The Past Is A Bad Idea / The Future Is Fake / The Present Is…

Glenn Grigsby

You are not some disinterested bystander / Exert yourself — Jenny Offil, Weather (2020)


Herschell Gordon Lewis (1984), a filmmaker and copywriter, wrote the following about “God Speaking” copy in his manual Direct Mail Copy That Sells: “The strongest aspect of ‘God Speaking’ copy, and the reason it works so well in the Age of Skepticism, is its straight-forward, unsubtle approach” (p. 191). It should be no surprise that the former filmmaker who claimed the dubious title “The Godfather of Gore”—who filmed such underground hits as Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and Color Me Blood Red—was not a fan of subtly. What’s more, it should be no surprise to readers of advertisement that his in-your-face approach works; it was and is everywhere, and has been the subject of much commentary and criticism.

This paper will explore Sloganeering—“God Speaking” copy in its most concentrated form—through Douglas Coupland’s Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014). It provides important context for the series through an exploration the history of art as “text objects” beginning with Ed Ruscha and ending with Barbara Kruger; noting each artist’s works are in direct dialogic conversation with each other, with the location of their placement, and with the time of their exhibition. The final case study looks at Coupland’s use of Instagram as a means to re-present Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014) for the COVID-19 era (2019-2020). The hope is to demystify the oft-changing dialogic contexts of this work as a physical installation, an online re-installation, and conceptually as a perseveration in collective and individual memory.


You ain’t the first son-of-a-bitch to wake up out of their dream — Nada, They Live (1988)

The history of words and text in art predate both the appropriation of sloganeering and the artistic preoccupation with pop culture, advertisement, and consumer products;  but, the use of slogans in postmodern fine art traces its origin through the Conceptual and Pop Art movements, expanding on the both the fixation on and celebration of—at least detached in a detached sense—a fascination with excess.

The following is a by no means complete sample that tracks the development of the Art World’s preoccupation with mass-produced product—both physical (Spam, Campbell’s Soup) and conceptual (celebrity, culture)—and advertisement. It notes the move from celebration and a detached fascination with product and consumption to having more nuanced, critical take on the effect that an abundance of product and advertisement has had on the populace. The Sample ends in the early 2010s with Douglas Coupland’s Slogans for the 21st Century, a series made in the tradition of Kawara and Ruscha’s standardized templates found in their Today Series and “catch-phrase” work respectively, of Holzer’s attempted “reader’s digest” version of a history of global thought, and of Kruger’s penchant for directly confronting individuals with the unseen forces that govern their existence within shadowy systems.


An informative 2005 blog on Ed Ruscha and his work posted by UK’s Tate Modern notes that the “the use of words and text in twentieth century art can first be traced back to cubist painters such as George Braque and Pablo Picasso who added letters and words, painted and collaged, into still life.” Language play was also central to the slightly-later Dada movement, a direct-influence on Ruscha seen specifically in his earlier pieces such as Honk (1962), an oil painting of an onomatopoeia.

Fig. 1 – Ed Ruscha, HONK (1962), ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland

Actual Size (1962), a giant painting of the word “Spam” with an “actual size” painting of the product beneath it, is a big of a break from the more Dadaist tradition of Honk (1962) and is a classic example of Pop Art (Tate, 2005). Actual Size (1962) is a fascinating (72 x 67 in.) painting because it directly contrasts the brand name “Spam”—a larger-than-life word, ubiquitous across the post-WWII world—against the rather unremarkable “actual size” (notable advertising language) of the product that the brand “Spam” has come to represent (Modern Art, 2019, p. 500). Ruscha said that “words exist in a world of no-size” a thought which renders the paining inherently abstract, where the word “Spam” is physically and conceptually bigger than the product, the painting itself becoming commentary on how words transcend their brand and mean more than simply the products they have come to represent.

