As I write this, Black Friday over in the United States has just ended and it is rolling into the early hours of Saturday. From a New Zealand perspective, it is a curious cultural phenomenon particular to America where consumerism and holiday tradition sift through each other running from the week of Thanksgiving until Christmas. While across in the United Kingdom Black Friday’s imported consumerism is mainly relegated to online sales(1) and the concept has even made it to this country(2), predominantly it remains associated with the US and its culture surrounding the holiday season. Around this time of year too, commentators take aim, castigating for instance, Target’s advertising featuring the ‘crazy Target lady’ as a cynical reflection back upon its audience of mindless and maniacal consumer behaviour(3), or bemoaning chain stores for beginning Black Friday sales at midnight on the Thursday of Thanksgiving.(4) Then there are the inevitable numerous videos uploaded to YouTube showing the fallout of the scramble for a bargain; the shaky smartphone footage a horror vacui of customers piling atop one another, arguing, stampeding, snatching and vying for heavily discounted product.
James Oram has zeroed in on this aspect of out-of-control consumerism through his short video works While Supplies Last (2012) and Midnight Arrives (2012). Editing found footage to remove aspects whilst retaining one or two elements, While Supplies Last shows disembodied hands and dodging silhouettes grasping at boxes of unidentified product, while tearing apart the cardboard displays (labelled "While Supplies Last") that contain them. When the product itself is also removed by Oram in Midnight Arrives, the flurry of decapitated hands oscillate wildly on a black background as if in some kind of deep sea feeding frenzy. These two video works highlight Oram’s concerns surrounding the condition of consumption, the psychology of consumerism and its portrayal in a popular medium. The removal of the figures in the found footage accentuates a Darwinian, survival of the fittest situation that the hands, disconnected from their bodies, engage in—animalistic, instinctual and at a remove from so-called human rationality.
Consumption has been and remains an ongoing investigation in Oram’s practice.(5) I want to identify this in more depth in his video work Wallpaper, produced in 2012, the same year as the aforementioned two works. The film begins with a screen displaying two images on a black background. On the left-hand side is a starkly modern interior with two upholstered chairs surrounding a small coffee table with a vase of yellow flowers placed upon it. Behind this arrangement there is a partition resembling a Japanese screen door next to a grey square that looks to be painted onto the wall behind it. The entire room is white, including the floor. On the right-hand side there is an image of a corner of a wall. The camera that has taken this image is positioned at ground level and is cropped closely in on the corner where the edge of a plain wall with a skirting board is butting up against a portion of rough concrete. All surfaces in this image are painted white. It looks slightly grimy, particularly at the very bottom of the corner where the clean white skirting board meets the uneven surface of the concrete.
There is a slight gap between the skirting board and the floor, which gives the impression that this wall is a temporary one—either a false wall or partition. This gives a clue as to where this corner might be located. It looks like it could be in some kind of art gallery, although not in the clean white corner of a large institution; this corner looks as if it could be in a small contemporary art space or ARI. It is the kind of corner I imagine leaning against while watching a performance, or sitting in whilst grabbing a rest at the end of a long exhibition opening. It is the kind of corner I’ve familiarised myself with over the years. This is the striking part of the opening imagery. The juxtaposition between the two sides of the screen—the left is an idealised, domestic scene, one that denotes purity, sanitisation, calmness and clarity. The image on the right tells a different story—make-shift, temporary, roughshod and wearing the impact of time. On the left there is an absence of memory; on the right a surfeit of it perhaps. The image on the right courts curiosity, because there is an interesting play of materials, but the tight cropping removes all context surrounding the corner. I have made the inference that it is the corner of a gallery space as it looks like it could inhabit spaces I have been in before, but I really can’t be sure. The image on the left does not seem to hold any of the intrigue of the corner. The scene is prosaic. It feels sparse, arranged to give the impression of modern and minimalist living. Obviously, the image is cropped, and if the camera were to zoom out it would perhaps show more of the living space; it might pan around to a kitchen, revealing a refined but uninspiring open-plan living area. What is clear is that we are looking at two very different modes of space—the only apparent similarity between them the ubiquitous white of the walls.
