Materialising the Digital Era

Douglas Coupland explores the collective consciousness of the 21st century through Lego works, readymades, bric-a-brac and an enormous public work, coated in chewing gum.

Douglas Coupland (b. 1961) is one of Canada’s most prestigious contemporary writers, having published 13 novels, a collection of short stories, seven non-fiction books and a number of dramatic works and screenplays. Not only this he is also one of the country’s most celebrated designers and visual artists, creating works that synthesise high and low culture and reflect upon religion, the power of language, the omnipresence of technology in modern life and the 21st century condition – whatever that might be. Coupland is highly prolific; he describes the condition as a “collective neural rewiring, a common soup pot of data from which everyone feeds, the death of the middle class, the rise of the ‘blank collar’ worker, asymmetrical warfare, algorithm-driven culture, a hyper-democratised media.” Coupland continues to state that “Our world, our societies and our collective cognition has been changing at an astonishing rate since the birth of the internet, but many people are still viewing 2015 through archaic lenses, so they’re maybe unable to get a clearer picture of what’s happening.”

Accordingly, Coupland’s work seeks out various ways of “seeing” this new world – whether this be through addressing the issues of “smart phones, cameras, and how they feed into the way we selectively view images that occupy the darker political parts of our collective identity”; the effect of the Pop Art movement upon our collective view; the brain and how it collects new information; post-war utopias and dystopias, or by looking at current cultural stereotypes – specifically studying the Canadian national identity. For Coupland’s first major survey of work since 2000, the artist is exhibiting across two venues in Toronto, between the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), with the six-part show: everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. In addition to this audiences will be invited to visit Holt Renfrew Men to interact with the Gumhead (2014) and contribute to its changing design using their own gum and creativity. Over time the work will be dramatically transformed eventually obscuring the artist’s face and creating a unique version of the sculpture.

Curator Daina Augaitis explains that she worked with Coupland the artist in the same way that an editor would with Coupland the writer: he trusted her to streamline his work into a cohesive exhibition while he spent the year leading up to the show focusing on making new, long-envisioned works (including one of the exhibition’s most prominent works, Gumhead (2014). Augaitis explains: “Coupland’s work sheds light on subjects as varied as the rise of utopian ideas, the power of words, the presence of digital technologies, the significance of the everyday, and the unshakeable nature of one’s own constitution – ideas that Coupland examines with both optimism and some trepidation.” Her approach to curating the show was “to look at as much of Doug’s work as possible and then to determine the principal ideas that he keeps coming back to. These six thematic nodes emerged fairly quickly – it was my way of making sense of his art and I hoped it would provide some grounding to an art practice that at first may look rather broad but in fact circles continuously around his assessment of the contemporary condition.”

These six “nodes” are divided between MOCCA with 35 pieces exploring “Canadian culture, history and architecture” in sections: Secret Handshake, which unravels the stereotypes that constitute Canadian cultural identity, and Growing Up Utopian, which looks at the dystopic possibilities born out of a post-war perspective via 146 Lego towers, amongst other constructions. Meanwhile, 68 works addressing “ideas of popular culture and recent politics” at ROM will be grouped into Words Into Objects including Coupland’s recent work Slogans for the 21st Century (2011-2014), which is made up of over 100 statements about our contemporary world; Pop Explosion, which brings classic images of the Pop Art movement into the present; 21st Century Condition, which references pivotal world events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and looks at how smart phone technology allows us to engage with memories of this; and finally, The Brain, which focuses on a major new sculpture consisting of 5,000 collected objects, serving as a metaphor for the complicated ways in which the brain gathers and processes new information.

The Brain is something of a masterwork: the result of objects amassed over the past 20 years by Coupland, who Augaitis describes as a “passionate collector,” gathering specific pieces of bric-a-brac from garage sales, eBay or ephemera like his endless cigarette packet foils, brought in via social media and crowd-sourcing; the artist asked his followers to send him things or to bring them to his book readings. This work, according to Augaitis, reveals “both the logical as well as the non-linear thinking that supports Doug’s wildly inventive imagination and his prophetic cultural analysis, that [many] have come to know through many of his highly acclaimed books.” The Brain adds to an exhibition resulting from “the workings of a mind that is utterly creative,” a way for visitors to “actually see how Doug pictures his own brain.”

In this sense, The Brain is a more comprehensive portrayal of the artist than his literal self-portrait and public work, Gumhead. This 7ft-tall black sculpture of the artist’s head stands in situ outside of the ROM in Toronto, inviting passers-by to stick their chewed gum to his face: obliterating the image with random expressions made entirely of chewing gum. Coupland describes his work with the public – which elsewhere has included supplying Lego pieces to public events and using their constructions as components for his Lego works – as a “parallel career.” To him, “it’s the non-fiction version of studio art; I’ve been making huge laser-milled heads for six years now. Back in 2006 I also did a show where I gave chewing gum to just over 50,000 students and asked them to sculpt on top of an under-base made of school desks (Vancouver School group show, Artists for Kids Gallery, 2006). It was successful. Enter Gumhead. With public art, always second guessing defacement is a part of everyday life. I believe I think about it more than most people.”

