Interconnections: Creative Consumerism

The first few weeks of the postgraduate course in Cultural Innovation have been marked by the exploration of important texts in the field as well as by lively and stimulating online discussions between students and professors alike.

The course entitled Art, consumption and current culture with Professor Isaac González has focused upon the book Keywords by Raymond Williams, which elaborates the historical uses of important terms concerning culture and society. The term culture

indicates a complex argument about the relations between general human development and a particular way of life, and between both and the works and practices of art and intelligence. It is especially interesting that in archaeology and in cultural anthropology the reference to culture or a culture is primarily to material production, while in history and cultural studies the reference is primarily to signifying or symbolic systems. (Williams, Raymond. Keywords, 91)

Studies in cultural innovation must, therefore, examine both the material and symbolic manifestations of cultural production.

In the course Culture, innovation and industry with Professor Rubén Martínez, the principal text has been The Culture Industry by Adorno and Horkheimer, a chapter from the epochal book Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose subtitle – Enlightenment as Mass Deception – is indicative of its philosophy. This text from 1947 employs a Marxist perspective to elucidate the negative effects on culture of serial mass production. From this point of view, it is assumed that the cultural consumer is passive, forced to submit to the dominant system of production which, in turn, is seen as a mechanism of control and subjugation.

The point was not to defend this position but, rather, to scrutinize it and explore the possible alternatives. Adorno and Horkheimer do not see the points at which the consumer can break through and transform the system with critical judgment and creative choices. Many of the students questioned this in the discussions: if culture can be suppressed and degraded, then there must also be a possibility for its liberation and democratisation through the agency of the active, consuming subject.

The book Virtual Society? by Steve Woolgar has been the topic in the course Technologies, media and culture with Professor Nizaiá Cassián. Woolgar discusses epithets of the virtual: terms meant to refer to the effects of new technologies upon traditional behaviours, but laced with what he calls cyberbole, or utopian promises of what such technologies can achieve. When we are confronted with concepts such as e-mail, telecommuting or virtual classrooms, there is an implicit philosophical consideration – and also a possible subterfuge. If new technologies significantly change real social behaviours, what did we assume the “reality” was beforehand? If this implicit attitude remains unexamined, can it be used to sell us something we do not need or even want?

All this points to another text discussed in Professor Cassián’s class, The Practice of Everyday Life, by Michel de Certeau, which emphasises the creative dimension of consumer practice:

a production, a poiēsis – but a hidden one, because it is scattered over areas defined and occupied by systems of production… [I]t does not manifest itself through its own products, but through its way of using the products imposed by a dominant economic order. (de Certeau, Michel. The Practices of Everyday Life, xii-xiii)

It is in this spirit that the Marx® project was carried out at LABoral Centro de Arte y Creaciόn Industrial (March –June, 2008). The work of art – which borders on a being a new publicity and marketing model – clearly reflects the issues that have been discussed these past few weeks.

The artist collective PSJM created and registered their own trademark – the MARX® mark – which was used to label a wide variety of commodities (products “imposed by our dominant economic order”: jeans, t-shirts, dresses, shoes). They also used the logo to launch an advertising campaign (spot, billboards, press, catalogue, original music) and to design the MARX® boutique itself, which was set up as an installation (seen in the photo to the right) within one of the exhibition halls at the art centre.

The work simultaneously touched upon the three subjects mentioned above. As Williams pointed out, the MARX® products are both material commodities and a symbolic system, the latter evidenced by the semiotic force of their politically charged logo and the entire consumer practice that the project engenders and perpetuates. The project overcomes the restrictions implicit in the view of Adorno and Horkeimer, revealing the site of creativity in the processes of production. It does so, however, with an eye to the phenomenon of virtual epithets, underlining how the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx can be tamed and subverted into their opposite through the seductive hyperbole of an aesthetically charged advertising campaign. (The photo to the left of this paragraph is an actual consumer product: The Che Guevara wallet available at The Che Store. What is the difference between this item and those with the MARX® logo?)

PSJM are aware of “the system’s capacity to neutralise and even strengthen itself by commercialising its own critique” because “rebellion, not conformism has controlled the way the market works for decades” (quoted from PSJM’s Press Kit: here is the Spanish version). They emphasise the irony that “the countercultural rebellion, rather than a consequence, is in fact the reason for the rise in consumerism” (ibid).

Yet the primary focus is not simply a critique. It is a celebration of the consumer’s power to create. In their case, the creation is (in their words) “a sort of sham,” but it is one that empowers us by making us aware of the ubiquitous and insipid power of the mass media.

What defines our team’s line of work and to a certain extent distinguishes us from the other artists of our generation is not so much the fact that we keep an eye on the socio-economic-political events around us and represent them, as the fact that we use the mechanisms characteristic of the culture industry, especially in its facet of commercial seduction, to create, within the framework of contemporary art, a sort of sham which easily crosses the line between fiction and reality… Many of our pieces could pass as parts of reality; a reality which we well know is difficult to separate nowadays from the fiction produced by the media. (PSJM. Press Kit, 6)

Studies of cultural innovation, the students actively grappling with them as well as the artistic practice currently underway in art centres such as LABoral Centro de Arte – all emphasise this potentially creative dimension of consumer activity.

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