Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Obey Giant

Over the holiday break my wife and I were in the Kaimuki area and decided to park the car and walk a little bit. I had brought my camera with me and was snapping the occasional photo as things caught my eye. It's a habit I've fallen back into over the last month or so. Waialae Avenue, the main drag in Kaimuki, is a very curious street. It's a long gradual stretch uphill with a hundred different kinds of little architectural mini-zones. From one storefront to the next there is no rhyme or reason: to use a Hawaiian term, it's all kapakahi: confused, mixed up. You walk by a storefront painted electric yellow with spray-painted signs on the windows advertising bikinis. Next to that is a posh continental restaurant with everything on the menu at $35 or more. Next to that is an empty storefront with newspapers masking-taped to the windows, and next to that is a second-hand furniture store with eight folding beds and their waterstained mattresses lined up out front.  One one corner, over an abandoned theatre, I saw a large poster of a stern-looking face reminding me of Big Brother. It's a poster I have seen in other odd places in Honolulu as well.

So I asked my son, who has a lot more street smarts than I do, if he knew what was up with that. And sure enough, he did. Turns out the artist is named Shepard Fairey  and he has established an international presence as a kind of countercultural design artist. The poster of one of a series that has become known as the "Obey Giant" series. He's got his own web site complete with posters and gear and articles and even a manifesto, which reads as follows:
The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as "the process of letting things manifest themselves." Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.

The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one's environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer's perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

Many people who are familiar with the sticker find the image itself amusing, recognizing it as nonsensical, and are able to derive straightforward visual pleasure without burdening themselves with an explanation. The PARANOID OR CONSERVATIVE VIEWER however may be confused by the sticker's persistent presence and condemn it as an underground cult with subversive intentions. Many stickers have been peeled down by people who were annoyed by them, considering them an eye sore and an act of petty vandalism, which is ironic considering the number of commercial graphic images everyone in American society is assaulted with daily.

Another phenomenon the sticker has brought to light is the trendy and CONSPICUOUSLY CONSUMPTIVE nature of many members of society. For those who have been surrounded by the sticker, its familiarity and cultural resonance is comforting and owning a sticker provides a souvenir or keepsake, a memento. People have often demanded the sticker merely because they have seen it everywhere and possessing a sticker provides a sense of belonging. The Giant sticker seems mostly to be embraced by those who are (or at least want to seem to be) rebellious. Even though these people may not know the meaning of the sticker, they enjoy its slightly disruptive underground quality and wish to contribute to the furthering of its humorous and absurd presence which seems to somehow be antiestablishment/societal convention. Giant stickers are both embraced and rejected, the reason behind which, upon examination reflects the psyche of the viewer. Whether the reaction be positive or negative, the stickers existence is worthy as long as it causes people to consider the details and meanings of their surroundings. In the name of fun and observation.

Fairey spent time in Honoluly several years ago, and was for a time resident artist at The Contemporary Museum just up the street from where I live.

I'm particularly struck by the part of the manifesto that asserts "The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities." If I were to substitute the words "my English homework" for the word "sticker", and "it" for "OBEY" I would have something close to the argument that I hear some of my students—often the brightest—making: "It's supposed to be open to interpretation. It can mean whatever you want it to mean."

I understand the argument, I do. Sometimes, if I try to approach it in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, as I have attempt to do in several previous posts, I can almost sympathize with it. But the key word is "almost." Truth to tell, I've spent the better part of 40 years trying to convince my students that such a position is ethically and aesthetically irresponsible. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that writers and artists do have a responsibility—to themselves and to their audience—to at least attempt to make sense, to seek out truth, to communicate something. If you're going to ask me to read something, give me a reason to care. If you're going to ask me to look at a work of art, give me something that is thoughtfully conceived and well-executed. I can easily put together a poem along the lines of

Integral flames abounding:
rock-hard prestidigitation.
The hyacinth stands attentive
with recourse to alienation.
Walk. Run. Fly to the amaze-
ment circus; argue until
the cows arrive safely back
at the hotel. No definition.

The poem presents itself with due seriousness. There's a sequence, a syntax, a field of energies that is framed by and turned loose within the syllables. It has a sort of hopscotch logic, at least at the sentence level. And best of all: Because it has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

But is it any good? Out of the context of its presence here as a kind of demonstration piece, would there be any reason for any person to read it, to re-read it, to care about it?


Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between the aims and methods of politically-oriented performance art, of which I would take "Obey Giant" to be an example, and more traditional fine art productions. To give him credit, Shepard Fairey did get my attention, and did get me to think about the poster, about its place in that context, and about my relationship to my surroundings, which was his stated aim. So is he providing a valuable public service, or is he, as his critics would maintain, a vandal with an axe to grind, or, more precisely, with an axe already ground and at its anarchistic work?

I'm of two minds about the matter. And I have the sense that there's something critical that I haven't yet been able to articulate about this whole interpretive dilemma and how it works. So if you've got any thoughts, feel free to jump in. Comments always welcome.

(Department of Amplification (1.4.07): This poster sent along by Dan M.)


Linz said...

Shepard Fairey was on the cover of the Honolulu Weekly last year. He visited Hawaii, and went all around the cities doing graffiti.

bluedevil said...

an article I read recently about behavioral finance referenced a study (in england?) in an open self-serve cafeteria, where the hosts found people underpaid for coffee that was available on an honor system. on one of the two serving tables they placed a "face" which was basically a set of eyes and the take increased meaningfully (though not entirely to the "fair" amount). this sort of phenomenon -- the power of eyes watching you -- seems to emphasize the "obey" element of fairey's work. it would be interesting to see if pattersn of accidents / jaywalking / et al changed at the intersections underneath his work