As the indispensable decoration of the objects produced today, as the general expose of the rationality of the system, as the advanced economic sector which directly shapes a growing multitude of image-objects, the spectacle is the main production of present-day society.
How could one make a correlation between sport and art? Celebrated linguist and cultural theorist Noam Chomsky muses that one of the basic functions of spectator sports in society is to occupy the population and effectively keep people from becoming active citizens. To this end, dominant institutions that have a desire to maintain the status quo support spectator sports to a high degree, while the critical or engaged visual arts sector is neglected, as avant-garde artists have historically challenged the establishment in an attempt to effect change. The amount of mainstream visibility granted to the former is huge: stadiums, marketing, publicity and the amount of media time given to sports far exceed that of the latter. Despite the fact that art is part of a larger, more accessible social fabric, and cultural activities outweigh spectator-sporting activities in this country, the spectacle is an unstoppable force.
Collectif Taupe was formed to concoct a series of interventions that confront this spectacle. Consisting of artists Angèle Cormier, Mario Doucette, Jean-Denis Boudreau and Jennifer Bélanger, the collective operates and executes its projects as a team. It is not limited to any one style, media or approach, nor is it clear what position each member occupies on Team Taupe. Its playing field is our society at large. But what, exactly, is the game, they’re playing? Its name gives us a clue: the taupe – or mole – is a small, almost blind burrowing mammal. The word also refers to a secret agent, a spy or an observer. Collectif Taupe, then, is like a team of spies that infiltrates everyday life and creates humorous, hypothetical situations to spotlight the highly constructed underbelly of our seemingly natural reality. In striving to reveal the function of art, its role in society and the rules of engagement that govern its presentation, Collectif Taupe aims to be, with tongue-in-cheek seriousness, a force to be reckoned with.
The sporting event is a highly codified affair in which exists a complex series of actions, behaviours and relationships between players, coaches, management, marketing, media and audience. Everyone has a given place and each act out their role accordingly. With the exhibition Go Taupe Go! the collective uniform themselves in the costumes, customs, mannerisms and traditions of the sporting event to present interventions that breach the shallow veneer of our corporate-directed society. Taking art from its traditional hallowed space of reflection – the gallery – and placing it in the quotidian, Taupe uses its immediate environment as both research lab and playing field. Through its performances and actions, Collectif Taupe utilizes the vernacular of the professional sporting event to engage head-on with the normative behavioral patterns of our society. Using refined precision, they insert art into the fabric of daily conventions.
“I shop, therefore I am”
Barbara Kruger’s cheeky reference to Descartes highlights one of the ramifications of the Enlightenment project: unchecked consumerism that is putting an incredible strain on our shared, finite global resources. Consumerism is the ultimate spectacle, the driving force of global capitalism and a sign of both affluence and waste. Wal-Mart is a perfect embodiment of this. Despite their slick new ad campaign that tries to present the company as green and local, the world’s largest discount department store is more a representation of the de-industrialization of developed countries and the commodification of information and knowledge. What is local about Wal-Mart aside from the Greeter and other marginally paid “associates”? Certainly not the bulk of cheap merchandise, including the framed “art”.
For the WalmArt project, members of Collectif Taupe purchased reproductions from the box-store, inserted their own artwork in lieu of the generic image inside the frame, and then returned the pieces to be re-shelved by staff and re-sold to new customers. In this fashion, Taupe literally integrates local art made by local, living artists, into a corporate, global machine, usurping the company’s claims to locality. In Pencil Project, another example of shop-dropping, a culture-jamming technique of surreptitiously placing art objects into the marketplace, pencils bought by the Collectif were inscribed with ridiculous yet honestly helpful phrases such as “do not put in ear”, then returned to stores. In both cases, unsuspecting shoppers might inadvertently purchase ‘original’ artwork without realizing what has transpired. Using their spy skills, the members of the Taupe Team bring awareness to the means of production of the goods we cart home.
These works, like most of Taupe’s public interventions, function in a mostly altruistic gift economy, for the artist cannot reap the financial benefits of exchanges of this sort and could even face reprisals. Yet it is the unknowable dialogue with an unaware public, and the inherent potential these objects carry, that make these works so successful as agents of change.
