Corporate Aesthetics: Aleksandra Mir and Corporate Mentality


In conjunction with a special section in Art in America‘s April issue (select articles available herehere and here) , A.i.A. presents a series of Web interviews exploring the role of corporations in contemporary art, architecture and design.

Aleksandra Mir arrived in New York in 1989 to witness a city in transition. Punk bars gave way to chain stores and rising rents demanded white collar day jobs. By the mid-1990s, it had become increasingly clear that the reassuring countercultural dichotomy between artists and corporate types could no longer hold. Published in 2003, her book Corporate Mentality is certainly a time capsule of the cultural economy at the turn of the millennium, but also provides a prescient guide to today’s world, awash as it is in arts management graduate degree programs and energy drink-sponsored group shows.

Based on an archive kept by Mir from 1995 to 2001 while living in New York, Corporate Mentality describes an evolving symbiosis between artistic and corporate activity. Focusing, as Mir writes, on “the emergence of recent practices within a cultural sphere occupied by both business and art,” the book pairs documentation of artists projects with interviews with artists and corporate figures conducted by Mir and her collaborator John Kelsey, among others.

The book catalogues multiple ways of approaching corporate identity and influence. Groups like the Bernadette Corporation and Superflex mimicked corporate structures with differing degrees of veracity, while, as Mir’s 2000 interview with the manager of communications for Absolut showed, artists had already established working relationships with corporations, lending them labor and cultural capital as administrative workers and marketing gurus (see the company’s notable commissions of artworks-as-ads from 1986 to 2004 for an example of the latter).

Most prescient, however, might be Anthony Davies and Simon Ford’s 1999 essay “Art Futures.” Written as a fictionalized account looking back from 2009, it’s an uncanny prophecy of the coming millennium’s first decade. At the heart of “Art Futures” is the rise of what the essay calls the culturepreneur. “Having dispensed with older models of artistic practice,” Davies and Ford write, culturepreneurs were “fully branded, logo’d up, and with their Certificates of Incorporation proudly displayed . . . Critical autonomy now lies within the economic structures and cross-sector games played by culturepreneurs—these are the principal battlegrounds of the future.” Of course, 2009 has come and passed, and the culturepreneur seems eerily described in A.i.A. as “Young Incorporated Artists.”

Still available in print from Sternberg Press and as a free PDF on Mir’s website, Corporate Mentality‘s resonance seems only to grow more than a decade later. From her home in London, Mir corresponded with A.i.A. over email, examining both the book’s formation and legacy and discussing what’s changed, if anything, since its publication.

MATTHEW SHEN GOODMAN What led you to create an archive of the “corporate mentality”?

ALEKSANDRA MIR It was simply that young artists living in New York City in the early ’90s could not sustain a purely bohemian lifestyle. Sure, we would live out all the mandatory ritual transgressions downtown, but we still had to get up in the morning to go to work the next day to make ends meet. My day jobs were all administrative. I have worked in offices all over town, so inevitably Manhattan’s corporate culture had an effect on me just as much as anything else I came to experience in the city. But perhaps more importantly was the realization that, by the time I arrived to this mythical place in 1989, all the bohemian tropes had already become clichés appropriated by fashion and advertising. They were not even relevant to strive for any longer. Kelly Kuvo makes the observation in the book [in an interview concerning her “Starbucks Performance Art Series” (1998-1999)] that when her “cheap thrift store poor girl style” was sold back to her by Urban Outfitters she could no longer see herself in the mirror because she did not feel like an individual anymore. And if the skanky punk rock venue where her band played was “a ripoff that reeked of catshit,” the band might as well play their gig at Starbucks which had just arrived in the East Village—even if it meant the band would break up the same night due to a disagreement over what side they were supposed to be on. Most young artists I knew in New York lived this schizophrenia, and so I perceived it as a distinct frontier worthy of deeper exploration. Irony saved us, but we were effectively balancing on a very tantalizing and dangerous edge. This predicament was the spark that started the archive.

I was also studying anthropology at the New School at the time and decided to make it a cross-cultural study. I contacted people I knew in London, Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, Latvia, Scandinavia . . . as far as my informal and physical network could reach (this was before social media), to find out what was happening in locations other than New York City and the USA. I had reports from Eastern Europe, where capitalism was newly entering, and Northern Europe, where a big public sector in support of the arts was still in place. Other projects crossed over locations and mixed economies via travel, transport of goods or made very early use of the Internet to reflect on globalization.

The editorial premise of the book was diversity. Each case study displayed a different interface with the corporate world, a different strategy of how to navigate it, a different political starting point and ending point, a different psychological makeup and a different aesthetic, all of which posed varying questions and created varying results. It is important to understand that Corporate Mentality was not a coherent movement by any group, nor was it a long lasting manifesto. It was simply a collection of very personal stories by people I happened to be connected with at that moment and which I was lucky enough to be able to collect and publish.

SHEN GOODMAN What did the archive look like before becoming a book?

MIR In the beginning it was just notes in my head of things I was witnessing or participating in. Then I started asking around. Many projects described to me were not even documented as artworks when I first approached the artists, or they were documented in very fragmented forms and needed expansion. As a budding anthropologist I was interested in the stuff behind the scenes, the ephemera and minutiae that could shed light on a work from its impetus, through its production and its aftermath, ignoring the necessity of a clean cut and polished result. I asked people to go through their archives and hand over their messy correspondences, interviewed them over and over again for deeper or even contradictory insights. In cases where artists had a liaison with a corporation, I thought it relevant to speak to that person to get the human side of the corporate world being represented. I traveled to Stockholm to speak to the manager of communications at Absolut Vodka, for example, who broke major taboos in the food industry by agreeing to do Maurizio Cattelan’s ad with the drunk rat in the bottle.

