From Pipilotti Rist’s “Sip My Ocean”

I sit on the floor in front of a video installation by a thirty-seven-year-old Swiss artist named Pipilotti Rist. Entitled “Sip My Ocean,” Rist’s piece is a music video based on a Chris Isaak pop song called “Wicked Game.” In the video, Rist, a former rock musician (which helps to distinguish her as a fine artist in Nobrow), sings Isaak’s song in a goofy, slightly hysterical-sounding voice, while the camera catches glimpses of the artist’s body underwater, in a tropical ocean, wiggling semi-erotically to the music. The video (actually two videos, joined at right angles on a large, L-shaped projection surface) is shot in the familiar MTV-surrealist style.

I ask myself the usual questions, strain to make the usual judgments. I slip out my once trusty slide rule of status and attempt to measure “Sip My Ocean.” Is this avant-garde or kitsch? Art or advertising? Good or bad? The old categories and hierarchies aren’t very useful here. This isn’t quite art and it isn’t quite advertising; it’s art that has been made out of the discourse of advertising. A video, which is neither art nor advertising but a hybrid of both, is repurposed and used to market . . . the artist herself. And yet you couldn’t really accuse Rist of “selling out.” Her installation isn’t really a commodity, though it’s made out of a commodity. Rist probably couldn’t sell this piece. (Why bother to buy it when you can watch it on TV?) Like many installation artists, Rist lives more on the patronage of museums and marketers like Hugo Boss than on the sale of her works.

The audience is at least as interesting to look at as the art is, and it seems to be aware of that. A few people carry into the Guggenheim an air of town-house seriousness–the earnestness with which one goes to “get” high culture at the Met or at the opera. But most people are here just to chill out and watch one another, secure in the knowledge that they are the culture…

“Sip My Ocean” is like a paradigm of a transaction that is going on everywhere in the room–the art of representing identity through commercial culture. In using a music video and a well-known pop song to sell herself to this audience, Rist is doing in a more dramatic way exactly what people in the audience are doing when they choose their clothing or buy CDs. When someone says about a painting or a music video or a pair of jeans, “I like this,” they make some sort of judgment, but it’s not a judgment of quality. It’s not as if you’re saying I prefer this suit to these jeans, and the fact that I make this distinction (which in the old days was a distinction of quality) says something about my status. In Nobrow, judgments about which brand of jeans to wear are more like judgments of identity than of quality. Brands are how we figure out who we are: “We have a Lexus.” “We have a Volvo.” “What kind of skateboard do you have? A Shorty’s? That’s cool.”

Fanship, brandship, and relationships are all a part of what the statement “I like this” really means. Your judgment joins a pool of other judgments, a small relationship economy, becoming one of millions that continually coalesce and dissolve and re-form around culture products–movies, sneakers, jeans, pop songs. Your identity is your investment in these relationship economies. Investments in certain tried-and-true properties are virtually risk-free but offer little return (saying you like the Rolling Stones resembles buying thirty-year Treasury bonds), whereas other investments are riskier but potentially more lucrative (such as saying you like Liz Phair: are you investing in her image as a strong rock chick, which is cool, or are you standing up for an indie sellout and cK jeans model, which would be uncool?). The reward is attention and self-expression (your identity is in some way enhanced by the culture product you invest in); the risk is that your identity will be overmediated by your investment and you will become like everyone else.

These cultural equities rise and fall in the stock market of popular opinion, and therefore one has to manage one’s portfolio with care. No value endures: the seeker of identity through culture has to take care to surf ahead to the next subculture before he is mediated out of existence. You want to be perceived as original but not so original that you are outside the marketplace of popular opinion. In the old high-low world, you got status points for consistency in your cultural preferences, but in Nobrow you get points for choices that cut across categories: you’re a snowboarder who listens to classical music, drinks Coke, and loves Quentin Tarantino; you’re a preppy who likes rap; you’re a chop-socky B-movie fan who prefers Frusen Glädjè to Häagen-Dazs, or a World Cup soccer fan who wears fubu and likes opera.

John Seabrook