Fake Products, Real Feelings: Rob Walker on His Exhibition of Branding Experiments

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Between his long-running Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine and his 2008 book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, it is highly probable that nobody thinks about brands, products, and their significance as much as Rob Walker. Starting today, apexart in Lower Manhattan will host “As Real As It Gets,” an exhibition curated by Walker that aims to explore—with amusing and surprising methods—the ways that we think about the things that we buy.

“As Real As It Gets” features the work of several artists and designers, including Shawne Wolfe, Stephanie Syjuco, Conrad Bakker, Steven M. Johnson, and Matt Brown. There are prototypes of whimsical fictional products, such as Brown’s floating Bathtub Synth (complete with sponge speakers); full-scale false advertisements for Wolfe’s patently useless RemoverInstaller™; and oddly sinister real merchandise that was produced to replicate fake products and brands from films and books—most pointedly, the Brawndo energy drink from Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, and T-shirts that advertise the Tyrell Corporation, the company that produces the androids in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. There will even be a MakerBot Replicator 3-D Printer that will manufacture, on-site, actual replicas of the RemoverInstaller™.

Recently, Print caught up with Walker to discuss the origins of the exhibition, our continued susceptibility to advertisements and branding, and the brands—both real and imagined—that inspired him to look more closely at his own consumer personality.

When did you begin to curate this exhibition? Was there a particular moment or story when you were writing about brands that led you to these pieces?

It actually came together fairly quickly, but certainly draws on stuff I’ve written about over the years as a journalist. I think from the beginning I had a few specific artists and designers in mind: Shawne Wolfe, Stephanie Syjuco, Conrad Bakker, and Steven M. Johnson. All their work is very different, but I felt like there was a common thread, maybe a kind of playful ambiguity: not telling the viewer what to think, but making the viewer think twice, taking these familiar elements of the product and marketplace culture we’re immersed in and making them strange. Plus there’s often a sense of humor, which I tend to like.

This commissioning process was important to me because I didn’t want “As Real As It Gets” to come across as some didactic statement. There’s nothing interesting about condemning consumer culture at this point, but there is something interesting about work that transforms the kind of banal and numbingly familiar raw material of marketplace life into curious and delightful and provocative things—so I want the show to celebrate that achievement, and add to it.

In a short essay you wrote to introduce the exhibition, you mention our discomfort from feeling like our personalities owe something to the particular brands and products that we use. Was there a particular point where this “uncool” feeling made itself apparent?

I’ve certainly encountered that discomfort every time I report a story about a brand or product. People tend to see their own relationship to material culture as rational and empirical—and everyone else’s as superficial and manipulated.

I think that discomfort pre-dates my personal lived experience. It’s think it’s there in Tono-Bungay, the H.G. Wells novel from 1909 involving a dubious health tonic, and even in The Ladies’ Paradise, Emile Zola’s novel about the birth of the department store as a somewhat frightening seduction machine in the 19th century. The show has commissions referring to both of those examples: Staple Design’s branding identity for an imagined contemporary re-launch of Tono-Bungay, and the Marc Weidenbaum / Disquiet Junto sound works, inspired by the “roar of the machine” Zola described, or the retail machine.

Several of the objects in the exhibition have the look and feel of props from 1970s sci-fi movies—such as the Bathtub Synth’s pastel paint job. Why do you think that designers and artists gravitate toward that era when designing fake products?

This is actually something I hadn’t picked up on, so I’ll have to wing it somewhat. The selection of T-shirts from Last Exit To Nowhere in effect advertise fictional corporations from dystopian sci-fi movies like Blade Runner and Soylent Green. It might be that there is a sense of menace, consistent with the darkness of many movies from the period you’re referring to, that we already attribute to big faceless companies whose activities are somewhat unknowable to us.

A logo for the fictitious Tyrell Corportation, which manufactures androids in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film “Blade Runner,” as seen on a T-shirt sold by the company Last Exit to Nowhere

Now, whether Matt Brown is going for that with the Bathtub Synth . . . probably not. Matt’s work doesn’t strike me as scary. In fact, it’s quite amusing—although maybe the humor can be disconcerting. I don’t want to speak for Matt, but that particular “product” strikes me as speaking more to a sort of folly-level faith in progress.

