A dejected dream

After those cherished higher-learning years wane (no matter how high you were during them), the winds of workplace ennui begin to blow. 

You first felt its slight breeze during your first summer job, but not until you were clocking in regularly did you actually feel it. Recent College for Creative Studies grads and product designers Karl Sluis and Crag Stover could tell you all about that. To their credit, the team realized early on that if not properly directed, workday doldrums sap the artistic energy, so they took the challenge head-on, collaboratively focusing their creative energies on a project that, in effect, engages, re-envisions and then erases the American Dream. 

As product designers, Sluis and Stover are employed to solve common problems, such as figuring out how to fix ergonomic issues with mobile devices while maintaining an intact design. In their jobs, these guys are researchers and anthropologists as much they are inventors and artists. The problems of America, however, pale in comparison to, say, the way a power cord wraps around a toaster oven. 

Through 13 rather large info-graphic works, the duo dissects some social, political and martial aspects of Americanism. Stover and Sluis spent several months and countless hours collecting data and turning it all into this info-graphical demonstration. For them, the work has paid off. The exhibit, satirically titled Common Sense, presents stark statistical juxtapositions that shed light on America's irrationality. Through the use of helium-filled balloons segregated into two sections, one piece compares the jarring magnitude of our nation's defense budget with its monetary debt forgiveness for the entire African continent. Harsh truths abound.

In spite of the negative climate surrounding corporate giants and obsessive consumerism in general, Sluis and Stover say they attempted to remain neutral in their portrayal of the information. Still, an easy target is hard to miss. In a piece titled "The Dow Jones Infantry," the financial worth of a plethora of large corporations, such as IBM and Walmart, are represented by tiny green army men, some with bazookas, machine guns, or pistols. Some soldiers crouch, others take aim, but none appears dead. The largest of these conglomerates is, by far, Walmart, a dubious corporation that occupies a significant portion of the artwork's "level" playing field. In doing so, Sluis and Stover pose questions: Is it a good thing that a company like Walmart has the ability to employ so many people? Or are they the behemoth assassin of the once-traditional American mom and pop? 

In another installation, this one called "CEO vs. Average Salary," tandem towers of plastic Champagne flutes are stacked to juxtapose the average American salary and the average American CEO's. The materials used are as teasing as they are telling. Sure we use cheap, plastic champagne glasses to celebrate, but what do they say about the disposability of American culture? The delicately constructed plastic pyramid of Champagne flutes, reminiscent of a Pharaoh's tomb, overshadows everything. "We've seen a huge increase in what a CEO gets paid over the last 35 years," Stover says. "[But] the average worker still gets paid $39,000. That number has increased by 2 percent in the last 35 years, while the average CEO [salary] increased 12,000 percent. It's just unbelievable."

Adds Sluis, "The facts are the facts. It's very clear. How do these people at the top value themselves? How many people do they think they're worth, essentially? Can anybody honestly say I'm worth 300 other people working for me?" 

So, do you know how many people you're worth?

The facts speak for themselves. Explanation shouldn't be required; at least not from Sluis and Stover. Glaringly apparent is that something is wrong with our country, and that accountability is something citizens should covet. If you fail to regularly consider these disparities, the materials used in these works should emphasize the ingenuity of the American Dream for you just fine. If not? We shudder to think. 

One piece, titled "American TV Timeline," shows several panels, each one depicting various syndicated American TV shows from the 1950s to present day. A large timeline composed of American presidential terms runs through the middle of the piece and is used as the metric for comparison. It's interesting to observe the correlations of change from the wholesome programming '50s to the explosion of investigational dramas we see today. 

"American TV has a specific obsession with syndication," Sluis notes. "If the BBC puts on a show, like The Office, it's only on for two seasons, and that's it. They're not into this kind of syndication to make money off it in the long run. People don't have that appetite for seeing the same damn family and the same damn story for 15, 20 years." Not just a commentary on media, this particular installation illustrates a political inclination, showing how Americans vote with their couch-time and TVs as much or more than they do with actual ballots.

For a show that takes on large concepts with simple materials, it does so with a delicate touch and leaves more to be desired. But isn't that the point? America loves to be a consumer-based society, where the products and workers are planned for obsolescence and disposability. We are often left wanting more — more of everything, regardless of the cost. Hopefully, as a consumer you'll want more: more knowledge and more solutions. After you ask the questions, it's now time for the critical thinking. So let's use our collective consumer brains and dream up some solutions.

Not to disappoint, Sluis and Stover have aspirations to make this exhibit larger and more interactive, and eventually hope to take this exhibition to more pertinent venues, such a Walmart parking lot, or the National Mall in D.C. Beware, dreamers, these two have a lot more up their collaborative sleeves.

Common Sense opens at 8 p.m. Friday, June 18, at the College for Creative Studies' Valade Gallery, and runs through Thursday, July 8. For more information, see common-sense.com.

Josh Buckenberger is a sensually uncommon freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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