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What happens when alt-right ideologies are packaged in progressive aesthetics?
This is the question posed by Ours, Samuel Marion’s new conceptual browser work, commissioned by Rhizome and presented by the New Museum. It foretells a near future in which conservative politics leverage environmental sympathies to both justify and obscure white supremacist and anti-immigration agendas. In order to explore these issues through the lens of advertising conventions, Marion created a darkly satirical corporate website for an imaginary outdoor clothing and equipment brand called Ours, that loosely resembles companies like Patagonia and REI.
At a glance, the site appears to be like that of any similar contemporary company. In a delicate serif font, the words “discover Ours” float over a misty blue sky. The site’s background image, a serene, mountainous landscape, is untouched save three tents set shoulder to shoulder in the shrubs. Scrolling uncovers a manifesto; “at Ours,” it starts, “we believe in protecting Americans and their environment.” The storyline is familiar. “As climbers, skiers, mountain bikers, hikers: we know these lands. We’re in them, so we know how much they’re in danger.” The image of the mountains is replaced with one of a pristine lake, punctuated by a single kayak. So far, so good. But the experience of the site is one of wading from the shallows of liberal consumerism, common to outdoor lifestyle brands, into the deep, dark waters of ecofascism. Navigating through the site reveals the true intention of Ours: “we’re helping America fight overpopulation and immigration, ensuring Americans get to explore for as long as possible.”
With its emphasis on homeland defense, Ours is what the NRA might sound like if it were a chic D2C startup. The dominant ideology is ecofascism, which promotes nativist, eugenicist border control under the umbrella of environmental conservation. “Overcrowding doesn’t help anybody, least of all us: the explorers. That’s why Ours, in conjunction with the Malthusian Initiative, is dedicated to a 20% population reduction.”
If Ours seems wildly hyperbolic, it’s only because you’ve never happened upon the Colcom Foundation, which stems from the white supremacist imagination of Cordelia May. May also provided the funding for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which was founded by the nativist environmentalist John Tanton in 1978. To this day, these organizations greenwash their strident anti-immigration mission on their websites in soothing imagery of birds and amber waves of grain. In 1993, Tanton said in a letter to Garrett Hardin, “I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
Marion created Ours as a look into far-right environmental ideas that flourish in the dark corners of the internet, but possess the potential to seep into mainstream discourse. (At Ours, the “Tanton Jacket” sells for $179.00 as “the perfect jacket for adventure.”) The key to the project’s success is the artist’s strategic deployment of branding; Ours is a distorted mirror of actual advertising aesthetics. “I was seeing so many of these subway ads … you know that font that’s subtle serif, it’s the Hims one, the Sweetgreen, Casper, you name it,” Marion told me over Zoom, referring to the branding of these companies. “I just started thinking about how typefaces and branding can be used as this Trojan horse for ideology.”
We all understand, to a certain extent, that advertising is a form of manipulation. At its most beneficial, it raises public awareness of issues such as health, human rights, and the environment. At its most evil, it recalls totalitarian propaganda or cultish brainwashing. More often than not, it straddles the two, perched on a seemingly benign fence. Ours calls into question marketing that appears innocent, or even ethical, by bubbling blatantly malignant forces to the surface. Its stated mission is to “[build] a stronger America” by donating to “private border defense groups, organic farms, radical lobbyists, [and] recycling programs.”
Dressed up in progressive clothes, conservative ideas can be both funded and bolstered by shoppers who want to feel that their purchases align with their liberal values. “We’re no longer seeing glamour as being something that’s marketable,” Marion told me. In its place, we find an equally elusive aspiration to be a “good person.” Companies have figured out how to sell us a stake in our own morality by providing the illusion that our individual choices alone can change the world. In the face of vast, complex crises, they invite consumers to “absolve yourself of guilt by consuming,” Marion says.
Enter “green” advertising, a smokescreen that grants consumers plausible deniability, and brands just enough cachet to cash in on moral movements. “Green Capitalism” is appealing because it says you can have your luxury goods and feel righteous too. “Buying a product as a way to support a cause is a much easier way to scratch the ‘guilt-itch’ than by supporting any sort of political action,” Marion writes in his explanatory essay accompanying the site, “with the added bonus of accumulating some sort of object within the process.”
Through what Marion calls “light reconfigurings to the status quo” brands can placate the consumer’s moral and capitalist desires without engaging in any sweeping reforms. In its onsite messaging, Ours intentionally conflates consumerism with activism and dissuades shoppers from political dissent. “We like to think of activism being built into our products — not something you have to do outside of them,” the disembodied brand voice patronizes. “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.”
As a piece of art, Ours is disorienting. It looks like the kind of unassuming website people might interact with dozens of times a day. The site itself stutters in and out of reality: at times its fidelity falters; at other times, it is indistinguishable from a real e-commerce platform. With online art, viewers don’t have the context of a gallery or museum to tell us that what we’re encountering is art. Ours looks nothing like art. Its quotidian appearance reinforces how ideas can be normalized through a blend of rhetoric and exposure. By couching the issue of ecofascism in the comfort of online shopping, Marion shows how these systems can operate in tandem, and warns against the potential strength of their alliance. The prevailing concern in the piece is the notion that the right wing will eventually have to acknowledge climate change, and rather than advocating for climate justice, will instigate a full pivot to a Malthusian model, using the degradation of the environment to justify bigotry, border control, and genocide.
In an episode of Still Processing, a New York Times podcast hosted by the inimitable Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, they address the issue of “utopia propaganda” messaging — particularly corporate messaging — that assures us everything is great while ignoring the glaring injustices in the world. Morris and Wortham reference tactless commercials for companies ranging from Papa John’s to Budweiser to Walmart that had been airing over the summer, as protests against police brutality spanned the nation and the global pandemic raged on. They tell us “everything’s gonna be just fine,” Wortham says. “Just order our products, and you’ll live. You’ll be OK.”
Though Marion doesn’t believe all companies are ill-intentioned, Ours exemplifies and warns against the cumulative effects of pacifying corporate messaging and private sector solutions. Contrary to the broad platitudes of commercial advertising, art demands nuance and skepticism around both the means and the ends of environmental conservation. However seductive it may be, branding won’t bring an end to the floods, the fires, or the fascism.