Major airports play a particular role in marketing representations of the “local” and the “global”. They provide retail space to goods and brands that one can truly find anywhere, but they also make available something specific about the place in which one finds oneself. Both the familiar – the globally recognizable – and the specific – the ostensibly local – fall quickly into abbreviation and quotation; they are deliberately generalized and truncated. This abbreviation process makes me feel like I do when I have on occasion found myself in a casino: there, due to architecture and retailing, I have no idea what time it is, and in airports, I often lose my purchase on where I am in the world. Surely, on the Silk Road, the third century traveler was unable to forget that he or she was far from home, but then again, who knows? Maybe this is a condition of traveling and trade that 21st century economies and communication have only made more obvious.
Traveling from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg on May 1, 2016, I stopped in Amsterdam for three hours. To see Victoria’s Secret and Esprit at Schiphol is to know, sure, that one can find a pair of underwear and a shirt in a pinch; to buy a coffee at Starbucks there is to compare currencies – “Ah, I can get the same product for this much here, so now I know what the money’s worth.” Other than the slight differences in graphics between the Dutch and American versions of advertisement and display, the sameness is disorienting. The brands connect locations to the extent that I feel, “If goods were to ground me, and this is where I am, here is anywhere.” Luxury retailers like Chanel or Burberry can be leaders in a kind of creativity, but in airports, one loses sight of that; at an airport I could only, if I were so inclined, purchase something like a quilted Chanel bag or a beige Burberry raincoat. Available in other words are only the most recognizable items of the brand, the lowest common denominator that proves affiliation, and these are available whether one is at Heathrow or Haneda.
In fact in this era when diversified conglomerates are back in economic fashion, individual brands are owned by corporations with multiple holdings, and the materials and labor that comprise each product are made in any variety of different countries, so having a Starbucks or DKNY at an airport can’t even be said to suggest an American cultural diffusion like the one I remember from the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy. At most, it can be said that seeing these brands everywhere is boring, but not immediately politically compromising. It doesn’t set our villages to fighting. Perhaps it should. Sometimes “boring” is politically compromising; it dumbs us down as a world and makes us forget to look more widely for new techniques and ideas or to look more deeply for the traditions upon which new techniques and ideas are based. It makes us forget to invent new techniques and ideas as well, since it suggests that maybe everyone really does want the same thing. The question for the companies becomes, how to make it cheaper, how to make it easier, how to make it more disposable, how to make more people like the same thing so that fewer variants need be made. The question for the worker in the store becomes, how to pass the time more deeply invested in my phone than in the boring sameness of my environment in which I have no stake.
Contemporary airports’ solution to this sameness is to deploy the most obvious of products associated with the place: in Amsterdam one finds tulips and cheese, and by extension, the capacity to give gifts that prove that one has been in Amsterdam. Thoughtless gifts, these: gifts that prove only that one didn’t think of one’s loved ones until the last minute one’s feet touched foreign soil. (I kind of appreciate that the International terminal at LAX has a Fred Segal store; at least this specifically represents one kind of buyer that is local to the area and that doesn’t abbreviate LA to the conventional Hollywood sign or mirage of plastic surgery and tans. It’s still a misrepresentation of LA as a whole, but at least it is a lonely, elite piece of the real puzzle rather than of a fake one.) Perhaps one takes home a t-shirt that advertises that one has been in the city the airport is near. I could have bought a t-shirt like that in Amsterdam even though I didn’t leave the airport. I could have bought some tulip seeds although I had seen no flowers in situ on my own. One’s own experience of the world – even while traveling through it – can become like the youth on Instagram who appropriate others’ photographs of places and foods and post them as their own. Been there, done that, without the need to leave one’s phone.
On the Silk Road, finding lapis lazuli meant one had made it to Badakhshan. Perhaps, though, again I should stop myself short of romanticizing the past: trade has always been trade, and traders have always found the easiest way to please tourists. Apparently, for example, Chinese jade carvers along the Silk Road figured out that travelers liked the gold carving of the steppes, and so began to imitate the Scythian designs of animals locked in combat. This cut out a step in their process, saved them money, and shows that hey, sometimes you have to get off the road if you want to fetishize the notion of the original and the specific, as I admittedly do. I defend myself: I am not hung up on a fixed notion of the authentic. I just don’t want to be told the quotation of the quotation of the quotation of the authentic before I have seen the original. I was raised on primary sources. (This is probably why my work as an artist has no sense of irony, and why I am not the right audience for contemporary art that does.)
Even when leaving an airport, and entering a city, one finds versions of this global/local branding issue, at once providing a sense of disorienting cultural diffusion and cultural abbreviation.
