Interview with Brian Ulrich: Copia, Consumerism, and...American Girl Dolls?

Jan. 28, 2014
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Having awoken from its winter hibernation, a slew of new exhibitions are on display at Marquette’s Haggerty Museum of Art. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with photographer Brian Ulrich, whose “Copia – Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, 2001-2011” is amongst the new art. As the interview demonstrates, Ulrich is an especially insightful commentator on his work and creative process.

Tyler Friedman: Let’s begin with a bit of history and background on “Copia – Retail, Thrift and Dark Stores, 2001-2011.”

Brian Ulrich: Well, the project began in 2001, and it coincided with my moving to Chicago to go to graduate school. The first day of classes was September 11th. I had been very excited about this big shift in my life, this new chapter, then all of the sudden this huge thing happens. It was obviously a profound moment for a lot of reasons, but it changed what kinds of things I was interested in doing as an artist.

I had been doing autobiographical work – using the camera like a lot of young students do. I was using the camera to try to understand my life, my reality, who I was, the people around me, the choices I made, so on and so forth. But after this event happened it seemed important to look at culture and society and people. There was an intense period of national grieving during which people were pulling together in amazing ways that broke down the usual cultural, societal, and class bullshit for a minute. It kind of ‘got real;’ about humans. I initially wanted to see if I could photograph that, though it’s not exactly a visual thing. Nevertheless I started going out in the street and taking pictures and seeing if I could find those moments between people. It was important that I didn’t manufacture that moment. I couldn’t really set it up. I had to discover it. And here and there I started to.

But then comes October and all of the sudden the rhetoric changes. A dialogue of fear starts to take over and we’re reminded of the fact that we’re vulnerable and we’re reminded of the fact that this is going to happen again – or could happen again. I noticed that people began to revert to their usual insular behavior, which is understandable, but it was an obvious change and shift. I started to hear discussions about the economic hit this country was going to take, and that the way to pull through was to begin spending again. To resume life as normal. Political figures were calling upon the nation’s best shoppers to get out there and spend and infuse the economic engine with capital. I thought that was, in light of the humanistic behaviors I had been paying attention to, really really strange. Was it actually happening? So I started going to stores to see whether people were really going to… patriotically shop. Weird.

TF: And that was the birth of “Copia”?

BU: Kind of, yeah. I started frequenting these places and I answered my question very quickly. The answer was: yeah, people were patriotically shopping. But then the other part of the equation kicked in – the completely transparent declaration that our whole sense of security and well-being was entirely tied up with our ability to be able to spend. At that point I started looking at what was really happening in the stores. It was a profound moment for me and the project became infinitely huge.

TF: When I first thought about the title of the show – Copia – I made sense of it in light of the photographs of mountains of shoes and edifices built out of soda cans. My first thought was, ‘Ah yes, of course: copiousness.’ Later, after having seen more of the photos, I also began to hear echoes of ‘coping’. That is, copiousness as a way of coping, whether it be with a national tragedy or just life in general.

BU: Yeah, exactly. ‘Copy’ also comes from ‘copia.’ That’s significant too – the homogenization of culture which was in tandem with all these ideas. There was a moment at the dawn of the 21st century where something was happening that I felt to be different. There was a tipping point. Things were shifting fast. That was the impetus to deal with this as a photographer… artist… citizen. That’s why I started going to these stores in search of moments. It was difficult.  It was important that they were candid but the stores wouldn’t give me permission, so I had to develop strategies. It took a little time, but I did figure it out. I got a camera with autofocus and a viewfinder on the top so I didn’t have to hold it to my eye. Then it started to come together.

TF: Are these photos improvisatory? You’re just coming across these people? Capturing them as they are? What about the unpeopled pictures? Did you move materials? Or did you simply document the world as you found it?

BU: First of all, I can’t dream this stuff up [laughs]. And, for me, it was important to be in these spaces a lot. Many hours. Paying attention. Slowing down the typical experience of being in these stores and observing with the level of focus that photography demands.

TF: Does that take a psychological toll? These are not – despite the bright colors and bright lights – unequivocally cheerful places.

BU: You would have to ask my therapist. But I would say yes. You sit in one of these places and try to pay attention with that level of critical observation, and you really do begin to feel like you’re going to lose it. I think the worst was when I spent about four hours in the American Girl doll store. I really thought I was not going to come out of there.

