Interviews

Douglas Coupland Wants to Give You Brain Orgasms

"Google" (2013)
Douglas Coupland, “Google” (2013) in ‘Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything’ at the Royal Ontario Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

TORONTO — The first thing you notice walking into the Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything exhibition is its architecture. Tall spires and sprawling city-spaces in miniature greet you within the light-filled Roloff Beny Gallery on the fourth floor of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).

Comprised of over 100 works, the show is divided into six parts, with two of them installed at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA). The ROM portion of the exhibition explores notions of modern digital life, while the MOCCA section focuses more firmly on changing notions of Canadian identity.

The exhibition is the first major survey of the work Coupland’s created since 2000. Known for being the writer of the seminal Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (which went on to popularize terms like “Gen X” and “McJob”), Coupland has been long-listed twice (in 2006 and 2010, respectively) for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize. He has written 13 novels, along with numerous non-fiction works, short story collections, screenplays, and dramatic works for film and television. His latest novel, Worst. Person. Ever., was published in 2013.

(click to enlarge)
Douglas Coupland, “Slogans for the 21st Century” detail (2011–2014), 148 pigment prints on watercolor paper, laminated onto aluminum, 55.9 x 43.2 cm (click to enlarge)

Coupland balances the dour with the amusing, and references numerous 20th-century artists in the process. Sayings spelled out on bricks, clearly inspired by Jenny Holzer’s truisms, are sometimes dire and dark (“I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain”  / “Too Much Free Time Is A Disaster”) but carry a certain levity in their colorful display. Coupland also references the work of Roy Lichtenstein in a series of works that depict people falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11 in the form of dots; these pictures come into view when seen through a viewfinder of any smartphone, emphasizing the role of technology in Coupland’s broader creative output.

His sprawling work “The Brain” features 5,000 objects that Coupland has collected over the past ten years. The objects are divided into “Left Brain” (white) and “Right Brain” (red) but are united by thematic concerns (dreams, detritus, perceptions of “future”), with physical strings running across the gallery space tying objects together. The various pieces in “The Brain” were, as the placard tells visitors, “connected together by the artist using a building language designed to bring the subunits together as though members of the same family.” The work sums up Coupland’s embrace of drawing connections between pre-digital and contemporary life, producing art that is both aesthetically attractive and visually interactive.

Currently at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, Coupland emailed a few thoughts relating to the Toronto exhibition and where he found inspiration for some of the pieces in it.

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Catherine Kustanczy: What is your attraction to tall structures? There seem to be a lot of them in the show, in various forms. I’m curious about the process of “building” for you and the various ways that it takes shape and is realized in your work, particularly through tall architectural shapes.

Douglas Coupland: It’s not the architecture I’m interested in so much as the way that looking at building models of various scales (and with other objects thrown in) hijacks the 3D processing nodes in your brain. While you think you’re looking at these objects, your brain is doing sommersaults as it seamlessly scale-shifts from one object to the next. To me it’s sort of like a brain orgasm; I’m hoping it does the same for others. The one thing that blind people can’t understand about sight is perspective. They can’t imagine how something becomes smaller simply because it’s further away from you. Perceptual shifts are for me fascinating and represent a whole other way of looking at what can be made.

Liquid Video Game Pop Head_2010
Douglas Coupland, “Liquid Video Game Pop Head” (2010) at the Royal Ontario Museum

CK: How does your writing inform your visual work, and how do you think your visual practice has informed and influenced your writing? Are they deeply separate endeavors for you, or integrated seamlessly within your artistic output?

DC: By the year 2000 I was getting too frustrated with people who only write because I realized that most of them are not in a medical, clinical, or biological sense, visual thinkers. Too much metaphor and they stop. If you tell them to see a pineapple in their heads, they can’t, nor will they ever be able to. Human brains.

Writing and visuality are morphing over time for me. For the upcoming show at the Witte de With, works of fiction will directly inform pieces in the show, which is largely about death and destruction.

CK: Why the focus on 9/11? Does it have a special place for you outside of its historical/social significance, as a source of creative fuel, perhaps?

DC: On September 8, 2001, I had a really big show open on Spring Street in New York — at a temporary gallery called the Totem Gallery. The show was obviously shut down on the 11th and then it sat locked for half a year, the building all covered in 9/11 dust. On September 10 I started a 42-city book tour that was shut down in City Number 1: Madison, WI. So I was away from home for two months, traveling in almost always entirely empty planes thinking about all this work of mine entombed like terra cotta warriors. I think that went quite deep in me.

The Brick Wall, 2005_2014
Douglas Coupland, “The Brick Wall” (2005–2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (click to enlarge)

CK: Some of the pieces in the show seem very connected to ideas around theft and a sort of creative cannibalism — how has your interest in exploring this notion changed (and expanded) over the years, especially in relation to digital culture?

DC: I like art about art. I think many people pussyfoot around this issue. I imagine interior monologues along the lines of, ‘You want to reference other artists, but not too much, you know.’ So much of art writing has become a two-part formula of a) describing a work and then b) describe who it references and then c) nothing else. I wonder where that’s coming from.

Part of me working with art history is wanting to feel like I’m part of a continuum, and locating myself within cultural time. It’s also a way of continuing threads that got dropped decades ago, and this is important. The landscape pieces are particular to Canadian national identity and probably won’t work for people not steeped in that history. And the Pop pieces, too.

I was cleaning out my bookshelves two months ago and realized that I don’t need many of the books I bought in the 1990s because they were mostly for reference and Google Images does that easily now. (Note of disclosure: I’m currently an artist in residence at Google in Paris.) The WWW is certainly changing the way we locate and index everything. It has the dual effect of making us feel stupider, even when we’re smarter, and it leaves us feeling genuinely stupid the moment the wifi stops. There’s a book out just now that I did with HU Obrist and Shumon Basar, The Age of Earthquakes.

CK: How difficult (or natural) an instinct is it for you to integrate your environmental concerns and activism with your artistic work, particularly visual? Do you ever worry about a certain didacticism creeping in? Why or why not?

DC: A little goes a long way. I’ve always been seduced yet repulsed by the physicality and chemicality of modern culture. It’s toxic candy. I like the way smooth, shiny surfaces conceal dreadful things. I think surfaces are important and merit meditation. Someone said I’m like the Pet Shop Boys of the visual world.

Secret Handshake
Douglas Coupland, “The Ice Storm” (2014), welded steel, enamel paint, 304 x 548.7 x 304 cm

Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything continues at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) (100 Queens Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) through April 26 and at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) (952 Queen St W, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) through April 19. 

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