Dear Powerful Consumers,
I have been collecting consumer products for over 20 years. I go to supermarkets all over the world to do this, and where people from all walks of life go shopping. It has allowed me to assemble a very large international collection of consumer products. This collection is like a library to me. In it, I can see what is important to us consumer citizens right now, and I use it to develop my work.
I have accumulated a wide variety of themes over the years. One thing I have noticed is that the terms, of course, get modified again and again and new ones get added as well.
What do we want from life? What motivates and drives us as consumer citizens? Happiness, love, freedom and prosperity as our basic principles? For the first time, we have been living in peace and unprecedented prosperity now for over 70 years in Germany and Europe. We are living under almost paradise-like conditions, and unfortunately, we do not appreciate this enough.
What exactly is a supermarket? What is it that compels and entices us go into one? At first glance, supermarkets with all their consumer products look like they want to make us happy. A supermarket’s product range is first of all there to ensure our survival, which better yet, is supported by having great entertainment – beautiful, colorful and perfectly displayed.
The choice is ours! Our existence and consciousness are two basic tools that are available to all human beings and consumers, at any time and in any situation. We all manipulate ourselves each and every day and our surroundings manipulate us too, and of course consumer products do this by all the different ways they are presented.
The choice is ours every day! We can choose what we buy and what we don’t buy. And when it is clear to us as to what we are doing when we go shopping, we will no longer be helpless in the face of manipulation. We will be able to enjoy all the beautiful displays with full awareness and appreciate each single moment again and again.
In 1994 I used to walk along the beaches in Los Angeles collecting shells. What I found were battered pieces of plastic. I traced this debris back to its origins and landed up in the mega-sized supermarkets in the USA that are open 24 hours a day.
I spent months in them, watching consumers shopping and my first “color shopping” was born: for my purchases, I purposely chose consumer products not according to their content, but solely for their design and color.
Today, I mainly focus on the themes found on packaging. My cause is quite existential! I could not survive in our society without dealing with the issue of consumerism and its products. We rule and subjugate our world and ourselves with consumerism and our materialistic thinking. Through my work, I am reminding us of how we think and our consciousness and the kinds of possibilities and chances we have for us to use our intellect every day.
Marketing campaigns are mainly aimed at us women. We are also the ones who wear the pants so to speak when it comes to our daily spending which is a major rational and irrational challenge and responsibility. With the idea of a “powerful female consumer” I would like to remind us women of our historical vanguards, the suffragettes, and therefore of our power to take a stance.
Art is one of the few places of tolerance in our society. Kant also calls it a “disinterested space” – a place open to reflection and without prejudice. I would like us to start by dealing with the complex and mostly negatively connotated topic of consumerism in an equally non-judgmental way.
Stephanie Senge, artist’s statement, 2020
Bazon Brock on Stephanie Senge
The Library of Consumer Products
For years I have been interested in the work of Stephanie Senge and have been following it very closely because it pertains to my own work, the mediation of aesthetics in everyday life. After all, it is no use playing around artistically in one’s studio if it does not provide insight into the world and our everyday lives. So what matters is what artists and scientists find out within their studios – the things they can convey as insights and develop as image processes that are also of use to the user, so really usable – to use. And this means transferring the aesthetics, thoughts on artistic-scientific conceptual work, and the creation or development of images into daily life. That is where Stephanie Senge’s idea of relating her aesthetic or artistic sculptural and painterly themes to the most significant sphere of our everyday lives, namely to consumer goods and especially to the distribution of these goods, i.e. department stores/supermarkets has been quite fundamental. No one had ever done this before.
We had the idea then of expanding on this incredible achievement, which she had long been doing on her own, way before Wolfgang Ullrich and I worked with her on central aspects of our cultural mediation, such as libraries. Today people go large department stores to get informed about everyday life by seeing what they can purchase for themselves on their respective budgets in terms of cleaning, nutritional, household, and health products just as they once did so by going to libraries. We go to supermarkets today, just as we did to libraries, to look at, sort through and judge the range of goods on the shelves. The similarity in layout is quite striking but so is the functional, structural analogy between the displays developed in the context of an old library, namely, rows of books arranged by author and subject area and merchandise displays today, which are also arranged by author – in this case, brands – or categories of goods, special offers, or product groups.
