I once heard a story about the peculiar planting methods of outdoor poinsettia farms. When the mature plants fill fields as far as the eyes can see, the broad, cadmium leaves create a glowing, monochromatic expanse—a uniformity that makes the harvesters unable to orient themselves within the environment. To remove this difficulty, the farmers plant rows of white poinsettias at various intervals to create a visual contrast. The simple intervention changes the harvester’s environmental perception: instead of indiscriminately plowing through a sea of infinite sameness, the individual becomes aware of her surroundings, reorients herself, and can then continue pursuing her desired task with heightened acuity. In today’s Western Capitalist society, a world inundated with the automation of devices and human activity, invisible interfaces regulating our actions, and the promotion of willful blindness, we need more white poinsettias.
Artists are particularly well suited to act as catalysts for perceptual reorientation because of their dedication to observing, processing (judging), translating, and communicating information about the world and human experience. As such, artists become both critics of the world and catalysts for change. With these qualities in mind, Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (2011) by the interdisciplinary artist collective Postcommodity created a site-specific immersive experience that challenged viewers to reconsider their interactions with the world.
In addition to functioning like the white poinsettias in an otherwise monochromatic field, Postcommodity uses society’s automated mechanisms to negate the very nature of automation. They are double agents in the war for freedom against the machines humans created and are losing control of. To criticize the increasingly digital, virtual, and abstract culture spreading across the world may require the critical thinkers to co-opt the matters being judged. This necessity arises from the targeted audience for the critique: the happy and credulous consumers of digital, virtual, and automated reality. The message must be conveyed through a recognizable medium to avoid ostracizing the receiver. This medium, in some cases, may appear accessible and friendly. Or, as does Postcommodity, it may reprimand viewers through the visual and auditory vernacular they understand. Each intervention of this kind counteracts the corporate corruption of culture and human experience.
I knew what I was getting myself into when I entered the installation of Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (2011) at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, AZ, but I read the warning sign outside the exhibit anyway. It states:
Please note: Postcommodity’s installations engage all of the senses. The artwork in this gallery uses sudden loud noises, vibration and flickering lights. Those with known medical conditions or accompanying small children may wish to exercise caution.
Despite my prior knowledge of the work, the experience left me physically and psychologically shaken. The installation greets viewers with postcard-perfect views reminiscent of Western ideals of natural splendor, happiness, and freedom: light reflecting on rippling water, rolling clouds and hills, sunsets, a couple sweetly posing. These images, projected on the walls of the room, pay homage to what Postcommodity cited inspiration: the assisted suicide depicted in a scene from the 1973 science fiction film Soylent Green. The film takes place in a dystopian New York City in the year 2022, where the majority of the city’s forty million inhabitants live stacked on top of each other in squalor and absolute poverty. Toward the end of the film, Sol Roth, an elderly character who remembers the earth’s glory days of lush landscapes and abundant wildlife, visits the city’s euthanasia clinic to end his life. In his last moments, Sol watches giant screens glowing with images of wildlife, fields of flowers, sunsets, and rushing rivers.
Postcommodity sets an ominous tone with its reference to Soylent Green’s hypothesis of a future of pervasive capitalism and corruption. Though it is highly unlikely our world will deteriorate into Soylent Green’s over the next seven years, we should consider how to control the voracious expansion of consumerism with the world population estimated to grow to 9.6 billion by 2050.1 To counteract the rapidly spinning cogs of this global power machine, Postcommodity strives to create “a lot of noise and a lot of confusion to try to disrupt the oversimplified cultural models that are produced by mass media.”2 They design each project to give viewers recognizable elements from popular culture, and then turn the elements on their heads by creating an environment of uncertainty.
Promoting a More Just lures visitors into states of placid comfort as they walk into a minefield—a low, undulating hum fills the room as the idyllic montage changes on the walls—but the serene environment cannot be trusted. The collective embedded four detonation triggers in the room’s floor, which, when stepped on, set off a violent cacophony mimicking the disorientation generated by real-world IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosions. The images on the screens turn to black and white, flashing erratically, as speakers blast a mashup of iconic pop, heavy metal, and punk rock, pummeling visitors with cultural shrapnel. To further unnerve bodies and minds, Postcommodity mounted bass subwoofers and transducers beneath the floor and used the sonic vibrations to create the sensation of being hit by the shock wave of an explosion. I found myself gingerly traversing the room, both trying to find the triggers and anxiously hoping to avoid them. To further amplify the suspense, Postcommodity programmed a delay into the detonation software; once a trigger is activated, its consequence does not occur until another minute has passed.
Contradiction saturates the installation. Postcommodity compares literal and sardonic views of each of the elements—IEDs, mainstream and countercultural music, idyllic images of “The Land of the Free”—illuminating the complicated historical and contemporary relationships we have with them. The context of the piece’s original installation was one of tense political instability. Initially installed at the 2011 Biennial of the Moving Image in Mechelen, Belgium, which took place in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, the work inevitably addressed issues surrounding the acts of terrorism committed by the US abroad, as well as the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks in the US. By employing similar methods to engineer the detonation triggers as those used by Taliban militants in Afghanistan, the devices create metaphorical links between the Do It Yourself (DIY) mentality and the quest for political sovereignty integral to both insurgent tactics and tribal people. The members of Postcommodity—Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, Kade L. Twist, and Nathan Young—each belong to a different Native American tribe, and as a whole the group focuses their work around issues surrounding Indigenous people and the ways in which their cultural identities are corporatized for a consumerist market.
In an interview I conducted with Kade Twist in 2015, he explained that one of the main issues they hoped to address through the piece was collateral damage. In addition to the collateral damage of an IED, which aim to kill people in a localized area, Twist asked: “What is the collateral damage of pop music as a lubricant for market systems?” The group began examining American culture as a catalyst for American consumerism, and how it manipulates consumers. Furthermore, the use of mainstream pop and rock music as a sonic weapon references the long history of music used in psychological warfare, as well as the cultural colonialism of capitalist society.3 Postcommodity condenses the experience of contemporary culture into a multi-sensory shock. The resulting combination of familiarity and synthesized trauma produces a flustering effect that stimulates questions about the political and cultural legitimacy of the US and the countries or organizations it considers to be threats. When the United States is the exception to many of its rules on peaceful conduct, how does that change its relationship to groups it labels as terrorists? How does that change its relationship to its own citizens?
1. “World Population Projected to Reach 9.6 Billion by 2050 | UN DESA | United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.” UN News Center. June 13, 2013. Accessed March 30, 2015.
2. Berkovitch, Ellen. “SouthwestNET: Postcommodity Brings Disruptive Metaphor, Purposefully, to SMoCa | AdobeAirstream.” AdobeAirstream. February 4, 2015. Accessed March 30, 2015.
3. Ross, Alex. “Futility Music.” The New Yorker, August 12, 2008.
From the MFA Art Writing thesis “Encounters With Sirens: Navigating a Virtual Future” by Amelia Rina (Class of 2015).