February 25 – April 3, 2016
In the mid 1970s consumer culture in the U.S. took a rare pause in its relentless appetite for brand name products. High inflation, the winding down of the Vietnam War, and the onset of OPEC and gasoline shortages all put pressure on marketing mavens to come up with a strategy that would address the budget-conscious consumer. By 1979, at least one third of all supermarkets in the country were offering generic brand grocery products. The average price of generic brands was 30 to 40 percent lower than the name brand products that they conditionally displaced. The marketing tactic of marginal differentiation, or fielding an ever-increasing proliferation of custom products of the exact same weight and content (i.e. regular Brillo and lemon Brillo) was partially arrested by generic and no-frills marketing. A rare self-correction—an uncanny kind of marketing humility—seemed to be taking place in certain aisles of American supermarkets.
In Economy Corner the Pakistani-born American artist Maryam Jafri presented a fairly straightforward display of cultural artifacts from a historic “generic turn” in consumer marketing. As someone too young to have experienced first-hand the phenomenon of no-frills products, Jafri has a somewhat distanced take on the immediate effects of the era in which the plainly marked cans, packages, and bottles took on a temporary significance of a kind of hair shirt consumable. She has said, “ To consumers then, the lack of design was a stigma, a sign of poverty, and these items were gradually phased out . . . But now the minimal design looks cool, almost chic, a monochrome Pop.”1
While it may be partly the case that to trade in these generics meant a virtual downgrading of one’s consumer credit rating, it is perhaps not the most significant outcome of this anomalous phase of brand disappearance. Yet to the artist’s credit she leaves the more complex questions arising from her minimal re-presentation of generic products fairly open to interpretation. There are many other implications to consider including the efficacy of such brand-less marketing on the bottom line of the corporations concerned and the subtle social portrait of a nation that might be teased from such impoverished design. Considering the “too much information” buzz kill of much research- based art of late, a light hand in conceptual research presentation is a welcome surprise.
The show is appropriately stark in its design. Straightforwardly-framed and modestly-sized prints and off-the-shelf artifacts of such generic classics as Generic Corner (Corned Beef) (2015) and Generic Baking Soda (2015) recall the deadpan irony of Ed Ruscha’s imagery of appropriated American icons such as Annie and Spam. Like Ruscha, Jafri’s minimal formal intervention on a historically fixed, yet everyday, image in consumer consciousness uses the brand association as a force multiplier of cultural significance. Yet Jafri’s borrowings offer a much less obvious irony for the deeper, perhaps more profound, paradox of social histories displaced and rearranged in a post-historical and materially under-whelming frame of reference. The assembled products read like instant ready-mades, yet they are also suffused by a nostalgic patina that relativizes their newness as contemporary art. Are these objects museum artifacts or has the culture that produced them (and the social ideologies contained and expressed within and without) become a museum piece it itself? Or perhaps Jafri is pointing out that compulsive newness has an accelerated shelf-life.
The bold, black and white lettering and black bands that characteristically mark these generics can, as Jafri has said, be read as a new kind of Pop chic, but they seem more to represent a lost culture of brand loyalty, despite their non-descript labelling. It is as if the manufacturing of consumer desire is boiled down to its bare essence in these basic forms. The masks of all those other brands are torn off to expose identical staples, lacking in both histories and ideologies of consumer desire. What could be more radical and upsetting to the capitalist model of social abstraction than the pulling back of the ostensibly absolute curtain of commodity fetish?
In choosing to reach back in late 20th century history to cherry-pick this wildly unique experiment in under-marketing, Jafri seems to be pointing out the possibility of real political change via transparent aesthetic intervention. The generic as an aesthetic and political stance has lately been promulgated by such contemporary thinkers as François Laruelle and Alain Badiou. To some extent, the history of pragmatic philosophy from William James to Richard Rorty also privileges the generic as an underdetermined way for open inquiry and dialogue free from a priori philosophical “branding.”
Jafri’s spare installation deftly addresses these contemporary concerns. She isolates a historical event and turns its products back into discrete abstractions, yet with a curatorial clarity that also retains the bare physicality of the products’ original embeddedness in a specific phase of American culture. Within our present context of the perpetual advent of viral marketing to which consumers are subject (and often active perpetrators of) Jafri’s installation skirts a nostalgia for a more direct relationship between production and consumption, which helpfully broadens the discussion beyond stereotypical critiques picturing one’s subjectivity as all lost in the supermarket.
In its long history, consumer marketing has had time to develop deep and seemingly integral ties with our impetus to self-create, often confusing where market memory ends and ontological memory begins. In Economy Corner Jafri attempts to re-make as solid all that would otherwise melt into air in the capricious forgetfulness of consumer brand preference. As an artist, she’s a materialist of history, rather than an orthodox historical materialist. Jafri, to some extent in the show, enacts the generic principle herself by confounding the role of the creative artist with that of the creative historian, which suspends the categorical imperatives and expectations of the viewer—somewhat like the projection of consumer desire caught up short by the blank presentation of generic marketing. If capitalism cannot be critiqued or refuted by traditionally discursive means, perhaps a focus on a temporary lapse in capitalist theology, as in no-frills marketing, can at least offer an introduction to the discussion of a generic commonality that undergirds a free market of ideas.
- “The Politics of Art: A conversation between Jens Hoffmann, Eric Baudelaire, Nina Beier, Maryam Jafri, Naheem Mohaiemen, and Pratchaya Phinthong.” Mousse Magazine #50 (October/November 2015).