Douglas Easterly and Matt Kenyon, art professors at Syracuse University and SUNY Fredonia, are not your typical culture jammers. Easterly was raised in Alaska, Kenyon in rural Kansas, and they’re not out to patronize small-town America. Instead, they make art about the conquest of small towns by big corporations because they’ve experienced it firsthand.
Kenyon studied art under Easterly at Southeastern Louisiana State University, and the two quickly formed a bond. “We were in a town just big enough to have been taken over by Wal-Mart and fast food restaurants,” says Easterly, “and we decided that the consumer freedoms people think they’re getting at those places—like return policies, 24-hour access, drive-throughs—are great artistic fodder.” Since then, the duo has taken on nearly every company that caters to the American suburb. In 2000, the artists spent 24 hours in Hammond, Louisiana’s Wal-Mart, buying clothes, food, cameras—even developing the film—within the confines of the store. In 2003 they videotaped themselves passing the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s continuously until, six hours and $200 worth of fast food later, the alarmed employees called the police. And last year, the pair created a robot that sucks up puddles of Coke on the floor and sprays it across its exposed circuitry—drinking until it kills itself.
But of all their work, Spore 1.1 is perhaps the most elegant. A plant purchased at Home Depot sits in a machine that monitors the company’s stock valuation on the Web. When the share price rises, the plant receives water. When it falls, the plant doesn’t. Home Depot guarantees every plant it sells for a year. So, when the company’s fortunes sink, it loses not only money and investor confidence—in a gallery somewhere (the piece has been shown in the United States, Europe, and South America), it also must replace a plant. The artists aren’t looking to swindle the company. They’re calling attention to the policies that corporate competitors spend decades formulating—policies that end up shaping the American lifestyle. (One of Home Depot’s greatest liabilities is its returns policy, which cost the company $10 million a year until CEO Bob Nardelli changed it from a cash policy to a store-credit policy in 2000. Easterly and Kenyon, in their small way, are touching Home Depot’s Achilles’ heel.)
But although the artists are well received around the world (in May, Spore 1.1 travels to the Forrest City Gallery in London, Ontario), they
haven’t had much of a reception in the United States. Hopefully that’s about to change with their next project. Dismayed by the ways in which companies like Kraft, McDonald’s, and other food marketers are backpedaling away from responsibility for their most unhealthy products, Easterly and Kenyon are developing a motorized helmet that forces its wearer to chew. The user walks into a fast food restaurant, orders a burger, and punches the calorie content into the device’s onboard computer. The helmet then forces the wearer’s jaw open and shut until the calories have been burned off.
“We’ll be there for six or seven hours at least,” says Easterly, “or until the police arrive.”