Slogans O N L I NE: A New Analysis

“The Internet fosters the rise of the individual mind as an app… an app called you.” – Basar, Coupland, Obrist 2015, pg 104-105

It’s no secret that Douglas Coupland’s Slogans project takes inspiration from the work of Jenny Holzer—he himself has said as much on a number of occasions, and many a critic and commentator have pointed this out as well. The “compressed texts and slogans [Holzer] coined Truisms” are cited by one such commentator, Hadani Ditmars (2021), as a particular analog for Coupland’s contemporary work in the genre. Her piece for The Art Magazine, “Douglas Coupland brings his prophetic slogans to Vancouver’s billboards,” which highlights yet another exhibition of Coupland’s Slogans—this time a handful enlarged and featured along the Arbutus Greenway—likens the re-exhibition to Holzer “famously reprogramming an LED billboard in Times Square [to display Truisms] like the Machiavellian ‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise.’”

from Truisms (1977-1979), 1982
Electronic sign
6.1 × 12.2 m
20 × 40 ft
Installation: Messages to the Public, Times Square, New York, 1982
© 1982 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Sprüth Magers: Jenny Holzer Trucks and Truisms

Art Historian Gordon Hughes (2006) notes in a piece for the Oxford Art Journal, “Power’s Script: Or, Jenny Holzer’s Art after ‘Art after Philosophy,’” that: “Untangling the knotted strands of language from its material support and context has been a consistently vexed problem within the critical reception of Jenny Holzer’s work” (pg 421). The diversity of presentations of her words across a multitude of mediums have forced critics to evaluate her work utilizing two separate strategies: a text-specific one in which her words are “dematerialized into language,” ignoring the medium on which the words exist and a context-specific one that Hal Foster describes as a “situationist strategy” that sees the meaning of the words explicitly tied to their material existence (pg 421-422).

This same problem exists at the center of any evaluation of Douglas Coupland’s Slogans. What is one to make of the Slogan USE JETS WHILE YOU STILL CAN (1991) or WE USED JETS WHILE WE STILL COULD (2020). The first Slogan is a small image found in the margins of Coupland’s debut novel Generation X, the latter is a new (or, “retooled”) Slogan found on Coupland’s Instagram account. Is this one 30 year long continuation of the same work? Two separate works? What is “retooling?” What does that word imply?

from Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture (1991)
Book (pg. 4)
Douglas Coupland
from Slogans (2011-Present), 2020
Douglas Coupland

I found a semblance of an answer to these questions while researching the concept of slogan and the related online concept of memes within the scholarship that surrounds the Umbrella Movement (or Occupy Movement) that took place in Hong Kong in 2014. In a piece for The Journal of Asian Studies titled “Creating a Textual Public Space: Slogans and Texts from Hong King’s Umbrella Movement,” author Sebastian Veg (2016) analyzed the textual material found in the three distinct areas of the occupation: Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mong Kok. Veg (2016) points to a particular slogan from this era “only the masses, no assembly” to illustrate a perspective that: “The texts produced and performed in the movement may also reflect an attempt to redraw the boundaries and rules of the public sphere. The exchange of slogans can be viewed as a constitutive type of ‘communicative action’” (pg 691). Wing-Ki Lee (2018) discusses the a specific type of visual and textual image to arise from this same movement, one he places in the genre of “derivative work” (pg 29). Lee describes “derivative work” in this context as: “digital image manipulation created by both known and unknown (anonymous creators) and their viral dissemination on the Internet” (pg 31). While his focus is primarily on secondhanded manipulated photographs, I believe his definition could be crucial to understanding Douglas Coupland’s recent work with Slogans online as well.

It is interesting that Douglas Coupland chose a time of great global strife—the COVID-19 Pandemic and global lockdowns—to begin posting Slogans on Instagram; it is particularly interesting that he chose a truly “public sphere” to post them in… one that not only allows for but actively encourages commenting, liking, and sharing, in a sense, engendering “communicative action.” It is also interesting that he chose this time to “retool” his own Slogans, or, to borrow Lee’s interpretation of the concept, create “derivative work” of his own work. By manipulating past Slogans and re-contextualizing them, by stripping them of their material existence and re-highlighting them in a fully communal online environment, Coupland has changed the very nature of Slogans and how they existed in the 30 years prior. On Instagram, the Slogans are no longer individual Slogans, but are invitations for “communicative action”: A Slogan is posted, people respond… like, comment, share. That metadata is held within each Slogan post and is worth viewing as an essential part of the art.

In her Keynote address for Douglas Coupland and the Art of the ‘Extreme Present’, “When Words are Pictures,” writer and curator Victoria Camblin (2021) says that the Wiktionary entry for the word slogan derives from a combination of the Gaelic words slog (army) and gairm (cry), implying that a slogan indicates a “membership to a community, a shared purpose or enemy.” She goes on to say that “[slogans] must be accessible allowing communities to grow and coded to supposedly insulate them; the slogan penetrates everyone individually, but never exists alone, only in relationship to the context its recipient brings and only by virtue of its repetition.”

from Youtube: Keynote by Victoria Camblin for the online conference Douglas Coupland and the Art of the ‘Extreme Present’.

Continuing her analysis of the Slogans, Camblin (2021) discusses the “slipperiness” of the form as a way to show how they can be easily—and accurately—reinterpreted, saying: 

The natural adaptability of the slogan, its flexibility of grammar and interpretation, mean that works Doug made in 2011 or 2014 still feel applicable to what we might call—to riff on one of his coinages—our post-COVID brains despite having been written for pre-COVID ones.”

Camblin 2021

In a sense, it is a claim that reader’s default reading of a Slogan is one that—to borrow Gordon Hughes’ (2006) terminology—leans into a “situationist interpretation” interpretation of the work; upon reading the text, a reader will find a meaning within the text that is applicable to their immediate state of mind. This quality of the textual art allow the individual pieces to “come to life” at unexpected times and in unexpected ways… it is a quality that has forced some scholars of Coupland and his work to note an element of “prophecy.” I wrote a short blogpost that delves into this notion in a bit more detail; but, for the purpose of this project, I am primarily concerned with how these reinterpretations are created and received… particularly on Instagram, particularly within the comments section.

Slogans Over Time & Space