Fig. 2 – Ed Ruscha, Actual Size (1962), LACMA (Not currently on public view)

It is interesting to look at Ruscha’s Actual Size (1962) next to Warhol’s contemporaneously made Campbell’s Soup Can (tomato) (1962). While both paintings depict common brands of common household American food items, their similarities and inherent meanings essentially end there, if viewing both in a vacuum. Whereas Ruscha was looking at Spam as cosmically eldritch force bound by neither time nor space, a single word of limitless size and meaning; Warhol looked to Campbell’s Soup as a token of the everyday and a symbol of a strictly American kind of common consumerism where, rich or poor, everyone bought the same simple products (Modern Art, 2019, p. 494).

Warhol’s art reflected his view of American consumerism both in form and by the very process which it was made. In contrasts to Ruscha’s single imposing oil on canvas, Warhol’s soup cans are both many and manageable in size (20 x 16 in.). The works were produced semi-mechanically through a combination of painting, silkscreen, and stamp process that is near-industrial in nature (p. 494). While this paper looks specifically at Campbell’s Soup Can (tomato) (1962), it is important to note that this is just one of 32 pieces that, while each depict a different flavor of soup are, like the products they depict, uniform in every other way: from the classic design of the can to the price that each can sold for ($100 each) (p. 494). Further highlighting the industrial nature of this work is the original installation of this series at the Ferus Gallery in L.A., which saw the works lined up on shelves, evenly spaced out, mimicking the kind of product placement that one would see at any local grocery store. Taken as a whole work, Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) are a thoughtful meditation on the American “magic of the perpetually same” and an early example of his process of standardized production, or, “serialization” with which he would become famous for (p. 494).

Fig. 3 – Andy Warhol, 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), MoMA, Floor 4, 412 The David Geffen Wing

Fig 4 – Andy Warhol, 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), Installation view, Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1962

The concept of “serialization” was utilized in numerous unique ways with the advent of On Kawara and his numerous conceptual series, including: Today (1966-2013), I Got Up (1968-1979), I Am Still Alive (1970-2000), One Hundred Years Calendars (1984-2012), and One Million Years (1970-1998). But where Andy Warhol and other Pop Artists were considering the mass-production of objects meant for consumption (from brand-name food to the concept of celebrities), Kawara was laser-focused on an individual’s movement between infinite 24 hour days, 7 day weeks, 365(-ish) day years, etc. Kawara can be viewed as the object at the center of his work, himself a product of the serialized time and unique places that he found himself both generally and hyper-specifically.

While the totality of his work is interesting and arguably best-viewed together as a complete singular piece—a sort-of near-lifelong performance that he began at the potentially symbolic age of 33—his Today (1966-2013) series fascinating to look at in dialogic context with the works of Ruscha and Warhol. Like Warhol, Kawara produced his Date Paintings in a quasi-mechanical way, utilizing self-set rules to provide an amount consistency over the 47 years of their production. But where Warhol’s mechanical processes were highly industrialized, mimicking the mass-production of product with time-saving tools; Kawara’s were entirely manpowered and almost meditative in style, with rules that appear to stretch out the art making processes to their near breaking point. These rules were concisely defined by Jeffrey Weiss (2015), curator for the On Kawara – Silence exhibition at the Guggenheim:

Each painting, which is produced in the course of a single day… And if it’s not finished, it is destroyed. It takes the form of a list of eight possible dimensions and three possible colors: gray, red, and blue. The colors are handmixed, so red is never the same exact red from one red painting to the next. And the same is true for gray and blue. So his paintings take the form of monochromes in the sense that they have a single field of color on which are inscribed, in white paint, the letters and numbers that represent the date of that day. And the language that he used for the date would change from place to place based on what city or town he was in at the time—because Kawara traveled extensively.

The near-serialized form of the date paintings—with minimal variation in size and form between them—can be seen as a sort of precursor to some of the later works of Ed Ruscha and the recent works of Douglas Coupland, both of who utilized a standardized size of paper with a relatively standardized background—varying solely in color—marked with text in similarly authoritative typeface that evokes what one may see in a typical advertisement.