Stephanie Senge has done something quite marvelous here, namely she has transferred the main criteria in the differentiating search strategies that libraries developed to consumer goods, and not wantonly, but by looking at the goods themselves. There has long been found on packaging what we know as cataloging terms used in libraries: beauty, masculinity, health, friendship, love, war and so on. Senge’s work shows how these criteria for distinguishing subject areas, according to how books are arranged and offered to the public in libraries, is now relative to what can be found on product packaging. This means that in a library we might find 250 pages on a subject such as “Love in Summer Gardens,” and perhaps from ten authors; on a product page with 150 sellers, we will see a total of maybe ten lines on the products themselves. And the question we have to ask is how the information contained in these ten lines on the products stands in relation to a variant, let’s say, of 150 different products such as laundry detergent on the one hand with the endless amount of information in libraries on the other.
How can we explain this? What does the general public really get out of reading great authors? Who still reads Kant these days? You read Kant in order to say in the end: Kant, that is the philosopher who proved that what people have always said to be true, namely: Do to no one what you yourself dislike. And the summa of all the heavy reading of Kant can actually be summed up in that one sentence. Or another example: Musil, who wrote “The Man Without Qualities.” All these authors, Thomas Mann and Gottfried Benn and Goethe and Schiller and the devil only knows, are reduced and compressed by their readers into standardized prestige clusters, sort of cognitive aphorisms. And then we talk about Musil only in terms of what is still remaining in our heads from the beautiful phrase “Man without Qualities.”
Even in more classical educational institutions, users reduce hundreds of pages of books down to a few key sentences, to catch phrases, even to children’s phrases, to whatever is just appealing enough to spread and promote it further.
And it has turned out that using libraries to condense the greatest authors into a few sentences is about the same as what the producers of the goods in supermarkets do with their products and labels. And so, it simply turns out that, for example, the categories “soul”, “man,” “dreams,” “beauty,” “time,” and “strength” found on the products on supermarket shelves are just as meaningful as what a publisher’s announcement says about an upcoming book release. It will be no longer than a line and a half, either. And this analogy is a tremendous insight, in which Stephanie Senge picks up roughly where Walther Benjamin left off in the 1920s, that is, in the mediation of high-culture with subculture, with the overlapping of both these spheres.
In pop culture, this was realized in the 1960s/1970s with the blending of “high and low,” in other words, superimposing “high culture” and “low culture,” that is, pop being “low culture” on the one hand and the great philharmonic concert works and music history as “high culture” on the other. This overlapping, as Benjamin or authors like Kirk Varnedoe – for example in the large New York exhibition “High and Low” – have done with pop and classical music, has been done by Senge just as stringently and as memorably as Benjamin and Varnedoe, or as in current cultural-critical essays that can be read now and then in the critical literature on our times. I think it is brilliant work that an artist is working using the same evidence, that is, with really eye-opening, obviousness in the reasoning put forward such as thinkers like Benjamin or cultural scholars and art historians like Aby Warburg or Varnedoe did. This is a very significant and unexpected accomplishment.
The second aspect of my interest in Stephanie Senge’s work, which also prompted me to collaborate with her, was that Wolfgang Ullrich, Stephanie Senge and I founded the society “Ascetics of Luxury – Convent of the Golden Chopsticks” in Munich in 2007, likewise with an interest in exploring and tapping into everyday phenomena – aesthetics in our daily lives has been my topic of interest since around 1965 – in such a way that you cannot avoid the long detour in educational traditions, but you can make it more meaningful.
You can learn more purposefully, you can argue more purposefully and that is that contrary to what pop culture, subculture, or “low culture” says; the power of disposal over things has not increased as prices have lowered. If you are buying in a low-price goods segment, you have to throw out all that stuff every three years, every five years. But this makes no economic sense whatsoever. Especially among young people who want to live ecologically sustainably and sensibly, consuming cheap things is the opposite of their actual intentions. Expensive is only sustainable, where there is a real equivalent between quality and price. Expensive and valuable are only what is truly inexpensive.
We did not set out to establish a set of rules that everyone has to follow, but rather to instill a general strategy of appreciation and therefore show a sign of respect to the people whose skills produce these kinds of things. We want to encourage the development of distinguishing qualifying criteria that will first establish meaning. This is because there is only one criterion for people on earth to bring meaningfulness into the world, and that is to differentiate between things. Those who cannot differentiate cannot experience anything meaningful in our world. You have to learn to differentiate, and differentiation according to qualities at various levels is the most important criterion.
It was the intention of the society “Ascetics of Luxury” to show that we need to be trained in ecological terms, in economic terms, in cultural hygiene terms, and in communicative terms to focus on what is valuable and to reintroduce a standard of high-quality, because only this what is truly sustainable.
