Sunday, March 21, 2010
A statement of action
I first learned of the Hoover Cart while making a documentary film in Tarboro, North Carolina. The film was an oral history take on the evolution of this small agricultural town through the generations. I was fascinated by the Hoover Cart story and the image I saw in my mind of the re-imagined vehicle, this ultimate coping mechanism, and it seemed to me then, as it does now, a monument to the absurd, as only something utilitarian done in prolonged crisis can be. I sat with that image in my mind for years, and would revisit it when a particularly blaring example of American overindulgence confronted my senses. I began to wonder what we would do with all this stuff if it became, through crisis, impossible to use as originally intended. I had grand images of Hoovervilles made out of plasma TV’s, like the old depression shanties that used ads from the daily newspaper to cover holes in the wall against the cold, resulting in destitute people being surrounded by marketing images of things never to be afforded.
I began to contemplate the reality of the world we have built for ourselves grinding to a halt and one thing became clear; everything in our modern world depends on energy. In our strive for American individualism and independence, we have quietly cut all ties with the land, favoring the convenience of cheap gadgetry and in the process becoming blindly dependent on energy, mostly oil, and most of that foreign. One has to look no further than the blackout of 2005 that crippled New York City and the surrounding area to see how impossible American life would be without energy, and cheap energy at that.
In thinking about our society it is clear that we have collectively bought in to the American idea of “Bigger is better.” This thinking, fed by prosperous times and easily available credit, has given us an explosion of consumer goods, the Mc Mansion, corporations too big to fail, and giant gas guzzling SUVs. We owe much of our recent prosperity to a relatively stable period in history and the availability of cheap oil.
A lot has been made of our dependence on oil and there has been much speculation about how much oil is left on the planet. But one thing is sure, we (US) consume vastly more resources than the rest of the world, and when the developing world catches up with us (China, India etc.) as they are working very hard to do, global demand will outpace supply, which will cause the price of oil to skyrocket; oil dependent economies (like ours) will collapse, and there will be an explosion of violence as we all fight for resources (to say nothing of the disastrous effects on the environment).
All of this inevitably brings us back to the automobile and though I am not necessarily obsessed with cars or car culture, I am obsessed the idea of the American Dream. It is impossible to talk about one without the other as they are historically and inextricably linked. The promise of America is summed up nicely by this gentleman who lived through the depression.
“I am 72 years old and been thinking some lately about things that have happened during that span. I see Hoover mentioned a lot in recent weeks but I'll bet most of you don't recall the term "Hoover Cart". It was around for some time but I remember it being used most frequently during the Truman/Dewey campaign. Looks like we will need those "carts" again to carry the few bits we have left after this Republican administration finishes with us.
"Raising something to eat superseded social concerns in my cashless 1930s boyhood. Along the dirt road that ran in front of our Georgia farmhouse, the farmer rode to town on Saturday on a homemade seat mounted on the rear axle and wheels of a former T-model Ford drawn by a bony mule. The vehicle was known as a Hoover Cart in honor of the president who promised two cars in every garage and gave us the Great Depression.”
As discussed in earlier posts, the excess of the roaring 20's created modern consumerism, consumer credit and the contemporary version of the America dream, but resulted in the Great Depression. Hoover Carts were created by desperate people who could not afford fuel for their newly financed cars, so they cut them in half, attached poles to the front and hooked them up to a horse.
As the country began to emerge from the Depression politicians and corporations were obsessed with making grandiose predictions about the future. Fashion, Art and Architecture of this era took on a futuristic look, as evidence by Art Deco and the accompanying Streamline Modern movement that took new technology in aerodynamics and ballistics as a design principle to strip down and streamline design, giving the look of sleek futuristic speed. Automobile manufacturers embraced this look wholeheartedly. At the 1939 World's Fair in New York City General Motors unveiled an exhibit entitled "The Futurama" which was a large scale diorama depicting their vision of the future world we would all inhabit and how the automobile would make it possible. In this “brighter and better world of tomorrow” (the imagined future world of 1960) the viewer was confronted with a self-described monument to “the American scheme of living.” “Come,” the omniscient voice of the unseen announcer invites, “Let’s journey into the future…what will we see.”
