Justin Favela & Mikayla Whitmore: BIG LOAD
Acting as a double-portrait of Southwestern Michigan and their hometown of Las Vegas, this exhibition explores and critiques the marketing strategies of discount stores and swap meets as sites of negotiated commerce; pit-stops in the waste stream fueling our insatiable desire to acquire. BIG LOAD was installed in the Southwestern Michigan College Art Gallery by the artists during a week-long residency in Eau Claire, MI in the summer of 2016.
The public reception featured faculty members Shannon Eakins and Marc Dombrosky in conversation, discussing the multi-faceted and collaborative practices of the two exhibiting artists. As groundwork for this dialogue, we had recently conducted an interview with Mikayla Whitmore regarding her role(s) in the exhibition, in the hopes of scaffolding their complex installation and unpacking their collaborative efforts.
Eakins/Dombrosky: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. As we plan to utilize this interview itself in multiple forums—doubling it as a blog post for Settlers + Nomads as well as marketing collateral and crib notes for our public reception at our on-campus Art Gallery—would you be willing to speak about how the objects and photographs in the exhibition function themselves as doubles, telling the tale(s) of two cities? What do you perceive as the differences between discount shopping in Las Vegas and Dowagiac, visually and/or conceptually? What connects and divides these two sites for you both?
Whitmore: The objects and photographs in the exhibition represent both Las Vegas and Dowagiac.
Despite where the items originated from, a viewer walking into the gallery might not be able to distinguish which came from where, speaking to the notion that swap meet culture and rampant commercialization is everywhere; the faces of sellers may change and the desert mountains surrounding Las Vegas may be replaced with overcast clouds above Shipshewana, but the feeling is the same. Regardless of whatever city I’m in, walking through the rows of neon-colored sunglasses and having the aroma of smoked meats billowing through the air, it feels like home.
And yes, I will buy things I had no prior knowledge of knowing I needed, but somehow feel better for having now acquired.
E/D: Living in Las Vegas, you both have unfettered access to some of the most extravagant retail experiences and most extensive discount shopping on the planet. The perception of *discount* shopping—and the incredible values to be had—appeals broadly across socio-economic classes yet the strategies they utilize have certain appearances (like, they can’t look expensive or people won’t perceive it as a deal). Do you regard retail strategies—utilized for moving everything from discount to exclusive goods—as fulfilling the same role regardless of price point (so, being essentially a scalable process), or as diverse tactics and altogether different entities?
MW: No matter if a person is rich, middle-class, or down on their luck, everyone loves a deal or a free (bonus!) item with purchase. I believe retail strategies are similar for all types of goods, high-end or discount, however, small nuances come into play depending on the audience being marketed to with these tactics. With high-end goods, often the point is to make the buyer think the item is exclusive or limited edition, making the buyer into the elite; feeling extra-special, transforming them into more than the common norm.
With bargain goods, it is about making the buyer get a high from scoring a really good deal or procuring a large (bulk) amount of one item to last awhile. Even as the strategies vary from exclusive to mass appeal, the end goal is always the same…getting people to buy items. The end goal is always about the sale – I imagine that is where the slogan “The customer is always right” comes into play – even when the customer is a complete jerk who does not know up from down.
E/D: Mikayla, we recently watched an interview with Grant Achatz, chef of Chicago’s Alinea. He told a story of working at another restaurant early in his career, designing what ultimately came to be one of their signature dishes. At that time, he met with the chef/owner who praised and informed him that if the dish he created were to be added to their menu, it would no longer be his alone but rather a proprietary dish of the restaurant. In this vein—as the photographs included in the exhibition were all taken by you but now become part of a collaborative project—how do you feel about having the works separate from being exclusively yours, in a manner, and now absorbed into something larger? At the end of the exhibition, do you (or can you) now reclaim those images as part of your individual practice or do they stay fixed in this experience?
MW: Very interesting question regarding the photographs and space in which the images live.
BIG LOAD was a very collaborative project between Justin, myself, Shannon, and yourself, plus Rio. Justin and I each brought our own skill set to the table and used our strengths to create this. I spearheaded the photography and he took on the dog stickers. Every part of the way, we each provided input and accompanied each other on the outings in which the items were acquired. The photographs on display will stay fixed within this experience. One or two of them were shot about a year back, before this project took shape. I know in time I want to continue with a series on swapmeets and the photo work would expand on the topic, but not replace this moment. The images selected for the exhibition are stronger together then alone and help with the overall aesthetic of the show.
