Rob Walker | Essays

Real Space, Imaginary Stuff

As I suppose Choire Sicha could have told me, there’s a big difference between filling a Tumblr or a Pinterest board with a steady stream of images, and filling a gallery with a selection of actual things. The latter, I have learned, is more challenging. Earlier I promised I’d say more about "As Real As It Gets," a show about fictional products and imaginary brands that I organized for apexart in New York. Probably it would have been better strategy to do before the show opened — but, I got pretty busy there for a while.

"As Real As It Gets," photo via apexart.

Anyway, organizing a real-world show also turns out to be a lot more satisfying than collecting stuff online: Seeing the results in person was amazing — and the opening was a blast. (You still have plenty of time to see it in person; the show is up through December 22.)

That said, there is a certain charm to online contexts: Commenting and reblogging and “like”ing are surely overrated as forms of “interactivity,” but they lend a certain dynamic quality that can be absent from the experience of visiting a space, viewing what’s there, and leaving. Similarly, one of the interesting things about the Web is how material bounces around, and specifically how it sometimes does so far into the future and into unpredictable contexts. A gallery show tends to exist for a few weeks and then something else takes its place.

Obviously I’m more than happy to have people simply attend the show and enjoy the great work collected there, by contributors too numerous to mention. But I already wrote about one of the ways that I hope "As Real As It Gets" serves as a kind of starting point for brand new things that live beyond the exhibition: Marc Weidenbaum’s astonishing Disquiet Junto efforts, in which far-flung musicians created hours of fascinating recordings riffing in various ways on Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, and retail real and imaginary. Their sonic creations are available online. And coming up on Tuesday November 27, Marc will oversee a related live speculative sound performance at apexart that I highly recommend. Details here.

The show also incorporates a MakerBot, in connection with Shawn Wolfe’s work. I felt pretty strongly that any show about fictional products demanded the inclusion of Wolfe’s RemoverInstaller™. Technically that project ended some time ago, but Wolfe agreed to bring it back in the form a 20th Anniversary edition of his definitively useless-yet-appealing object, now being manufactured daily at the gallery, on a MakerBot Replicator. (Thanks again to the MakerBot folks for helping out with that, and lending the Replicator.)

To extend that idea a little further, there’s a second live event associated with show: Liz Arum, head of education outreach and curriculum development for MakerBot, will lead two workshop sessions in which participants are invited to dream up their own imaginary products. (One session is for kids aged 7 to 12, the second is all-ages). This addresses the way that 3D printing is further blurring some of the boundaries the show explores, and the hope is that the in-gallery production schedule will expand to include objects from the workshops.

That’s Saturday December 8, details here. Again: Highly recommended.

Proposed branding for Tono-Bungay relaunch, by Staple Design. Photo via apexart.

Finally, I hope that some of the more unusual giveaway items that visitors can take home from the gallery might have a little more life in them:

Veladone-RX pens: I’d be thrilled if the pharma-promo-style pens for this fictional painkiller came to rest in waiting rooms next to real promo pens.

Tono-Bungay stickers: Not to endorse vandalism, but I'd love it if stickers promoting the hypothetical relaunch of the dubious health tonic in H.G. Wells' 1909 novel found their way into the ecosystem of stickers promoting real products on certain New York City surfaces.

FutureWorld business cards: Kelli Anderson included the phone number 347-7088-NIGH on these cards for a firm in Nathaniel Rich’s forthcoming novel Odds Against Tomorrow, and I hope people call and take the outgoing message's suggestion; the potential is interesting.

Ladies' Paradise ballons: The department store manager in Zola's novel at one point uses balloons to promote the place; our version features a new logo by Oliver Munday. My goal here is modest: that some of these are ultimately enjoyed by actual children.

"Montalvo Historical Fabrications & Souvenirs," by The Marianas (Michael Arcega and Stephanie Syjuco). Photo via apexart.

But I have to admit that despite all my plotting, nothing is likely to top the interactive moment that happened, completely unexpectedly, on opening night.

It came about courtesy of Dan Ariely, the behavioral economics expert and author whose work inspired a couple of objects in the show (Vedadone-RX, and Beach Packaging Design's rendition of luxury air brand Respirer, an Ariely conjecture I first wrote about here). I’d met Ariely in the past, and kept him in the loop about this show, but since he’s based at Duke, I didn’t expect to see him at the opening. Turns out he was in town for other reasons, and there he was.

But Ariely always seems to have something up his sleeve, and he wasn’t merely stopping by: He’d brought an imaginary product of his own. In fact he had several shrinkwrapped pill bottles, marked CUREALL 500MG and prescribed to Reader, Loyal. Additional amusing text, upon scrutiny, promoted his latest book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty. Covertly, he left a few of these fictional products/actual promo items among the imagined souvenir-shop creations of the Marianas.

In the aftermath, we agreed that this was a perfect turn of events. If you’re going to have a show about imagination, products, branding, and creative responses to and uses of the marketplace, then actually getting shopdropped seems like the utlimate compliment. Much better, really, than a reblog, or even a like.

CUREALL 500MG, shopdropped at "As Real As It Gets." Photo courtesy of Michael Arcega

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