Cages & Cubes: Community & Souvenirs

Clicks, prestige and exclusion are usually portrayed in high school movies and schoolyard scenes. As universal themes, they display conscious decisions of wardrobe and style that reflect identities in musical interest as well as environment. In the fine art world, opening reception experiences can be both rewarding and degrading. While generally familiar to opening receptions, during ComplexCon, I saw these forces at work.

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COMPLEXCON (LONG BEACH, CA)

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ComplexCon — The NBA All-Star weekend to streetwear. The NBA All-Star weekend is a celebration of the best basketball players in the world, where all aspects of the business attract themselves to one location at one time. All of the sponsors create an experience, produce limited items for fans, design an interactive environment for people to engage with, and have tons of interviews of previously-celebrated players as well as current players. 

ComplexCon had a similar energy behind it, but the “game” was the exclusivity of the collaborations brands. It was easy to see the brands’ competitive nature, keeping the hype at their booths as long as they could, not unlike the ways nightclubs operate. The tone of the weekend was community building. One could see the relationships between brands, tastemakers, and large brands and begin to connect the dots of influence. 

Entering ComplexCon was like showing up to the first day of school with the latest summer Jordan release, impressing no one. Every rare sneaker collaboration was sported and no Supreme t-shirt was left unworn. You could smell the teen spirit and all its ego at the Long Beach Convention Center. Everywhere you turned there was a celebrity you could identify, and tastemakers hanging around brand booths — giving consumers a window into the networking and connections between brands. This branding experience made the world of streetwear seem very small. Brands that didn’t have this sense of community didn’t feel attractive to discover amongst the overwhelming number of booths and experiences. 

With the influence of brand and lifestyle in that convention center, everyone there had something to gain through networking and meeting new people. There was a marked division between people there for purchasing hyped collaborative products and those there to connect genuinely with brands. 

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It was clear upon entering ComplexCon that the hero was collaborative merchandise. The all-star lineup of musicians, designers, and tastemakers created demand weeks before the event, and closer to the anticipated date, surprise collaborations increased demand further. The line culture was alive and thriving. Some felt more legitimate in relation to the cultural history of an item. Others were bullied based on their physical size. Some stayed close to the entrance of installations, while some paid others to cut line for them, or purchase items for them altogether.

I’ve always understood resale value and the hustle mentality — of being in the moment, and knowing that millions of people are interested in the cultural moment; especially the millions who for whatever reason could not be present to partake. It’s all “important”.

When in line to purchase items from the official ComplexCon merchandise booth, you are enamored with all the Takashi Murakami collaborative goods. My first instinct was thinking about how my purchases could interact with my home goods, and it was apparent that others in line were strategizing their purchases based on resale value. You can see the two different mindsets through the comfort in their body language and their angst to know at every moment what was available. Their nervously calculating strategy was to optimize opportunity to turn a profit.

Panel discussions at ComplexCon were both interesting and valuable. These panels involved the minds that lived, constructed, and designed the merchandise that people literally were fighting for in the lines. I would imagine people want to have some literacy to the merchandise that they spend so much energy to obtain, or be inspired to make their own merchandise. Style-wise, individuality was hard to find. There were people there literally wearing the same outfits, and the word “uniform” was thrown around all weekend in reference to everyone’s rocking the same items. 

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Items, clothing and sneakers “of the weekend” gave people extra confidence, making the items like a cape transforming Clark Kent to Superman. An example of this could be found in two friends, waiting for the N.E.R.D. “Listening Party” concert to begin, who both decided to put on their custom screen-printed Off-WHITE printed-on Levi’s jackets signed by Virgil himself with a Sharpie. Before putting on the jackets, they were timid and quiet, but after a simple wardrobe change, they were charged up, confident, and highlighting to people around them that they were able to have an Off-WHITE piece. You had to be excited for these two guys, despite there being dozens of people around with the same jackets from the same booth. Living in the moment, you forget that people all over the world are here for this one moment, and when that moment is over, they may become unique in the culture they come from. I hoped that these global travelers’ common attraction to the same brands and items would unify the ComplexCon demographic. Instead, people’s egos clashed and questioned each other’s legitimacy in their ownership of the same clothing. 