Fig 5. – On Kawara, Today / Selected “Date” Paintings, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1966-2013), Feb 6 – May 3, 2015

Ruscha’s conceptual “catch-phrase” drawings, dating from the mid-1970s, mixed a serialized format with playful “pithy” language and were created meticulously with tools lifted from the graphic design industry (Tate, 2005). In direct contrast to Kawara’s hand-painted dates, Ruscha’s catch-phrases “display the untouched, off-white color of the paper” surrounded by a hand-drawn pastel background, an effect he achieved with acetate stencils in the sans serif typeface (Tate, 2005).

A blurb for the piece ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES” (1976) installed at The National Galleries of Scotland notes that the phrases employed for this series typically evoked “American vernacular and slang, draw attention to a particular experience, or recall the excesses of Hollywood culture… [or] to [Ruscha’s] own work and to the practice of other conceptual artists working at the time.” These pieces thus often repel easy interpretation, with some of the language employed reaching into the purely abstract. PRETTY EYES, ELECTRIC BILLS (1976) smashes together two subjects that have absolutely nothing to do with each other to essentially abstract effect. Ruscha noted that he “had a deep respect for things that are odd, for things that cannot be explained.” Here, the penchant for the unexplainable directly contrasts with the clear type and simple color schemes creating a fascinating dissonance.

Fig. 6 – Ed Ruscha, ARTISTS WHO MAKE “PIECES” (1976), Tate Modern Level 4: ARTISTS ROOMS: Ed Ruscha: Room 2

Fig 7 – Ed Ruscha, SOME PRETTY EYES AND SOME ELECTRIC BILLS (1976), Tate Modern Level 4: ARTISTS ROOMS: Ed Ruscha: Room 2

Where Ruscha’s “catch-phrases” repel easy interpretation, Jenny Holzer’s series of Truisms (originally 1977-1979) are quite literally universally-held truths / borderline cliches, for example:


A blurb for a selection of 86 of these Truisms notes that the artist likened these—partly in jest—to “a Reader’s Digest version of Western and Eastern thought.” Unlike other conceptual artists, Holzer’s Truisms are not contained within any single artwork, they, being fin the public domain, can be found essentially anywhere, from typed lists printed out and posted onto walls by the artist herself, to flashing lights on digital displays, to expensive T-shirts popularized by pop artists.

Fig. 8 – Jenny Holzer, Truisms 1978–87, MoMA (Not currently on Public View)

Beginning in the 1980s, artist began to explicitly play around with the advertising copy directly, often working in the form of Slogans. Barbara Kruger, perhaps the best-known artist who worked in this form, utilized visual strategies appropriated directly from mass media advertisements and copywriting to create images that challenge a patriarchal status quo. Her techniques combined black-and-white and red contrasts and uniform typeface (Futura Bold Italic) to create bold slogans across shocking imagery (Modern Art, 2019, p. 624). The phrase Your comfort is my silence takes on powerful meaning when combined with the shadowy male figure, as much an advertisement for the status quo as it is an artistic subversion against it.

Fig. 9 – Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Comfort Is My Silence) (1981), Private Collection

The more ethereal You invest in the divinity of the masterpiece is no less striking, no less ominous, than some of Kruger’s more overtly sinister works. Here, Kruger overlays her text across a clipped image taken from Michelangelo’s masterpiece Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos. The image directly compares the patriarchal creation story to the patriarchal concept of a “masterpiece” within the Western canon; it then directly contrasts a “masterpiece” with the industrial practices of graphic design to meaningful albeit eery effect.

Fig. 10 – Barbara Kruger Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece) (1982), MoMA (Not currently on public view)

The stylings of Barbara Kruger have become somewhat ubiquitous in both the art world and pop culture at large. John Carpenter’s cult favorite film They Live (1988) utilized her stylings as a means of communicating the “hidden” messages of advertisement left for human consumption by a malevolent race of aliens. The film, while somewhat silly, presents a simplified and generalized version of Kruger’s artistic preoccupation; namely, that there are forces—for Kruger patriarchal, for Carpenter “elite”—that seek to control the populace and their beliefs. This idea has influenced a number of younger artists, including the now-famous Street artist Shepard Fairey whose Obey Giant / Andre the Giant Has A Posse street art campaign were in part directly inspired by Kruger and They Live (1988).


