© Photo Douglas Coupland


Being Douglas Coupland

What does it look like inside Douglas Coupland’s brain? A neatly compartmentalized clutter of everyday objects, toys and trinkets. The bestselling author who coined terms like ”Generation X“ and ”McJob“ turns out to be an avid hoarder.

In his first major solo exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, now available online at the Google Art Project, Coupland again gets to the essence of contemporary life and boils it down to catchy phrases: ”Slogans for the 21st Century“, images that only seem to get into focus when viewed through the lens of a smartphone, an update on pop art, reflections on what it means to be Canadian and his own personal cabinet of curiosities show us the world according to Doug.

Elin Goethe meets Coupland, the visual artist, next to his Lego sculptures of suburban sprawlscape and utopian towers bursting with color, while museum staff put the finishing touches on the show. A chat about unresolved Germanness, TV as art and machines talking about us behind our back.

Q. You were born in Germany.

A. I think technically I could have gotten my citizenship. I would have had to do a year or two of military service and I don’t even speak German. That would have been strange, so okay.

Q. In the section The Brain, a sculpture made of collected objects, you added a few German items. Do you consider part of your identity German?

A. That stuff has been collecting over the years. How old are you, can I ask?

Q. I’m 39.

A. Okay, so I‘m 52, and I spent my entire life up ‚til 1989 answering ”Where are you born“ with ”Well, West Germany“. After that they kept crossing out the ”West“ and that really pissed me off, because I was born in West Germany exactly because there was also an East Germany, that was the whole Cold War politics reality. My father was a germanophile. We had to have a Volkswagen, a Grundig stereo and they’d have German food all the time, which made no sense in West Vancouver in the year 1975. I didn’t even realize I had all those things still in storage and I thought, I guess they’re saying something to me. Germany is just one of those things that I have to figure out for myself.

I worked there, believe it or not, in 1980, at Daimler Benz in Sindelfingen as a Ferienarbeiter. I would have been 19 and because I‘d been studying Science one year at McGill University that made me eligible.

I was excited, wow craftwork, the man-machine myth, German factory, how cool. I got there, and no one spoke German, everybody was Turkish or Albanian or Southern Italian, not one German speaker anywhere. I was living in this Wohnheim in the absolute middle of nowhere. To get a bus and go to work was at least an hour and a half. It was miserable. It was actually good to build character. At the end of the summer, I said, fuck it. I quit and I went to Munich, bleached my hair white and went punk and then I got back to Canada and started art school the next day. Life’s been perfect ever since.

Brilliant Information Overload Pop Head, 2010 acrylic and epoxy on pigment print Collection of Lucia Haugen Lundin
Coupland-10 Douglas Coupland I Win, You Lose, 2009 toy blocks, wood, plastic, found object Collection of Byron Aceman Photo: Trevor Mills, ©Vancouver Art Gallery

Q. So Germany turned you into a punk.

A. Pretty much, yeah. In hindsight it was a really good experience. At the time, it sucked.

Q. If you had to invent a slogan for German culture, what would you come up with?

A. Oh, what a great question. I’m going to the slogan side of my brain now. (Thinking) Peace is difficult! Not very clever, but it’s true.

Q. One part of the exhibition is called the 21st century condition. How would you characterize that condition?

A. I think the key slogan in that room is „I miss my pre-Internet brain“. But what I am finding now is very quickly forgetting my pre-Internet brain and actually forgetting what I used to feel like inside my head. I feel like I have willingly or unwillingly become a new person. It’s happened to you, it’s happened to everyone. We’ve all been completely, neurologically rewired and it’s a pretty new sensation. I like it in a sense that the Internet democratizes thinking. It also homogenizes information and how we access it. So that is definitely part of the 21st century condition and also 9/11 and the NSA. Just too much information too everywhere.