So, the greatest meaning we can give to the world is an appreciation for what is important, what is valuable, what is significant, but not because it is normatively set in stone somewhere – like when we say Goethe is compulsory at school – but because it corresponds to our own ability to recognize insights, realizations, policy formulation, expansion of consciousness, and power of imagination as being productive for ourselves.
The Powerful Female Consumer
The third thing that interests me about the collaboration with Stephanie Senge is that she is a feminist and not one of the avowed propagandists of women’s rights. These rights are now taken for granted, even if they do not apply everywhere and we still need to fight for them. Feminism does not stop here, however. Feminism means recognizing that today, after our end of the debate on class society, that actually only one group of people can be the bearers of hope for change in the future, namely women, because they are not in fact equal and because they have their own motivation to stand up for justice. Justice is one of the fundamental concepts in the development of any society, especially democracy, which has been clear now for 2,500 years. The rest of us – whichever parts of the male world are meant – could do so at best with an implausible goodwill or pretense, you name it. But women can be seen as having a genuine interest in claiming justice for society. And that means that when Stephanie Senge calls on a powerful female consumer to say that the economy, which is now calculated in terms of the sales figures of goods, is dependent on the opinions of women. When women are aware that they are the ones who are deciding over what goods get sold because they bring qualitative criteria into play, because they use these qualitative criteria themselves in their shopping habits, then this is a modern feminism that is factually correct, psychologically credible and, above all, practicable in our daily lives. It starts at the store checkout by refusing to go along with the scam called a € 1.50 T-shirt, just so a few criminal entrepreneurs can continue to pay for their mansions.
Stephanie Senge’s commitment to feminism goes far beyond women shoppers as being consumer rulers. This essentially relates to political aspects, which she bases on historical movements such as the suffragettes, i.e. that women, hence the name suffragettes, are standing up for their right to vote, for asserting their positions in our social consciousness, that this is not a gift that is handed over, but it must fought for. This refutes the most important aspect of the pointless case of Eurocentrism, i.e. that what the Europeans are doing here cannot be applied universally, but rather this is a specific European tradition. The idea that Europeans should have something like equality, freedom, and fraternity that the rest of the world does not need, or that women are not considered as equals all over the world, which is why it is incomprehensible why this should be any different in Europe – all this half-witted reasoning has gotten debunked because the suffragettes and other women’s movements have shown for 150 years that you have to fight for a position of justice, equality, and freedom. There was at least as much strife in Europe among Europeans as there ever was with Europeans against the Asians, Africans, and Chinese. This is why, together with Stephanie Senge, we expressly reject the argument that we are playing Eurocentric games here while the rest of the world has long since known that women belong in the kitchen and under their headscarves and that they should remain in the background with nothing to say. This rationale is unacceptable. The struggle for justice must be recognized as a scope of insight that Europe fought for as well. This means that feminism is a formulation of the kind of behavior that can be used in everyday life to achieve a reason, a basis, and a fabric of society that is democratically organized and founded on justice, equality, freedom, and the rule of law. All other parties can no longer be credibly involved, as we can see by the labor movement’s example of what union members did with their million-dollar salaries when they sat on VW’s management board.
That is all long in the past. There is no turning back from these things. No trade union ever intended to let justice take its course. Women, however, regardless of their party or religious affiliation, have the view and a genuine interest to change this. It is called feminism in the sense of its meaning. Feminism has been particularly made accessible to us by Stephanie Senge.
End of prayer.
© Bazon Brock, Cronenberg 2020
Confirmational Media in Times of Prosperity.
Stephanie Senge’s Library of Consumer Products and its Products
Only a few decades ago, the idea of a library of consumer products probably would have been met with much incomprehension. Why would we think of likening consumer products to books? Can there be anything more disparate than the highbrow medium of books and the mass-culture world of consumerism that has been profit-oriented from the outset?
Our culture of abundance, however, has gradually led to the fact that many consumer products have high levels of semantics and therefore are actually open to interpretation and discussion in a similar way as texts. Literary scholars therefore could also join product scholars and product experts in debating the messages of products, their narratives and dramaturgies. They would recognize that many people today are primarily socialized and shaped in their perception and behavior by products. An earlier form of consumer criticism, which was largely formulated in Wolfgang Fritz Haug’s book Critique of Commodity Aesthetics (1971), sees products primarily as commodities and therefore relates their design to their exchange value. It is not outdated but too one-sided and needs to be amended to a consumer criticism supplemented with media criticism.
