Text commissioned for Stock-Site.org.au (nd) journal 2007
Observation on 'cheap imitations': by Scot Cotterell
At the age of sixteen, in an LSD induced conceptual fervour, I stumbled into a tattoo parlour with a bottle cap from the, then, well known 'jolt cola', a drink marketed as having twice the caffeine!'. I presented to the tattooist, in quick succession, the bottle cap, my freshly shaven head and a fifty dollar bill. The logo of this somewhat obsolete consumer item, was faithfully rendered in black and red ink, and in slightly larger-than-scale, on the side of my naked head.
The 'jolt tattoo' was a brief but lasting manifestation of my exploration of the space in between the psycho-social residue of consumer marketing and production. I had grown up around tattooing and the stock repertoire of imagery or 'flash' that exists within the Western tattoo parlour. Skulls, dragons, exotic lettering and women were the motifs of choice upon my first studio visit when, at the age of ten, I had my thumbnails tattooed with 'peace' signs. At this tender age, I had been given the unwritten rules of tattoo: never get a woman's name and never get a tattoo on a whim, whether drunken or sober. I knew that my relationship to the jolt logo was not that of a truly important image that I wished to adorn my body with for life, but I also knew that, in essence, it was no different than picking a skull off the wall. Nevertheless, I conceived the tattoo as an unconscious conceptual artwork, a performance act witnessed by no one, but which had a lasting residue. I saw the union of the individual body and the market-driven image as a bastardising act that could negate the concrete form of the logo.
Although artists have a long embedded history of drawing inspiration from mass-produced and popular artifacts, production itself, as a cog in a larger capital-driven machine, creates far more convoluted, disturbing and serendipitous objects and images than most artists could hope to muster. Cheap imitations - the cheap Chinese toy, the made-in-Taiwan kids' show-bag gun, the malfunctioning yo-yo - have been so compromised that they lose, completely, their ability to function. Their consumer image and brand identity are so amplified and distorted by their mass nature that they become a synthesis of many parts. Rather than simply crossing, connecting or transcending cultures and contexts in any mappable way, they are ‘bastard children', illegitimate and orphaned with all the imbued grotesquery of a human deformity, albeit disguised under a plastic shell. It is made in china yeah, but where in China? Which company made it? Who designed it? Its origin obliterated and unrecorded.
The cheap imitation has, for me, always exerted a sickly sweet attraction. I love the kitsch, the camp, the mysterious alien nature, the gawd-awful colour schemes and faults of these objects and images. They transmit a quietly sinister quality that silently encapsulates a post-industrial capitalist concern for production-for-productions-sake and a generic quality, within which, everything main-stream fits.
‘Two Dollar’ bargain stores are the repositories for such objects. They offer a glimpse into this parallel production space and where a product's sales potential is decided by its low-low price, rather than its quality. As a single-serve experience, cheap consumer objects have virtually no re-sale value (except perhaps as art). They are made to be bought only once, hastened continually by the speed of an economic machine, in which more advertising is necessary to create more trends to help shift more units, ad infinitum. This fracturing of an object's perceived or created function from its economic value is an important tool in this system, shifting consumer focus from functionality and craftsmanship to cost. Put quite simply, it is so cheap you can't afford not to buy it. Though readily purchasable, the life of products, at any one store is transient, determined by two shifting sets of numbers, how many are left and how many are being sold; millions of simultaneous supply and demand quotients being played out across the globe.
Anyone, who has grown-up in the last 30 or so years can relate to the physical quality of mass-produced objects, the rough plastic edges, slight mistakes in the registration of imagery and other residues of the economic rationalisation of production.
There exists an invisible push-pull effect between products as well, if one factory produces a surplus of watch batteries for instance, it becomes economically feasible for a linked factory that produces children's' toy mobile phones to alter their design - to use watch batteries as opposed to standard ones. While this change irrevocably alters the ongoing functionality of the toy, watch batteries are significantly more expensive and harder to obtain, nonetheless the change is made. The system begins to regulate and define itself.
