March 29 - May 15, 2014
Prep School: Prepper & Survivalist Ideologies and Utopian/Dystopian Visions
Curated by Max Presneill and Lisa DeSmidt
Daniel Regenstreif Axe
Brian Thomas Jones
Debby and Larry Kline
James L. Marshall
Contributing Exhibition Text
Prep School – a feedback loop
Curating is an odd career. Curators need to be aware of trends but also set them by recognizing the need to reflect upon something within the culture at large that remains under the radar but somehow important. Our agenda is set by avenues of thought in contemporary art making as well as our own particular leanings and interests.
This can lead to this kind of exhibition.
Over the last decade there has been a slow snowball of factors that have contributed to this exhibition. They range from popular culture to the Constitution, from economics to isolationist tendencies. Together they have acted as the backdrop to the discussion regarding what makes ‘Us’ from United States. What links us together and how can these bonds stand strong against the pressures to dissipate that sense of unity? There are some shared ideals in what we regard as the best of America. To reflect on those aspects this exhibition faces what is the apocalyptic outcome of ignoring them – a drastic and melodramatic step, yes, and taken as much for its entertainment value as its ability to focus our attention on the more serious issues at stake.
There are divisions in our society that strain the notion of an encompassing nation that the USA tends to see reflected in the mirror. But as political polarities and partisanship affect the ability of the Government to work we can also identify the role of blogging, of grass-roots ‘base’ politics, religious disagreements and political fear-mongering, ethnic mistrust and class disparities all combining to test the ideals of the great mixing pot of America and to push at the normal parameters of society’s bonds. If we are no longer ‘we’ then how should we respond? When the belief and trust of those that constitute the citizens of a nation falter we see suspicion and isolationist tendencies arise. The apocalyptic taints all aspects of our culture.
The increased understanding that we all need to be ready, at all times, has found its way out of the paranoid fringes and into the mainstream, thanks to the televised realities of the aftermath of disasters around the world and the New Orleans hurricane’s impact in particular. Combined with the loss of faith in official and governmental structures to agree and then to act on our behalf we can identify an uncertainty in this country then affects us all.
The rise of the cinematic Zombie genre over this period perfectly illustrates this point. The end-of-the-world scenario of survival against the Other has become a staple of the film industry. The Walking Dead is how we see our concerns played out weekly in a hugely successful television series. The rugged drive to survive, the notions of what might form the basis of a community, the impact of xenophobia and other such uncertainties infect us as viewers and reflect back our own prejudices. The cable TV program, Doomsday Preppers, may still highlight the more extreme end of this way of thinking for real life but the sales of survivalist gear and firearms has shown us that the need to be ‘prepped’ has affected us all – from those that keep a ready bag of basic supplies for an emergency (the official advice to be prepared for an earthquake being the foremost here in California, of course) – to those that have looked into forming isolated communities.
If individuals feel they cannot trust their elected officials for whatever reasons and their sense of community is eroded with demographic movements and the decline of homogenized localities then ‘self-reliance’ increasingly becomes the direction of a somewhat selfish and dangerous motion towards the potential breakdown of societal bonds. This exhibition looks to the extremes of that thought – the logical outcome of following that train of thought. What does the end of things look like to various people and what are we to do?
A ‘feedback loop’ can be inadvertently created by which the views and inclinations of the citizenry can be mutated by the social rhetoric, gaining ground and encouraging extreme positions, the radicals shouting the loudest, the fostering of fear as a way of existing, as one seems to see the discussion take drastic turns. Like a 24 hour news cycle focusing on crime and dramatic events it can come to seem like that is the nature of things when in fact it does not reflect our society as a whole at all – often only the worst aspects of it.
Our hope is that this exhibition will turn the spotlight on to these ways of thinking and question their validity, requestion our own positions and biases, and let these artists provoke a set of reactions for us that lead to shifts in our own attempts to rebalance how we interact with others and view our role in society and what that society deserves from us.
Empire of Dirt
Humans, like all forms of life, must learn to adapt to promote the survival of their species. Our predecessors survived through the Ice Age, drought, famine, and disease, in fact, survival is part of our Biology. The modern human living in a developed country is far removed from our hunter gather ancestors; the luxury of eating out at a restaurant is evidence of this. In developed nations like the United States, food is raised on farms usually many miles away from where it is consumed, and is slaughtered or harvested and processed before being brought on a plate by a server. For persons with these luxuries, survival is not a daily consideration.
The idea of survival and preparing for an end time or disaster is nothing new to humans: Assyrian clay tablets from 2800 B.C. provide an early written record of apocalyptic predictions. It is important to understand religion and its ties to apocalyptic dogma, from a historical standpoint. Every major religion has some form of literature predicting the end of the world. Writings of coming apocalypse can be found in Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. In the genre of apocalyptic writing, sublime symbolic pictures of the crisis of ages can be found, representing the transition from one era to another. The Mayan Calendar is another example of the end of an Era. Many people interpreted the Mayan Calendars abrupt ending on December 21, 2012 to mean the end of the world; however the Mesoamerican interpretation is the coming of a New Age. Apocalyptic writing is filled with metaphors projecting themes of washing away or cleansing, along with the notion of salvation or purification.
Prep School as an exhibition explores themes in contemporary Art that relate to apocalyptic predictions. Utopian and Dystopian visions are explored, as are the “Prepper” and “Survivalist” cultures that surround ideas of an approaching apocalypse.
