Shelley F Marlow
A CONVERSATION WITH PETER SCOTT
"Pop Patriotism" , detail of case with archival material
"Pop Patriotism", detail of case with archival material
I got a chance to interview artist and curator Peter Scott about the timely
exhibition Pop Patriotism. We had an exchange about this show
and the events that inspired it, as well as Peter's ideas on curating
as an artist. Pop Patriotism took place at Momenta Art, September
6 - October 7, 2002.Shelley Marlow: How did this show come about?
Peter Scott: A lot of people were trying to get their bearings immediately
after September 11th, and the question was, what would fill the void left,
when the media's obsession with the more spectacular aspects of the event
had subsided? The answer, in part, was a series of desperate pleas to
the public, by business and political leaders to rush back to the mall
and shop their way through the post-attack malaise, combined with a repressive
atmosphere that made it an extremely risky time for those who were skeptical
of the government's new with us or against us theme. Coming
from a long period of political apathy in America, to a sudden jolt of
patriotic fervor, a lot of people, and unfortunately, a number of people
in the cultural community, were taking quite reactionary points of view
during this time. I have friends, who grew up in Hungary while it was
still an Eastern Block country, who describe careers that were lost because
of the wrong thing said, and this was happening in universities and newsrooms
across the country during the fall and winter of 2001. Lynne Cheney's
hit list of 115 quotes from academics, ominously titled Defending
Civilization, targeted people in academia, who had shown even the
least bit of ambivalence towards government policy.
Anyway, to get to the point of your question, it was from this atmosphere
that the ideas for Pop Patriotism started to emerge, first
as an article, and eventually as an exhibition that, through combining
archival material I had collected with artworks that addressed some of
these issues, ultimately became a kind of document of this period.
SM: Did you find this group of artists had made work about Pop Patriotism
or did you ask some interesting artists with good sense of humor to make
works for show?
PS: It varied. As I said, the show had really begun as an article, which
addressed a broad range of topics that were somehow affected by what we
could now call the 9/11 phenomenon. Advertisers, politicians, the military,
you name it, were all piggy backing (perhaps I shouldn't refer to this
in the past tense) on a kind of community spirit, which sadly, was something
that was quickly and ruthlessly exploited.
Doing research for the text, I came across advertising industry websites
that had articles like How do we market ourselves to the Muslim
world? with quotes from a former campaign man for Bush who suggested
showing them Boogie Nights and opening a Monkey Bar
over there. I was pleasantly surprised to find artwork out there
like David Opdyck's suburbanistan, Christy Rupp's taliban barbie, and
Kathe Burkhart's scarecrow, which were explicitly dealing with the colonial
impulses that are, without a doubt, a subtext to the war on terror.
I also wanted to deal with the transformation of consumerism from the
heady days of dot.com euphoria to a retreat into nostalgia and patriotism.
How was it possible that a country which had had an obsessive, and not
a little naive belief that the internet would change everything, and technology
would set us free, and the stock market would rise forever, and on and
on, would respond to a terrorist attack by celebrating the values, and
in the case of the Guggenheim Museum, the art, of Norman Rockwell? This
idea of Sending a Message to the terrorists that we are Americans
with a capital A is a bit misguided. What were we before?
Australians? Unfortunately, the stoking of nationalist fervor was, for
the most part, an attempt by government, media, and entertainment industries
to shore up the slipping confidence of consumers. Ruth Liberman and Andrew
Weinstein did a piece that showed minute details of various methods of
adhering flags to surfaces of all kinds, showing how pervasive the flag
mania was, and reminding us that, no matter where one looked, they saw
stars and stripes. One of Jody Culkin's photographs, which she had been
taking since 9/11, of a fashionable clothing storefront window, articulated
the new patriotic spirit in consumerism very clearly; printed across the
glass in front of a stylishly dressed mannequin are the words Brave
and Still Free.
Some work came out of specific discussions about the media's role in all
of this. Heidi Schlatter's video America Rising, much like the archival
material that I collected for the show, is a kind of truth is stranger
than fiction anthology of television moments that had visitors questioning
how much of it was real.
SM: A lot of the work is direct observation, such as the photo of Ashcroft
with a wandering eye and the Psalm written across it, Mine Eye Will
Guide Thee. Can you talk about taking an object out of context to
reveal its irony?
PS: I think the exhibition existed in a gray area between non-fiction
and fiction, an area where two methods of understanding the world were
simultaneously complimenting each other and creating some tension. I absolutely
did not want to do a show of artists against this, or artists
reacting to that. The context that was constructed- a faux
museum setting with wall texts, labels and vitrines-was meant to create
an atmosphere of mock authority. The reverence for the patriotic spirit
was heavily invested in by institutions of all kinds, and the paternalism
inherent in the way these institutions exhibit their authority was a quality
that I was trying to mimic. Superficially, the show felt safe,
in that it had all the signs of an established art exhibition, but looking
closer, for example at the Aschcroft photo, or the letter from Martha
Stewart, who suggests barbecuing as a way of addressing our fears of terrorism
(and going so far as to offer where one could mail-order the ribs), made
you start to wonder about having confidence in the established order.
In some cases the object had already been taken from its context and altered.