When Douglas Coupland first saw Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, he said they “turned his brain inside out like a t-shirt. His recent Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014), were, in the words of the artist “sort of picking up where Jenny Holzer left off, but the idea here was right something that would make perfect sense to someone now but would just leave someone from twenty years ago scratching their heads.” Each slogan postulates a critique or something that is going awry in the present era.

Fig. 11 – Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014), Vancouver Art Gallery + Google Arts and Culture

The work itself feels like a logical continuation of not just Holzer and her Truisms—though the style of writing can certainly be traced back to her work—but also of Barbara Kruger and her prints produced through industrial graphic design and of Ed Ruscha, On Kawara, and Andy Warhol’s standardized series (“catch-phrases,” Today, and Campbell’s Soup Cans etc. respectively), something of a “Warholian Pop Art trope” (Prince, 2014,  p. 139). The phrases themselves also continue in the tradition of Coupland’s predecessors, combining tongue-in-cheek phrasing with dry observances and borderline-accusatory framing to advance pointed questions about the present.


Right Here

In a brief essay “On Reading Ed Ruscha,” Douglas Coupland (2013) notes that “Artists reframe our world in ways that allow us to aestheticize what previously was just the world” (p. 14). So what is the world? What is Right Here? Coupland played around with geographic place with what is perhaps his most well known piece of public art Welcome to Detroit (2013), a simple yellow billboard that was installed outside of Denver that stated: “Welcome to Detroit. The entire world is now Detroit.”  coincidentally, one week before the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy, giving the piece an unintentional prophetic bite. In his blogpost for Planetizen, “Public Art and the Urban Experience,” writer Dean Saitta (2015) notes that the exhibitions curators described the piece as a:

Reaction to Detroit’s long term deindustrialization and depopulation—as well as a chilling foreboding [of] new meanings for a city whose twentieth century raisons d’être have largely vanished. Coupland’s slogan functions as a welcome sign much like those one would find entering other cities of speculation like Las Vegas and Reno, as well as a welcome sign into a new and unmapped era in human history.  He says “Think of Detroit as one million primates needing 2,500 calories a day sitting on a cold rock in the middle of the North American continent, with nothing to do all day. It is an unparalleled crisis of purpose, and Detroit just happened to get there first—but sooner or later we’ll all be there.

The piece plays with location on two important levels by referencing both a city that has famously been in a longtime decline through its text and by locating the text over a thousand miles away from its subject outside of a declining industrial center north of downtown Denver. By inviting people to view the piece in this location, Coupland not only chides visitors to think about a famously-declining American city through what is essentially a billboard advertisement, but to see the beginnings of decline right in their own backyards in the space surrounding the installation.

Fig. 12 – Douglas Coupland, Welcome To Detroit (2013), 5055 Brighton Boulevard, 2013

Douglas Coupland is far from the first artist to play around with the billboard as an interface for artistic expression—Welcome to Detroit (2013) was after all, a part of a series of billboard pieces for Denver’s “Biennial of the Americas.” Barbara Kruger also plays around with this form. While not exactly a billboard per se, her imposing three story tall site-specific piece Untitled (Questions (1990/2018) located at The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA) can be interacted with in much the same way. The piece has a fascinating history; it was originally commissioned in 1989 for the exhibition A Forest of Signs: Art in the Crisis of Representation and was thereafter installed on the South wall of the MOCA building in 1990 until well into 1992.

This large piece, reminiscent of the American flag, confronts viewers with a series of questions typically seen at the forefront of her work—about power, patriarchal structures, corruption, and gender-based / racial injustice—while simultaneously acting as a literal advertisement for MOCA at the Geffen Contemporary (Formerly the Temporary Contemporary). Speaking of his decision to recommission the work in 2018 with Carolina Miranda (2018) at the Los Angeles Times, MOCA Director Klaus Biesenbach said that “[Untitled (Questions)] comes to mind as one piece that, in a way, stands for MOCA, its history and role in the city. It encourages us to engage and mobilize to participate. It shows us how an artist can create a timeless, unafraid truth, and beauty that does not age.”

