Slogans for the 21st Century

Douglas Coupland and Michael Stipe Talk Art, Memory and the Digital Age

On the eve of the Serpentine Gallery’s Memory Marathon, writer Douglas Coupland and musician Michael Stipe sat down at London’s Connaught Hotel to discuss themes from technology to memory to the modern consciousness, crystallized here in Coupland’s recent series of artworks, Slogans from the 21st Century. Since meeting Stipe nearly two decades ago at the MTV inaugural ball for Bill Clinton, the Generation X author has explored multiple creative disciplines, using sculpture, text, image and performance in his visual practice. This series of bold, keenly perceived slogans questions our experience of the first decades of the new millennium, and the way we communicate within it. Stipe’s contribution to the Hans Ulrich Obrist-curated Serpentine event meanwhile constitutes an art world debut for the former R.E.M. frontman. “I’ve never commented, written, much less appeared anywhere with a visa for anything other than musical performance,” he explains. “It’s a little bit of trial by fire—I’m terrified of public speaking, and that’s why I agreed to do it.” As Frieze London concludes, these two enduring luminaries look at contemporary culture, in all its evolving forms. 

Douglas Coupland: You’re the one who actually got me on a cell phone, properly. I was one of those hold-out people and you took me aside and told me I was being passive aggressive and that I needed to grow up and get a phone. You type with your thumbs on iPhones, and I noticed that my usual keyboarding got terrible. It was as though my brain was having trouble figuring out the device I was using. 

Michael Stipe: I wear out Mac computers really quickly because I started with an old-fashioned typewriter, where you have to slam the cartridge across to get to the next line. As a performer, I always use my right foot to keep the beat of the song, to keep myself grounded. I reproduce that on all the computers I use. The space bar is completely worn down on the right side because I am always smacking it with my thumb.

DC: I love Twitter, though; I use it all the time. 

MS: I don’t. There’s just so much white noise, so much anti-content. Still, we’re lucky to have media like this available for those who aren’t in London this weekend to experience the Marathon first hand. It makes things more egalitarian, more accessible. Across whatever platform is out there, people will be able to plug in to watch the blind author John Hull, for instance, who I’m really fascinated to hear speak about memory. 

DC: Everything’s hyper-documented today. A decade ago, nobody was down the street recording everything with their phones. Now everything exists all at once; all of history is present simultaneously, which makes us feel atemporal. And it’s confusing getting a grasp on the fact that this is forever—this isn’t a passing thing. The way we perceive time really is changing, and we’re doing it collectively. 

MS: In terms of “collective” experience, I think that in the 21st century, these very basic broken-down ideas of what creative outlets are and how people express themselves within these separate mediums are being ripped apart. Hans Ulrich manages to pull these really disparate people together to create something that might seem intimate, even emotional. In that way he's at the very forefront of combining different mediums to create something that feels very now, and very contemporary.
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