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One would be hard-pressed to find a more sterile terrain for artistic explorations than Westfield Stratford City. As its name implies, the shopping centre does its very best to ape a real urban center. It has a playground, a cinema, perfectly innocuous art works, live music, restaurants, plenty of shops of course and a bit of foliage here and there.
Like many of its peers, however, this perfectly disciplined theater of consumerism is a sorry ersatz for urbanity. Any behaviour, any living creature that doesn’t serve a commercial purpose is systematically banned from it. No photo, no skating, no begging, no jogging, no loitering, no tripod nor unsanctioned filming. An apparatus of surveillance cameras, guards and other ‘security solutions’ ensures that the visitor’s experience is as carefully controlled as the air conditioning system.
Yet, this is the very place that Louise Ashcroft has selected for a self-assigned artist residency. No one has invited her at Westfield. To avoid blowing her cover, she thus had to play happy shopper, quietly smuggling her unruly artistic practices and critiques of capitalism inside the famous glass-vaulted cathedral of retailing.
Ashcroft is a master at what artist and researcher Benjamin Gaulon calls Retail Poisoning . The name of the practice is directly inspired by the strategies of torrent poisoning used by the entertainment industry to hack into peer-to-peer networks. Retail poisoning is a form of culture jamming that uses stealth, humour and critical actions to disrupt the mechanisms of consumerism. Even though Ashcroft is targeting shopping temples, she is not the Reverend Billy of Stratford. She does not preach nor lead choirs, she isn’t coiffed like a blond Elvis Presley nor does she brandish a megaphone. Her tactics are more underhanded and hushed. They are made of small-scale, short-term and low-cost interventions that have the potential to turn a well-behaved but dumb environment into a space that offers experiences that no amount of money can buy.
Ashcroft’s own take on the art of Retail Poisoning is less about hijacking than about reclaiming and re-purposing the space for her own enjoyment and the one of her shopping audience. Where most of us would only see restrictions and garish food courts, she finds free sugar packets and social sanctuaries for teenagers. Where we see corporate-brewed coffee and strict codes of conduct, she discovers opportunities for deviation and cracks in the seemingly perfectly-oiled machine of consumption.
What makes Ashcroft’s practice particularly meaningful is that she leaves a space for the public to take a performative role in the clandestine actions she orchestrates. Having spent six months exploring the shopping centre and hunting for every possible loophole, crevice and ambiguity that had escaped the attention of its shareholders and managers, she is now inviting the public to a series of activities that will make them reassess what a ‘retail experience’ can (also) be. It involves foraging for free stuff, organising dress-up activities in shop fitting rooms, or pondering upon the lyrics she wrote for grime artist Maxsta using an Argos catalogue as her sole source for inspiration and beats.
The influence of her shambolic transgressions of standard shopping etiquette can run deeper and influence the consumers that we all are, long after her show at arebyte gallery has closed. Nowadays, customers can be confident that, as soon as they set foot inside a mega mall like the Westfield one, the whole space will do the thinking for them and all they have to do is submit themselves to the hyper-codified and hyper-comfortable retail experience. Because of the way Ashcroft spurs audiences to think critically and challenge the status quo, it is highly likely that after an hour in her company, people will no longer see shopping as they used to. “I'm a believer in the power of confusion,” she told me recently. “And when a group behaves unusually it provokes those involved and their witnesses to question what's going on, and to question the whole environment they might have taken for granted.”
Ashcroft’s adventurous enactments of art outside the art world also reminds us that art doesn't have to limit its field of action to the white walls of the museum and gallery system. Or to the audience who queues and pays to enjoy it. By setting an unofficial workshop in Westfield and distributing flyers that invite shoppers to join her little exercises in business disruption, the artist makes us consider what art (and especially the one that defines itself as “socially engaged”) could achieve if it had access to a demographic as broad, as diverse and as willing as the one that visits the Westfield center.
Shopping malls were born in the U.S.A. The first one opened in Edina, Minnesota in 1956. It was designed by Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect who gave his name to the Gruen Effect, the moment when a dazzling shop display compels you to buy something you had never intended to purchase. Sixty years later, we are still as enthralled as ever by the promises of goods we have no need for but shopping malls are dying in the U.S. The phenomenon hasn’t reached Europe yet but experts, investors and retailers are always on the lookout for new strategies to attract and enthral the public.
The worst thing that could happen to Ashcroft's residency at Westfield is success. At least what passes as success nowadays. It would be a setback if Ashcroft’s playful interruptions in the flow of capitalistic propaganda were seen as an inspiration for shopping centers. If, like street art and other guerrilla practices, they were co-opted and commodified to boost customer traffic.
Let’s hope then that the Westfield Corporation’s board and management team never recognise the potential of Ashcroft’s art intrusions into their premises. Artists like her might not have the ambition (nor the resources) to overthrow capitalism but they have the talent to devise ordinary acts of resistance that, if replicated, can slowly effect changes in the way a society decides how its time and money should be spent.
1 Retail Poisoning: http://retailpoisoning.tumblr.com/
2 Josh Sanburn, Why the Death of Malls Is About More Than Shopping, published in Time, 20 July 2017 http://time.com/4865957/death-and-life-shopping-mall/
Retail historians, Peter Blackbird and Brian Florence document the decline of shopping malls on their website DEADMALLS http://deadmalls.com/