BY Thora Siemsen in Opinion | 16 NOV 17

This is the Subtext

For Performa 17, Barbara Kruger prods New York not to be a jerk

BY Thora Siemsen in Opinion | 16 NOV 17

In New York, Barbara Kruger appeared to be everywhere this November, with the artist creating four concurrent works for Performa 17, the multi-venue performance biennial that was staged across the city. At Coleman Skatepark under the Manhattan Bridge, she collaborated with Steve Rodriquez on a text-based redesign of the ramps and half-pipes (‘Whose hopes? Whose fears?’ one large banner read); across town, at 10th Avenue and 17th Street, she posted a billboard that read ‘Know Nothing. Believe Anything. Forget Everything,’ viewable from the High Line; and for the rest of downtown, she employed a school bus, vinyl-wrapped in her signature aphorisms, to circulate the streets. She also staged The Drop (2017), her first ever performance, held at the Biennial’s Hub on lower Broadway, near a recently-closed American Apparel store. Conducted on three different days, for four hours each, The Drop invited viewers to queue outside the Hub, which the artist transformed into a Kruger-branded skate shop and apparel store. Her skateboards read: ‘Don’t be a jerk’. Wait-time to get in was over an hour.

 Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 2017, installation view, Coleman Skate Park, New York. Courtesy: Performa, New York; photograph: © Paula Court 

The Drop is part of Kruger’s extended response to the skate and clothing store Supreme, which opened on Lafayette Street in 1994. From the beginning, Supreme cribbed Kruger’s style for their logo, copying her italicized Futura-font on a red text box for their skateboards and white t-shirts. The artist did not acknowledge the brand’s theft of her iconic typography, even as it became increasingly famous (perhaps more so than her own work), until 2013, when Supreme sued Married to the Mob for $10 million for selling items emblazoned with the phrase ‘Supreme Bitch.’ In response, Kruger’s sent a Word document (called ‘fools.doc’) to Complex that read: ‘What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers. I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.’

Barbara Kruger, Bus, 1997, vinyl wrap on New York City bus, November 1997. Courtesy: Public Art Fund, New York, photograph: Marian Harders 

Appropriation has long been a part of Kruger’s work since she began to work in an agit-prop style in the 1980s, and it’s worth noting here that she did not respond directly to Supreme in the early ’90s, which has since collaborated with previous litigious opponents like Louis Vuitton, until they initiated a copyright claim of an image largely considered to be inspired by her. Kruger, who began her career as a page designer for Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle, often makes work evocative of magazine advertising, culling photo backdrops from varied sources, and overlaying them with her own writing. The results have sometimes been called appropriative, though Kruger herself disputes this, telling Interview in 2013: ‘You know, I never call myself an appropriation artist. Critics do that.’

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Blind Idealism Is...), 2016, installation view, New York. Courtesy: Friends of the High Line, New York; photograph: Timothy Schenck

Despite Kruger’s insistence that she is not an appropriation artist, she often uses found images and text – or, in the case of Performa, a clothing label – to critique consumerism by borrowing its branding techniques. The Drop continues Kruger’s penchant for needling trend-setting industries, like fashion, through appropriation. And it is this incisive criticism that has made her work so provocative, especially in charged political periods, such as the 1980s and our own current moment, when her ‘statement’ pieces often come roaring back into fashion.

Barbara Kruger, Schoolbus, 2017, vinyl wrap on New York City schoolbus. Courtesy: Performa, New York; photograph: © Paula Court

Intended to imitate Supreme’s retail ‘drops’, wherein new items are released to great fanfare and a long queue up Lafayette, Kruger appropriated the Supreme ‘drop’ to raise money for Performa (proceeds from the sales go to the Biennial), and to enlist New Yorkers as part of her performance of consumerist anticipation for a new product. In addition to the clothing and skateboards, Kruger sold a limited-edition MetroCard that read: ‘Who is healed? Who is housed? Who is silent? Who speaks?,’ which recalls her Untitled (Questions) (1990), and responds to the frenzy-inducing, Supreme-branded MetroCard collaboration earlier this year. Resembling an American flag, Untitled asks: ‘Who is free to choose? Who is beyond the law? Who is healed?’, and so on. Whereas the skate company offered on its logo to straphangers, Kruger proposed essential questions for urban life.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled, 2017, installation view, Coleman Skate Park, New York. Courtesy: Performa, New York; photograph: © Paula Court 

Gary Indiana wrote of her work in Utopia’s Debris (2008): ‘This is the subtext: The conviction that empathy can, in fact, change the world – a little at a time, and not always, and you will only improve things a little bit, anyway, but if you don't even try, the incurably ugly side of human nature has already won the war inside us all.’ Kruger’s attention to the ‘ugly side’ has made her uniquely suited to the contemporary moment. A fan of reality television and Howard Stern’s radio show, Kruger is fluent in the ‘locker-room talk’ of those in power, and she has made questioning that talk – who is free to use it, who is free of its consequences – central to her work since the 1980s. Earlier this month, Kruger, who shares that a news diet of equal parts MSNBC and Fox News keeps her from being surprised, told the Guardian: ‘Artists create commentary.’ For Performa, Kruger reminded us that that commentary can, in turn, create art. 

Thora Siemsen is a New York–based writer and editor. She has written for Lenny Letter, Literary Hub, Rolling Stone and The Creative Independent. Read more of her writing here.