TF: Was it the kids or the parents?

BU: It was the frenetic energy of the place. It’s not a big place but it was chaotic. Whenever someone removes something from the shelves there is a person with a walkie-talkie to call an employee in the back to come and replace the item. So the shelves are always perfectly stocked. There can never be the appearance of anything other than the bounty of products. Just watching that happen induces existential despair.

TF: There is a common mood unifying of a number of the photographs, which I came to think of along the lines of dark comedy. And there seem to be two branches. On the one hand, certain photographs capture the inadvertent absurdity of consumer behavior. For example, there’s a family picture augmented with the intrusive presence of a digital projector. Or there’s the fortuitous lingering of two elderly and infirm individuals by the contraceptive section.

The other branch of the dark, comedic mood is the precarious relationship between the consumer and consumerism. There is a photograph from what appears to be a casino with a sign reading “Cash and Redemption.” It’s where patrons, presumably, redeem their chips. In the message “Cash and Redemption,” the mingling of capitalism with overtones of traditional religion is sinister. There are also photographs of the decrepit buildings of folded businesses that look like war zones. The carcasses of consumerism. I was also struck by the bright lights and inviting imagery of a certain mega-store – whose logo is a target and which shall remain nameless… It takes a moment to realize that there are security cameras peering down over every single one of the checkout aisles. It becomes difficult to continue to think of these places as the comforting phenomena experienced in everyday life. Have you always been attuned to the dark comedy of consumerism?

BU: When I was growing up in suburban Long Island, I was a punk and BMX kid. I watched some of that stuff unfold and can recall having a certain disdain for the way people lived their lives. It also has to do with my parents being first generation immigrants from Germany. I had been to Europe and seen the way other people lived. Those experiences were very profound. I had left the country for long enough that when I returned Americanism was alien.

So I had my ideas, but the first thing that happens when you begin to work on a project is that you realize a lot of your ideas are based on stupid stereotypes or ill-informed information. What I originally thought I would see was greedy hordes of people. But I came to believe that there is something different going on, that there is an entire environment crafted to dictate a certain behavior. And this environment is a very large, encompassing umbrella. We can talk about ‘environment’ in this sense all the way back to the manufacture of an American faith in this structure. When I started this project, people believed so much in the system that to imagine anything else was Armageddon in every sense of the term.

Doing the work changes your ideas about things. Especially the research. I learned that there are research firms that do something called “tracking.” They just follow consumers and record them. Nowadays it has probably become easier with the whole cell phone thing. They are basically compiling, surreptitiously, all the data about what a person does. Everything they look at. Everywhere they stop. The goal is ultimately to craft the environment for a specific outcome. It’s the creation of a different experience of the world that has a deep effect on people’s psychology. We should really think about what that means.

TF: I must raise the proverbial “chicken and egg” problem: is the creation of this sort of environment and lifestyle foisted upon people awares, or is there something in human psychology that craves this and is willing to take it from wherever it can get it? And if the latter, what is that?

BU: That’s a wonderful question if only because it’s impossible to answer. But…

TF: What’s your intuition?

BU: There’s a BBC series by Adam Curtis called “Century of the Self” that attempts to answer that question. It focuses on the nephew of Sigmund Freud, a man named Ed Bernays. There had been mass uprisings across Europe and the idea of the masses overthrowing the status quo became very concrete. Freud became interested in understanding crowd mentality. Does it become an organism in itself? Bernays starts reading Freud’s work on this theme and uses the ideas to invent “public relations.” He believes that controlling desire is the key to controlling the crowd. If they can be given just enough, he concludes, there would never be a revolution. The documentary explores the myriad ways desire has been used to control people. It’s one of the great narratives of the twentieth century. This quiet man basically invents postmodernism. That is my answer…I think it is by design. As human beings we are, of course, subject to our desires. But we are also highly influenced by our environment.

I think of myself as on the side of people. I suppose I am a humanist in that respect. I want people to be empowered about what’s going on here, though I have no illusions that I’m going to stop it. But I hope that if people scrutinize the experiences of the photographs, they may not necessarily feel victim to it. Or, at least their experience of it is transformed.


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