My project is a continuation of work that I began over a year ago during my second semester in Georgetown’s Communications, Culture, and Technology program. The first iteration of this project looked at Douglas Coupland’s Slogans as textual art and took the form of a rather over-long blog post titled “The Past Is A Bad Idea / The Future Is Fake / The Present Is…” Several months ago, I had the opportunity to expand on the research I did in that class and present a second iteration of this work, a new paper called “Guts Glory Copy Paste,” to the first Douglas Coupland conference, “The Art of the Extreme Present.” That paper looked at Slogans in the context of advertising and COVID-19. This new, as of now still untitled work, builds on both those previous iterations and attempts to look at Slogans as they exist on Instagram with the notion that, on Instagram, the entire post—not solely the image (or Slogan) itself—is the artwork to be studied.
I rewrote this work several times in an attempt to find a good frame for this argument… The first iteration framed Slogans within the context of textual art. The second iteration framed Slogans within the context of advertising. This iteration frames Slogans within the context of protests by using the Umbrella Uprising and the scholarship surrounding the produced media during that event as a guide.
So what are Slogans? Well, they’re this:
And who is Douglas Coupland? Well, he’s this:
Begin Vocal Presentation Here: Coupland is a writer and visual artist who wrote some novels that meant a lot to me while I was an adolescent in middle school and high school. In addition to being a man with a talent for weaving a good tale, he has a penchant for—for lack of better phrasing—doing things with words on the page. You’ve heard of writers who play around with language; this is a writer who plays around with words, that is, physical words.
A common page from a Douglas Coupland novel will look something like this:
And here are some Word Clouds:
In addition to being a writer who plays around with words, Douglas Coupland is a writer who recycles his words, recontextualizing them across time and space. During the course of my research I read a book chapter by Wing-Ki Lee (2018) called “Derivative Work and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement: Three Perspectives.” In that paper, he discussed the genre of derivative work, how it was produced during the Umbrella Uprising, and what could be derived from its proliferation. Lee described “derivative work” as: “digital image manipulation created by both known and unknown (anonymous creators) and their viral dissemination on the Internet (pg 31).” Lee was speaking specifically about manipulated photographs that had become manipulated memes on the Internet… but, I could not help but see parallels between the specific phenomenon he was discussing and Coupland’s 2020 practice of uploading old, “retoooled,” and new Slogans to his Instagram account.
This new exhibition of Slogans looks like this:
In a speech for Long Now, Douglas Coupland described the general concept behind Slogans to be: “What could I tell myself 10 years ago that would make no sense to that old ‘me’?” In a pre-charged, pre-COVID context, in the context of a comments free setting like a museum exhibition, that concept is wholly uncontroversial. But on Instagram… things are different. Instagram is, for better or worse, a public sphere. When Coupland posts a Slogan onto Instagram… on occasion… people take issue with it.
Take NEW ZEALAND SOMEHOW NEEDS TO BE PUNISHED:
“What? Why DC, why?!,” “Wha????,” “Unfollowing.”Instagram Commenters (2020)
Coupland’s Slogans on Instagram are an interesting textual artifact because, while they are clearly art of some kind, they are often treated as public opinions given by the artist himself, or jokes / memes, or as literal Slogans meant to define… something, a community of some kind?
But what is the overall sentiment of this community? To answer this question I looked through each Slogan posting and collected up to 10 random comments from the post. I then ran those comments—about 1,500 of them—through Voyant Tools, an open-source, web-based application for performing text analysis.
Using Cirrus, I was able to see a high-level view of the most used words in the comments. I found an interesting amount of positive language; love was used far more often than hate, like more often than dislike, yes more often than no, true more often than false, good more often than bad. Also, based on this wordcloud, people are clearly trying to get Coupland’s attention… his @ and his familiar name “Doug” appear with a surprising amount of frequency… the marker of an account that sees a lot of interaction from real world friends… or of an an account that has a large amount of folk stuck in a parasocial relationship.
Using Topics, I was able to see the results of some rudimentary topic modeling. Running this procedure a couple of times, I noticed a couple of interesting topics: COVID anxiety / fear (which was in turn a source of many “negative” comments) and love for Coupland and the desire to see more of his work and, in particular, a new book.
Using Phrases, a tool that finds repeating phrases, I discovered a community of commenters that was tuned into the world of Coupland: I found lyrics to an R.E.M. song (one of Coupland’s favorite bands / his personal friends), 4 references to Jenny Holzer, his greatest influence, and 2 references to Girlfriend in a Coma, a post-apocalyptic novel that perhaps could be called “prophetic” when discussing this current era.
This past summer, Douglas Coupland worked with Google research scientists to develop new Slogans for the class of 2030. The process involved a partnership between Coupland and an AI that had “learned” to speak his language through machine learning.
This resulted in Slogans like this:
With my limited timeframe, I was only able to examine so many posts, so many comments. But as I worked on this project and took a refreshed look at Douglas Coupland’s latest Slogans project Slogans for the Class of 2030, I began to wonder: Who is a Douglas Coupland fan? What would a hive-mind fan look like? Would it be interesting to gather all of the online responses to Coupland’s work, feed them into a machine, and “teach” it to speak? What kind of person would that be?
I don’t know if it is an avenue for future research per se… but it is an interesting thought experiment.
AI Art with AI Fans.
This is but one possible conclusion I could come to upon working to complete this study. It remains incredible to me that these short, punchy Slogans hold such complexity. I look forward to continuing my study of them for years to come.