Currently Reading: Lost & Found by Mark Wilsner, Art Review #378, July-August 2014 (p5-7)

Mark Wilsner analyses three ‘mythical narratives’ of lost/found artworks.

Firstly he examines the subtext and misrepresentations of the mass media reportage of art works – specifically the recent global media attention to the ‘rubbishing’ of Paul Branca from the Sala Murat Gallery in Bari, Italy – being ‘mistaken’ by cleaners as rubbish and chucked out with the garbage; “The obvious subtext being that contemporary art is so wilfully obscure and opaque that it has become utterly unidentifiable to ordinary people.

He looks straight away at value and the two media-presented dichotomies; “There is clearly a juxtaposition that is set up between the €10,000 figure and the way that the artwork’s materials are so carefully listed in every version of the story as being ‘newspaper, cardboard and cookie crumbs scattered across the floor’. That phrase ‘scattered across the floor’ seems to imply a complete disregard for property, as obviously the only appropriate place for a work of art must be either on the all of set carefully on a plinth.”

He mentions the class element: “The idea of modern art being mistaken for rubbish and thrown away by a cleaner plays into society’s doubts about the validity of contemporary art, the pretentions of the art world and even class anxieties.” (But does not follow this point up further through his essay or link it in with his summary).

However, scratching beneath the globally reproduced media phraseology, Wilsner finds all is not as it seems. “The truth is that this was not an exhibition about the environment after all [one of the key mainstream media article highlights], but rather about modes of curatorial presentation.” And more crucially; “the works in question had in fact not yet been unpacked from their boxes. It turns out the cleaner never actually laid eyes on Paul Branca’s artworks, which were still inside their protective cardboard packaging when she encountered them. […] No one mistook an artwork for rubbish. The fact that they were made of newspaper, cardboard and biscuits turns out to be totally irrelevant.”

Secondly he looks at the rediscovery of previously lost artworks; “the rediscovery of a work that has been sitting ignored for years in a basement or storeroom, or, alternatively, the recognition that a work previously thought to have been of little art historical interest is actually authored by a famous names. Both require the crucial element of identification by an expert, and so in a way they are the inverse of the art-mistaken-for-rubbish-and-thrown-away-by-cleaner archetype: rather than a high value piece of fine art being transformed by accidental misidentification into rubbish, something that was previously thought to have little or no value is, once identified, magically transformed into art.”

The third narrative he addresses involves the use of non-art materials – as he describes in the context of mass-media narrative again as – the ‘and finally’ story where the focus is simply about the material rather than the institutional relationships that provide the key context to understanding the work (and hence the criticism of why art is obscure to the masses). “When an artist takes non-art objects and makes art with them nearly a hundred years after that mythical prank at the 1917 Independents exhibition, they are no longer testing the boundaries of institutional acceptance – it is just part of the established language of contemporary art. […] Mainstream media tend to assume that there is some inherent quality in a work that the cleaner misses, but which the connoisseur is able to discern. Of course no such material quality exists: ‘to mistake an artwork for a real object is no great feat when an artwork is the real object one mistakes it for, wrote Arthur Danto in 1964. He also mentions institutional theory of George Dickie (which has been aligned with my own practice in recent art press) and Pierre Bourdieu.

Wilsner’s point seems to be that it is the institutional theory and discursive framework that lacks in the mainstream media and public’s knowledge/discourse to enable the understanding of art beyond material concerns. Whilst this is probably quite accurate, particularity in the mainstream media’s part, it does nothing to address the general public opinion that art is obscure, elite and requiring identification by an ‘expert’; someone educated in these theories and frameworks.




Currently Reading: Brand.New (exhibition catalogue). ed. Jane Pavitt (co-curator). 2002. V&A Publications, London.

Published to coincide with the exhibition, Brand.New takes a challenging look at consumer culture and the proliferation of brand identities at the beginning of the 21st century.

The idea of the brand is central to contemporary society. Businesses, personalities, political parties and even nations ‘re-brand’ themselves in order to influence public opinion. With the emergence of e-commerce, the status and value of well-established brands – many of which have been with us for a century or more – may well be challenged by a host of new brands. Today’s brands promote themselves as more than just a logo, a slogan or a distinctive package, they promise to deliver a host of emotional benefits too. But what do we really think of the brands we buy?

Ranging across fashion, design and media, Brand.New sets out some provocative and entertaining debates about branding and consuming habits. Five key sections look at the history and development of brands: the economics and business of branding; the architecture of the shopping environment from mall to website; personal and social identities in a global commodified world, and the ethical and social questions for both brand and consumer. Eighteen short features complement the main text, presenting snapshots of retail, branding and consumer behaviour from around the world. Critics, historians, sociologists and designers, as well as voices from the business world, explore topics as diverse as shopping in China or individual acts of ‘brand’ subversion.