Fig. 13 – Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions) (2018), Geffen Contemporary, 2018-Ongoing

Reporter Carolina Miranda (2018) wrote in the same article detailing Untitled (Questions) that Barbara Kruger is no stranger to fulfilling commissions for museums and her art has evolved so that it can be displayed off the wall and directly onto any architectural spaces. Kruger has a longstanding installation at The Hirshorn Museum in Washington D.C. which wraps around near every surface in the basement level. This installation, Belief+Doubt, originally commissioned in 2012 (and ongoing). The blurb for this piece on the Hirshorn website notes that Kruger intended to wrap visitors with language and voices that address conflicting perceptions of democracy, power, and belief—a message made only more effective by its placement on the National Mall in between the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Of particular interest, albeit on a smaller scale, is the language surrounding the bookstore which explore themes of desire and consumption in the form of a sort of anti-advertisement that simultaneously addresses visitors’s desire for product and museum’s sale of product (at often high prices).

Fig. 14 – Barbara Kruger, Belief+Doubt (2012), The Hirshorn Museum (Aug 20, 2012–Ongoing)

These site specific works take advantage of the space they are located—both High-Value (downtown LA, and U.S. Capitol City) and Low-Value (downtown Denver where property sales were extremely frequent) to create statements that are heightened by place and then forever concretely tied to their original place. But Text-Objects are often created without a specific place in mind. Warhol and Ruscha both created objects explicitly meant for museum space—and no specific place at that—and in that tradition, Coupland’s original Slogans for the 21st Century were hung in a gallery space (see Fig. 11, an installation view of the work at the Vancouver Art Gallery) putting the series directly into conversation with those previous traditions. The pure volume of these slogans essentially bombard viewers with the realities of the present, highlighting the significant shifts and changes in both the art world and the world beyond that have occurred over a rather short period of time.


Right Now — Fatboy Slim (1999, 2019)

In, “On Reading Ed Ruscha,” Douglas Coupland (2013) casts Ruscha’s work as being “a window in time, from the end of World War II up to the first hippie, and from a certain place, the North American West [minus California] and everything Northward… ‘Ruschaworld’” (p. 14-15). On Kawara’s art presents an easy to understand example of what Douglas Coupland was getting at. When taken as a whole, the vast majority of his art is concerned with marking the artist’s movement through time in place within the greater context of near-infinity. His Today (1966-2013) series not only marks days during which he was alive and working, but also present location data through each dates notation and language. Series such as One Hundred Years Calendars (1984-2012), and One Million Years (1970-1998) further mark Kawara’s work as a brief moment in time, both by highlighting the years he was alive and working in the Calendars series and by painstakingly listing one million years in both the artist’s past and the future. While Ruscha’s work was never so blunt, it is still marked by time and place, as belonging to a particular era and meaning specific things about that era. Occasionally, artists will try to re-contextualize their work for a new time and a new era; this is particularly interesting when looking at text objects that, despite retaining identical wordings, change in meaning with the passage of time.

Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Questions) (1990/2018) presents itself as a fascinating case study. The work was originally commissioned during the height of the Bush 41 administration and was installed on the South wall of the MOCA building in downtown Los Angeles in 1990, backdropping the Los Angeles riots. During the riots, photographer Gary Leonard famously captured a group of National Guardsmen walking in front of the memorial, and the photograph remains one of the most famous images of the work today (Miranda, 2018). The work was also conceptually backdropped by the issues of the day: the end of the Soviet Union, the rise of HIV/AIDS deaths, the march towards the U.S.’s first war with Iraq, and a rise in patriotism.

In a somewhat interesting case of irony, the MOCA reinstalled this work in 2018 on the buildings north facade “is accompanied by a series of voter registration efforts led by the museum” through the 2020 elections; thus compelling individuals to participate in the increasingly nonbinary systems that the artist’s work is outright questioning (Miranda, 2018). And just as the first iteration advertised for the “Temporary Contemporary,” this new one advertises for the rebranded “Geffen Contemporary,” ushering in a new era for the MOCA after a series of troubles throughout the 2010s (Miranda, 2018). The re-presentation of this work is thus not so much a retrospective on an aging artist’s older work, but a re-contextualization of old work for a brand new era—an essentially separate work designed to be viewed twice, as Untitled (Questions) (1990) and Untitled (Questions) (2018).

