Beneath the blue underbelly of the Manhattan Bridge, Barbara Kruger’s red and white messages accost the eyes while gazing across LES Coleman Skatepark. The installation, “Untitled (Skate),” is one part of Kruger’s commission for Performa 17, the biennial of performance art happening around New York City through November 19. Along with a billboard, vinyl-wrapped school bus, pop-up shop, and set of MetroCards, the skatepark installation pushes Kruger’s tried-and-true (but verging on trite) work into the urban spaces she’s influenced most.
Kruger’s aesthetic, which has been fairly consistent over the past 40 years, isn’t exactly inimitable. In fact, it’s both indebted to and employed by the agents of a consumer culture it so often critiques. She cribs catchphrases from advertisers, and they in turn flatten her sardonic imagery into effective marketing materials. See, for example, Supreme, the billion dollar streetwear brand that is, at its core, an overhyped skate shop. They used Kruger’s favored red rectangle and white Futura font to create their now-iconic red box logo, and later filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against another streetwear brand that riffed on that. Appropriators fussing over the ownership of appropriation — how appropriate.
Kruger called all the parties involved “a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” and, considering Supreme’s deep roots in New York City’s skate scene, one can’t help but wonder if Coleman Skatepark was chosen as an extension of that criticism, or at least a commentary on her expropriation. Kruger’s irony might be lost on some, though. Several younger skaters I spoke with had never heard of Barbara Kruger, and initially thought the installation was sponsored by Supreme. “Who owns what?” indeed.
When I visited the park this past Saturday, I was there as both spectator and skater, evaluating the installation both visually and physically. I imagine that, through the telephoto lens of a tourist, (and there were nearly as many photographers present on Saturday morning as skaters), the installation can seem mesmerizing. Skaters, mostly male and juvenile, flew and fell in front of Kruger’s banners, creating a kind of corporeal poetry. Someone took off from a ramp emblazoned with “WINNER” and gracefully landed on another labeled “LOSER,” and the arbitrarily binary bounds of social competition came crashing into mind. But from the perspective of the skaters — the unwitting participants of this project — Kruger’s installation might look nice, but isn’t very functional.
Kruger’s work can be slick in design and slippery in meaning, but here, overlaid on the steep transitions of the skatepark, the vinyl decals become slick and slippery to the touch too. Less than a week after they were installed, many of Kruger’s vinyls have been pulled off in favor of the grippier concrete beneath. But maybe the skaters’ response to Kruger’s installation isn’t only operational, but a reaction to her messages too. Her mandate to “BE HERE NOW” has been truncated to the subversive “BE HER” as if the skaters are balking at being told to live in the moment by a conceptual collagist. There’s a meditative mindlessness inherent in the motion of skating; it’s a physical art enacted through fast-twitch muscle memory over mere milliseconds, and Kruger’s platitudes can seem to interrupt that experience.
Still, there’s a coded significance in seeing Kruger’s slogans in the context of a skatepark. Skaters (and I’ve been one for nearly two decades) like to think that what we do is individual, countercultural, and exempt from the problematic power dynamics of American society at large. Even if Kruger’s installation might be a jab at skaters, her questions — “Whose values? Whose justice” and “Whose hopes? Whose fears?” — still apply to us. The toughest trick of all is to look up from your board long enough to recognize that responsibility.
Barbara Kruger’s “Untitled(Skate)” (2017) is on view at LES Coleman Skatepark (62 Pike Street, Two Bridges, Manhattan) through November 19. It is part of the Performa 17 Biennial occurring at locations across New York City.