Saturday, August 2, 2014

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.
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