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Barbara Kruger Volcom
Barbara Kruger’s Performa merchvia Volcom

Barbara Kruger on staging a fake Supreme drop

But really, why do we stand in lines for hours to buy stuff?

At dusk one Thursday evening in November, a queue has formed outside a storefront in New York’s SoHo. There’s a security guard on the door, and the line of people snakes around the corner of the block. Passers-by on the busy sidewalk take curious glimpses inside. “Is this, like, a Supreme store?” a teenage girl asks no-one in particular.

Although those waiting include more women than you’ll see outside the skate brand’s NY flagship a block away, it’s not hard to see why she came to that conclusion. On the walls hang a series of items: a row of skateboards which read: ‘Don’t be a jerk’. A t-shirt which questions: ‘Whose hopes? Whose fears? Whose values? Whose justice?’. A beanie and a hoodie, meanwhile, say: ‘Want it Buy it Forget it’. The clothes are framed as if pieces of art, and each object features familiar white text on a red background.

As I wait outside, a young guy approaches, spotting me hovering by the door. “What is this?” he says, gesturing inside. I ask if he’s familiar with the aforementioned streetwear brand. He nods, almost bouncing on his feet with excitement. “You know that logo they have, the red box with the white text?” “Yeah!” he says. “That was inspired by this artist, Barbara Kruger. It was her style first – she’s like…” I strike around in my head for a phrase that will convey what I’m trying to say. “...the OG.”

He gets it, and takes another few enthusiastic steps closer to the door, reading the words emblazoned across a hoodie aloud.

“What’s that say? ‘Want it, buy it, forget it?’ Man! I gotta get me that! How long this line gunna take?”

Quick as he had appeared, my new friend bounded off to join the queue.

Although I stopped short of explaining this part, the shop wasn’t exactly a shop at all. The shop was a performance art piece. Called (Untitled) The Drop, it was temporarily erected as part of Kruger’s city-wide performance for the Performa Biennial, which ran for the first three weeks of November. The Coleman Skatepark on the Lower East Side received a Kruger makeover, a billboard was erected on 17th Street and 10th Avenue, and a yellow school bus was transformed with Krugerisms like ‘Holy War’ ‘Class War’ ‘Bidding War’ and used to shuttle people from site to site. The artist also produced 50,000 limited edition Kruger MetroCards to be spat out by machines at random at certain stations. Supreme, which was famously derided by Kruger (as “a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers”) after it attempted to sue someone over imitating its own blatantly unoriginal branding, also made a MetroCard recently, causing chaos as people queued up with the hopes of purchasing one. In the end, the NYPD got involved.

Streetwear might seem like new territory for the artist best known for pieces like 1989’s Untitled (Your body is a battleground), but the Performa executions and (Untitled) The Drop explore the themes – structures of class, power, and consumption – which have dominated her art since the 70s. Kruger got her start when she worked in the design department of glossies like Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle, laying out pages and advertisements. “Fashion magazines didn't entertain the kind of streetwear corporate culture that exists now,” she says, when we catch up after the end of the Biennial, “but that need to affiliate, to have (through) consuming and shopping, this is something that's engaged my work for 35, 40 years. I've been doing work about shopping and owning and being a part of winning and losing for a long time.” 

In the fashion industry, the last few years have been dominated by the word and practice Kruger oriented her performance around: the drop. Thanks to the rise of streetwear culture and brands like Supreme, clothes are not released for sale, they are ‘dropped’ – with more and more companies borrowing this language in an attempt to seem relevant. “I've walked through many drops – in Soho, here (in LA) on Fairfax, on La Brea. I know how they work,” Kruger says. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, streetwear is something she’s found herself discussing with her students at UCLA, where she’s taught for over ten years. (Her classes are diverse rather than full of trust-funders – “it’s not some fancy schmantzy art school and I love it”, she says). “My grad students are not particularly involved in streetwear drops, but the undergrads sure are... I spend eight hours a week with them!” she says with a laugh. “I am the only teacher that can talk to them about this.”

One thing she wants to emphasise about this latest project, which has unsurprisingly been interpreted as some pretty epic trolling of the male-dominated world of streetwear (and one brand in particular)? “I have absolutely no problem with Supreme.” Her work simply deals with bigger issues revealed by the mechanics of corporate culture – and it’s not about throwing stones from glass towers. “I am not a cynical person at all, and when I did the work ‘I shop therefore I am’, it didn't say ‘you shop there for you are’, I included myself in that. We are all part of that.” 

