An Interview with Ricky Yanas, Excerpted from Pastelegram no. 2: Wipe Out

April 13, 2012

The following transcribes two separate discussions between Ricky Yanas and Pastelegram, conducted through a questionnaire email and elaborated upon at a later time in person. The rest of the interview may be found in Pastelegram no. 2, which will release on May 10, 2012.

Conversation #1

Why did you choose to alter advertisements in Time magazine?

Time is the world’s largest weekly-distributed news magazine; so in a sense, it sets a norm on how to view the world. Twenty million readers in the US are subjected to Time’s particular point of view and accept it as relatively factual accounts of real events. The thing is that Time magazine is owned by Time Inc. which owns 130 different magazine titles including Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, and Fortune, to name a few.

Why does the fact that Time owns so many magazine titles affect its credibility?

Like any business, Time is supposd to make a constant profit and it has to remain consistent in its point of view, and its format—as Noam Chomsky notes—doesn’t really allow for the kind of detailed and researched article that makes an opposing argument to established points of view.

So basically, if Time were to publish something that didn’t fit easily into the establishment’s ethos, it would require so much explanation that it would exceed the format requirements of the magazine. 

In a way it’s its own product and needs to remain consistent. If there’s an inconsistent point of view, that would result in a loss of profit and readership. I’m not sure how much truth is lost or maintained in that equation. I found this really great quote online by the head editor of Time, it was such an arrogant position—

TIME's iconic red border symbolizes a bold, even arrogant idea. Everything inside that red border is worth knowing, and whatever is outside of it, well, not so much. That idea contains a concept that is even more essential today than it was when we first proposed it 87 years ago. In a time of information overload, we understand that information needs editing, voices need moderating, data need curating. Every week in the magazine and every day at TIME.com we convert information into knowledge through careful thinking, writing, reporting and arresting images. Separating the crucial from the trivial is the core idea that has always animated TIME.

—He was like, it’s up to us to edit and determine what is worth publishing.

Its readership considers Time’s news to be a neutral vantage point on the world. But Time magazine is a business. It sells products to buyers. Noam Chomsky states, “The market to which they sell is advertisers and the product is audiences with a bias towards more wealthy audiences which improve advertising rates.“1 Thinking in economic terms, this seems pretty obvious. In a sense, Time magazine can be considered as much of a niche product as Golf Weekly. I found this humorous and in need of acknowledgment. So in an act of détournement—a Situationist term—I took three Time magazines and ripped, doubled, cut and misused their articles, ads and formats. I sprinkled some old National Geographic ads as a kind of red herring.

Détournement is what we commonly call appropriation: a reuse or mishandling of not only media but all forms of artistic production, past or present. In this sense détournement becomes centered on the action of appropriation and is not defined by a particular product. The other end of this spectrum is recuperation, which is the mainstream’s co-optation of subversive works or processes. This can be seen in the increasingly surreal and disjointed ads by Old Spice:

Hello ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me. But if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he’s me. Look down. Back up. Where are you? You’re on a boat, with the man your man could smell like. What’s in your hand? Back to me. It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again. The tickets are now DIAMONDS. Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady. I’m on a horse.

Many of the ads in Time provided an occasion to actively respond to their content and structure. By voiding or repeating certain parts or emphasizing certain language, they became their own subtle jokes. Not jokes in slapstick stand-up comedian way but in the sense that a structure is established by the original ad and I lean in with a break, a cut, a crack. It’s all very playful with many assertions of failure and impotence.

Ricky Yanas, pages 6 and 7 of "Wipe Out," Pastelegram no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2012). Image courtesy the artist.

Like your rendition of the Viagra ad?

It’s funny how deep in the shit we are as a country but at least there is Viagra. 

Also looking at the ads, you can really tell who reads this stuff. What they’re selling defines and signals their audience. And actually being able to dig in and mess with these things gives a kind of empowerment. I cease to be a passive viewer but truly engage with this product propaganda. I distort it and make it mine. In many ways I believe this was the goal of the Situationist International, to encourage people to openly and actively engage in both their real and image environment. 

So tell me about the Situationist International and your interest in it.

Well, the Situationist International was an alliance of European avant-garde artists, writers and filmmakers founded in 1957. Holding Marxist views and influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism, they produced a series of publications—all titled The Situationist International—sporadically until their ultimate dissolution (they had several) in 1972.

The key figure or spokesperson of the group was Guy Debord, a French writer and filmmaker, who wrote The Society of the Spectacle in 1967. In the book, Debord offers a definition of “spectacle” as the curtain of images and motifs that shield the general public from the true economic structuring of their lives. He saw that this spectacle combined with the functionalism of post-war urbanism was fundamentally inhuman and stifled human creativity for the means of economic production. The intertwining of spectacle and economic production promote isolation within communities, which in accord safeguards class power. 