E/D: What do you both hope to accomplish with giving away portions of the exhibition? Is it ritualistic (we’re thinking here of works like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy pile sculptures), altruistic, mocking, or simply the genuine thrill and delight of giving & receiving free schwag? Is it something else altogether? Do you see this aspect of the work as interrogating the idea of self-regulation? Which is to say, like you, what’s to stop someone from coming into this show and taking every single sticker with them?
MW: One of the best moments when shopping or at a swapmeet is getting a deal. For myself, the idea that a guest walking into the exhibition can take a sticker with them helps replicate that feeling; it breaks down a wall between a viewer and creator, allowing them to take a memento for their personal collection or, even better, taking a sticker and spreading it out into the world. I could only imagine a few weeks into the show, if every student took a sticker and started placing them around Dowagiac. The beauty and timelessness of decaying dog stickers peeling from the sidewalk or metal light poles, the general public unassuming. However, once in a while a student or someone familiar with the exhibition walks by and finds the sticker, instantly pulling them back to a particular place or memory.
Self-regulation does come into play and a person’s manners are tested. Similar to when a child tricks or treats at Halloween, coming across a free candy bucket at the neighbors’ doorstep – do you take one Snickers bar or as many handfuls as you can before the next batch of kids comes across it? It’s in these moments alone that you start to see who you really are, how you would act if someone was watching, what justifications you deem your actions to hold.
Justin and I had a similar experience when we found the dog stickers at the Charleston Indoor Swapmeet in Las Vegas. They were all placed in a giant blue bucket with the word FREE across it. We both got super giddy and started digging through the bucket, finding as many miniature breeds as possible, stuffing our pockets…until he had the great thought to offer the seller—who hadn’t seen us yet—twenty dollars for the whole bucket. Then this show happened and the rest was history.
E/D: For the set of phrases that will be used on the sign boards [of the electric roadside sign, installed in the rear gallery of the exhibition], what processes did you use to generate and organize the language you found? Did you organize them into a month-long visual poem or do they occupy an even more fragmentary role? Is it the intention to see those phrases re-activated (or replaced perhaps?) in our own environment? To have them take on (an)other meaning?
[Note: the artists spent a significant portion of their residency driving across Michigan and Indiana photographing and writing verbiage that could be transcribed onto their sign. Over the run of the exhibition, these phrases will routinely be exchanged.]
MW: For the phrasing used on the sign board, we found the language throughout Dowagiac over our week at Rio Lago AIR 2016. I would say that the items we selected took on [the form of] a visual poem, starting out with BIG LOAD, the exhibition title.
The backstory is that during our first trip [to Southwestern Michigan]—in 2014 I believe—we came across a sign that utilized that phrase [in front of Frese Discount Center, in Dowagiac]. It stuck with us and seemed to spur the exhibition we have today.
Consumers become inundated with phrases and signage selling them the latest and greatest product; we become desensitized to it. Especially in Las Vegas—in which everything goes—advertisers make sure you know that. Nothing has shock value or merit. Recontextualizing the phrases we found is an attempt to get viewers to examine the world around them and focus on the message of the words, instead of just seeing another advertisement.
[Note: Our Eau Claire-based residency serves as an exploratory platform for conversation, projects and exhibition planning. Since 2013 we have hosted numerous settlers and nomads. Viva Las Vegas, Viva Eau Claire!]
Title image of the sign in front of the Frese Discount Center in Dowagiac, Michigan photographed by Mikayla Whitmore in 2014.
MIKAYLA WHITMORE, Las Vegas Native and UNLV graduate, has exhibited at multiple venues including P3Studio at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Contemporary Arts Center, and the Marjorie Barrick Museum. Her work explores the potential of the photographic image in an attempt to explore the way memory functions. During her solo residency ‘When the Night Comes’ she functioned as a archivist of memories seeking to re-order phantasmal visual instances in time. Using overlooked objects to create an installation to create a lucid mindscape corrupting memories over the course of a month. She currently balances her studio practice with work as a staff photographer, researching dinosaur species, and planting succulents.
Posted by Wendy Kveck.