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At Mills College, 'Culture Industry' Slyly Critiques Consumerism

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Shana Moulton, Still from 'Every Angle is an Angel,' 2016. (Courtesy of Galerie Gregor Staiger and Galerie Crevecoeur)

Fact: I don’t fully understand what YouTube stardom is or how it’s achieved.

As far as I can summize, the path to fame depends on a video going viral. The more people who see, rate, and share, the more likely the performer is to enter our ever-shifting pop culture lexicon. Based on a thumbs-up-or-down metric, I’d bet good money on the segment below nudging this savagely funny millennial toward celebrity status:

I introduce this piece with an enthusiastic nod to J.J. Smith, a.k.a. Sailor J because 1) I’ve watched it at least 20 times since it blazed across my social media feed and 2) through a parody makeup tutorial, she nails all the issues addressed in the exhibition Culture Industry, on view in the experimental gallery Slide Space 123 at Mills College.

Capitalism’s pervasive influence surprises no one who engages with media, social or otherwise, and analysis of that influence dates to the mid-20th century. In 1944, two philosophers — Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer — published The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and in the chapter “Culture Industry” identified mass media as the vector through which goods are proffered and a collective material addiction sinks in. Writing as World War II ground to its bloody end, Adorno and Horkheimer identified consumerism as the force that could deliver docile, psychologically defeated audiences into the hands of fascists.

Shana Moulton, 'Every Angle is an Angel,' 2016.
Shana Moulton, ‘Every Angle is an Angel,’ 2016. (Photo by Nando-Alvarez Perez)

While the terms of today’s defeat of or loss to capitalism may be less dire, the fight against hydra-like industries that earn billions of dollars off of racist, classist, and misogynistic messaging is no less urgent.


Curator Suzanne L’Heureux maximizes Slide Space’s compact floor plan by staging the work of the four featured artists at a generous distance from one another. In the first room, installations by Shana Moulton and Sara Cwynar form a dynamic critical pair.

In Moulton’s irony-ladened Every Angle is an Angel, we watch Cynthia, a recurring character in the artist’s work, as a bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes delivers her to a higher existential plane. Cynthia is fully committed to medications, food, beauty products, and New Age rituals and readings, believing that her full human potential will be met (at last!) through external means.

Sara Cwynar, Still from 'Little Video,' 2015.
Sara Cwynar, Still from ‘Little Video,’ 2015.

Sara Cwynar’s Little Video skewers the advertising industry and image manipulation as they infiltrate and influence our psyches. Working with found images and items drawn from her personal archive, objects including ads and postcards flash across the antiquated PVM monitor. Those same images appear again, this time with a measuring tape stretched across them, referencing how images are sized to fit the printed or electronic page and how consumers — primarily women, but not exclusively — struggle to fit ourselves into a fantastical world defined by hairless skin and zero body odor.

Tabita Rezaire and Débora Delmar’s work riff off one another in critiquing worldwide health and beauty industry standards.

Rezaire, a Johannesburg-based artist and healer who works comfortably across video and performance formats, offers respite from techno-capitalism’s onslaught and the white, patriarchal, hetero- and cis-normative presumptions that prop it up in Deep Down Tidal. Her absorbing 18-minute installation portrays the internet as the latest colonial project thrust upon inhabitants of the African continent.

Tabita Rezaire, 'Deep Down Tidal,' 2017.
Tabita Rezaire, ‘Deep Down Tidal,’ 2017. (Photo by Nando Alvarez-Perez)

Instead of sapping the continent of its indigenous populations and valuable natural resources, advanced Western economies use submerged internet cables to convey images of what the best (read: white, wealthy, overfed) life looks like. Because we are creatures of habit, those internet cables follow the same nautical paths as ships that carried enslaved Africans to European colonies centuries ago. To challenge that virtual tide, Rezaire pursues digital activism that troubles Western cultural and economic narratives.

Débora Delmar’s Hired Hands bears the aesthetic marks of an ad campaign: a hand model, contracted to work based on the perfection of specific physical characteristics, is photographed. The images are then processed in Photoshop, where filters and color-adjustments remove “imperfections” that would mar the image and, by extension, pollute the product for sale. Only… there is no product. In mimicking the poses seen in luxury brand advertisements, Delmar deconstructs alluring silent signals that attract consumers and, in this example, reduce women to appealing yet disembodied fragments of an absent whole.

Installation view of 'Culture Industry' at Slide Space 123.
Installation view of ‘Culture Industry’ at Slide Space 123. (Photo by Nando Alvarez-Perez)

Presenting the work of four women whose practices critique capitalism at a liberal arts institution founded to educate women may read as an easy or obvious choice, but it’s a smart one. The women matriculated at Mills College represent a generation that has never known life without the internet and what it serves up, good and bad. One hopes that the humor, irony, and razor-sharp critique embodied in Culture Industry strikes a chord the same way Sailor J’s fierce takedown of beauty expectations did for me, and that women (and men) will use technology to question and continue to neutralize consumerism’s corrosive effects.

‘Culture Industry’ is on view at Oakland’s Slide Space 123 (Mills College) through Nov. 29, 2017. For more information, click here.

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