Sante Scardillo's piece took a Tommy Hilfiger ad; which, like all their
ads, make use of red, white, and blue, removed the ad copy and inserted
Why Do They Hate Us? next to a groovy, well dressed couple,
oblivious to the world. Again, because of the combination of archival
material that was pretty over-the-top with artwork that used the real
world as its starting point, an atmosphere was created that put
the notion of the distinct and easy separation of fact and fiction into
question. In this way, the exhibition described pretty accurately the
confusion people feel when they are fed news as entertainment. This confusion
is then fed back into polls of the public, who are asked to
respond to questions that might go something like, Who's more evil,
Saddam Hussein or his son? The inclusion of Komar and Melamid's
piece The People's Choice, where a poll was taken of Americans
to determine their most and least wanted painting, was intended to broaden
the exhibition and address this tendency of the American media to shape
opinion, as it claims to be merely measuring it.
SM: Someone lovingly described a friend as Punjabi Barbie. Does Christy
Rupp make a whole line of otherly Barbies?
PS: Not as far as I know, but I'm not sure if she was addressing a feminine
other as much as equating the backwardness of Barbie as a
cultural icon, with the more overt oppression that Taliban society imposes
on women. If it made this connection alone, though, I don't think it would
resonate with visitors to the show as much as it did. By inserting a representation
of an extremely oppressed woman into the bright pink context of a Barbie
box, a tragic-comic figure emerges that seems suspended between the brutality
of the past, and the promise of life as a cartoon princess in the future.
SM: Is your work always collections? Did you see Portia Munson's pink
PS: No, I didn't see that. I'm glad you asked about the collections though,
because it gives me a chance to clarify something about it. Although I'm
an artist who played the role of curator for this show, and I collected
the artifacts (or in some cases they were given to me by friends), and
included them in the exhibition, I did not want to claim authorship of
the collection, or intend it to be an isolated artwork. I labeled the
objects archival material to distinguish them from the artist's
works, but also to give it an aura of irrefutability that one experiences
in museum settings. Having worked for many years in museum environments,
I became aware of the simple mechanism of historicizing objects by placing
them in a vitrine and labeling them.There's no question that it was my
idea to parody this process, by taking items like false fingernails with
American flags on them, and displaying them this way, but in order for
the show to work as a whole, I thought it best that this element of it
seemed the result of Institutional decision-making.
This also brings up questions concerning the artist/curator paradigm.
For example, is it OK to include your own work in a show that you curate.
I think there's a contradiction inherent in the view that says it's not.
Specifically, it's OK to shift roles and work in another discipline, but
not at the same time. The taboo seems to be one of propriety, that it's
unseemly to offer your efforts as an artist within the context of an exhibition
you also organized. This view depends on the notion of the curator as
disinterested scholar. But, as it turns out, curators are more than custodians
of artworks that are assembled in one place for a set amount of time.
They often write about their shows in the form of an essay and, in a sense,
use one discipline to enrich another. For some reason, artists are often
criticized for playing this dual role in the same project, perhaps because
they're meant only to be on the receiving end of exhibition opportunities,
as opposed to creating them for themselves. Again, this depends I think,
on a traditional notion of the artist as one who is invited
or offered to participate, passively waiting until their worth
is recognized by an adjudicating party.
SM: Your collection is such an extreme example of product placement, selling
war to the American public. There must be a committee out there. Or how
does this function as part of our culture here?
PS: The sandals with American flags on the soles, the United We Stand
coloring book, the Britney Spears red, white, and blue Vogue cover with
the caption American Fashion Waves the Flag, are symptoms
of a moment in American culture that I felt should be remembered for its
extreme opportunism. The news media tends to replace one cultural event
with another, undermining the possibility for an overview of what has
just past. Under the guise of bringing you today's news, yesterday's
is quickly dispensed with. This makes it difficult, if not impossible,
to develop a reasoned response to current events, and invites the hysterical
reactions that were so prevalent in the months following September's attacks.
To live in an empire that offers its citizens so little information about
the past can be a confusing experience. One of the quotes I came across
in writing the text for the show, which also appeared in Heidi Schlatter's
video, was Dan Rather proudly proclaiming that he would get in line
behind the President's goal of bombing Afghanistan to root out Osama Bin
Laden. As far as I know, no news organization bothered to remind its audience
that Rather was climbing around the hills of Afghanistan in the '80s on
behind the scenes reports with the heavily CIA-funded Mujhadeen,
a group of freedom fighters that would eventually become known
as the Taliban. This potentially embarrassing little detail might have
gone a long way to explain the process known as blowback,
where, in an effort to de-stabilize other countries (in this case, Russia,
which the US admittedly drew into Afghanistan by funding the freedom fighters)
the US covertly backs a group it assumes they can control. Unfortunately,
it's not possible to control money and weapons once they've been distributed,
which creates the chance of having them used against you.
Instead of tangible information that might explain this sort of dynamic,
the public is offered previews of the exciting military campaign that
their soldiers are preparing to embark on. Retired generals are dusted
off and placed in front of the bright television lights, offering sagely
comments on wartime strategy peppered with shoptalk that boasts of the
overwhelming might of our military machine. On the bottom corner, her
painting of a grid of colorful silhouettes of toy soldiers, Nancy Chunn's
piece Sell It used the as seen on TV graphic that
you often find on products featured in infomercials, highlighting this
tendency of the mainstream media to commercialize warfare.
Nancy Chunn, "Pop Patriotism", Sell it, acrylic on canvas;
Michael Wilson, Pop Patriotism", Headshot", c print
If you're in the news/entertainment business though, you're thinking,
why not, it's exciting; and like anyone whose been stuck on the opposite
side of the highway after a traffic accident understands, rubbernecking
is a primal and almost universal instinct. For Americans, unless you're
unlucky enough to participate in one, a war is the ultimate opportunity
to get a glimpse of death from a safe distance.
Shelley F Marlow
Brooklyn, New York