Art
I Went to Barbara Kruger’s First-Ever Performance—and Left with a Skateboard
By Scott Indrisek
Nov 2, 2017 6:28 pm
Barabara Kruger's installation at Coleman Skate Park.

Barabara Kruger's installation at Coleman Skate Park.

“It’s always been interesting to me when one image can span a number of sites and forms,” says Barbara Kruger in a video accompanying her survey show earlier this year at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art. “Small-scale, reproduced in printed magazines, gallery-size, on billboards, and of course, now, a life in perpetuity online.”

For an artist who thrills at the chance to leap between contexts, her recent series of commissions for the Performa biennial’s seventh edition in New York must be a dream come true. Forget plain old magazines and galleries—this month, she is rebranding a Lower East Side skatepark, decorating a converted school bus in incendiary text, unveiling a limited-edition MetroCard, covering a billboard near the High Line, and giving Performa’s visual identity itself a Krugerian update.

And the Pictures Generation star is, at the age of 72, still trying to take risks: Untitled (The Drop), the most anticipated component of Kruger’s Performa takeover, is her first foray into live performance. But more on that later.

Barbara Kruger's 2017 limited-edition MTA card. Courtesy of Performa 17.

Barbara Kruger's 2017 limited-edition MTA card. Courtesy of Performa 17.

Kruger is one of those rare artists whose aesthetic has fully leaked out into the public consciousness. Even if her name isn’t familiar, you’d recognize an iconic work like I shop therefore I am (1990). She is a master of the skewed slogan rendered in an instantly recognizable style: white text (often some variation of the Futura font) on a bright red background.  

But here’s where things get a little complicated. Kruger’s signature look might be recognizable to some via a different source—namely, the Supreme skateboard brand, which happily stole-or-appropriated its logo from her. In the midst of a complicated 2013 lawsuit in which Supreme sued another clothing brand for nicking its image, Kruger seemed less than amused by the company. (“What a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers,” she wrote in response to a journalist. “I make my work about this kind of sadly foolish farce. I’m waiting for all of them to sue me for copyright infringement.”)

That makes one of Kruger’s choice of Performa venues especially delicious: Coleman Skate Park, tucked beneath the epic underbelly of the Manhattan Bridge. Here, Kruger’s distinctive word pieces are slapped onto boxes and ramps, creating a sort of three-dimensional text that can be navigated on four wheels.

Barabara Kruger's installation at Coleman Skate Park.

Barabara Kruger's installation at Coleman Skate Park.

On Wednesday morning, it was unclear how fazed the 9 a.m. crop of skaters was by the intervention. (Certainly, the guy grinding effortlessly on the lip of a ledge that read BE HERE NOW didn’t seem in need of the reminder.) Some of the messaging at Coleman is political: “Who Salutes Longest?” “Who Prays Loudest?” “The Globe Shrinks For Those Who Own It.” In other cases it’s more site-specific, as with “Love It. Shove It. Praise It. Please It…” which references a common skate trick.  

Kruger’s creative meddling here isn’t so dissonant—skateboarding has always been anti-authoritarian, proud of its bad attitude. But the artist’s culture-jamming of an old-fashioned yellow school bus is more jarring. A vinyl label wraps around the vehicle, making it look like a slightly confused mobile indoctrination center. “Know Nothing, Believe Anything, Forget Everything” looms above a feverish riff on different types of war: “Cold War, Race War, Limited War, Anti-War…” The opposite side of the bus is more Orwellian—“Up Is Down, Right Is Wrong, Nasty Is Nice”—and the emergency exit on the back is flanked by a bit of tween slang (“OMG, TMI”).

Kruger’s messaging has always been impactful, and far from subtle. But her omnipresence at this edition of Performa takes on greater resonance now, just shy of one year after the 2016 election. “I just wanted to engage issues that are very much (unfortunately) alive in the world today,” she told The Guardian, “and how we might be able to move to a place outside of that.”

Barabara Kruger's installation at Coleman Skate Park.

Barabara Kruger's installation at Coleman Skate Park.

Which brings us to the final element of Kruger’s Performa outing. Advance information on Untitled (The Drop) was scant, and for good reason: Anyone who knew what they were getting into might have decided to stay home. The biennial has billed this as a performance, but that’s true only by wildly stretching what you consider the genre to include. A small storefront space on Broadway has been converted into a pop-up shop selling Barbara Kruger branded sweatshirts ($70), patches ($15), beanies ($40), and skate decks ($65), among other items. That’s it.

“Ten minutes inside, and you can only buy two things,” said a staffer manning the slow-moving line out front. “The pop-up is the performance,” he clarified. I overheard a biennial staffer explaining to a man in line that “it’s about patience, and waiting, and desire.”

At this point the air was heavy with a whiff of anticlimax. People were exiting the store holding Volcom-branded bags. (Volcom was a partner on the pop-up, and the company’s brand ambassador Steve Rodriguez had collaborated with the artist on her Coleman Skate Park project.) A few teenage skaters were milling around at the curb, joined by art lovers wearing sweatshirts that read “Want It. Buy It. Forget It.” I heard a grown human being introduced to another grown human being as a “designer and impresario,” and no one laughed about it.

Photo by Scott Indrisek.

Photo by Scott Indrisek.

Inside, Untitled (The Drop) was underwhelming—but underwhelming in that Teflon sort of way, in that Kruger obviously intended it to be thus. One wall was curved, perhaps to replicate the contours of a skateboard ramp. Clothing was mounted and framed in display boxes as if each item was a priceless painting. The only slight frisson of interest was sparked by an electrical outlet on the floor that had been covered with Kruger-red paper and marked with various hand-drawn caution signs. Was this the art?  

I do understand what the artist intended with this non-performance of a performance, in which unwitting American consumers become the actors in a real-time play about commerce. Unfortunately, the whole thing reeks a bit of late-1990s Adbusters (unless that, too, is part of the game, since the magazine clearly reaped most of its vibe from the pioneering efforts of artists like Kruger).

But who am I to judge? Like an eager lemming I lined up to buy my skate deck, seriously entertaining plans of using it, at the age of 36, to reignite memories of my youth—at the artist-branded skate park, of course. Its bright red underbelly was emblazoned with the the words “Don’t Be A Jerk.” Kruger’s wish is my command.


Scott Indrisek is Artsy’s Deputy Editor.