives of contemporary art, which resuscitate themes and tropes of 20th century conceptualism. By claiming the featureless corporation as the active artmaker, BC and other similar façades maneuver around cliché and retreat from the individual artist-archetype: a character to be media-narrativized into a pop-psychological explanation of their noble craftsmanship or pathology of resistance.
Bernadette Corporation's The Complete Poem installation at Greene Naftali (2009)
Corporations, much like contemporary art, have a unique relationship with the iterable. In an essay discussing the irony of the corporate sponsors of the San Diego Zoo, critic and writer Chris Kraus explains, “Like contemporary art, corporate linguistics seeks to eliminate the dreary mechanics of cause and effect. Shit happens. People demand.”3 Corporate language rests on clichés that are instantly understood. Phil Spector reportedly wondered, “Is it dumb enough?” while listening to “Da Doo Ron Ron.” The question that defined popular music has as much bearing on contemporary art: unencumbered by the boring (Kraus’ “dreary mechanics”), only that which is instantly understood remains. That which is dumb enough.
The artist Ed Fornieles, whose work includes the trend-forecasting agency Recreational Data and the management training company Coaxiom, indicated to me that part of what he likes about working with corporate aesthetics is the power of boring corporate cliché both in language and imagery. “Corporations have their own logic,” Fornieles told me. “It doesn’t always have to be about me.” In a sense, engaging with corporate style makes transparent a generic corporate aesthetic—visible in promotional materials, architecture, offices, commercials— which is both recognizable and unfixed. What’s appealing about something so blandly real is its ability to blend into the fabric of reality without the risk of a unique stake or identity...