“We are not where we think we are,” Dr. Fauci warned, before we all woke up to an altered time. In this new reality, today means two weeks ago, time-travel happens over Zoom; and all critical knowledge is accompanied by a lag—some contrapuntal rule of incubation periods, clinical trials, antibodies growing in cellular soups. It’s maybe in a time like this—when the future fuses itself onto an oblivious present—that prophecies are revisited, and omens are read.
Since at least 2011 Douglas Coupland has been churning out pithy, pop-colored observations about a changing world. Slogans for the 21st Century began as a series of eye-catching posters used to promote a Youtube party that Coupland was hosting at the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver. Against bright monochrome backgrounds, he borrowed the hotel’s Knockout-49 font to dispense all-caps aphorisms around the question: “What could I tell myself ten years ago that would make no sense to that old ‘me’?” In a post-9/11 decade that now had Facebook in it, take any interval of time and a trip would be guaranteed. 2011 alone was a year that saw the rise of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements; a tsunami hit Fukushima, triggering a nuclear crisis; a far-right terrorist attack in Norway; and Apple’s debut of Siri.
Coupland has a tap for Slogans and it flows – a signature swirl of dread, melancholy, nervy humor, and bored irony. Over the years, and occasioned by a string of international exhibitions, hundreds of slogans have accumulated around themes like technology, robotics (Vitra Museum, Basel; MAK, Vienna), and ecology (CCA, Montreal). With the arrival of 2020, though, a prescient quality has ignited the works. Statements made years ago about loneliness, online consumption, warped time, and middle-class dystopia suddenly vibrate in the throes of global pandemic. (Not to mention the multi-color patchwork display of tiled Slogans on gallery walls, which seems to anticipate the series’ current home on Coupland’s Instagram.)
The last email I received from Doug had the heading “OMFG.” Inside were photos of the title pages from each chapter of his novel Girlfriend in a Coma, written in 1997. In all-caps, they read: “Loneliness is Fun,” “One Day You Will Speak With Yourself,” “…And After America?” Proto-Slogans, ringing true now, too. In 1997, we saw the Asian financial crisis; the cloning of Dolly the Sheep; Deep Blue beating Kasparov; and the first human outbreak of H5N1 bird flu.
There have always been signs. Of course there have. But with time obliterated, there is no power in prophecy anymore, only in staying awake.