“A CONVERSATION WITH PETER SCOTT”

By Shelley F Marlow
Zing Magazine

2002

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 things?

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 of 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.

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.