Thanks to Executive Chair for allowing me to take part in a second workshop at Watermans last Saturday.This one focused on Haydn Jones’s art work “Greasy Bouffant”, which is about the way that organisations (such a governments and companies) use language. A version of this is on display at Watermans: during the workshop we collectively modified
it (and had a lot of fun doing so).
Haydn’s work is important because language is important, and the way that large organisations misuse it indicates their own blind spots, and sadly often, their arrogance.
The title ‘Greasy Bouffant’ comes from a UK government website inviting us, the public, to report a benefit cheat anonymously. If you don’t know the benefit cheat’s name, you are given various drop down options to describe him or her – for example, hair type. (Options include ‘bouffant’ and ‘greasy’, but not, for example, ‘elegant’ or ‘smart’.) You can also describe the benefit cheat’s partner, with a similar list of options. (When did anyone last have a ‘bouffant’ hairstyle?) It looks as though the DWP are making some assumptions about who is likely to cheat – though maybe these are justified by experience.
Haydn also looks at official/ corporate interactions with the public, and such corporate apologies as ‘on a few occasions we fell short of those standards’. There’s a kind of corporate smugness, together with a sense that there, we’ve made an apology in a suitable form of words cleared by our lawyers, the matter is now over. It’s the mind set behind the Volkswagen emissions tests, or Lehmann Brothers use of misleading accounting practices, or at governmental level, behind claims made to justify involvement in the war against Iraq. (The war may or may not have been justified, but the claims appear to have been deliberately inflated to gain public support.)
It’s what philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls Bullshit. For the bullshitter:
“the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to him… his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it… a person who lies is responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it…. [but for the bullshitter]… all these bets are off…. his eye is not on the facts at all, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
The workshop considered the language used in various internet scams, or near-scams, such as certain sales training and evangelism sites. In some of these cases, the same tricks of language are used to attract sales, making the product seem bigger and better than it really is, focusing on non-measurable benefits, or on trivial ones (eg access to a Facebook group or to a newsletter or e-book).
The workshop took place amidst other net art activities forming Watermans Digital Performance Weekender, including a virtual reality exhibit.
Only one member of the public wandered in and talked to us (we were part of the exhibition). Oddly enough, after a few opening words, he tried to interest us in an Irish company which has invented a perpetual motion machine (possibly Steorn?). Periodically, people wearing an immersive headset were led past us, seeing something entirely different to their actual reality as they stumbled along.
It was difficult not to see our context as symbolic!
(Photographs of ‘Greasy Bouffant’ are (c) Haydn Jones and reproduced with his permission.)