Douglas Coupland’s Digital Fortunes

The Canadian Artist Serves Riddles For the Online Era

  • Text: Adam Wray
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Daniel Faria Gallery

The world now makes less sense than ever. Battered by competing, non-linear narratives, we struggle to sort a constant influx of information, searching for some sense of certainty. The artwork of Canadian writer Douglas Coupland offers one coping strategy: submit to the current, accept instability, and laugh to keep from crying. A canny cultural observer, Coupland is best known as the novelist who popularized the term Generation X in the early 1990s. He has built, across a number of installations, a catalogue of bite-sized missives labelled Slogans For the 21st Century that comment on the contemporary condition: always online, surrounded but lonely, disaffected on a dying planet. The slogans are presented in bulk, as grids of bold text on bright placards reminiscent of Post-It notes. Reading them feels like a rapid-fire lecture from a crusty, avuncular Jenny Holzer. A collection of this work is currently on display at Montréal’s Canadian Center for Architecture as part of "It’s All Happening So Fast," an exhibition that takes its title from one of Coupland’s slogans.

The Past Is Now Useless

The aphorism’s power lies in its potential for provocation. Simultaneously authoritative and vague, they dare you to disagree with them. The more audacious the claim, the better. Its aim is to get under your skin. Once it is in your head, bothering you on your commute home, it is a success. It is as shallow or profound as you are willing to make it. Coupland has the brevity of the pithy social media post down pat, and he has mastered another 21st century trend, too: trolling.

I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain

During a 2014 talk at the New York Public Library, author William Gibson offered a sharp appraisal of our collective legacy of innovation: “I think we are that which develops better and better forms of prosthetic memory.” The development of tools and techniques for backing up the contents of our brains is one of humankind’s longest-term projects—everything from cave paintings, to written language, to the printing press, to Wikipedia are products of the desire to preserve and project experience. The internet represents one of our greatest cooperative achievements, a boundless organ that functions as both vessel and conduit. With knowledge safely stored and instantly accessible, we are free to redirect our cognitive energy to more sophisticated tasks like synthesis, problem solving, and creative production. Of course, anyone with WiFi and a browser knows it is not that simple. Our pre-internet brains are gone for good, and our post-internet brains will one day be replaced, too.

Swans Covered In Oil Enjoy Eternal Life

Coupland is preoccupied with the power of the viral image, as any media critic must be. A sufficiently striking photograph of a bird slick with toxic gunk has tremendous reach, and many an image-maker's career depends on aestheticizing catastrophe. The black swan becomes mythic in its suffering, taking its place in the zodiac of the Anthropocene.

Ski Boots, Aluminium Mag Wheels, and McDonald’s Trash Will Make Great Fossils

This one is intriguing not for its observation but for its optimism—a future involving sentient life on Earth is the premise for this prophecy.

Store In Cloud?

Many of Coupland’s slogans are not his—they are the work of technical writers and UX designers, buffed and polished through rigorous user testing to ensure near-to-perfect clarity. Coupland scoops up bits of phraseology so familiar they go unnoticed, and in recontextualizing them highlights language’s inherent mutability. Posing the question “Store In Cloud?” would have had a much different effect in 1996 than it does in 2016, evoking SkyMall catalogues rather than file storage solutions. Coupland revels in the small absurdities of contemporary life, the flux and churn that creates cute but insignificant double entendres that will lose meaning with time’s passage.

Your Waste Stream Overrides Your Data Stream

Post-industrial environmental degradation is one of Coupland’s central concerns. Here he conflates an individual’s carbon footprint with their personal data. The trail of data we create is now monetizable, an actively-harvested resource, but how much of it is actually useful? At which point do the waste stream and the data stream become one and the same?

Jet Lag Was Kind Of Romantic

Coupland’s slogans sometimes double as flash fiction, glimpses of imagined futures. “Jet lag was kind of romantic,” says an 87 year-old Coupland in 2048, wistfully recalling an era where physical sensations corresponded to material conditions. Sure, seamless virtual reality is convenient and efficient, but those who remember air travel have to admit they sort of miss the friction. Airports were great for people watching.

  • Text: Adam Wray
  • Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Daniel Faria Gallery