This essay will accompany the Spring 2010 hardcover publication of Kirk Pedersen's "Tradeoffs," a continuation of his "Urban Asian" photography project.
Boulevards that teem with pedestrians that don’t interact with one another; architecture and city planning schemes that discourage interpersonal exchange; billboards whose models engage the photograph’s viewer more than they engage the people who scurry past them down the street; foreboding alleyways, demolished building sites, and worn, faded, and shredded posters: these describe the subjects of an urban landscape in which advertising is alive and vibrant while those to whom it’s directed are passive and robotic.
Building upon the metaphor of a world where people hide behind avatars and usernames, the 93 photographs in Kirk Pedersen’s “Tradeoffs” documents a community in which marketing serves as spirituality and consumption masquerades as ritual. His work, however, is not so much an allegory of an economic Malthusian malaise as a drama of capitalist ennui.
Staged inside the space created by tall buildings and wide boulevards, it would seem that Pederson’s subjects are not so much the target of marketing as they are the things being marketed (By whom? Capitalist Big Brothers?) In common they share a nebulous presence in these boxed-in spaces and an utter indifference toward both their surroundings and each other. Nothing distinguishes one person from the other; there exist no traces of life histories, shared narratives, dark little secrets, or private joys.
The pace of the photographs is frenetic. People have more in common with such compositional elements as the 90-degree relationship of zebra crosswalks and right-angled sidewalks to building facades than with some presupposed shared humanity. The compositions suggest a sinking feeling that constant and ubiquitous exposure to marketing campaigns (an apt word: campaign as in military) reduces people to neutral datum that portends trends, which in turn creates another round of marketing, ad perpetuum, ad nauseum.
Recorded in vivid and intense color, particularly effective in scenes shot at night, sometimes the images are seen from street level, sometimes from above, sometimes depicting wide panoramic vistas, sometimes so close up you can see individual buttons and broaches. Each image becomes less a rendering of an urban population and more a configuration of dots that adorn a colorful though sterile scatter diagram on a statistical chart. Besides their visual appeal – people flow like flower petals down a snaking river - Pedersen offers a novel and unique way to make sense of the world via the translation of statistical data into human form.
It’s an intriguing project, Pedersen’s attempt to anthropomorphize demographic data. It correlates with past work he’s done, spending large blocks of time living and teaching, observing and photographing, the roil and boil of the urban Far East, where (or anywhere, for that matter) the detritus of advertising morphs into the collaged shards of a fragmented reality. That the people he photographs are emotionally and sociologically neutral is precisely the point. Pedersen works on the fringe of microeconomics and the behaviour of the people its theories seek to explain. His esthetic folds into the consumption patterns of those he photographs. He walks a narrow line between cynicism and despair, finding unexpected beauty in the precise though fleeting moments each image captures.
An examination of clusters of individual images shows how advertising markets people, how it packages them, and how it distributes them. If the photos weren’t so lovely to look at, so visually alluring, they would be downright horrific in their implications.
Images such as “Night Of The Living, Shinjuku, Tokyo,” “Business Man, Shinjuku, Tokyo,” and “Windsor House, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong,” show pedestrians embedded in the grids of crosswalks and trolley car crossings. People portrayed represent pockets of data occupying a specific location on a prescribed X- and Y-axis, each point significant not for individual characteristics but for its aggregated utility for market analysis. Each is but one point on a graph which, taken collectively, suggests something far, far bigger, something abstract, the stuff of which advertising campaigns are made.
Other images suggest mute indifference to the advertising that bombards passersby on a moment-by-moment basis. “Marlboro, Kabukicho, Tokyo,” “Poppy, Shibuya, Tokyo,” and “KFC, Wan Chai, Hong Kong” are of interest because they show how the ads themselves – and not the pedestrians - address the viewer, head-on, as if they are the subject of the work and the passersby simply constitute the background noise. The symbolism of “Coke” couldn’t be any more clear: situated between two Coke posters is a doorway, suggesting that advertising is a portal to the soul of these cityscapes, not the people to whom the ads are addressed.
Advertising contains within itself a sense of planned obsolescence, that is, continuously innovate and then market, no stasis, no balance, nothing. If Bill Gates can describe the Internet as the spinal column of business, then Kirk Pedersen’s images show that advertising is its cyclical nature. He masterfully depicts this cycle in “Three Faces, Macau, China,” “Street Advertising, Zhuhai, China,” and “132388, Shenyang, China” each of which suggest an archeology of marketing schemes: dated, worn, shredded, all overlaid with the passage of time. There’s always some Next Big Thing. It’s an ongoing cycle.
The places you don’t see ads is where you don’t see people. In “Urban Language, Bangkok, Thailand,” “Missing Building, Bangkok, Thailand,” and “Wrapped Building, Kyoto,” it’s as if private space, alleys, aren’t so adorned because people aren’t there: why bother?
Pedersen’s sense of space is majestic and bold. Horizontally it ranges from immense to puny. It’s represented by long, broad boulevards; covered markets, narrow, intimate alleys. Vertically it’s represented by jutting-to-the-sky high rises, whether they’re cluttered in busy urban centers or else seeming to rise out of the sea in spectacular panoramic vistas. He defines space by the upward thrust of buildings and the grid markings of street paint and sidewalks. The created space is conscious, obvious, and distinct, Pedersen has paid particular attention to the creation of container-like spaces. His images resonate, however, because he’s decorated them, he’s gift-wrapped them. Almost every available square inch of wall space is littered with posters, billboards, notices, photographs, together which form exquisite mosaics of life-lived, of things-bought-and-sold. Some are pristine, shining, legible, other are ephemeral paper tatters, the sum of which form colorful and dynamic tapestries that, Kilroy Was Here-like, mark the passage of time.
Taken as a whole Pedersen’s body of recent photographs shows how, instead of advertising selling things to us, it’s the generic we that are being marketed. His lovely photographs show how we are contained, prescribed and consumed, in ways that are not so much human (emotional, psychological) as economic. He doesn’t offer anything that could be taken as a position on the dynamic cycle his work describes, much less a cure. Instead, his compelling and scintillating images embrace market forces as a collation of demographic data pushed to the nth degree. These are images of potential consumers, for those who think they are beyond the pull of the siren song of advertising, when, in reality, they aren’t beyond the pull of market forces at all.