Q. Is this an age of surveillance and paranoia? You said that the 21st century actually started with the 9/11 attacks.

A. I think everyone agrees on that. I remember when the wall came down and they would go into former East Germany and they would find high school gymnasiums filled with surveillance reports. There were so many of them, ten thousands, they just chucked it all out. I think there’s a bit of that going on right now. At the same time, Google has got this new object recognition, where you take a photograph of, say that house or that car and it tells you what it is. I was at my friend Nancy’s place. She has a big [Stanley Douglas] photograph. I was taking a picture of a friend sitting in front of it, maybe that much (holds up fingers) of the massive photograph was in the picture: ”Stan Douglas, 2009, name of work“. It was kind of spooky. And then there’s this thing called Google Ambient. You just turn on your computer all day and it records everything. And if it hears anything that sounds like a voice, it automatically records it, transcribes it into a searchable document. If it’s French, it tells you it’s French, if it’s Estonian, whatever. There is way too much information. I think the future is about sorting information. Right now, a lot of the traffic is people talking to people or people talking to their machines or machines talking to people, but I think the future is mostly about machines talking with machines, about you, behind your back. I think were getting into that phase in about 4 to 5 years.

Slogans for the 21st Century, 2011-2014 (detail). Pigment prints on watercolour paper, laminated onto aluminum.
Courtesy of the Artist and Daniel Faria Gallery

Q. That sounds like the movie Her.

A. I loved Her. Isn’t that wonderful? Getting ditched by your computer, so funny!

Q. How do you think digital culture has changed human relationships?

A. The thing about the internet, it’s a very solitary activity. I would never say ”Come on to my house, let’s go on the internet together“, that’s just stupid. So you do it alone and yet at the same time it has this ability to form large groups. In terms of people and relationships, every wedding I’ve been to since 2000, it’s people who have met on eHarmony or otherwise online. I was at this hipster wedding and I said ”I can’t imagine you two guys meeting on eHarmony.“ They laughed and afterwards they said ”Don’t tell anyone, but we actually did meet on eHarmony.“ You have things like Grindr and Tinder (editor’s note: mobile dating apps) which change the way people hook up and that never used to happen. Straight or gay, it allows people to fulfill urges that before now were not fulfillable.

Q. But isn’t one danger of creating this idealized online image of yourself that you might disappoint in real life?

A. I’m halfway between the old world and the new world, although it’s getting harder and harder remembering what it used to be like. I think for a sixteen-year old, maybe they actually see no difference between their online self and their real self. We sell these T-Shirts out there in the lobby, ”I miss my pre-Internet brain“. They took shots and put them on these models who were maybe sixteen years old. I was like: ”You have no pre-Internet brain, that’s ridiculous!“ It was kind of funny, actually. I think that is the big divide. There are many boundaries in terms of what is reality between young people versus old people and the status is always changing and morphing. I remember when they introduced FM radio to North America. ”It will never work, it will kill AM radio!“ What happens is you have AM and FM radio. One technology does not obliterate another. They can all coexist. What Marshall McLuhan (editor’s note: Canadian communication theorist) predicted is that when one technology becomes dominant and makes another technology obsolete, it gives that old technology the freedom to become an art form. Now that we have the internet, TV has actually been upgraded considerably from what it used to be. We can make 100 hour long movies called Breaking Bad or House of Cards. Aliens from outer space didn’t come down and give us these technologies. We made them ourselves. They can only ever allow us to find new ways to express ourselves or bring out essences of humanity. It is not the technology that is scary, it’s what it might bring out in us that is actually scary.

Q. Do you think digital technology makes our lives less intense in a way? When I go to a rock concert and see people viewing everything through the screen of their cellphones I feel like they are missing out on something.

A. No, I disagree. As long as you are using the Internet or whatever device, it creates a level of intimacy that otherwise wouldn’t be there. ”Oh it’s all about me!“ The real world doesn’t supply that very much, so I can see the attraction.

Q. What is the future of the future?

A. The future loves us, but it doesn’t really need us. If we get there, let’s have fun, but it’s not about us. Is that depressing? I’m not sure. (Laughs)