“We knew that nostalgia goes hand in hand with style as the driving force behind all these decisions. What art succeeds or gets remembered and functions again? What has shelf life? What makes it? It’s all nostalgia. We knew we were engaging in that. History is always as close as the person you’re talking to and what they’re talking about.”
—Art Club 2000, Art Forum, February 2013
In 1993, seven students from Cooper Union formed an artists’ collective called Art Club 2000 with the help of Colin de Land, who gave them an exhibition at his gallery, American Fine Arts. There, they showed “Commingle,” a series of staged photographs shot around New York City in which all the members of the collective wore clothing purchased at the Gap (and returned shortly thereafter because of the store’s lenient return policy).
Twenty years ago, the Gap, which had been around since 1969, was on an upswing, rapidly opening stores all over the country. It was also determined to create a more upscale image with aspirational ad campaigns. The late 1980s’ “Individuals of Style” campaign, for example, was a series of black-and-white photographs of actors, writers, musicians and cultural influencers posing, very seriously, in Gap clothes. Following that, in the early ’90s, it launched the “Who Wore Khakis” campaign, a collection of archival images of famous historical figures sporting khaki pants, turning an otherwise ordinary garment into a must-have.
A selection of Art Club 2000′s (AC2K) images is included in the New Museum’s current exhibition, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star,” a collection of works from artists including Alex Bag, Rachel Harrison and Felix Gonzalez-Torres who represent what the art world looked like 20 years ago. Patterson Beckwith, a member of the now-defunct group, spoke with Threaded about the role of the Gap in AC2K’s “Commingle” series and what it’s like to look at those Gap-filled images years later.
The Gap in the early and mid 1990s positioned itself as aspirational through the sale of very basic clothes. The brand tried hard to convey a certain lifestyle that AC2K responded to with sardonic criticality in the “Commingle” series. What did the Gap represent in 1993 to AC2K?
The early ’90s were a time in New York City when we were first starting to see Starbucks on every corner. The Gap had recently opened on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and on St. Marks Place and 2nd Avenue near Cooper Union. They’d just opened 20 locations in Manhattan and there were loads of ads in bus shelters—it was kind of in your face and we were responding to that.
How did that overabundance of the Gap translate to your art practice?
We wanted to create an art show focused on the idea of institutional critique. We were studying with Hans Haacke at Cooper Union who was using research, reportage and photography in his work. We decided we wanted “Commingle” to be a critique of institutional critique. We had to select an institution, and we chose the Gap. Normally, an institutional critique might examine a museum or gallery that the work is actually in. We were doing something a little different, but we were looking to how Hans Haacke’s journalistic style and research had informed his work.
How did you research the Gap? What did you find?
This was pre-Internet so we started in the library and found a few business magazine articles and interviews. We applied for jobs at the Gap, we hung around the stores, we took pictures inside the stores – but we needed more information. We went through the trash at Gap stores and all their corporate culture was getting thrown in the garbage—sales manuals, employee handbooks, flashcards, handwritten notes from one shift manager to the next.
Nostalgia seeps into these AC2K photos now, 20 years later, as we remember, rather sheepishly, the styles we once wore. Because the Gap’s look at that time was so ubiquitous and so distinctively Gap, how did the relate-ability and familiarity of the garments play into your work?
We were dressing up as people who shopped at the Gap. We would pick the most ridiculous, brightly colored Gap fashions of the summer of 1993 and put them together as we saw people wearing them. Because there were seven of us in the group, it could be difficult to agree on anything, but we all thought it was fun to dress up. Even if we weren’t into fashion, we could all put on costumes and take pictures.
It calls to mind the work of photographer, Cindy Sherman, who uses ordinary clothing and makeup to transform herself, rather powerfully, into very specific characters in her photographs.
Yeah, what we wore were clothes you’d see in the stores at the time, relatively normal stuff. We might not have actually been wearing the clothes ourselves, but it was being worn—as strange and horrible as some of that stuff looks 20 years later. The photo in Times Square where we’re wearing sunglasses, and dressed in denim and bandanas and boots—we’re really playing a character. We’re playing a whole variety of characters throughout the series.
Gap clothes in the early ’90s were androgynous. As is apparent from the New Museum show, discussions about identity politics, gender roles and sexuality were present in art, and in culture in general, at that time. How did the unisex look of the Gap clothes in the “Commingle” series reference those conversations?
We were 19- or 20-year-old art school students studying with Hans Haacke, Laura Cottingham, Doug Ashford and that’s what we were learning about. It was on their minds and so it was on our minds.
In the cycles of fashion, the androgyny thing was kind of hip at that moment. And we were fine with people looking at the photos and not being able to tell the gender of some of the people. I think the Gap clothes definitely helped with that, especially in creating a kind of uniform. We enjoyed playing around with androgyny and gender roles and not shying away from the idea that your identity is wrapped up in how you present yourself and what you choose to wear.
The locations in which the photos are taken—a coffee shop, library, movie theater, furniture store – have a generic feel to them, just as the clothing does. Together they create very ambivalent tableaux. What were you trying to achieve?
We were introduced to the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the idea of constructed reality photography that had been gaining popularity at the time—photography that is based on cinema. The idea that every photo is really constructed influenced our thinking.
How did the shoots come together?
We operated like a fashion editorial shoot. There was a division of labor—makeup, scouting locations, styling, selecting clothes. We wouldn’t necessarily go shopping together. Like a fashion editorial, a change of location would mean a change of clothing. Even though we’d never done fashion shoots before, somehow we knew that was something we were supposed to do and so that’s what we did.
This interview was edited and condensed.
NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star is open through May 26, 2013, at the New Museum in New York City.