Corporate Aesthetics: Andrew Norman Wilson

Andrew Norman Wilson and Nick Bastis, Group Therapy, 2014, powder coated aluminum, iron fittings, polyester fabric, rubber crutch tips, melted patio chaise lounges, HD video, extension cord, zip ties, glass bowl, water and spray adhesive.



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

As part of his contribution to the A.i.A. series, artist Andrew Norman Wilson is premiering Uncertainty Seminars—Group Therapy (2014), a video from his project Uncertainty Seminars. The video is an “instructional video based on schizoanalysis,” according to its narrators, who are Chow Chow dogs in residence at a breezy California revamp of La Borde, the legendary French psychiatric clinic.

When A.i.A. asked New York-based artist Andrew Norman Wilson for an interview as part of its “Corporate Aesthetics” series, he requested that it be conducted at The New School’s newly minted University Center. True to form for Wilson, his preference carried multiple reasonings: On one level, it was simply convenient, as he teaches a class in the building. On another, the Center’s non-orthogonal architecture and extreme investment in open, flexible, communal areas reflect many recent design trends in corporate architecture—a longtime fascination of Wilson’s, and more recently an artistic motif, for all the idealistic promises that companies embed in their idiosyncratic designs. On another level still, he found the injection of this design ethos into the realm of education—a realm long thought to have loftier goals than capital—glaringly illustrative of the corporatization of the education system.

But perhaps it is this concatenation of interests itself, and all their productive tensions, that most clearly ties Wilson’s requested interview site to his artistic activity. In his own work, Wilson immerses himself in global corporate systems, mining them for not only materials for critique but also for possible signs of life. His earliest endeavors in this vein include Virtual Assistance (2009-11), a long-term artistic collaboration with an outsourced personal assistant living in India; and Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2009-11), where he used his 20 percent time as a Google employee to examine the working conditions of Google Books’s contracted book-scanning operators (this got him fired). Last fall, Wilson and Aily Nash organized “Image Employment” at New York’s MoMA PS1, an exhibition of video works that chart material traces of our abstract global economy. And in his video installation Uncertainty Seminars, which was on view at Fluxia, Milan, this spring, Wilson takes a more fictive approach to mapping corporate aesthetics, guiding viewers through an eerie sequence of meditative viewing modules designed in collaboration with artist Nick Bastis.

In recent work, Wilson’s interventionary role has shifted from worker toward executive. With his stock media production company Sone (formerly named Stock Fantasy Ventures), Wilson produces sleek images, videos and objects that conjure absurdist travesties on the dystopic horizon. They start as brief narrative texts that Wilson calls “image concepts,” which get produced once Sone obtains the necessary outside funding. Two examples are Moping drunk CEO on a thick fur rug wearing unbuttoned Theory dress slacks and wrapped in a KLM airplane blanket receives a call from HSBC Bank and gradually begins to sob while taking their automated customer satisfaction survey, 2013 (which debuted in Dis Magazine last year), and Rave kids in an abandoned social welfare office dancing to a dot matrix printer printing an endless loop of carbonless copy paper with amplified, blown out audio (forthcoming). Through them, Wilson wants to give legible media representation to the fears and anxieties that the failures of global capital have instilled in even its most privileged subjects. He also wants to eke out a living.

Wilson met with A.i.A. to discuss Sone’s current rebranding, the inescapability of corporate influence and what young incorporated artists have to offer today.

NICK IRVIN You’ve characterized your work as “inflecting” image economies. Are there any other verbs that you think of in relation to your work?

ANDREW NORMAN WILSON I guess “doing” is the verb. Actually doing things is really interesting to me. Get in the river instead of just taking a picture of the river.

I feel like I do two different types of things. Some work, like Sone, is on the more strategic-intentional end of the spectrum, focused on the relations, processes and materiality of entities that constitute the present: labor contracts and conditions, networked communications, flows of capital, etc. With this work I try to approach these entities self-reflexively, often through direct involvement—being employed, paying for connection, negotiating investments, writing to customer service.

