• Corporate Art Expo ‘07
  • Overview of Corporate Art Expo '07 at The LAB

  • Corporate Art Expo ‘07
  • Installation view, Corporate Art Expo '07

  • Corporate Art Expo ‘07
  • Installation by Death and Taxes

If you walked into Expo ‘07, you might have thought that The LAB had carried its ambitious restructuring a bit too far. One of the oldest alternative spaces in San Francisco was repackaged in high corporate style. Hyper signage, slick booths and “intelligent” machines were the rule. Curator Shane Montgomery had rounded up a group of artists who represent themselves as corporate identities and make art using the rhetoric of marketing, advertising, and branding. Curator Montgomery’s own project Air Purity Inc. (not in the Expo) qualifies him as a fellow manipulator of corporate walk and talk. Working in corporate drag offers a new portability inside and outside the gallery while addressing a range of provocative content. For instance:

Psychological Prosthetics packs its self-help product displays and flyers in the sweetest bright enamel pod-on-wheels you can imagine. The conceit is that the company will customize objects to ease your emotional turbulence. Obviously there would be no more war if we all had umbilical cords to eye-candy eggs that were not too big and not too small. A gallery viewer was inspired to remark that he had seen a homeless person talking to a Frisbee. If everyone listening felt humbled, that is the good news.

Meaning Maker offered free low-tech transparent envelopes stuffed with a set of questionnaires, a nifty blue pencil, and a small pin with a plump “!” shadowed by a “?.” (Packets were discreetly labeled “this is art.”) The questionnaires (sans agenda) cover a series of occasions that often trigger zombie behavior such as an academic conference or a family reunion. In the latter, under “how I fit in?” you may choose among: the clown, the boss, at odds, the peacekeeper and so on. There was also a chance to check off the TV show that best represented your family. Hooked? The sweetly sincere self-reflective tools can be downloaded from their Web site. You might be inspired to write your own.

Acclair will send you out looking for that 1974 movie “Parallax View” with Warren Beatty. Acclair does seductive fascism. It is scary to see how “terminal” security can look so pure, like a tampon commercial with a space helmet instead of a white horse. The testimonial video shows a member orientation on how to avoid plebe lines at the airport by breezing through on your brain wave scan. No problem unless you are a terrorist (or once thought about a terrorist).

There are others, all equally compelling and astute.  I highly recommend their web sites:  Anti-Advertising Agency (doing a world of good), C5 Corporation, Davis + Davis Research, Death + Taxes, Inc., Old Glory Condom (whose product patent fight inspired a “grab from the headlines” by Law + Order), SubRosa, Slop Art (offering an lovely tacky SALE catalogue that is for real), Training and Development, Tectonic Industries, and we are war.

The LAB’s adventure into corporate cross-dressing comes at an interesting moment. In the 1990s, the Newt Gingrich congress squeezed the NEA to cut public funds for the arts. What money was left often went to art education and public galleries considered a safer bet than potentially rogue artists. Even that was not enough for many institutions. Corporate monies took up the funding slack and spurred a rash of blockbuster and spectacle events still with us today. Rumors of “take-over” and “sell-out” spread. There were also artists who looked back at the corporation. 

In 1997, there was a San Francisco exhibition on office culture called “work/space.” (Disclaimer: I was co-curator.) The exhibition featured 22 artists who employed the literal materials of office culture (paper clips, white out, coffee mugs, Excel pie charts) and the psychic culture (the banality of data entry, the danger of over-identifying with the boss, the sadism of no pain/ no gain typing instruction videos). Their interrogations of the office often relied on gentle humor to negotiate the slippery slope between the “real” office and parody without alienating fellow workers.

A decade later, Corporate Expo ‘07 takes aim (not at mundane office culture) but rather at the corporate spectacle. It is fresh and welcome to see this collection of artists confident enough to bandy around corporate lingo and logo. In this turn, as global corporate strategies pivot ever more tightly around their “face,” they are vulnerable to those wielding visual acuity. Toxic corporate chic will be blasted or breathed into the creative or welcoming, even as some art devolves into corporate pandering. The corporate aesthetic is no longer “an other” to art. It is one more visual vocabulary that can be parsed into allegiance or resistance to privilege. If the LAB can spin its gallery into a product fair, then bless that vertigo when next you spot a corporate spectacle tripping itself into unintended art.

Corporate Art Expo ‘07
San Francisco, California
March 28 - April 28, 2007


— Stephanie Ellis is an artist and faculty member at the San Francisco Art Institute.