On a broader scale that shifts the focus from the store to the street, Taupe created projects that are subtle intrusions into the public sphere, where it mimics certain conventions, yet insert shrewd transformations that alter meaning and reveal the uncanny. With C’est fini / the breakup project, Taupe made a couple’s breakup a public affair: Julie sent Marc breakup notes through the mainstream media, thus involving the citizens in their personal business. Using advertising tactics, banners, personal ads in the newspaper and on radio, even a wedding announcement on a car and numerous personal letters left in open spaces, the Team questioned the acceptable public behavior of love and couples. If the Missing Posters calling for help in finding lost pets seem perfectly authentic at first glance, certain phrases point out the fiction of the poster while they also illustrate the relationship we’ve established with domestic animals. Our pets have become our roommates; advertising has already personified them as such.
Pursuing its anonymous public disruptions, Taupe created four Future site of / futur site de billboards to address issues of development, urban planning and ecology. The typical-looking real estate development signs were erected at various sites in Moncton. Each sign was a pointed reflection or a ridiculous contradiction to the very site it was located. One promoted a wildlife park in a lot next to a garage and a busy street; another announced the new construction of a Victorian-style home where the exact home had formerly stood for many years. The billboard promoting the development of a commercial centre next to a residential zone drew the ire of locals, who vandalized and destroyed it in defiance. Though they were fictional, the notices were such successful representations of the real that they incited certain members of the population to action. One more goal for Team Taupe.
However, for Taupe, action need not be propelled through anger. Every day we face situations that, however minute or banal, have the potential to paralyze or terrify. A simple exchange between strangers in an elevator can become an excruciating affair if the underlying social codes are breached. Emergency Kits are Taupe’s answer to escaping from or avoiding unwanted social situations, no matter where or how they occur: a party, an art opening, a job interview. Blood Kit, Pass out Kit and Fire kit all take the idea of being saved from social discomfort through unexpected accidents, and packages the hypothetical as a readymade. With Taupe at your side, you’re always carrying a bell to be saved by.
A more overtly political gesture, the project Je me souviens involved covertly affixing said phrase to random New Brunswick license plates. The phrase has officially appeared on Québec-province license plates since 1978. Its most basic function serves to maintain the citizens’ memory of their collective heritage, but of course, its interpretation differs depending on the position of the reader: Independentists remember English suppression, Native Canadians remember that the French stole their land and Anglophones remember Bill 101. By geographically displacing the phrase east of the Québec border, Taupe challenges us to reflect about the role of memory in history. In New Brunswick, the French phrase speaks directly to the Acadian people: the Deportation of 1755, the Confederation of Regions party (formed with the goal of dismantling official bilingualism in New Brunswick), the perpetual battles over language rights and the fact that Acadian history has often been overlooked, even within the broader Francophone community.
The subtle intervention projects of Collectif Taupe are designed to conjure the uncanny; they skate the surface of the perceived real, and carve out a place where the unexpected happens. One can imagine the quizzical expression on the face of a person as they suddenly realize that something is out of sorts, that a fissure has ruptured safe reality, and that things are not always as they seem. Through its playful approach, Collectif Taupe demands us to be observant, ask questions and peel back the layers of meaning that surround us.
Perhaps the most important aim of the collective’s actions is to re-integrate the existence of artists in our midst, to have artistic activity a valued and accepted part of our lives. It is not so necessary that we treat them with awe, or admire them as we do professional athletes, but with just a little acknowledgement and respect. We don’t need to know all their scores, statistics and standings: just have a willingness to respond to their queries and engage in a dialogue about our social contracts.
For artists, there are few Stanley Cups to be won, and fame and fortune are practically unattainable. There are no clear rules to the game of art and perhaps therein lays the catch: to excel at sports, one still needs to abide by clearly defined regulations. The players know how to play; the referees know what to look for, and above all, the spectators know when to cheer or boo. Everyone is on the same page. In art, it is much harder to find common ground; there is no consistent playbook. By borrowing the language of the sporting spectacle, Taupe aims to have its voice heard, loud and clear. Taupe takes the puck, brings it across the blue line, deke past the defense, shoots… and scores!
Go Taupe Go!
Chris Lloyd, 2008