“I am not a cynical person at all, and when I did the work ‘I shop therefore I am’, it didn't say ‘you shop there for you are’, I included myself in that. We are all part of that” – Barbara Kruger

Which takes us back to The Drop, where participants had to experience the act of standing in line for an unknown amount of time, developing desire for an unknown product (created in partnership with skate brand Volcom), and then handing over a sum of money – which all, by the way, went to Performa. “I think it was a collision between a younger subculture which understands drops and people in the art world who didn't know what the F a drop was and who don't even know the culture on any level, ” Kruger reflects. “Some people thought there was going to be art for sale. I loved that, it was so funny.” She laughs.

Whatever people were hoping to get their hands on, that waiting in line is key. The Supreme store is famous for its queue, which occurs every Thursday, or ‘drop day’, throughout a season. Since 2014, Complex has been making videos interviewing those in the line – one 2016 film, on the release of a t-shirt featuring Morrissey, has been watched almost 1.5m times. Many of those interviewed, it transpires, do not know who Morrissey is. The same is true for Rei Kawakubo with the 2015 Supreme x Comme des Garçons collab. In each film, those in the queue detail how many hours they’ve spent standing in line to spend money. However long it takes, it’s more about the ritual – that determination to wait awards them with both the exclusive branded product itself and the satisfaction of owning it. Who cares if they know who it is that’s on the t-shirt they’ve waited for?

“It’s built into those expectations of desire, the drop. And believe me, I totally understand and get that, and I wanted to engage (that), but I wanted to engage (it) in a productive way,” Kruger says. Why do Supreme stans stand in lines? I suggest to Kruger it’s an act of peacocking and male bonding, and she enthusiastically agrees. “It’s a similar thing, with a slightly different skew in terms of gender and class, as hanging out in the Apple Store when the new iPhone comes out.”

Then there’s the product element – the transfer of goods for money was an inalienable part of the performance. Despite her work interrogating consumerism, products are something Kruger has made for decades. “T-shirts, mugs, scarves, you name it, I've done it!” she says. “Not in a cynical way but as a way of entertaining both people's desire to consume, and hopefully also to encourage doubt.” The products are always for non-profits like Planned Parenthood, but she’s had her share of fashion offers too. 

“I was approached by Dior about doing a t-shirt,” she says. “When I heard the price I said, ‘Uh-uh, I don't think so, no. I don't wanna do that.’” At a time when it’s easy to walk into a high street chain and pick up a cheap imported tee with the word ‘feminist’ on (inspired no doubt by runway designs like the French fashion house’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ top), I wonder whether Kruger thinks a slogan t-shirt has the power to enact real political change. “There are a million ways to be and call yourself a feminist; I think it’s wrong to dictate what is correct feminism,” she says. “People will continue to wear text, and it’s so interesting the way those texts have floated into different designers’ works. I see (these things) on the runway all the time and I laugh. Sometimes it’s (done) in more thoughtful ways than others, but when people buy (a slogan t-shirt) they are not necessarily engaged with a deeply radical understanding of it.”

At the very least, can those ‘feminist’ messages go out into the world and positively impact culture, however much an item costs? “The impact is different from class to class,” she counters. “The person who is wearing that (designer) t-shirt has a different experience of what it is about the feminist quote-brand-unquote than a younger person of colour struggling to define herself in particular neighbourhoods where notions of masculine power are played out differently.”

A couple of days after The Drop, I left my luggage – and my new Barbara Kruger skateboard – with my hotel storage while I killed a few hours before catching my flight. When they retrieved it later in the day, a chip had been gouged in its glossy red exterior. Naturally, I was annoyed. The concierge reluctantly gave me a form I could fill out to claim for the damage caused. “It’s like, not just a skateboard,” I heard myself saying to one of the people I was travelling with. “It’s by this really important artist.”

It took me until that moment to fully grasp what the real message of The Drop was. Even if I thought I knew better, or smugly distanced myself from the kids in line over at Supreme who might stay up all night waiting to spend money, the reality is, we’re all in some way caught up in these systems of consumption, of owning, of presenting our identities through clothing or objects rather than words, and no one speaks to that better than Kruger. As I complained about the dented board, I looked down. “Don’t be a jerk”. I hadn’t realised it when I handed over my card, but it turns out I really needed the reminder.

If you want your own Kruger merch (without the standing in line) head to the Performa e-store.