With over 200 colour illustrations, Brand.New’s stunning design deliberately reflects the dynamic character of the subject. The book is essential reading for students and observers of modern culture, those with an interest in advertising, product design and fashion – and anyone who shops.”


V&A sent me an email recently advertising their book sale. Amongst the discounted books was this title Brand.New (2002) priced at £4, reduced from £19.95. I read the blurb and thought it seemed relevant and a bargain at £4, then I remembered a.) P&P would likely double that and b.) I have a University library card and, with the book being 10 years old, it was bound to be in the library (it was).

So I read through the library copy of Brand.New – stamped and stickered and tagged (although not graffitied or with bent pages of note).


The first chapter In Brands We Trust? begins with a look at brands and the consumer consumption that brand = quality. Pavitt outlines the brand-packaging link with a short history of the standardisation of consumer goods that were previously dried/cured/loose and packaged in store (c.1900), then packaged and competing on the store shelves next to each other (p.33). She looks at brand values (p.38) and and adverts and the shift from object to experience in what is considered branded (p.38). The notion of aestheticisation of everyday life (Featherstone 1991) is explored where “the primary role of commodities becomes to express emotional and symbolic value – as a sign to be decoded by ourselves and others.” (p.44) Branding here is defined as “a process by which products become signs.” (p.44)

In the study of rubbish, a huge amount of domestic waste is branded product packaging. Far from being devoid of any value, the packaging can tell us a huge amount of information about the consumer in ethnographic studies. In some cases the packaging of the original consumer product can retain monetary value when the packaging has become an integral part of the consumer ‘experience’. Clever packaging has immediate re-use value. A branded biscuit or sweet tin that is reused to contain other food stuffs or oddments will continue acting as a subliminal marketing tool or brand reinforcement whilst other plastic and card packaging is being shipped to China to be recycled.

In Brand.New, Pavitt highlights Barbara Kruger’s work examining the relationship between identity and consumerism epitomised by the famous slogan “I shop therefore I am”. (p.44)

A case study ensues: “American beer label Schlitz parodied this in its press advert featuring a rummage through celebrity dustbins and the tagline “You are what you trash.” As Celia Lury has commented, “Is garbage the husks of a personal selection of consumer goods, to be understood as a self portrait?” Lury p.323.

On globalisation, Pavitt goes onto to discuss the shift from a production to consumption-orientated economy which gave rise to planned obsolescence and the emphasis on service and marketing rather than manufacturer. (p.45) She references socio-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (author of The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective): “Instead of creating homogeneity it can be argued that globalisation promotes and sustains difference and plurality in everyday experience.” (p.48) He describes this as a series of imaginary landscapes, where our view depends upon our location within that landscapes (1996) – not so dissimilar from Hito Stereyl’s essay in The Wretched of the Screen: In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective.


The second chapter: Ties that Bind: Brands, Consumers and Businesses (co-authored by Patrick Barwise, Andrea Durham and Mark Ritson) begins by examining what a brand is. Traditionally brands symbolised production (John Sherry). David Aaker considers brands to be the logo/symbol/trademark/packaging. Jean-Noel Kapferer describes them as the product’s essence/meaning/direction/identity. Stephen king (no not that one, an advertising man) says “A product is something made in a factory; a brand is something bought by a consumer. (p.73) A Brand’s symbolic meaning (in the long term) is termed ‘meaning flow’ by anthropologist Grant McCracken which involves the inward reassertion of self and the outward projection to others. (p.82)


Chapter 3: All the World’s a Store: The Spaces of Shopping (Aaron Betsky) examines the affect of spaces on buying and selling where Betsky describes malls as social spaces’ (p.111)

An important point raised in this chapter is that of the “environments for exchange of goods that are mediated by the consumer, rather than brand owner. Barter and labour exchange second hand networks, car boots, jumble sales, children’s toy libraries – alternative systems for exchange and consumption.”

“Democracy begins at the [Greek] agora or outdoor market.” (p.114)

Back to the central notion: “Brands mediate between object and ideology, while archaeology offers a cut, a division or critical break between them.”

Betsky discusses the marketplace as a spectacle and “is the stage for freedom of expression.” (p.114) and the introduction of the arcade as the formalisation by the state of the open market place. He takes us through the chronology of department stores, supermarkets, malls, catalogue shopping and the move to online shopping where stock is in “anonymous volumes” (p.116)


Skipping most of Chapter 4: Branding and the Individual (Jane Pavitt) as perhaps surprisingly mostly irrelevant, an ethnographic case study by Alison Clark: Brand not-so-new (p.182) looks at the second-hand, informal economy of children’s used clothes. Clark highlights the value systems of the household vs the individual with the example of a pink 101 Dalmatians pyjama set for a six year old. “What’s happens to branded goods once they have become part of everyday lives and social worlds?” she asks. “Charity shops and social values of branded goods circumvent the intention of the market.”