In St. Petersburg, I see McDonalds, Starbucks coffee, Citibank, and Subway sandwich stores. Not only are they here, but, visually, they provide continuity even beyond language. Their signage maintains the palette and font of their English counterparts. Even those who do not read Cyrillic will know the type of commerce in which they can engage when seeing these signs, if they are members of the McDonalds, Starbucks, Citibank, and Subway tribes.
They will trust commerce at these locations even if local variants of sandwiches and coffee would certainly be better. These global chains provide variations for each locale: McDonalds in Los Angeles includes kale salads on its menu and notes the calories of each item one can order; in India, there is no beef at McDonalds; in Spain, there is McGazpacho; and here, in St. Petersburg, the Big Mac arrives in a folded bread like the pita for a Gyro. There are no salads and certainly there is no kale.
Otherwise than through global brands, cities – like their airports – invite visitors into their fold slowly, through a veil of retail touristic opportunities. At first in the city center of St. Petersburg one finds that one can buy Matryoshka dolls at almost every turn. I have a friend who wants one, and yet I am having trouble bringing myself to get her one of these. I want to find one better – more specifically – made, that I will feel proud of having found for her. I was raised to give gifts the story of which and the thought behind which were sometimes better than the gift; I have to learn to separate my family’s values from those of others. There’s a kind of vanity in the well-storied gift, and in this case, if she wants a campy Matryoshka doll, then that’s what she wants, and she will appreciate that I purchased it for her in Russia. Everywhere in the city center one can also buy amber – and apparently one had better use a lighter on it to make sure it is not plastic. Haven’t tried that yet. Authenticity sometimes has real tests.
Branding goes beyond brands, beyond a notion of cities representing themselves in airports or in particular items available at global chains: branding can encompass whole cultures. I see signs in Cyrillic in St. Petersburg for sushi; these take on a font that suggests Japanese. I see that in English as well, back home, as in the case of Chinese food (here, in Cyrillic, but in a Mandarin sort of font), and an Irish pub called Mollie’s the font of which looks like Celtic even though it is, again, Cyrillic. These and other signs are portals into an abbreviation of these cultures; it happens everywhere, all over the world. One can call it kitsch because it relies on the notion of mass production and popular culture, but it is almost the mass production of a culture, the popularization of a culture. How odd to call a whole cultural representation kitsch: a kitschy notion of the Irish, a kitschy notion of the Chinese, even a kitschy notion of the Russians, in Russia. And I mean no disrespect to this beautiful city for exhibiting this phenomenon: it happens everywhere, and I choose not to ignore it even though, as an artist, I have swift access to other currents of culture. In Los Angeles, my home, we abbreviate and brand ourselves as well. My bartender in the airport at Amsterdam – pouring me Scottish whiskeys in a quiet second floor setting full of copper and wood – said he hated LA because he spent all his time there tracking down our kitsch, and our kitsch – on Hollywood Boulevard – is dirty, damaged, and disappointing.
As a visitor to a new city, one would only find oneself frustrated if one expected that on a first day or two one would suddenly have insight into difference, and so these first days are the ones one spends wandering around with too little water and too many destinations in mind. St. Petersburg was generous with what appeared on the other end of this initial quest. It is so beautiful a city that the retail road washes away. 18th and 19th century architecture seems to have impressed generations to the extent that no revolution has altered the façade of much of Невский Проспект. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is no Hollywood Boulevard; its palette and forms are at once complex and over the top, and tightly controlled.
Students at the Imperial Academy of Art learn to paint as have Russian artists throughout history: icon paintings in both flattened space and the beginnings of three-dimensional space… they can learn to fresco, to mosaic, and to make stained glass. Their training is conservative insofar as they stick to representation and materials that the country and European art history is grounded in, but they learn about where they are from. They develop a shared vocabulary from which to depart later. So starting from these brief histories – the Art Nouveau detailing on Дом компании «Зингер», the use of plaster in architectural detailing in the servants quarters of apartments and the use of wood in country carving – where next does a new generation of Russian creatives go? Eventually, at the end of my first week, I found myself off of the touristy Нéвский проспéкт, discovering handmade lace at Вятские промыслы, contemporary design at 4 Dots, and refined retro at Мармеладовa. Beyond finding gifts like sunglasses made from lightweight Siberian wood, thick felted тапочки in the shape of wolves, and men’s two-piece suits sewn from loose woven local linen, I also feel I am beginning to see innovation in Russia that makes use of both traditional and contemporary technique, that does not halt for the false desires of tourists limited by what they think they know.