Traditionally, the difference between an imitation and an original, regardless of how similar the two are physically, is that the latter has been imbued with value somewhere within its manufacturing process, an indeterminable value that cannot be reproduced. The manufacturing process of both the imitation and original may be startlingly similar, but the former still lacks this energy transfer from authentic brand to object. This difference becomes startlingly more relevant when the object's manufacturing process has transcended any considerations of functionality. Looking for anecdotal references to a personal experience with such a product I found one woman who told me about a bargain store mop she had recently purchased:
‘For all visual intents and purposes this thing looked like a mop, but the head was poorly attached and the stem lacked the sufficient strength and rigidity for it to be used as such, it was almost a 2D mop, an illusion...it had the aura, the essence of ‘mopness' but based on function this thing was definitely not a mop'.
The mop in this example is merely a stand-in, a signifier for a functioning well constructed mop. The simulation is entirely image-based and staggeringly effective; a briefly perfect simulacrum. I say briefly, because it is based in the eye and the mind rather than grounded in any physical reality. It looks like a mop; it smells like a mop and must therefore be a mop. What is interesting here is the paradox between our ideas of the real. Which is more real, the malfunctioning object we now own or the mental construct that allowed a lapse in judgement to result in its purchase?
Another recent example that, illustrates this tension beautifully, is an imitation Louis Vuitton watch. The first thing I noticed about this object was it's chameleonic nature; the effectiveness of it's simulation. It wavered being between two paradoxical states of being; that of the original, versus that as its clone. Being somehow neither, nor both, at any one time. While its design and graphics were identical to an original, it's cheap cellophane packaging alerted buyers to its counterfeit nature straight up. This is where things start to become super-real…. A watch's primary function is to accurately tell time, so surely a $10 plastic watch is just as good functionally as a $5000 luxury watch. A transformation process occurs when an object is increased in value astronomically, for reasons other than its ability to perform a function; I propose that it becomes unreal. It exists in another place where value is determined by something other than function, something more akin to image. Not the image of luxury brand identity, as this is a fairly transparent device based on a Pavlovian response to positive stimuli' mechanism, but the contamination or convolution of this image that is contained within the ‘cheap imitation'.
The old adage that you get what you pay for still holds true to an extent but as production shifts to centralised, de-militarised factory complexes - more akin to rogue states than industrial estates - most production stems from the same places. Rather than being charged with energy from superior craftsmanship and therefore reputation, the energy now is that of superior image and again, therefore reputation.
The New Edition Police action figures available for 3 dollars at assorted bargain stores are a further example. These toys are designed for, and aimed at westerners, and informed by popular branded products like Action Man and G.I Joe but have they have undergone a strange compression, spawned from a stew of influences. The uniforms the figures wear are not specifically American, English, or German but a mesh of colours and forms that represent ‘swat' style uniforms; they encapsulate the ‘idea’ of a police uniform. Reductionism and character recognition creates the state whereby royal blue with patches of white and a black metal shape stands in for the constructed idea of what a policeman looks like. The box informs us in three ak-47 assault rifle prefaced dot points:
• Latest police car (there is no car, there is a helicopter)
• The in full battle array's police
• Police kit material
To further infuse the figures with ‘copness' the box is adorned with images of a black, helmeted trio with assault rifles, an LAPD style cop next to his car, 2 state troopers wielding a shotgun handcuffing a suspect, A front-on photograph of a young ‘rookie' cop with his gun drawn, and an officer swinging from a helicopter with a handgun drawn. The ‘special police' logo they have designed for the packaging is a direct appropriation of the Warner Brothers Logo! It doesn't get any better than this, or maybe it does... a flashing light yo-yo, I acquired in 2005, was copyrighted 2008 by an unnamed Chinese company. It is perhaps this last object that best illustrates the black comedy of mass produced objects.
While these products fascinate, they also repel because of their untraceable origin. Their ability to masquerade as things they truly are not, as significatory shells of the authenticity we require, an authenticity that has drained from the world so slowly we didn't even notice it leave.
Perhaps this is part of the role of contemporary art, is to fill the void, the cracks between the generic everything. Those spaces that mass produced and identical products can't fill. What all these things have in common is that they are mass produced experiences, relationships that can be re-produced across space and time, transposed to another place and time by simply shifting the object in question. Take product. Add human. Repeat - ad infinitum, creating umbrella state of experience that sits above, beyond and through any traditional idea we have of culture. One that is all cultures and becomes a pervasive film, or coating through which everything is coloured. A semiotic construction, a consciousness filled with fleeting brand and object experiences. A relational psycho-ballet playing out a perpetual infatuation-gratification cycle. Breathe in that small rush of contentment you get when you make a new purchase, which is what it's all about. Transposable experience.