The Situationist International offered a kind of creative guide to their readers. Through essays, stories and suggested actions the publication critiqued modernist and capitalist organizational strategies as well as offered actions to counteract them. The dérive, for instance, defined by Debord in his “Theory of the Dérive,” is one of the basic Situationist practices. It involves rapid passage through varied spaces or places involving playful and constructive behavior and awareness of the psychogeographic effects of these environments.

In a sense, Wipe Out is dérive. I navigated through an image environment, cutting through and splicing images. It pushed me and pushes you through different image environments, the different types of images that Time magazine offers. The National Geographic images in a way speak to the almost-necessity of getting lost—the quality of being lost—in the act of the dérive.

The ideas of technique and strategy make the dérive different from the journey or stroll. The results of which would take the form of a map or diary detailing the effects that signs, markers, blockades, sensations and personal impulses would have on the individual engaging in this activity. The key was not having an endpoint defined by a destination but to navigate with a hyperawareness of how a space can truly effect one’s own particular movements. There is a responsibility placed on the subject to pay attention to that which usually goes unevaluated while one is, maybe, just trying to get to work. 

What I enjoy so much about the Situationist International and Debord is this tendency to resist doctrine (this may have also been a cause of their own particular instability). I believe Debord rejected the title of “The Situationists” because he did not want Situationist actions to be regulated to him or his group, but to the public for public use for the public good. To identify himself or his group as THE ARTIST would have placed all the responsibility on himself and the Situationist International. I believe it was his concern to empower people and the individual to create out of the realm of capitalist production.

Conversation #2

What makes communication efficient?

Not all communication is efficient, which is good. But in the realm of advertising there are rules to effective and efficient communication:

Love your product. Don’t try to do everything in one ad. Write to one individual. Translate business speak to human-speak. Avoid catch-phrases. Be specific. Don’t brag. Use the present tense and active voice whenever possible. Use transitions to connect different thoughts and establish a relationship between them. Avoid clichés. Vary the length and structure of sentences. Make the strange familiar, the familiar strange. Write “out loud.” Use contractions---after all, it’s the way people speak. Pay attention to every word you write/speak. Test your copy—if you find yourself cringing, ditch it and start again. Proof your final version.

A friend of mine lent me his marketing strategies textbook. My favorite chapter focuses on how to write the best “copy” for your ad. The key is to offer just enough information to say everything but nothing at all. It’s a balancing act and for the best ad people, it’s an organic process that requires much revision. The ad person is trying to direct your attention to a product through heavily researched strategies of communication.

The artist on the other hand tests forms and techniques in the studio or in the physical environment, finding new methods of communication and directing attention not to products but to ideas. There is much to learn from advertising though, especially how to make easily digestible lies. Ads tell a story that may or may not be true. The idea is to get the information through the audience’s cognitive filter. They do this by being extremely economical with their use of language. The difference between this action and art-making is that art hopes to stop the flow of information. Sometimes the artist desires her viewer to reflect on the surface of painting or wants to punch through the surface of things. My favorite artists use an economy of form and language to explode their subject or open it up. It’s like unlocking a secret combination. Jokes do this too. They use the fewest words or gestures to generate the greatest effect. They slip through the surface to reveal internal contradictions.

Could you expand on jokes?

Socially, as Marshall McLean often stated, they operate to air grievance or they ARE grievance. This isn’t always the case; not every chicken crossing the road joke expresses a grievance. But, the best jokes and the funniest comedians speak to flaws, inconsistencies and contradictions in the order of things. At work especially, people use jokes to alleviate the tension between themselves and their peers, or themselves and their environment.

This alleviation comes through the breaking of order and expectations of given situations and interactions by the use of word play or gestures. Jokes operate as a kind of disruption, something to take one’s mind off of one’s circumstance while simultaneously reflecting on it. They are momentary works of art that everyone produces at some point.

There are many ways to make jokes. By misplacing or reorganizing the logic of a situation one can generate a joke. I once heard a joke described as a detour. The joker provides a new angle at which to approach the subject. It abstracts and unifies the subject in the same instance. The joke literally creates a new path in the brain. This would explain why jokes are seldom as funny the second time you hear them because that pathway is already in place.

Slavoj Žižek often talks about the Hegelian idea of totality, meaning that to truly understand a subject, a structure or an institution, one must account for its inconsistencies and failures. Jokes help us reconcile this; they are direct and efficient accounts of contradiction while being simultaneously a contradiction.

What is your favorite joke?

This is a picture of a graphic on a t-shirt I own. It’s a simple setup, almost ridiculously simple. Squirrels need nuts. Squirrels are not very civilized.

  • 1. Noam Chomsky, “Massey Lectures,” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, 1988.
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