Contemplating evil - working out concepts as an artist

     I have often been asked how I come up with the ideas for my artwork, and for many I have promised to do a post on it one day.  Today is that day.  As some of you know the topics in my various artworks are quite personal and relate to things in my life almost like a diary.  I do also combine social commentary on topics currently within our society or that reside on my mind. I also try to envision possible issues in our societies sometime in the future.  For example recording memories digitally and then the moral dilemma of possibly editing them, the narrative from Imogen and the pigeons and the Singularity of Kumiko.  I think of technologies and then try to imagine what might happen if they existed.  So for this post I am going to explain a thought process I went through recently when contemplating a new work.  I eventually decided to go in a different direction, but it does illustrate how I begin with a broad idea then over time I try to become more specific on what the original idea actually means.  Or I try to look at different angles I suppose.

     I was thinking the other day of the term "evil".   What really is evil beyond the black and white bible version.  Some might blurt out Jeffrey Dahmer the well known serial killer.  Historically, an easy answer for most would be Hitler the man who tried to exterminate the Jews.   Ironically some would say those same Jews who are punishing the Palestinians, or reversely, Hamas and the Arab world who wish to destroy Israel.   Often discussion of these conflicts seem to be broad generalizations of entire people combined with propaganda and a need to label one side or the other as definitively either good or evil, when sadly, the horrible truth is that its all grey with both sides having a legitimate argument.  If, for example, you are a supporter of Israels position, then try debating with a friend as the devils advocate where you defend the Palestinians or vice versa.  It's surprisingly easy to do, and in fact probably a very mentally healthy thing to do.

     So I was pondering those we typically categorize into good and evil categories, and tried to imagine those who do evil things yet somehow escape notice to the same degree.

     There are some very powerful companies in the world such as General Mills, Kraft, Nestle, Nabisco, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and others.  In the USA they employ close to a million people with revenue of $280 billion.  These companies create food based on the model of taste, convenience and cost and it has resulted in half the population of the USA being considered overweight while 40 million (the size of Canada) are obese.  The rates in children are doubling and obesity is being cited as a cause of various ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, various cancers and so on.  A common sentiment that myself and others have had in the past is that these people should really just control themselves and stop eating so much, and do some exercise.  Sadly, the problems are more insidious than that.  The depth of the manipulation lies with food scientists.  Or, if they were characters in a story of mine, food Scientypes.

     Where to start?  so scientists have discovered that you can essentially control people using salt, sugar and fat.  They strive to find what is called the "bliss-point" in food.  A psychological craving that one can manufacture by meticulously combining elements such as those three ingredients, to make a product into a money making superstar.  Salt to give a jolt to the first bite one takes, the fats to induce overeating and the sugar which is shown to light up the brain the same way as is done by Cocaine.  Currently scientists are trying to adjust the physical shape of these ingredients to boost their already overpowering appeal.  To increase absorption rate or to hit the taste buds harder and faster, or in the case of sugar, enhancers which amplify the sweetness by 200 times its natural strength.

     Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor said "As a culture, we've become upset by the tobacco companies advertising to children, but we sit idly by while the food companies do the very same thing.  And we could make a claim that the toll taken on the public health by a poor diet rivals that taken by tobacco."  Last week a woman was awarded 23 billion from R.J Reynolds, America's second largest cigarette company. That ruling also said smokers and their families need only prove addiction and that smoking caused their illnesses or deaths.  I imagine the food industry was a bit alarmed by that ruling.

    So I am researching these types of stats and am asking myself if this is a form of evil or just business?  These are not so much individuals we can point at, but rather entities made up of people like perhaps a nice friendly scientist whose just doing his job.  He or she loves their children and their dog and each year donate to some worthy cause.  But then... no... somebody does make decisions knowing the consequences. 

     So is this scenario below evil then? 

     People are getting unhealthy, they watch their children become ill and everywhere they look on the shelves in the grocery store are hidden monstrosities. Hidden? how so? potato chips and chocolate bars are obviously bad outside a balanced diet.  Frozen pizza and all that sort of garbage are easily recognizable as bad choices, so if you pick them then its your own fault right?  I mean all in Canada and the USA (sorry European readers you might not know this one) generally make jokes about unhealthy things like Lucky Charms which are a super sweet marshmallow filled breakfast cereal. It is the polar opposite to something like corn flakes or oatmeal.  Some things are obviously bad and others like oatmeal or yogurt are known to be good.

  General Mills knows that people are trying to change their lifestyle and make a healthy choice when it comes to food and other things.  The recognize that people are starting to buy more yogurt, that unsweetened pro-biotic snack which you can add berries and nuts to.  So they then created a brand called Yoplait which intentionally aligned its image alongside the loved and respected image of yogurt, and essentially turned it into a dessert.  It has no pro-biotic benefits and also has twice the sugar per serving as the ridiculously over the top Lucky Charms... but its a hidden monstrosity because we trust it.  But then that wasn't enough so they created a product aimed directly at kids called Go-Gurt, and put it in a squeezable tube so kids could put it directly in their mouths not needing the annoying civility of a spoon.  They say this generation will be the first one to not have a longer life expectancy than the previous one.   Is it evil to intentionally use the healthy image of yogurt as a decoy for parents trying to make the right choice in order to prevent their children from dying young?   Is the person who made this marketing decision evil knowing that they likely will be responsible for deaths due to this type of misleading marketing campaign?  Who in the end is responsible?  Is there a point when the responsibility shifts from the consumer to the manufacturer provided a degree of addiction is applied?