For a time after WWII the future was very bright for GM and most of America (if you were white) and indeed the automobile made this country. The United States possessed one of the only functioning post war economies and instead of producing military goods, factories began cranking out a plethora of consumer products, including cars, to an eager American consumer. Massive government investment in the highway interstate system in the 50’s and 60’s (which was basically the largest subsidy ever handed out to business) created suburbia, caused white flight resulting in large inner city ghettos and led to the very American Dream of a two car family, the house, picket fence, and dog named Spot. At one point the 1950's, 1 in 7 jobs were directly related to the auto industry and GM alone represented 10% of the national economy.
Adding to its “Planed Obsolescence” strategy, that bit of marketing genius that made the previous years model dreadfully outdated, GM now added the “Ladder of Success.” This new marketing strategy effectively put the consumer in a class system according to wealth and social status by the corresponding GM model they could afford – Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, or Cadillac. In a wordless exchange everyone now knows where everyone else stands, and if one wants to appear to rise socially, simply buy the more expensive, latest brand. With these two marketing ideas, GM was, as Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times put it: "able to weld an existential link between who we are and what we drive, and put the American consumer on the acquisitive treadmill they are panting on yet today.”
At this historical time, writes Neil, “GM was more than just the world's largest and most admired corporation; it was the final vindication of the American Way, the perfected and even divinely inspired example of democratic capitalism that stood opposed to the airless atheism and nullity of the Soviet system.”
The Golden Age of America to be sure.
So it was no small moment when in 1953 GM President Charles Wilson was tapped to be secretary of defense (It would be Ford’s CEO Robert McNamera next). In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Wilson was asked if he thought there might be a conflict of interest. His response made history: “I have always felt that what was good for GM is good for the nation and vice versa.” It was as if, with this one statement, the American corporation and the federal government were once and for all inseparable. (Now the argument can be made that what is good for Goldman Sachs is good for America.) Throughout the 50’s and 60’s the slogan was repeated with pride, "As General Motors goes, so goes America.”
Certainly a company that could achieve all this would last forever, and so would the country that made it all possible…right?
Earlier last year (2009) in the midst of the worst financial disaster to hit this country since the Great Depression, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. In February of 2010, GM announced the end of the ultimate symbol of American dominance, the HUMMER. The irony is that in the early 2000’s GM spent millions in developing the EV1, a fully functional electric car, but killed the program to make room for the HUMMER. And now not even the Chinese want the beleaguered brand. GM’s problems, however, are not unique and in fact are the same problems facing the nation as a whole at this precarious time.
“This is the lesson of GM's bankruptcy, and it has little to do with market share and miles per gallon. It's a rebuff of the notion of exceptionalism. Any organization that fails to sufficiently safeguard its means of self-correction and reform, that forsakes long-term investment for short-term gain, that piles up debt year after year, will eventually fail, no matter how grand its history or noble its purpose. If you don't feel the tingle of national mortality in all this, you're not paying attention.” Dan Neil
For me the symbol that best personifies the arrogant, unsustainable, indulgence of the last era and the inevitable downfall, is the HUMMER H2. This military vehicle turned 9 MPG grocery getter has been called “An indictment of the American psyche on wheels,” and is clearly consumerism at its peak. By choosing the HUMMER as a symbol to deconstruct, it speaks to the broader culture that bought into this ideology, resulting in the largest financial collapse since the Great Depression and an impending environmental catastrophe.
I believe that the power of this work lays within the evisceration of the object itself and all that it represents. It was therefore very important to me to acquire, at market price, a working automobile in the best condition possible. To cut any corners on this point was to me, completely unacceptable. Adding meaning and back story, I bought the car from a dealer who had just bought it at an auction for bank owned, repossessed vehicles, a further monument to the times. Like my car cutting forefathers I too had to embrace the absurd if I was to make any sense out of the current madness.
I am very interested in work that deals with contradiction, and irony. Like a film director showing the brutal violence of war to make a statement about the horrors of war, I had to embrace excess in the creation of this object to reflect back its ultimate insanity. I very much love this tension, between the beautiful and the dark, between physical attraction and intellectual revulsion, the ultimate guilty pleasure. Optimism is present but checked by the reality of human nature.
My work exits in a continuum of time. It is from the future, but is rooted in the present and connects the past. Taking the logic of the past and putting it in the context of our current economic and environmental disaster, I am making my own satirical prediction of the future- Unless we come up with alternative fuel sources and rethink our reliance on a hyper-inflated, consumption-based oil economy; we may be left with no other options than to hook our cars up to horses.