Although in some ways appearing as dominant as an effigy of a dictator, perhaps a Soviet-era statue, the black resin and polyester piece communicates Coupland’s playful sense of humour; it legitimises transgression, vandalism, defacement and has certainly been enjoyed by its audience. He recalls the sculpture’s summer-long lifespan outside of the gallery with humour: “People went directly to snot. They tried big earrings but they would fall off. During the last month, we’ve had the Ebola outbreak so everyone started doing haemorrhagic bleed-out from the eyelids.” It is true to say that Gumhead has many purposes; it is simultaneously “portraiture, a selfie, a still life, landscape art, interactive art, social sculpture and time-based art. It’s also populist.” Coupland continues: “The moment people put gum on it, it became their work and participants were very productive and made a point of coming back again and again to see their piece. It was nice.”

Gumhead is one of Coupland’s least sinister works, an experimental piece of public art, whereas The Brain is a discombobulating creation reminiscent of a mind packed with too much information, a Google search, or even a combination of the two. Coupland is quoted as saying “I miss my pre-internet brain,” and the work seems to be a haphazard representation of the artist, post-internet. This statement, along with over 100 other text works comprise a substantial section of the exhibition through Slogans for the 21st Century: “That Sickening Feeling When You Realise You’ve Lost Your Cellphone Will Soon Be Permanent”; “Knowing Everything Turns Out To Be Slightly Boring”; “A Fully Linked World No Longer Needs A Middle Class.”

With statements like these Coupland directs his audience to his world view, which he briefly outlines with: “Our current world isn’t awful and is far more understandable than one might think. It makes its own new kind of sense, and existing in it with freedom in your head depends on how you frame the world, how you reorganise it, and how that in turn forces you to rethink it.” Coupland is an artist whose work openly and directly speaks to his audience. It is the writer in him, and it makes for relatable works with instant effect.

Although Coupland has worked primarily as a writer, and only officially began his career as a visual artist in 2000, since his early years working as a designer, he says that his own “visual art never really ended.” He explains that even when working as a writer he conducted any number of theoretical art projects within his novels. These projects “drove reviewers crazy” and included “10,000 random numerals; all of the allowable two-letter words in Scrabble; and visualisations of what a printout of a computer’s thinking might look like.” Some of this extraordinary work is included in the show, and everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is therefore a summation of Coupland’s entire portfolio rather solely his “fine art.”

Coupland only moved towards the art world in recent years as in his opinion “so many writers aren’t visual thinkers, in a medical, clinical sense, which is probably why they became writers.” Coupland says that he “can’t read work written by non-visual thinkers – I medically, clinically can’t read the work. I need a concrete metaphor in every paragraph or my mind vacates the room. People never look at reading this way, which I find astonishing. Visuality is so fundamental to perception.” He also explains that “visual people only become friends with other visual people. This is a big thing and is going to get bigger – as our world becomes increasingly led by the image-based media.”

Of course digital imagery, archiving and the internet are an overriding theme for Coupland’s oeuvre: however, in terms of art historical references he reaches back to the paintings of Emily Carr, the Group of Seven (a historical collective of Canadian painters from the early 20th century) and, as he affirms “all of the Pop artists, obviously.” In brightly coloured QR codes, Hirst- esque shelving laden with building blocks, digital collages of technology advertisements and oversized household items, Coupland demonstrates the enduring relevance and timelessness of Pop Art.

Today popular culture is present and available for examination more than ever. In fact, Coupland’s QR codes – which further recall Piet Mondrian’s abstraction – also work as functioning codes, and when scanned with a smartphone generate statements about life and death similar to Slogans for the 21st Century. In using the internet to interpret the work, the viewer is immediately subject to Coupland’s opinions of the 21st century condition; Coupland’s Pop Art looks at popular consciousness, not only popular culture.

He notes another of his influences as being the Canadian philosopher of communication theory who predicted the invention of the internet, Marshall McLuhan, the artist having written the 2010 biography Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! Coupland references McLuhan’s 1962 publication, The Gutenberg Galaxy, as having particular effect; the essay states that new inventions are not only something to be used but also they change us – particularly in the context of movable type, which replaced the typewriter to create a new level of homogeneity. McLuhan argued that new digital technologies would lead to a return to diversity; however, and as Coupland’s artwork displays, instead the homogeny has set in.

As curator, Daina Augaitis explains: “Anywhere in this increasingly integrated world, wherever you are, we seem to be heading towards a place where, as Doug has written, ‘everywhere is anywhere and anything is everything.’” In over 100 works and six chapters of energetic, multi-media, enormous and miniscule, brash and detailed, painterly and readymade pieces, Coupland clearly communicates his view that this era of constant sharing and dissemination is “a vital and fascinating moment in human history.”

Everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything is on view at the Royal Ontario Museum and MOCCA and runs until 26 April and 19 April respectively. For further detail, visit and

Chloe Hodge