Fig. 14 – Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions) (1990), Temporary Contemporary, 1990-1992

Fig. 15 – Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Questions) (1992), Temporary Contemporary, 1990-1992 (Gary Leonard)

Douglas Coupland’s Slogans for the 21st Century is in many ways a direct response to Jenny Holzer’s Truisms and an attempt to create “timely” language instead of “timeless” ones. In an essay written for the book Douglas Coupland: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything, produced for The Vancouver Art Gallery’s major survey exhibition of the titular artist, Mark Prince (2014) says of Coupland’s Slogans:

Their objecthood gauges the thinness of the contemporaneity which their texts are attempts to encapsulate; and, consequently, the inevitability of its inverse: datedness. Coupland suggested [of the author to] consider how the installation would have appeared to someone seeing it twenty years ago; but the Slogans also make us consider how they will read in two decade’s time. If they are calibrated to denigrate their meaning as transient, it is in order to reflect the essential transience of pop-cultural values (p. 139-141).

For an example, take the Slogan ZOOM, seen in fig. 11; in 2014, that single word simultaneously means “to move quickly” or “to focus in on something,” but in 2019, if one sees the word ZOOM they will almost certainly think of the brandname platform Zoom: Video Conferencing. The Slogans are thus one of two things: they are either self-depreciating, losing meaning through the passage of time and best-seen as a series for a specific era or, they are in a constant state of flux beyond the artist’s control, morphing with each new era, saying something new with each passing year.


It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone) and I feel fine [?] — R.E.M. (1987)

While Slogan’s for the 21st Century is barely half a decade old, Douglas Coupland has already—in his words, “retooled”—some of the classic individual Slogans for a new era on his Instagram profile. The project began on March 20th, 5 days before Canada announced the Quarantine Act, right as COVID-19 was beginning to dramatically impact the West. Since that first post on March 20th—EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK IS NOW SUNDAY—Coupland has been posting a collage of old and new Slogans near daily. This is a rather significant shift away from how Coupland has historically used the platform—his use was never that different from the average user, and his posts were often images of himself, friends, and occasional art pieces.

Fig 16  – Douglas Coupland, Slogan: EVERY DAY OF THE WEEK IS NOW SUNDAY (2020), Instagram

Fig 17 – Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st Century (2020), Instagram

On March 29th, 19 days into the project, Coupland (2020) captioned a Slogan with some descriptive texts that shed light into what he had been doing: “These [Slogans] are all from a project that began in 2011 and somehow they seem to have been activated by 2020.” The Slogans that Coupland had been re-presented were all eerily relevant to a “COVID-19” world, and in many ways, their texts, previously tongue-in-cheek or hypothetical, were now literal.


Instagram is itself an interesting interface for art, and an especially interesting interface for re-presenting Slogans for the 21st Century. The standardized grid-like presentation of the feed is highly reminiscent of the manner in which the Slogans are hung in galleries; in a way, one could not ask for a better method of presenting the work for an online audience. But Instagram, a social media site, presents two new and unique avenues for interacting with the art work.

First, every Slogan can be viewed individually, and when viewing an individual Slogan, you are privy to additional data courtesy of Instagram’s default settings; these include: The date of posting, captions provided by the artist (typically tagging galleries or providing slight additional context), the location that the Slogan was posted from, the likes and comments that the post received (with additional emphasis given to friends of a viewer if there was mutually interaction). The additional data, however slight, opens the work up to additional traditions. It is in many ways reminiscent of On Kawara’s Today Series: the posts occur near-daily, are time-stamped and specify a vague location (Vancouver-ish, where Coupland lives) and carry a similar implicit message (that the artist is alive and working… and appears to be following contemporary “Stay Home” advice common in the “COVID-19” world).