Souvenir could be the ability to purchase items that were made solely for this event. It could also be the ability to build memories about how they spent their time in lines to purchase goods, attending the panel discussions and music performances — and the community interaction in all these experiences. 

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In multiple panels during the weekend, Hiroshi Fujiwara said his beginnings in design came from his passion for music and how the politics of your identity had to mirror your passion. If you went to a punk rock show, you had to look punk and have the body language of punk. If you seemed like a poser, well, that could be life or death. He was also interested in disco music. The way you dressed had to be appropriate for the culture of disco aas well. As a creator, he figured out how to make clothing that infused those two identities, to make a more accurate portrait of himself, that he felt others could identify with. At ComplexCon, a majority of people visually portrayed themselves as “Hypebeast,” but imparted no unique variations on the look of a Hypebeast. You begin to question individual style and treating clothing identity similar to Hiroshi Fujiwara, fusing personal interest with personal style…or are people just interested in what the culture of Hypebeast offers?

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JONAS WOOD (INTERIORS & LANDSCAPES)

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There is a level of anticipation when visiting the opening reception of an artist whose work you enjoy. You expect to experience the work firsthand, see the artist and introduce yourself, possibly ask him/her a few questions about process, and lastly, hope to mingle with people that have some kind of relationship with the artist.

Jonas Wood’s paintings showcase a playful mastery of space, and the use of color to break that space — therefore stretching a composition. He consciously errs towards flatness in constructing the subjects in his paintings, while allowing color to deepen compositions. His past work contains references of sports culture, whether it be a Spaulding basketball, a sports card, or New Balance sneakers. These symbols connect with the streetwear community and allow viewers with similar sensibilities to “enter” the work.

Jonas Wood’s exhibition, Interiors & Landscapes, was a large turnout of various players in the art community — all attempting to fit seamlessly in this social gathering called “the art opening.” One could observe a majority of attendees closely watching Wood’s visual acknowledgment of certain guests, and their reaction that said, clearly, “Jonas Wood acknowledged me and therefore I am important”. This dynamic leaves those who come to see the artist’s work searching for people they know in order to feel included. While they scan for someone recognizable to approach, they think silently,

“Why aren’t people acknowledging the artwork?”

While positioning yourself to view the artwork through the best perspective — you are fighting through abounding cliques of persons that value the social anticipatory aspect  more than the artwork. As bizarre as the aspect seems, it is a chance opportunity to network and connect dots of relationships in the art community. You glance at such celebrities as Tobey Maguire, and catch people’s eyes gravitating in his direction, only making a move if first acknowledged by the actor. 


Demographically, most attendees seem to be in their mid-30’s to early 50’s, with sprinkles of art students eager to get their art careers jump-started, and young models glued to under-dressed elders. Attendees’ appearances vary in three iterations. First iteration, “the artist” — wardrobe covered in paint, hand-constructed, one-off clothing. Second iteration, a consciously under-dressed look, proving security with one’s stake to the community (their value is reiterated by partners whose garments provide luxurious contrast). Last, but not least in number of spottings, “the casual”; consisting of neutral color basics complemented by luxury sneakers by Balenciaga or Raf Simons x Stan Smith Adidas.

The mass appeal of Jonas Wood’s work lends itself to products that could be afforded and appreciated by the public. An example is Takashi Murakami making home goods at a more consumable price point, while knowing that his fine art is consumed at a high price point. A kind gesture at Jonas Wood’s opening was free posters, which acted as souvenirs to the moment. These posters could easily be archived or used to decorate one’s home. Thus, we see a division of people and product — of those actually able to buy an original art piece by Jonas Wood, and those that receive a free and memorable souvenir. This creates not only a divide in class, but also a divide in personal value.

SHEPARD FAIREY (DAMAGED)

Shepard Fairey’s opening, Damaged, felt like a celebratory retrospective of his contribution to street culture. The anticipation of this event was immediate, with the ability to RSVP a month in advance. As the opening date neared, throughout LA, wherever you went, people were talking about Shepard Fairey’s exhibition. This is natural, owing to his work’s relationship with popular media, his clothing line and its wide range of appeal, as well as himself being a universal symbol of politics and art.