At four seconds into the video the illusion of two images of two spaces is lost when a hand enters from out of frame on the left and reveals the shot of the white furnished room to be all surface. The image is in fact a page of a magazine that the hand grasps and crumples, pulling it back out of frame to the left. Immediately after this, a hand enters from the right of the frame and places an object in the corner. There is some definite camera trickery going on here, where having seen the image on the left to simply have been a piece of paper, it might be expected that the one on the right might also be one. However, as the hand enters from the right, it reaches into the image of the wall and places the object right in the bottom of the corner. This action repeats itself—again and again. First, the hand enters from the left, takes the image, crumples it and pulls it back out of frame. It is immediately replaced with a new image. Straight after the hand disappears to the left, the hand re-enters from out of frame to the right, reaches into the image and places the object there.
This repetitive action becomes a cycle, repeating itself for the duration of the video at just over nine minutes. The objects placed in the corner are actually the sheets of paper from the magazine taken from the left. Oram gives a brief explanation of what is occurring in the cycle of taking and returning on the Circuit website:
Wallpaper uses imagery from a product design/lifestyle magazine in a video which breaks the cyclical process of consumption into component parts. Seeing, wanting, getting, using and discarding. In this case the pages are taken and then the chewed/consumed result is used to fill an empty corner, eventually creating a new structure.
It becomes apparent then, that the leaf of magazine page taken from the left is returned to the right of the screen in an altered form. Oram has realised the cycle of consumption in a visual metaphor. As the cycle repeats itself, each new magazine page presents some idealised product or lifestyle: modern and modernist architecture; natural materials of stone and wood; “classically” inspired interiors; geometric lounge suites; objects arranged for a photoshoot; walk-in showers and multiple faucets; fashionably dressed people laying across or leaning against things; swimming pools; kitchen surfaces faced with stone; neutral colours; Calder-esqe mobiles; bare concrete interiors; a cityscape viewed from across the water at night from a minimalist balcony; succulents in pots; the natural environment; desk lamps that strike the perfect balance between form and function. There are ninety-four magazine pages in total meaning the cycle repeats itself this many times.
The hand taking the images moves with more or less urgency—sometimes snatching the page away quickly, sometimes slowly crumpling the page before pulling away—this adds some variation to the pace of the cycle. Is the hand responding to more or less desire to obtain the object(s) on the page? The hand’s grasping motion also makes reference to Oram’s two previously mentioned video works. The fact that we do not see the rest of the body from the arm upwards gives an impression of the hand as an automaton acting out of blind desire, although the rhythm established lends a more controlled response to consumerist compulsion. Contrast this with the chaotic snatching of the hands in Midnight Arrives and While Supplies Last. Moreover, in contrast to the big-box retail, mass produced items the hands frantically grasp at in those works, the products shown in Wallpaper are meticulously designed, quality products. These are items that are only meant to be brought once or a handful of times over a lifetime, products for which a consumer can ‘curate’ their ideal lifestyle. The consumption of these items requires a more considered approach.
Ultimately, it is Oram who is controlling the pace of consumption, or is it? The hand in the cycle is not identified. I am reminded of the ‘invisible hand’ of economist Adam Smith, where the ‘hand’ is said to pull the curves of supply and demand higher or lower in response to fluctuating market conditions. Here however, it is not the hand that is invisible, but it’s owner. We see the market play out in real-time, orchestrated by the unknown participant. Having set up the conditions under which the cycle reproduces itself, what role does Oram then affect? Capitalist puppet master? Fatuous market analyst? Or the superlative customer of all that is good and right? Is this the so-called rational consumer of economics that makes informed choices? The consumer who, flush with disposable income has the means to be able to afford these luxury goods? The irony however, is that what the hand grasps at are not the goods themselves, but their representation on a page; the magazine being a disposable item par excellence. Oram has taken consumption of the magazine pages in a literal sense by chewing the paper itself, forming it into wet bricks and affixing them to the rough concrete corner in the right-hand image—covering over the wall and hence realising the visual pun contained in the work’s title, ‘Wallpaper’. A new structure is created out of the detritus of all those consumed goods, as if it were an earnest attempt to mitigate the excesses of the consumption cycle. But like the items depicted in the magazine pages, this structure is ultimately of little substance.