“There’s the life and there’s the consumer event. Everything around us tends to channel our lives toward some final reality in print or on film. Two lovers quarrel in the back of a taxi and a question becomes implicit in the event. Who will write the book and who will play the lovers in the movie? Everything seeks its own heightened version. Or put it this way. Nothing happens until it’s consumed.”
“No body knows how to feel and they’re checking around for hints.”
― Don DeLillo, Mao II
In Within the Happy Crowd Kate Shannon extracts the backgrounds from photographs, leaving only the Subjects floating in fields of white. This is no hatchet job; these are no cardboard cutouts. The detail is incredible. Every gossamer hair has been salvaged. I can picture Shannon, sitting at her computer, dismantling these worlds one pixel at a time. The people in the photographs are so finely disinterred from their surroundings they might never have belonged to any world at all.
She photographs people in situations of orchestrated excitement, such as carnivals and amusement parks. She tends to shoot photos from the hip, so the Subjects don’t know that they are being photographed. Perhaps this captures them in some truer state. Probably not. More likely we all presuppose the camera, living our lives as if on screen. Lined up on the gallery wall, the photographs are a parade of unreal, highly saturated colors passing in the neutered white backgrounds. The Subjects are so detailed, so plastic they could be advertisements. They appear all the more lonely for their vibrancy. None of them smile.
What are they advertising? American culture, as it really is, without the distortion of ad agencies, models, and studio effects. Shannon’s work is the light-bearing twin of the dark art of marketing. They operate by similar rules. They even have a similar look; replace her Subjects with models and any one of the photos could be an ad for Mac. The difference is that while Mac ad models promenade as the great beneficiaries of American culture, Shannon’s real-life Subjects are its victims. Their arms overflow with the paraphernalia of theme parks: dart game trinkets, inflatable toys, a Dixie Cup-potted flower, a Cro-Magnon sized turkey leg. They glisten, sweaty as the obscenely sized soda cups they carry. They’re draped with eye-assaulting slogans of consumerism. A Hispanic boy cocks a fake chromed pistol sideways; a posture gleaned from the movies. An old man wears a shirt with a cowboy vignette. Horses erupt across his shoulders. An American flag luffs in the billows of dust as a bald eagle circles overhead. The myth of the Old West used to inflame contemporary jingoism. All the threads of US history converge in these Subjects. Their individuality squashed out by the mass psychology of consumerism. Reduced to clichés in Shannon’s lens. Utterly indistinguishable in the crowd.
We can sense the crowd, without the crowd being present. The crowd is implied in the postures of the Subjects; it is written in their bodies. We can sense the collective energy into which the Subjects have yielded. We can sense the potential violence, just waiting to froth up in the crowd. We can also sense their hearts, longing to be buoyed up on the surge. Longing to be part of the great seething hive. The crowd encapsulates. The energy mesmerizes. This is what it means to be Within the Happy Crowd, to be one of countless bodies yoked in a single action. Therefore, the Crowd is a reflection, or simulation of what Lacan says is our true desire, which is “the desire for nothing nameable.” On one level this means that we desire what the Other has. As soon as we possess something we no longer desire it, because to own a thing is to name it. Therefore desire is always faceless, existing on the periphery of a person’s life. On a deeper level, “the desire for nothing nameable” means that we desire a mode of experience that is not tainted by language. Our perception of the world is grown out of language. Though the world is a continuum of matter, in which no clear boundaries exists between ‘things’, our minds use language to parcel the external world into arbitrary symbolic units. This allows us to step outside of the continuum of matter, to separate ourselves from the flux into which other types of minds seem blindly immersed. We inhabit a kind of secondary world of symbolic images and texts. Therefore a more fundamental root of all desire is our wish to be utterly yoked to phenomena once again. To be without boundary and distinction.
Shannon has captured the Subjects in moments when the energy of the crowd deflates. In moments when the Disneyland-like simulations collapse and the specter before them is realized for what it is. A shoddy hoax. A piece of china-silk dangled from the ceiling like ectoplasm in the Medium’s candle-lit séance room. The Subjects gaze into the distance, as if searching for something new to replace their deflated desire. Desire may take many forms (the girl at the bar, Google glasses, a show at Gagosian), but these are really just place holders for something more fundamental. We pull these things into our orbit in order to consume them, to become of one substance. Each new possession is a minor flare illuminating what it is we really desire. By removing the backgrounds of the photos, Shannon visually withholds from the viewer any specific objects that may be desired by the Subject. The Subjects seem caught in suspension, and we are forced to see the stark truth of their unfulfilled/unfulfillable desire.
Herein lies the charm of Shannon’s work. She shows us that the consumer events, the spectacles around which we gather into groups, are inconsequential. We may mistake them as the objects of our desire, but we really Desire to abandon Self, to become utterly indistinguishable within the whole. Being caught up in the energy of a crowd simulates this experience. At the same time, no matter how enchanted the Subjects might be by the crowd, they are also individuals. Shannon has plucked them from the obscurity of the crowd. She has reasserted the individual by blanking out the spectacle, pixel by pixel. The Subjects are caught in limbo, the strange implications between being singularly themselves and seamlessly merged Within the Happy Crowd.
Kate Shannon is an assistant professor within the Department of Art at The Ohio State University. She teaches Art & Technology and photography courses on the Mansfield Campus in Mansfield, Ohio. The recipient of the 2013 Ohio State University Mansfield Campus Award for Excellence in Scholarship, she explores notions of desire, consumption, happiness, and loss through digitally manipulated images. She has exhibited her work across the United States. Selected venues include the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe, LA; Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, OH; the Zhou B Art Center Gallery in Chicago, IL; the Contemporary Arts Center in Las Vegas, NV; and TRACTIONARTS in Los Angeles, CA. Shannon received her master of fine arts degree in studio art from The Ohio State University and her bachelor of fine arts degree in studio art from the University of Kentucky. She currently resides in Mansfield, Ohio with her husband and two cats.