Stephanie Senge, who has been exploring various aspects of consumer culture in her work for roughly two decades, has used products as a source of ideas in many of her works. With her conception of a library of consumer products, she has laid the foundation for such media criticism. The library is just as non-critical as a conventional library, but by virtue of what is collected and categorized in it, it is establishing the fundament for a diverse, and thus also critical, analyses. It encourages us to compare products in various ways, to look at them individually and to take them seriously as objects. A media-critical, but also sociopolitical view of products is what Senge is encouraging insofar as her focus in her collection is on how issues, world views and values are marketed by manufacturers. They take a special interest in the products that promise to do more than just fulfill utilitarian and material needs.
Sections featuring products where “time” is dealt with in different ways are particularly revealing. For example, one product might suggest that you are completely in the present (“Life is now”), while another is promising that something can be done very quickly, i.e. in a time-saving manner (“in no time”). Underpinning each of these is an intensely experienced, meaningful use of time, and in the end, it is even about ideas of a successful life, to which the products promise to contribute to. This is hardly different than a self-help book or a philosophical treatise from a library. But you can also examine the ways of experiencing time propagated in consumer items to see what lifestyles they favor or which deficits they are supposed to compensate for.
Another section features products that encourage women (“Give Women Power”) and call on them to become activists and get involved. Yet other goods, in turn, want to strengthen the awareness of an “us,” promoting a sense of community and solidarity. Senge has also added numerous items to the library whose titles are actually appeals and act like motivational coaches (“Be free, crazy and happy!”, “believe in yourself”). And even such lofty terms as “paradise,” “happiness” and “soul” are quite common in today’s marketing. These are presented accordingly in separate sections of the Library of Consumer Products.
Unlike a conventional library, however, in Senge’s Library of Consumer Products you will not find the names of authors. More often than not, the creators of ordinary consumer products remain nameless. As opposed to exclusive designer pieces, they are almost never individual efforts, but are the result of a collaboration among various departments and people. Stephanie Senge’s Library of Consumer Products can therefore be compared with the photo series of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their photographs of headframes, blast furnaces and water towers, taken from the 1960s onward, paid tribute to a nameless architecture that otherwise went mostly unnoticed, even though or precisely because it shaped the everyday lives of many people. Just as the Bechers collected and documented types of structures by systematically photographing them, Senge collects and documents types of products that reveal a great deal about the priorities, longings and desires of the respective society in which they are produced and sold.
Admittedly, it is quite tempting for manufacturers to focus on more and more values, on even nobler ideals, not least because they can charge more for their products this way. This sort of emotional charging actually even calls for high prices so that the messages are perceived as convincing. Conversely, when you buy a product, you can also make a personal statement about values, which is all the more credible the more money you spend. A financial sacrifice shows how serious a person is in their commitment to certain ideals and values.
However, the orientation of consumer culture in terms of values and confessions leads to a paradox. For example, anyone who consumes lots of expensive products stating the wish for a more ecological and sustainable world suddenly appears to be particularly eco-friendly and more committed to the idea of sustainability than other people. However, these products also consume resources and are therefore less environmentally friendly than if they were not consumed at all. But this does not lend itself to being displayed so boldly and impressively, because where financial commitment is lacking, a lack of commitment is quickly suspected.
Loading up consumer goods with values and ideals, indeed transforming consumerism into the top-tier medium of a new culture of creed, is therefore likely to significantly increase our overall consumption of resources. There is always the legitimization, and maybe even a certain pressure to buy something even though what you have used so far is not yet used up or worn out, just because the new product embodies a different value which you would like to commit yourself to.
The fact that many consumers have grown accustomed to posting photos of products on social media, where they can prove their own material or immaterial status and make a commitment to a lifestyle and take a moral stance, is again, an additional incentive to consume. And since manufacturers are increasingly relying on these images to replace conventional product advertising, more emphasis on conspicuous design and the staging of values becomes even more attractive for them. The easier and more clearly a statement of values can be made with these images, the greater the likelihood that a product will make a career on Instagram, Pinterest or TikTok and therefore enjoy even greater market success.
The collection in the Library of Consumer Products can already be used to demonstrate the influence social media is having on product design. The work on and with the Library of Consumer Products can, above all, repeatedly remind us that compared to books and texts, which for a long time were probably the most important medium for discussing values and ideals, that these products are media, which are even more elaborate and dependent on an abundant society. But this also makes them more vulnerable to crises, and it cannot be ruled out that Stephanie Senge’s Library of Consumer Products soon will be considered a record out of an historical epoch. We will then marvel at everything that had been the subject of discussion about consumer goods and how much effort was expended converting individual ideals into design. And in the end, the Library of Consumer Products may even become the wunderkammer of the early 21st century.