I also make work, like Uncertainty Seminars, that slides towards the more affective-intuitive end of the spectrum. These projects gather incongruous sets of elements to reverberate and become something less predictable. Through these defective meditations, I’m trying to affectively engage what our bodies are dealing with, or will be dealing with in the near future. We’re entering the age of molecular engineering, synthetic biology, sensory augmentation, avant-garde pharmaceuticals. This new biology, and any new work of art, requires us to abandon a lot of what we think we know. We’re dealing with new phenomena that can only be comprehended through categories that are still only emerging–in these situations, feeling precedes cognition.

IRVIN Some of your current “doing” includes reorienting Stock Fantasy Ventures, which you’re now calling Sone. What’s motivating your rebranding?

WILSON I watched a Cory Arcangel lecture from five years ago the other day. I love a lot of Cory’s work, and though I don’t recognize it having a direct influence on mine, watching it helped me remember just how definitive his practice has been for many of my peers—and how he pioneered the now-pervasive idea of treating the presets and templates that are available as a Mac/PC user as artistic decisions. Simply making use of a gradient fill or the Mac text-to-speech program seems exhausted now. And so, with the project that we’re now calling Sone, the rebrand is hinged upon a dissatisfaction with that limited set of aesthetic cues that we’ve come to associate with corporate aesthetics—things like PowerPoint templates—and wanting to exceed those crutches. I’m working with the excellent designer Julia Troubetskaia to realize this new vision.

Before rebranding, we would make the image concept slides simply by opening up PowerPoint, choosing a color within that particular template, entering the concept text, and that was it. It looked smooth, like something that could be advertising home loan assistance programs in a bank lobby. But we’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes and have them believe that this is a normal startup offering a run of the mill product. We’ve realized the project can be much more interesting if it’s not trying to “perform” something bland, like mimicking Bank of America, but instead developing an aesthetic that’s hopefully both “pre-trend” and more honest to what the company is trying to accomplish.

Even banks are recognizing the importance of seeming more personable and in touch with their customers—ING Direct just rebranded as “Tangerine.”

IRVIN What will “pre-trend” get you?

WILSON Pre-trend will leverage the project’s position first within the art world. While the stock media and entrepreneurial worlds may not pick it up as quickly, the power it accumulates through the art world will start to generate opportunities elsewhere, in situations where it’s not even viewed as an art project.

My hope is that the videos can still speak to people, even if they don’t care about me aestheticizing the conditions of production. Especially people who don’t care about art, and instead discover Sone’s products on stock media marketplaces like Getty and Pond5.

IRVIN Why put these types of stories and images on Getty Images?

WILSON We’re producing characters and narrative potentials that don’t currently exist on the stock media marketplace. This otherness needs to be embraced in the design of the project. We’re trying to sell people on the idea that our current economic arrangement is bankrupt, inevitably volatile—therefore, aping the most conventional packaging of that arrangement seems bankrupt as well. So now, Sone isn’t a brand you trust, but a brand you would actually want to watch fingerbang your uncle.

IRVIN How did you come to the new name?

WILSON In Mexico I saw this Hombres de Negro (Men in Black) bootleg DVD that listed the production company as “Sone Pictures Entertainment.” I like how Sone rhymes with words like Tarkovsky’s ‘zone,’ or ‘moan,’ but can also be misread to sound like Sony. Sony makes phones, cameras, speakers, monitors, Eminem records, films like Spanglish, financial instruments and much more. I think this diversification relates to where Sone is headed, as well as my general economic activity for the past few years—I take and make money and opportunities wherever it makes sense.

Most importantly, though, Sone is not a recognizable word, and doesn’t come off as satirical like Stock Fantasy Ventures may have. We feel that productive confusion over what it is will give it more traction in both art and business networks.

IRVIN I remember seeing pictures of investor meetings that you’ve held. What has the response been from potential investors?

WILSON Everyone—from investors to journalists to art advisors—seems to get that we’re actually trying to function outside the art gallery system, which still mostly runs like a cottage industry. But to date we have only taken investment offers from gallerists and curators. With others, there’s always the question, “Is this serious?” But I’m glad that it’s that question, and not just them thinking, “This is a joke.” I think making it a little more ambiguous up front will serve us better here.