The publisher, Caroline Schneider at Lukas & Sternberg, gave me and my co-editors carte blanche to experiment with the form. We gave each entry a completely different treatment depending on what the material offered and called for. John Kelsey’s elegant “interview” with artist Claude Closky is a one-line question and a one-line answer, set over two otherwise blank pages. Daniel Knorr’s 1996 performance The World Market is also represented. He orchestrated an auction between a street peddler sitting in a conference room at the World Trade Center and an art venue in Copenhagen via an early ISDN Picturetel link, which anticipated communications technology like Skype. We commissioned a three-way recollection: the artist’s memories of what happened in New York, Jens Haaning’s own remembrances (he’d acted as the long-distance producer in Copenhagen), and a journalistic third voice, created by co-editor Onome Ekeh, recollecting the World Trade Center bombing some years prior to the event. So five people worked on this story alone, not even counting proofreading and graphic design, which adds another three. From the start of my archive in 1995 to the release of the book in 2003, the project took eight years to complete, mainly due to my lack of resources in relation to the high ambitions I had for it.  

SHEN GOODMAN Was there any critical reaction at the time of the book’s publishing?

MIR None really. With the exception of a couple of paragraph-long mentions in the context of my other activities here or there it was never properly reviewed. This is a small press artist’s book printed in only 3,000 copies. But when I made the book, I didn’t make it for the moment. It stands forever as a document of its time. Perhaps that we are discussing it a decade later proves the natural discrepancy between life time and art time.

SHEN GOODMAN Do you feel perception of the book has changed over the past 11 years?  Do you see its influence today?

MIR I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Once I put something out, I let it go. I never make money from small press publications. They are more expensive to distribute than any return I will ever get, so I made it a free PDF online so that people everywhere could at least have a chance to read it. I am unaware of the number of downloads, and feedback rarely reaches me. Occasionally a curator will ask me if they can turn it into a show, and I always say, “Feel free to use it as you wish. Go ahead.” Then nothing happens. It is a book. It would be quite pointless as a show.

SHEN GOODMAN Are you aware at all of any of these emerging artists today mimicking corporate organizations? Do you see them as fitting into the “corporate mentality”?

MIR I am unaware of any trend, and I hope Corporate Mentality does not become a catch phrase. When I first heard it, it was flung as an insult at an artist I identified with and had the ring of “dirty whore.” I used it for myself to reclaim some dignity. My position here as an anthropologist is also very different from that of an art critic. I never set out to judge my contributors, which would have stifled the much more tedious and interesting work of doing the actual research.

Everyone contributing and working on it had a lot of time to consider the implications of what they were doing, look back in time and reevaluate their own processes and results as we went along. Some artists have built a long lasting legacy for themselves in this field; for example, the Bernadette Corporation, the Icelandic Love Corporation, Carey Young or Superflex. Other projects like Long Walk by Chris Saunders, Suit for Standing by Christopher Trembley, the “Starbucks Performance Art Series” or The Riga Dating Agency just came into being for a moment and evaporated in front of my eyes as the people moved on. This is OK. I was never trying to establish a solid trajectory. I see culture in a much more porous way, as something breathing.

One of the things that held up the process for over a year was 9/11. A lot of the works in the book examined “the suit.” Some made a mockery out of it, others just observed it as a constraint or as a source of freedom. The cover—with this large vase of exotic flowers in a meeting room at sunrise—was art directed by me after a real life vision I had working an overnighter in a skyscraper office and which, in a state of delirious fatigue, I perceived as magical. The photo was shot by Jason Schmidt facing the Twin Towers in August 2001. Then suddenly came the media images of suits jumping from the windows on the top floor of the same burning and collapsing skyscraper, which left us with an obsolete image, a eulogy.  Reality eclipsed everything we were doing at that point. I had to stop and think. Eventually I came back to complete the work and the book finally came out in 2003.

I took great pleasure in the process and the messy predicament I was in at the time, but going through the project also meant that I learned everything I needed to know and was over it. I am not an authority on art or corporate politics by means. And it is not that the subject is irrelevant today, it is just not relevant to me any longer.

SHEN GOODMAN Looking back, do you feel as though anything’s changed, in terms of how “artistic production inhabits corporate processes,” to quote John Kelsey’s introduction to the book?

MIR If you speak to John today you will get a very different version than mine as I believe he is still very much at the center of these things. I hope all of the people who participated will have different opinions about what they were doing and different ideas of where they are now.

I stopped working corporate day jobs and left New York in 2005 for Palermo, Sicily, where I stayed for five years, exploring the contradictions and edges of living the life of a purely romantic artist. I have traveled continuously, logged my participation in over 300 shows and produced some 50 small press publications that I have given away. I am quite happy closing the door to the world and just being in the studio on most days. You can call me regressive if you like, but my art’s critical faculty remains the same however I position myself in the world. It is only that the object of observation changes.

I now live in London, where I recently learned that the art school Central Saint Martins is offering a graduate degree in “Innovation Management,” with the purpose to “synthesize opportunities.” This is perhaps the closest to the Ford and Davies 1998 Art Futures prediction of the Culturepreneur. I find it hilarious that we have arrived at this. It is a symptom of an ever growing culture industry with lots of room for middle managers in it of course. Yet, I believe that no matter what forces or structures are in place, the art itself still always stems from a sensitive and delicate source, willing to take risks and thrive, not thanks to, but despite the odds.