Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Consume - So What?

I was skeptical when I read of Consume on the New World News blog. Art commenting on consumerism in society? Hmm. As the article notes, the exhibit "ponders the question: When is enough enough?...Artists show work that expresses how and why we consume and how our consumption affects us, the people around us and the world in which we live....At the end, the visitor finds out how much they [sic] have consumed and comments on their [sic] spending habits are offered."

Fine. I like art, and I like spending. I was game. The exhibit extends over thirteen floors of a department store. To enter the building, one must obtain a HUD shaped like a credit card.

The ground floor sets the tone: images of coins and currency. The ground floor also provides some instruction for seeing the remainder of the exhibit. One uses an elevator to travel between floors. On some of those floors, one can choose to buy one or the other (or both) of a pair of products: one "necessity" and one "extravagance." The "necessity" is invariably cheap, while the extravagance is invariably expensive. The latter is also financed through debt (in the form of a charge to your HUD credit card, including some calculation of interest, though what assumptions are made regarding repayment is not clear), so the exhibit keeps a running total of one's debt.

The floors have different images of what the artists consider to be rampant consumerism. Below, I attempt a text message with the world's largest Blackberry. Oddly, the modern device lies atop a television of much older vintage. Someone was being thrifty in not throwing out those older sets!

Another floor has an exhibit that mocks our cultural obsession with medical products, particularly anti-aging products. I found it a little puzzling - the exhibit made no distinction between vanity products (e.g., Botox) and products that (arguably) extend life. One might even argue that, because quality of life is important, Botox and other treatments that make patients feel better about themselves are as important as products that extend life but cannot ensure a particular quality of life. Below, I take the treatment in a pill-shaped chamber. Do I look refreshed?

On and on go the floors, some not yet completed when I visited, and some more interesting than others. One floor contains a bumper car ride. Another contains a great many vials, some dance and kissing poseballs, and, contained in a large black box, a big Viagra pill with images on the wall of randy old people. I'll interpret that exhibit as saying either that old people should not have sex, or that impotent men should not have their ability to have sex restored. I suppose either of those is a defensible position, but both seem highly judgmental to me.
At the end, on the thirteenth floor, something resembling a bank vault awaits. One must be "scanned" by sitting on the seal between the two guards, whereupon one receives some snarky comments and some verbal finger-wagging about continuing to wear an AO despite the request to detach such. (The lag was minimal.) Tough, guys, because I'm not about to duck-waddle through your exhibit. Not only am I consumeristic, I'm vain. Sue me.

I made the Wall of Shame. The text in red reads: "Rhianon Jameson scored 16667.12 US$ in debt Your botox days are over" - honestly, they have yet to begin, so nya-nya to the effort to shame me.

It's far from clear what I should take away from the exhibit. Spending too much is bad? Well, sure. The problem is always in defining "too much." Going into debt is bad? Sometimes. But I knew that, too. And assigning arbitrary prices to "extravagances" - and isn't this really in the eye of the beholder, or the credit card holder, in this case? - doesn't really help to drive home the point that certain lifestyle choices are unaffordable for some people. What would have made more sense would have been to give everyone a budget for each floor (representing different ages), provide a price list for various goods, allow people to go into debt to finance purchases as long as the total amount spent, including interest on the debt, did not exceed the total budget. Then a visitor could see that going into debt to buy things on the lower floors reduced the total amount of merchandise that the visitor could buy over the entire exhibit.

In any event, the exhibit reinforced my view that art and politics rarely mix well. Now if you'll pardon me, there's an airship I've had my eye on...


Mako Magellan said...

From your description, the installation sounds quite amusing, even though you appear to have been somewhat unamused yourself. I think there is a tendency for people to expect too much of artists, though. They may not be privy to 'the way things really are', their forte is that what they think or feel is expressed in what they do. They can certainly be criticised for being inconsistent or uninformed, if this is the case, just as we are all liable to that. However, it is usually more productive to look at art as a subjective view that is being expressed, one of many, held concurrently, and that what is of interest is the way it is expressed: it may be eloquent or impassioned, wise or naive, tellingly terse or overwhelmingly florid. Discussing whether it is right or wrong is another matter of opinion, expressed, I presume, poorly or well.

Rhianon Jameson said...

I was quite amused - and some of the floors were well done indeed! (Though tastes obviously vary. I showed one of my colleagues - not a SL habitue - the giant BlackBerry photo and he thought the concept of a giant BlackBerry was too stupid to be believed. Ah well, I enjoyed it.)

You are indeed correct that one should look at art as expressing a subjective view that does not necessarily correspond to any objective reality. I did try to ignore the more "in your face" messages about conspicuous consumption (itself a felicitous early Edwardian phrase from economist Thorstein Veblen), and, as you could tell, was only partially successful.

It occurs to me that it is somewhat ironic to hear this message from artists, who, to make a living, often rely on patrons to purchase items they enjoy but do not really need.

Mako Magellan said...

Oh, indeed! And having spent several of my young years in the art world I was naively astonished at the number of avowed socialists therein who wisely didn't bite the hand that fed them, even if it was a capitalist hand.

Do keep up the good work, Miss Jameson.