If the fake products that you’ve assembled can “express joy, fear, humor, unease, and ambivalence,” do the products and brands that they ape also activate those feelings? Is it possible that the trust/loyalty/dedication that we put into a product is as real as the feelings that the fake products evoke?

I would actually reverse your formulation. It’s the fact that the language of branding and products is both so universally understood and so effective at evoking feeling and meaning that it makes perfect sense to use it as a medium for ideas that don’t usually have a place in the traditional marketplace. So I totally understand what you’re ge
tting at, and there is a way of reading the show that involves making the viewer re-examine the way “real” branding works. But to me what it all boils down to is prodding the viewer to not simply look, but to really see. After all, the universality and effectiveness of branding language doesn’t happen despite the fact that we don’t consciously think about it all that much, it happens because we don’t.

I don’t see anything in the show really aping a specific brand—some of the work has nothing to do with branding at all. Steven M. Johnson’s drawings really involve hypothetical products and inventions, which I think tend to say more about human nature, often in darkly funny ways. And the Michael Arcega and Stephanie Syjuco collaboration, Montalvo Historical Fabrications & Souvenirs, speaks more to (and about) the relationship of packaged, buyable objects to place and memory.

A fictitious souvenir shop by the artists Stephani Syjuco and Michael Arcega

There is a scene in the Christopher Guest film Best in Show where two yuppie characters discuss how they met and courted via a shared love of Starbucks coffee, Apple computers, and J. Crew catalogs. Do you think that 21st-century consumers have moved closer to Guest’s satire, or further away?

I don’t recall the scene, but I would have to assume the answer is more. I certainly haven’t noticed any downtick in the role that branding plays in the public sphere. Maybe now those characters would all express their brand loyalty on Facebook? Millions do . . .

Commentary about our brand-driven lives abound—but it doesn’t seem like we’re are any less bombarded by the products and brands. Though we can often recognize when we are being manipulated, at a certain point, why do we just stop caring?

We’re more bombarded, but maybe in different ways, and if anything we take it more for granted. Remember when there was a big blowup online about a new logo for the Gap, and thanks to all the criticism the Gap changed its mind about the redesign? In the aftermath, people talked about it like it had been some sort of civil rights victory: the Internet made the Gap change its branding plans! That is really strange, if you think about it. So I don’t know about caring/not caring—to me it’s more like thinking/not thinking.

Is there a brand or a product that you feel is an integral component of your own personality?

The Buying In book was partly inspired by my reaction to Converse being bought by Nike; I’d long worn Converse and avoided Nike, and so could I keep wearing Converse and, “Hey wait a minute, I’m having an identity-related crisis that’s basically about brand meaning!”

But to give a more current example, I’ll say Levi’s. I wear Levi’s jeans pretty much every day, and have for many years. And if I step outside myself and try to judge why, I’m sure it’s partly a reactionary move against “premium denim,” which I think is one of the most blatantly silly trends I’ve ever witnessed. I think people who pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for jeans are suckers, basically. So I’m being self-congratulatory about how I “see through” the ruse. But at the same time, I think you could say that sticking to Levi’s is probably a reflection of the fact that I’m set in my ways and not as adventurous as I was when I was young and all that: Levi’s is a safe, lazy, comforting choice. Almost every substantial element of my dislike for Nike could be applied to Levi’s: they are a multinational company with a hard-to-fathom supply chain and outsourced labor, who produce a mass commodity . . . and so forth. So my Levi’s express the workaday hypocrite aspects of my identity.

I do intend to acquire a MakerBot-ed RemoverInstaller™, and I believe this branded object will express my personality so well that I will never need to buy anything else, ever again.

“As Real As It Gets is on view at apexart in New York City until December 22. The opening reception takes place tonight from 6 to 8 p.m.


Related reading: Debbie Millman’s Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits contains 20 interviews with the world’s leading designers and thinkers in branding.