Since 2008, artist, writer, and educator Jonathan Blaustein has focused his artistic practice on the ways capitalism and globalization dominate 21st century realities. He’s made conceptual photo projects about the commodification of food, our land, and our junk. His latest series, “Party City is the Devil,” uses party supplies to symbolize “our wasteful, collective consumption habits, as nothing is less less necessary than a purple plate.” Beginning in 2016, Blaustein spent a year and a half shopping at Party City, the world’s largest party supply conglomerate, choosing objects for their symbolic resonance, then photographing the curios in his studio, using only natural light. The backdrops are plastic tablecloths from no other than Party City, so all the colors, says Blaustein, “are ‘real,’ though they read more appropriately as ‘hyperreal.'”
PDN: Was it your child’s birthday party, or the aftermath of it, that sparked the inspiration for this project?
Jonathan Blaustein: Oddly, no. I’d bought and photographed things at Party City and Hobby Lobby over the years, and drove down to Santa Fe one day intent on kicking off a new project about the latter store. (They’re known for having a strong Evangelical bent, in addition to insanely tacky taste.) But Party City is right next to Trader Joe’s, which was the errand I was doing before I went to Hobby Lobby. I remember sitting in that parking lot, staring at Party City. I wanted to go inside so badly, but I was supposed to go to Hobby Lobby. That was the plan. Instead, I decided to listen to my instincts, and after a few minutes of internal debate, the Party City project was born. It felt like the right choice, to represent consumption, even though I changed my original premise on the spot.
But just as I never would have photographed animal flesh for “The Value of a Dollar” had I been a vegan, I have definitely shopped at Party City before to buy things for my children’s birthday parties.
PDN: How many trips to Party City did you make over the year and a half you spent shopping?
JB: I’d say I went to Party City about 15 times, give or take. I thought about shopping in Denver, or when I traveled elsewhere, but in the end, I liked the repetitive simplicity of sticking with my local New Mexico location in Santa Fe. It also helped, as I got a good sense of where the inventory was, so I knew where the fresh seasonal stuff would be throughout the year. It’s always something there: Valentines, St Patricks, Easter, First Communion, 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc.
PDN: Can you explain the “symbolic resonance” you were looking for in the objects?
JB: Of course. We’re literally trading the future of our planet for the ability to buy whatever rainbow-colored anything we want, when we want, seven days a week. I want these objects to look familiar, and seductive, while also being completely unnecessary. No one NEEDS pop-colored-plastic forks and knives, or Elmo party hats, or space-age silver balloons.
The masks have a Trumpian vibe to them, and are supposed to communicate the dark part of this project, viscerally. As are the images in which I intentionally used radical cropping, as that creates a feeling of tension in the viewer as well.
There is a military helmet, references to superheroes like Batman and Captain America, and also tinsel and streamers that speak to “partying like it’s 1999” when we have extinction-level problems to face in 2018.
PDN: What did you enjoy most about working on this project?
JB: Well, shopping for non-traditional art supplies is always fun, but I think I enjoyed the locked-in-focus of the studio most. I used only natural light for this project, and had very little of it to work with, so I got out of my comfort zone and built a light-funnel with massive, white reflectors.
For the first time, I shot using a tripod, and sometimes even a timer. I took advantage of the digital camera and used the touchscreen to choose my focal point, which was also new for me. While I was staring hard at my set-ups, and holding two reflectors with one balanced on my chin, I totally lost myself in the process. It was definitely my favorite part, as the ideas I’m working with here are just not fun. But Zenning out on the art-making process definitely was.
PDN: Did anything surprise you or did you learn anything about yourself and/or the world while working on this project?
JB: I spent a lot of time teaching in 2015-16, and was therefore often explaining my photography philosophy to my students. I was always reminding them about the artist’s Batman “utility belt of tools” we can use: line, shape, form, color, texture, scale, angle, perspective, light, tonality. The better our image structure and quality, the more likely a viewer is to stop and pay attention long enough to figure out what the hell a picture is about. After several years of talking about that constantly, I found as I began this project, I was better able to push my technique: to follow my own advice to my students, after I’d codified it. That, more than anything, allowed me risk working with color in such a radical, hyperreal way.
PDN: Are you hoping people will look at party supplies differently after viewing this work? If so, how?
JB: Well, I’d like it if people thought about all the crap they buy and discard so easily, and then tried to tone it down 5%. That would be ideal. But I’d certainly be happy if people also decided not to buy disposable things at the next holiday party, and instead just washed some plates and silverware. Or maybe made cookies, instead of giving out goody-bags filled with little-rubber-baseballs.
Honestly, I’m not trying to save the world. No one person can, and if I wanted to, art would not be the most effective way to do it. But as art chose me, rather than the other way around, I try to make things that reflect how I think and feel.
–Interview by Sarah Stacke
“Party City is the Devil” is part of the 2018 edition of The Fence New Mexico, on display at Railyard Park in Santa Fe from July 21 – October 21, 2018.
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