As in these earlier (predecessor?) styles, there is sometimes an effort to present/document very ordinary ways of communication from everyday life. In the case of Conceptualism, this can involve snippets of conversation, internet chatter, advertising and journalistic lingo, institutional cliches and more.
This "Realist impulse" can produce (in the words of Ranciere) a "scandal" -- arising from an "anything goes" attitude, in which what is customarily relegated to "profane" realms is welcomed into the halls of art. (pp. 5, 14)
You can see how it could also give rise to ethical questions. As critical as Realism was of its subjects, it was considered democratic, if for no other reason than that it offered voice to people who previously had none (at least in high culture). When Conceptualism appropriates unsophisticated chatter, it's often very funny. But then the question arises, is this "just making fun of the boobs"? (In which case, it risks sacrificing the power of an egalitarian ethos.)
In a witty performance at St. Mark's Poetry Project last Wednesday, Rob Fitterman addressed this question head on. Fitterman's new book, Sprawl, often uses online consumer commentary about stores and restaurants. In a part serious/part satirical piece he read at the end of his performance, he described his sense of "failure" in his handling of such material :
"I still have the messy job of returning to the ethical question, which I failed to respond to in any satisfactory way. I've tried to consider how I might borrow consumer language without having a superior relationship to it. The dilemma comes to a head in the conflicted decision of whether or not to correct the grammar and spelling of online found text. If I Ieave in the original errors, I take the risk of poking fun of the online authors who might be less privileged in education, and if I do correct the errors, then I run the risk of controlling and purifying the found text. Either way points to failure, major failure, capital F."
Fitterman's performance did, though, offer some intriguing ways out of this quandary. One solution to the "artist-over-subject" dilemma was to appropriate, and sometimes transform (with consumer language) elements from the texts of Matvei Yankelevich, with whom he read that night (and who gave a fascinating performance in his own right). I took this as a way of leveling the playing field; i.e., reminding us that it's not only unsuspecting consumers who get their texts borrowed.
Even more provocative for me, though, was the fact that who the producer/author was and who the "mere" consumer shifted at points during the reading.
Who is "The Consumer"?
Working in Advertising/Marketing over the years, I've seen many presentations by prestigious research organizations on "The State of the Consumer" (who is sometimes "disillusioned", often "in revolt", "demanding more choice", and generally behaving irascibly). In Cultural Studies literature, I've read about the "Consumer" being "the new proletariat". It's always struck me, though, when describing this mysterious Other, that these intellectuals never seem to acknowledge that they are also describing themselves. Don't they like to shop?
A particularly egalitarian moment erupted during Fitterman's performance when he presented a work that dissolved the subject positions of author/producer (and "person in the know" in general) and consumer. It happened like this...
The Poetry of Pills
As in the world of TV, FItterman's performance was interrupted with ads. Throughout the night, he periodically re-presented drug ad copy (sometimes straight, sometimes modified) as poems. Usually these pieces got laughs -- especially to a younger crowd, where the imagined consumer was an "Other". Picture a dramatic, deadpan, pause-filled reading of this text, about Levitra: "Sometimes you need a little/help staying/in the game.../but once you're in/the zone,/it's good."
It's not just, of course, schadenfreude that makes such copy funny. After being bombarded with messages as consumers all day, ironic distance offers one the pleasures of taking an objective rather than subjective position to such texts. However, something else occurred when Fitterman read this (in what I remember as a slow, slightly mournful voice):
I don't enjoy
I used to
When I spoke to people afterwards about the hear-a-pin-drop-silence that followed this poem, someone said "maybe that one was too close to home." I think that's why, for me, this momentary erasure of the self/other divide answered the ethical question posed that night.
For, like a sign carried across a Brechtian stage, it interrupted the plane of the performance with a caption -- one that said: "Oh, by the way, this is about you, too."