Chapter 5: The Point of Purchase by Gareth Williams looks more precisely at rubbish. The first point of interest is that Williams about ecopackaging/green packaging.”The potential of recycling post-consumer waste is enough to persuade most shoppers that they are contributing to improving the environment. ‘This carrier bag is biodegradable’ can only be effective of the consumer acts upon it. Little information is published to show that landfills, where most so-called ‘biodegradable’ waste ends up, are specifically managed to reduce biodegradation and so control the emissions of harmful gases.” This consumer power/knowledge relationship is at the heart of the eco-agenda and the chapter moves on to discuss ethics and brand boycotts and protests.


Currently watching: The Mafia Is Trashing Italy… Literally (2009) VICE

Film footage shows the mountains of garbage bales with commentary on the scale of the issue in Naples and the surrounding Campania region. Interviews with farmers from the affected regions disclose the problem of lack of management of toxic waste that has been illegally dumped by the Camorra mafia, allowed by the corrupt Berlusconi government. The author of Gomorrah [Gomorra], Roberto Saviano, claims the Camorra are the wealthiest business in Italy with profits exceeding that of Fiat

The people protest in the street but the government do little to remedy the crisis and send armoured police and tanks who use tear gas and violence to control the otherwise peaceful protests, and press conferences are evaded.

The government promise to build incinerators in the region to deal with the epic amounts of garbage but concern is raised over the amount of waste the incinerators can process, over how much is already accumulated and how much the region will produce, not to mention that toxic industrial waste is mixed in with the household garbage due to be burned and released into the atmosphere.


Part 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBHNmw0A80M

Part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8UAihE06AU


It will be interesting to see in October how much of this waste disaster has been rectified in the last 5 years and how the people of Naples view the situation now…


Yesterday I met with Maite Zubiaurre and had an excellent couple of hours talking rubbish for her upcoming book. We looked at my work and some other artists work, discussed ‘dumpsterology’ (her preferred term) and charity shops at length. We went to the 2 charity shops open on a Sunday in Halifax and talked a little bit with one of the staff members there. We discussed our mutual obsession with photographing bins wherever we go and Maite talked about the California trash art scene and gave me a couple of links to follow up. We’ll be keeping in touch once she has returned to LA and no doubt swapping many notes for our respective book and thesis!


In other news, I’m travelling to Naples in October and am looking for people who will talk rubbish with me. Although I believe the rubbish/mafia crisis is largely under control now, I’d like to hear what residents’ thoughts are on the matter. It’s actually a family holiday for my Mum’s 60th birthday but “when in Rome” (or Naples) as they say…


On my watch list is this documentary The Mafia Is Trashing Italy… Literally (part 1) and part 2: http://bit.ly/Toxic-Napoli-2 published by Vice in 2009.

“In the city of Naples, Italy, the Mafia has controlled the waste-management industry for decades — dumping and burning trash across its rolling hills and vineyards. In 1994, the European Union declared the situation an official environmental emergency, and things have only gotten worse since then. When we investigated the situation we found mutated sheep, poisoned mozzarella, alarming rates of cancer, and pissed off farmers ready to push back against the Camorra, Italy’s most powerful and dangerous criminal organization (and the government that enables it).”


After a long and painful period of illness, I’m very happy to be able to resume studies this week. I’m reacquainting myself with my own research and recommencing my thesis first draft.

Things to distract me from the task at hand include a new series on consumerism on BBC2: The Men Who Made us Spend

The first episode addresses built in obsolescence which is all about increased profit margins on consumer goods and results in vast amounts of unnecessary waste.

Episode 1: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01zxmrv/the-men-who-made-us-spend-episode-1


The second episode looks at the health industry and the how the drugs companies increase consumer spending by manipulating health anxiety (fear of death). The increase in products branded as healthy, including bottled waters and the like sell the consumer more products they don’t need and in doing so add more packing to landfill.

Episode 2: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01zxn0l/the-men-who-made-us-spend-episode-2


The third episode focusses on merchandising and collectables, particularly directed at children, incorporating film, TV and video with the branded toy market as well as ‘gamification’ of the food industry, plus credit cards and ebay/paypal facilitating instant consumer gratification.

Episode 3: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01zxnk9/the-men-who-made-us-spend-episode-3



In other rubbish news; an LA based professor is visiting me in Halifax to talk rubbish for research on her book on trash. Her research interests include cultural studies, gender studies, transatlantic studies and comparative literature so I’m very much looking forward to meeting and talking rubbish with her!