Preppers and Survivalists have received a bad reputation in the media, portrayed as extremists by shows like “Doomsday Preppers” and by media reports of recent mass-murder shooters’ connections to survivalist movements. The idea of being prepared is something most people can relate to on a fundamental level. The origin of the Survivalist movement began in the 1960's with the fear of nuclear warfare; survivalists built bomb shelters in their yards in fear of the threat of nuclear war. The first wave Survivalists peeked in the 1980's with the collapse of the economy. In the 1980’s concerns were centered on the economic collapse, famine, energy shortages, and the still present nuclear threat In the 1990’s a second wave of Survivalists emerged. This second wave was sparked by the Y2K predictions. Fears were focused on problems related to technology failures that were predicted to happen in the year 2000. The society that had become so reliant upon technology was frozen in fear that the turn of the century would cause cataclysmic chaos in our digital world. Third wave Survivalists emerged after the bombing of the Trade Towers in New York on September 11, 2001. This movement was further fueled by the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007. This time period, from 2001 to 2007 has been the largest growth in Survivalist since the 1970's. This Neo-Survivalist movement has shifted from the loan Survivalist to having a focus on building small community through retreats and having a “Bug Out” plan for when it is time to get out of Dodge.
When considering an impending disaster or the coming Apocalypse, Darwin’s theory of “Survival of the Fittest,” comes to mind. Questions arise about who is left vulnerable and what will be done to help them. If Survivalism is a selfish act, where ones sole concern is to protect one’s self and family, what will happen to persons with disabilities, elderly, children and those who cannot take care of themselves? Poor people and communities lacking infrastructure and aide are also at risk when it comes to a disaster. The poor are not able to prepare for a coming disaster, either natural or manmade. In order to participate in Prepper or Survivalist activities, it is necessary to have some disposable income. One would ideally need to be self-sufficient and that means owning property, a person would also need extra money for supplies, food, and ammunition. These supplies are not cheap. This happened with Hurricane Katrina in the United States, where aide did not come quickly enough for under resourced communities, many of whom are still recovering from the disaster.
Works of Art in Prep School, not only explore themes of Apocalypse and destruction, but also the rebuilding of society that emerges from this destruction. Many works in the exhibition either warn of coming disaster, encourage or critique the preparation for disaster or show future scenarios after disaster has prevailed. Some examples of this are: Vivian Sming’s mock safety evacuation cards, Allison Stewart’s photos of Bug-out bags and Siobhan McClure’s narrative paintings. These future Utopian or Dystopian scenarios predict the coming of a new era. Perhaps destruction is necessary in order to build something new, for better or for worse.
The Things They Carried
Brian Thomas Jones
Popular media and the cultural zeitgeist are pointing toward a dystopian future with uncomfortable frequency. Apocalyptic scenarios in motion pictures and television programs are marketed as entertainment but could be interpreted as subliminal warnings. The proliferation of such media is serving to desensitize the viewer to any potential societal threat, real or implied, by blending fiction into reality.
“Zombie Apocalypse” has entered our vernacular as a coded reckoning of bad times to come wherein life as we know it will be inexorably altered. This phrase is a knowing wink at the potential doomsday effects of pandemic disease, destruction of the power grid and satellite communications, natural disasters of epic proportion, biological warfare or nuclear Armageddon. The implication is that the digital world upon which we are so dependent would cease to exist and society would collapse backward into a brutal existence of Dark Ages barbarism.
So where would that leave us as artists? What we create as self-expression - whether object, performance, or concept - would be of no immediate value in a survival situation. Only the bottom two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – physiological and safety, would occupy daily thought. Art, being at the top under self-actualization, would not even enter the equation until the first two needs were met and culture worked its way back up through the other levels of need.
As artists we essentially create luxury goods and commodities for those with excess disposable income, or artifacts for institutions, or supply rebellious voices of dissatisfaction for pick-your-cause. In the Zombie Apocalypse artists would serve only as metaphoric food for the undead, thrust forth from the bunker to make room for those with useful skills, specialized knowledge or weapons and tools with which to survive.
However, throughout history humanity’s cultures and arts have managed to survive every physical and political disaster. While millions of human beings and entire cultural systems have been decimated, the things they carried in daily life are often left behind. Subsequent societies discover and institutionalize these objects as a window to understanding lost civilizations. These artifacts can present context regarding our evolution as tool-using primates from the first weaponized sapling or controllable energy source, fire, to killer drones and nuclear fission.
While precursory items comparable to the ones displayed here are usually on exhibit in Historical or Natural History institutions, they are often found in Fine Art institutions as well. Utilitarian objects and decorative arts from Assyria, Egypt, China and Europe as well as Pre-Columbian indigenous tribes in the Americas have found their way into the showcases of museums around the world.
We may view those objects as primitive compared to contemporary technology, but should the disastrous scenarios discussed above come to pass the items in this display would possess an even greater import than the aforementioned institutional artifacts. These items have a very real practical use in defined events such as floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, blackouts and civil unrest. I present this taxonomy of survival objects as a portent of the consequences should we ignore the actual threat of extinction. Our society has been lulled into a stupor through obsessive consumption and by gorging on mindless entertainments and celebrity worship. Even the making of art can fall under the category of frivolity through its obscene commodification. The items here may in fact become the institutionalized artifacts of some future culture trying to understand the reasons for our failed utopias. May this display serve as a cautionary reminder should we as a culture fail to recognize the impending threat of the Zombie Apocalypse, in whatever form it may take.