     So anyway, this is an example of how I try to contemplate different angles in order to look at themes within the artworks that I wish to create.  Rather than just point out the obvious which we all accept, are there not sometimes alternatives which create more dialogue?  If you are interested in learning more about this topic in particular then try books like Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser or even related things like Guns, germs and steel by Jared Diamond or No Logo by Naomi Klein.  They are all quite eye opening.


Morten Tolboll said…
I would just like to say thanks for your art. I got interested in Second Life through a Danish Documentary called My Avatar and Me:

I have been interested in the Argentine blind philosopher and writer Jorge Luis Borges for years.

As a philosopher myself I´m interested in the play between fact and fiction, reality and dream.

As a beginner I have an Avatar in Second Life called Alexander Alcyone, and are having a lot of joy out of playing between reality and dream.

Again: thanks for your work!

Morten Tolboll
Bryn Oh said…
Thanks Morten. I had built the Long Now orrey for that movie I recall! The director is in SL too.. his avatar name is Rob Danton. I am glad you are intrigued by the medium.
Glyph Graves said…
Hey Bryn
While I share your concerns about the practice of deception in this and other industries I find I am also pretty uncomfortable with the idea of singling out a subgroup of employees as responsible.

For one I would call that “group” food technologist rather than scientists but that’s just a quibble . More to the point are they really more responsible than say the “artisttypes” to use that general characterization? The graphic designers that did the label designs or worked on artwork for the advertising material? What about the “creative’s” who designed the market strategy (or even the product) in the first place?

I would be more looking at the responsibility of legislators to pass laws regarding misleading labelling for starters. Certainly the owners of this food product have an obvious responsibility and perhaps there is a certain lack in most countries education system that does not prepare people with techniques to be critical of this type of misrepresentation.

Perhaps we should be looking more towards a collective responsibility where as a whole we accept the sort of subculture where a degree of deception is considered fine if there is a profit to be made; this sort of thing seems unfortunately all too routine.

Now I have had the opportunity to know a fair number of people who do science and a fair number who are artists and the thing I find striking is how similar they are. Both, oddly enough vary in the same way within their respective groups as does to the rest of the population from which they are drawn. Both have fair proportion of members that at their worst have a bureaucratic, rule based mode of thinking and both at their best display a deep sense of wonder at the world around them. For example here is a person that shows that sense of wonder that I also see in the best research scientists.

On a more general note I think categories are misused when applied to people. They are most useful when they are applied to a set of objects that are identical or nearly so.

I don’t feel that this ever applies to groups of people no matter they may have a particular profession, sexuality, religion or some other trait in common. We are diverse creatures and lumping people into categories based on single or a small number of traits just obscure both our diversity and similarities.

I can’t think of a situation when doing so has increased rather obscured understanding. In many cases it has led to tragedy and at the extreme, used as an excuse to kill or suppress others that have been placed in some superficial category or another. Im sure you can think of many examples for yourself, human history is littered with them and is all around us and I would include the example you showed, the horror of what is happening in the middle east.

N.B. Of course, none of the above applies to engineers who, as all right thinking people know, should be placed under careful surveillance, have their mad utterings curtailed and have their “profession” prominently and publicly displayed to avoid the embarrassment of accidently inviting them to dinner parties.
Bryn Oh said…
Hi Glyph, actually I stated right at the start "Often discussion of these conflicts seem to be broad generalizations of entire people" which is how I see most things in life. I have faith in my readers that when I say "scientists" in an article about engineering food then they know I am not talking about all scientists ranging from Cancer researchers to Forensics and so on, but rather I am referring specifically to the food scientists mentioned in the article. Food technologists is not the term used in the field but rather food scientists, so that is what I used for the post.

And yes I would say that a person with specialized skills used knowingly and specifically to fashion, on a molecular level, an extremely addictive and damaging food is more to blame than the person who created the logo. In fact I find that many try to soften responsibility in others and as such it perpetuates the problem. Those food scientists working on creating the addictions in the unhealthy food we eat are not innocents who are totally surprised by what their work has been used for. They know exactly what results are desired and for what reason and are paid handsomely for it. Chastising me and then trying to find ways to absolve them is a nice thing to do, by a fellow scientist such as yourself, but I feel people should have to defend their actions, especially when on such a massive destructive scale.

We should have a higher moral compass than we do presently in the world, and that wont happen when we can find ways to excuse everyone for their harmful decisions. I stated in the post that it was a range of people to blame with a focus on the marketing executives and other decision makers as well.

Furthermore I should mention that this post is an example of how I work out ideas for artworks as I stated at the beginning, and it shows my process in moving through, and altering ideas until I find what I consider to be a root "truth".

But lets make this a bit more extreme though Glyph. Would it be acceptable for a genetic scientist to accept a job which required them to find a means of infecting everyone on the planet possessing white pigmented skin with a mild cold? Is it just a job or should they morally have to consider the ramifications of creating such a potentially catastrophic invention. With great power comes great responsibility as the saying goes.

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