Does capitalism work for you? Steve Lambert joins the new Gund Gallery exhibition
It is hard to miss the big “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False” sign outside the Gund Gallery when walking along Middle Path. The number of votes resets every day, but on Jan. 19, Kenyon community members brought the grand total to 506 for “true” and 90 for “false.” Artist Steve Lambert, the creator of the sign, explained some of the thinking behind his activism projects during a visiting exhibition talk on Thursday, Jan. 15.
Lambert’s contribution fits into the larger exhibit entitled “Resistance and Revolution,” which opened in the Gallery on Friday, Jan. 16.
“‘Resistance and Revolution’ presents very recent work that moves across a spectrum … ending with artists like Steve Lambert and his many collaborators, whose projects intervene in the public realm in non-traditional and highly effective ways,” Director of the Gund Gallery Natalie Marsh said.
Lambert began his talk with a brief biography of himself. Son of a former Franciscan monk and an ex-Dominican nun, Lambert took a complicated path on the way to finding his passion. After dropping out of high school as a junior, he entered community college for about five years, and took classes ranging from radio to filmmaking. However, he did not find art until he was about 20 and realized it was a possibility.
“I knew what I couldn’t do,” said Lambert. “I was going between sound, music recording, radio, film, photography, and then I figured out that art could be all of those things. It could be whatever I wanted. So art was a way of not choosing.”
The theme of “choice” is a topic that Lambert has explored in much of his work as an artist, particularly his fascination with projects like the capitalism sign. Lambert has employed methods that are utilized in popular forms of advertising.
“When I was an undergrad, I took a class about public space,” Lambert said. “I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of street-level advertising, and then I learned that a lot of it was illegal. You just assume they have permits but a lot of times they don’t.”
Lambert was fascinated by the idea that advertising companies seem to make a lot of money while graffiti artists go to jail, and realized this was a concept that he could embrace. While the ethics of advertising seem questionable to Lambert, he is impressed by advertisers’ success.
“I have a great admiration and respect for the methods of advertising,” Lambert said. “I think they are incredibly effective. I am disgusted by the content, but the way that they go about it is a very refined process. They have changed culture and the way that we think about cars and cigarettes and food.”
Lambert explained that there are many artists who reject advertising techniques as a whole because of their manipulation tactics and questionable ethics. However, Lambert realized that he could use their research to make an impact with his own art.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; you just have to insert a gear to make it run backwards,” Lambert said.
It was this philosophy that helped him get his own artistic activism work off the ground. While protesting can have its limits, Lambert has come to realize that he can stretch possibilities through advertising, such as his project entitled “New York Times ‘Special Edition,’” which garnered national recognition for him around the 2008 presidential election. In collaboration with Andy Bichlbaum of the activist group “The Yes Men,” and a number of writers and advertisers, Lambert released over 80,000 copies of a replica New York Times in several cities around the United States on Nov. 12, 2008. The paper was headlined “Iraq War Ends,” and though it was released in November, the publication was dated July 4, 2008, in an effort to depict an idealized future.
Lambert tries to convey the idea of “possibility” through a number of his projects, including the Capitalism Works for Me! True/False sign that began its national tour during the summer of 2011, and found its way to Kenyon this winter. However, Lambert’s goal is not to force audiences to choose one way or another. His main hope is for the participants to open their eyes to new potentials.
“I just want [someone] to say, ‘It worked for me, but I didn’t have the same experience everyone else did,’” Lambert said. “If he leaves with that and never thought that before, what an accomplishment.”
Members of the Kenyon community seems to have reacted positively to Lambert’s methods.
“According to Lambert, effective political art works through the positive, not the negative,” Scy Krogh ’15 said. “Ask people what they want, not just to agree with what you don’t want.”