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Leading up to the opening, Fairey posted on social media various posts of free ephemera and souvenirs that would be given at the opening. This was not surprising in the nature of his work as a street artist. An interesting giveaway — and the spine of the show, was the live printing of a newspaper curated by Fairey, which gave even more clarity to the political foundation of his artistry.

When approaching the actual opening, you quickly realize that the RSVP you registered a month in advance would not be enough to get you in, as you gaze at a line spanning five city-industrial blocks. While standing there, you interact with the community in line just like you, who have mutual admiration of Shepard Fairey — all checking the artist’s social media to see photos of how it looks inside and getting a glance at who you know that can possibly get you in. You take another look at everyone in line and subconsciously try to figure out the commonalities in everyone, grouping them and comparing them to yourself. I witnessed that a majority of these people seemed like they were aged in their 30’s to 40’s. I found this to be interesting because I think of Shepard Fairey’s work of being acceptable by all age brackets and social classes with its highly consumable content. Or maybe it was because Keith Morris performed that this age group was so present?

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ART IN THE STREETS (MOCA GEFFEN, 2010)

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In 2010, MOCA’s exhibition, Art In The Streets, was a cultural moment where the public felt included in museum culture. This was a compilation of celebrated street artists and their signature styles under the same roof of the museum institution, accompanied by historical commercial references, and separated by each artist’s unique aesthetic. Seeing this group’s cultural references gave the viewer an association with the artists’ personal surroundings, references and landscape. I remember this exhibition gained tons of controversy related to two questions, “Should a museum be Disneyland?” or “Art In The Streets needs to be celebrated in the streets and doesn’t need to be validated inside the sanctity of the art museum.”

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With art museums, you expect levels of stillness and quiet akin to a religious building. This is a time to experience artwork one-on-one, and investigate the intricacies and view artwork from various spatial perspectives. This was not the case with Art In The Streets. There was not a day where there was not a line at MOCA Geffen, or people coming multiple times to view the exhibition again or to consume more of the souvenirs. The overpowering market demand for art didn’t allow experiential demand for art to enjoy quality time with the works. This created another series of debates: 

  • Is there a right and wrong way to celebrate art? 
  • Is it worth it to show work that doesn’t allow the viewer to spend time,
    discover and explore each work at their own pace? 
  • Is showing work that has an appreciation to a wider group more ideal with the
    function of a museum? If not, is there a way that there could be both?
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With the high attraction of Art In The Streets, came collaborative merchandise and experiences. This made the art show feel more like an event or convention and less like an art show (see ComplexCon). I only have this expectation based on what is familiar, so, because this was unfamiliar — was it wrong? Besides the general catalog, do souvenirs belong in a museum exhibition?

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SUPREME

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Every Thursday, there is an anticipation of new Supreme items to drop. With weekly drops, there is also a collaborative drop that is announced earlier. With limited places around the world where the brand’s items are released, the resale value and demand of everything is almost guaranteed to be higher than market value, creating a lot of business opportunities and community building. 

With opportunity comes relationships. Businesses have been created beside consignment stores reselling the product. These businesses serve clients that are interested in purchasing Supreme every week and involve hiring a staff to camp out. They spawn other businesses designed to take care of campers’ needs, such as food and Wi-Fi, and more recently — barbers giving haircuts. All these aspects of the various businesses create a community that is only heightened with the consistency of a weekly release. We are universally familiar with online retail culture and the blogging of it, but not so much this physical, intimate and specific, line culture. 

With high demand of the product comes a community of store workers. The Supreme store has a notorious reputation of bad customer service. Consistently, people do whatever they can to be close to a salesman at Supreme. This comes with the possibility of bypassing the line, making it difficult to differentiate between those trying to take advantage of the relationship and those that want to be cordial. These workers become valued in the culture of streetwear as models of other brands, affiliates in the posse of popular musicians, and, debatably, stars in their own right in the streetwear subculture — all because they hold a small but important key to the Supreme street market monopoly.


Art openings and clothing conventions are similar in that they can be uncomfortable experiences in environments you just want to feel apart of and feel welcomed. No matter how much you choose to throw yourself in the mix and be apart of the community aspect of these forums, you will leave with souvenirs—whether in the form of product or memory.

Los Angeles based visual artist that investigates social constructs through objects and painting mediums.