Second, every Slogan is at the end of the day, a social media post, and designed to be interacted with on that level. They are easily sharable and can be sent to a friends in the same way that one would share a standard Internet meme. They invite outsider comments and commentary, most of it trivial, but some of it substantial or personal. The Slogans themselves also appear to be evolving to fit this new format. While the re-presentation initially only involved previously made Slogans—most a part of Slogans for the 21st Century, though a few are from other projects such as his book Generation X—Coupland has since started making new Slogans that are increasingly personal. April 17th’s post, I’M NOT ALLOWED TO VISIT MY MOTHER AND IT IS BREAKING MY HEART speaks to an experience that is now relatively common in the “COVID-19” world but is also an experience specific to the artist himself; as the post is on social media, it also invites interaction from friends and followers who empathize with the post on both general and personal levels.

Fig 19 – Douglas Coupland, Slogan: I’M NOT ALLOWED TO VISIT MY MOTHER AND IT IS BREAKING MY HEART (2020), Instagram

As of writing, this re-presentation of Slogans for the 21st Century is still ongoing. Yesterday’s post, NEXT YEAR IS 1,000 YEARS AWAY feels more relevant with each passing moment. These selected Slogans, initially designed for a particular time and era and to perhaps self-depreciate with the passage of time feel more relevant now than ever. Instagram cannot remake the original gallery experience for this series, but it can create something altogether fresh and new; so now, there is Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014), gallery installation and Slogans for the 21st Century (2019), Instagram concept. The works at the heart of both presentations are essentially the same but the meanings have changed with their new contexts.

Fig 20 – Douglas Coupland, Slogans for the 21st Century (2020), Instagram


Oh God, I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel / That asshole — Douglas Coupland, Jpod (2006)

In Direct Mail Copy that Sells! Herschell Gordon Lewis (1984) discusses a fascinating Smokenders campaign that featured a series of  “God Speaking” behavior predicting ads: “You will stop smoking on Mar. 1. Calmly.” (p. 189).” These ads—an obvious inspiration, if only indirectly, for some of the more slogan-style text objects seen in Barbara Kruger and later Douglas Coupland’s work appear almost ominous by today’s standards. When “God Speaks” through text objects, the message is almost always to chide the public into self-reflection, to think deeper and more critically about the world around them rather than to demand a specific individual change or action. But great art has the power to inspire, and one can make the argument that while these text objects are not inspiring specific actions—to stop smoking, to purchase goods—they do inspire viewers to take actual, concrete actions.

Fig 21 – 1979 Ad Smokenders Inc New York Quit Smoking Free Sessions Program Smokers NYM1


When I first read the Slogan featured in Fig. 19, I’M NOT ALLOWED TO VISIT MY MOTHER AND IT IS BREAKING MY HEART, I called my mom. I still think about this Slogan from time to time, and when I do, I call my mom. I am sure that, upon viewing this and subsequently thinking about this Slogan, the average person is not calling their mom. I am also sure that the average smoker who read You will stop smoking on Mar. 1. Calmly. did not quit smoking; but, while I don’t have the numbers or proof, I am sure that more than a couple did. The thing that fascinates me about text objects is that their interface transcends the object that they’re drawn painted, stenciled, drawn, or printed on; once one views a text object, it immediately exists in their mind, and occasionally, it will remain ingrained in their memory near-exactly as when they first read it.

It is impossible to say if words will inspire or who a specific set of words will inspire. Ultimately, inspiration is dependent on the individual person, the place they’re at, the time they’re in. When Shepard Fairey first read OBEY on his television set, something clicked, and what followed was a long-running street art series that eventually propelled him to fame and total success as an artist. Calling my mom would hardly be considered a significant change in behavior but, for me, as I have a tendency to self-isolate notwithstanding a raging pandemic and contemporary stay-at-home orders, it was. I don’t think that if I had seen those words out in the wild outside of the context of a Slogan it would have had much of (or any) impact on me. I was in the right place, at the right time, reading words in a form I recognized from an artist I trust; and in that moment, the words on the Slogan became my own, a mantra for this time.


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