IRVIN How does the funding work for Sone, exactly?

WILSON So far, we’ve pitched it, and if somebody wants to see it made, they pay us and a team of professionals to produce it. But the arrangements have gotten much more flexible. We’ve realized that in general, and especially in the art market, people don’t want to deal with novel price breakdowns. People want it to be simple and clean.

In my experience, though, flexibility and openness have proven effective in reducing financial risk in our precarious economic situation. Sone is also becoming more fluid, more open to the opportunities presented to it. Why not make other products that are extensions of the Sone brand that can then bring capital into the project? For a show at Project Native Informant in London this June, we’re producing objects that have the Sone image concepts engraved directly on them.

IRVIN What sorts of objects?

WILSON Things like an Audi A7 car headlight, a private jet windshield, a paintball mask—new, non-orthogonal industrial design objects that reduce risk in relation to speed and vision.

These are the dominant shapes of the immediate future. Regarding car headlights, a number of technological advances have enabled designers and engineers to transform automative lighting, including more sophisticated light sources and sensor control systems. These innovations are going to have an effect on other products in the near future, and the headlights are a glimpse of that. Our cities and our homes are going to start looking a lot more like car headlights, so they are connected to the immediate future that Sone’s image concepts are trying to confront.

IRVIN That also sounds like the environments you’ve produced for the “Material Uncertainty” exhibition at Fluxia. The modules have a feeling of being from a near future, though whose future it is is not explicit. Can you say a bit about where Uncertainty Seminars came from?

WILSON Uncertainty Seminars is a video resulting from trying to both escape and regain control over a dysfunctional body-mind. It came out of moving to New York from Chicago in 2012, and the bodily-personal-professional upheavals that inspired and followed that move.

It was weird because my normal coping mechanisms, like reading philosophy, just weren’t working. So in addition to seeing a therapist, I started searching the internet for online forms of therapy, like guided meditations and mindfulness exercises. I accumulated this arsenal of self-help and meditation techniques-though I was never regular enough with any of them, and perhaps that’s because I was never entirely convinced by one method. Simultaneously I started to make my own videos that drew from my experience of these online self-help practices. I had no idea what the video would become, and would set up all these experiments for its production–like getting very drunk or high and editing, sleep deprivation, regularly approaching but withholding orgasm for a week and then having editing sessions, and so on. I’ve never made anything involving so much excess that’s not in the final cut.

IRVIN Thank you again for debuting an Uncertainty Seminars video for A.i.A. Can you say something more about our Chow Chow hosts? They’re adorable.

WILSON Your finger-eyes will touch these Chow Chow hosts, made possible by a digital camera, computers, and an image display. Enfolded into the metal, plastic and electronic flesh of the digital apparatus is the primate visual system that you have inherited, with its vivid color sense and sharp focal power. In this haptic-optic touch, we are inside the histories of IT engineering, electronic product assembly-line labor, mining and IT waste disposal, plastics research and manufacturing, transnational markets, communications systems, and technocultural consumer habits. Also in this haptic-optic touch are the cells that compose your body, 90 percent of which are filled not with your genomes, but the genomes of bacteria, fungi, protists and such, some of which are necessary to your being alive at all, and some of which are hitching a ride and doing the rest of you, of us, no harm. All of them, as well as the Chows and their micropassengers, deserve a spot on Freud’s chaise. And upon mounting it I imagine they would start by whispering “let’s go deeper.”

IRVIN We’ve been circling back to this idea of the pervasiveness of the corporate body. Do you think its reach has limits? Is it a framework one can work outside of today?

WILSON Corporate bodies are infiltrating our personal, professional, and civil lives to the point where it’s difficult to discern what isn’t “corporate” today. For instance, Aily Nash and I curated an exhibition at MoMA PS1 called “Image Employment” that included videos critically engaging corporate aesthetics. The live component of the show took place in the VW Dome, made possible by a partnership with Volkswagen of America. We couldn’t help it but think of Autostadt, Volkswagen’s visitor attraction adjacent to their factory in Wolfsburg, which is a prime example of this “experience economy.” It’s becoming more difficult to say just what a corporation isn’t.