The Artist-Novelist: Doug Coupland on Canada, Culture, and his Hybrid Practice

Doug Coupland is a Canadian novelist whose spirit never left art school. After training for four years in sculpture, Coupland went on to write some of the defining books of the 1990s—in one coining the now-ubiquitous term “Generation X.” But he’s never given up on visual art, and in recent years has refocused his practice, examining the legacy of Pop Art, the effect of technology on the brain, and, fittingly, the interplay of words and objects. With a hand in so many fields, Coupland is the perfect person to talk about all things Canadian culture, and we caught up with him on the occasion of Art Toronto.

Artsy: Your visual art practice often incorporates elements of text and language. What is the relationship between your art and your writing?

Doug Coupland: More complex than most people, I think. In the early 1980s I went to art school and for four years studied typography in the Swiss Modern tradition—pre-Mac. A sheet of Letraset (12.pt Futura Bold) cost $19.95. All of my type teachers were making this sort-of Francis Fukuyama-type declarations that type was dead and that everything that could ever be done with type had been done. And then came the Mac. I was lucky: I learned Quark in 1988—I got in early.

I think that the way my brain is wired, words and objects are almost exactly equal; I sensorily detect little difference between the two. I’m also what is called a visual thinker. You probably are, too. Most people in the art world are, but you’d be amazed that most people in the literary world clinically, medically, scientifically cannot generate images in their head. If you gave them the word, “giraffe” or “eggplant”, they’d see nothing. Nothing. This has cost me a lot of annoyance in the literary world because nonvisual people feel instantly excluded from what I do and how I write, and all the money and drugs and science on Earth couldn’t change that. It used to confuse me but now I understand it.

My visual work takes place in space, but my writing takes place in time. That’s the big difference. Words are the shuttle between the two realms. I once chewed up all of my books and spun them out into hornets’ nests because I wanted to take the books out of human time and move them into evolutionary time. In 1993 I was making word clouds because I wondered what my computer’s hard drive was thinking about during its idle time. Lately I’ve been doing a long and evolving series of slogan works that articulate the way that life in 2013 is different from life in, say, 1993. Some of the most popular slogans are:

I MISS MY PRE-INTERNET BRAIN; POVERTY WITHOUT THE INTERNET WOULD BE TRULY DREADFUL; KNOWING EVERYTHING TURNS OUT TO BE SLIGHTLY BORING; WELCOME TO DETROIT. THE ENTIRE WORLD IS NOW DETROIT. [That last one was recently in Denver’s Biennial of the Americas; see image.]

Artsy: Can you tell us about your art practice now? What are the main concerns you are exploring?

DC: I follow several threads. The first, as discussed before, is the investigation of the ways in which our brains have been wired and rewired by new information technologies. Not even the biggest idiot on earth would say that the 2013 brain has much in common with the 1993 brain. We all know we’ve been through an astonishing revolution since then, externally and internally. In my work I try to travel back and forth through time, finding links and glitches and evidence for this new state of “atemporality” we now inhabit—the sensation that all historical eras now coexist at the same time. The big breakthrough was looking at images of 9/11 on the tenth anniversary and noticing two things. First: people in 2001 dress exactly the same as people in 2011. This is to say, if you were invited to a 2011 theme party decades from now, your clothing would be the same as a 2001 theme party. The second big observation was that people in 2001 didn’t have smart phones. They started coming out in 2002. Imagine 9/11 with a hundred million iPhone clips. It would be a different 9/11 indeed. So I’ve been doing works that try to relocate 9/11 into a world that had smart phones to try and mess with time cues.

The second thread is the legacy of Pop Art. Almost every young art school student (me included) secretly thinks/thought they’re the next Warhol. The Pop legacy is quite smothering for people like myself who love and revel in mass culture and popular culture. But what would have happened if Pop had happened in 2013 instead of 1963? How would its values have shifted? What would its images have looked like? And then go back a century to 1913… how can I fuck with time cues to create works that are utterly lost in time and space—this new sort of atemporal world that became evident on the tenth anniversary of 9/11?

The third thread I follow is the convergence point of words and objects. There’s been so much text art since the 1960s, but I’m unsure if any actually address the issue in a mode that feels relevant in 2013.

Artsy: How would you characterize contemporary art in Canada? Are there any predominant themes or trends?

DC: It depends on where you are. Canada is as cliquey as anywhere, and anybody reading this probably knows a few Canadian artists and is waiting for me to say something provocative or shocking about a region or genre. Art is possibly more generational than regional in Canada, certainly in Vancouver where the photoconceptual practice dominates. There’s Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, and Ian Wallace. And then there’s the next generation—who are now actually getting on in years—and then there’s the generation following. I could go on and on, but in the end there’s no point. It’s a country with the same art politics as anywhere. But the absence of artist-run spaces in the U.S., our closest analog, is really disturbing to most Canadian artists. I don’t know if Canadian artists could, or would want to, function in the U.S. model. It’s Darwinian in a way that goes counter the core of most Canadian art school teachings.

Artsy: Who are the artists that define Canadian art for you?

DC: In a nationalistic sense? Maybe none. The absence of people pursuing this thread is actually one of my other threads of investigation—the red-faced embarrassment of revisiting the early-to-mid-century moment when the globe decolonized and a hundred new countries were born. We had a government here in the 1980s that came within one lap dance of turning us into the 51st state. And then around the mid-1990s Canada and the U.S. began diverging to the point where it’s now inconceivable the two could ever combine. (Fact: 70 per cent of Canada’s trade is with the U.S.)

You know that no matter wherever you go on Earth you can always connect with someone who has a Jean Prouvé dining set and a Robert Longo print on the wall. The art class is a global class. Nationality is often largely meaningless. There are Canadian artists who work internationally but that doesn’t really make them Canadian one way or the other. My work tends to be either very much about Canada, or entirely about global issues.

Explore Art Toronto on Artsy.