(8/1/12 Update: Due to a lot of interest in this post, please check back in a few days for more follow-up on this post. I’ve gotten a lot of great responses, many critical and thoughtful. There’s much more to say on this subject. And if it wasn’t clear from the outset: go “shop” at these stores I’m talking about. They’re very interesting.)
For some time now, I’ve been taking notice of and encountering a somewhat puzzling space in the urban landscape. I tend to call it, for lack of a more precise term, “fucked up retail.” What is fucked up retail?
First, these stores do not appear motivated by profit motives. In fact, visitors may actually wonder how these places “stay in business” at all.
Second, these stores carefully assemble and curate their goods. They often consist of clothes, books, accessories, small household goods or furniture and various objets d’art.
But the third point is the key distinguishing factor between fucked up retail and, say, a museum store like the MoMA Store or a design store like Design Within Reach or even a random art object store like what you find on Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice or near Sunset Junction in Silver Lake.
At fucked up retail, the retail form itself becomes a creative medium. These are not merely shops with interesting products. The store is a kind of product, or experience. And this partly allows fucked up retail to question its relationship to profitability. Fucked up retail frustrates consumerism, because consumerism thrives on retail spaces that are either nearly forgettable (like Costco) or are an extension of the marketing and advertising world (like Anthropologie).
Some Los Angeles examples:
And there are precedents in the art world, as well.
George Brecht and Robert Filliou’s “La Cédille Qui Sourit in Villefranche-sur-Mer” (1965)
Claes Oldenburg’s “The Store” (1961)
I consider these more recent iterations of fucked up retail a more fascinating counterpoint to the cynical consumer appeal of MOCA’s Murakami retrospective show (2007-2008), which centrally featured a pretty standard and dull Louis Vuitton store. Here, retail form is treated as pure luxury desire, an ethics of hopelessness.
At the same time, the humor of fucked up retail couldn’t be more clear than in the case of Stand Up Comedy, a shop I had the chance to visit in Portland. It features a unique assortment of clothing and accessories. And even the electrical wiring was an extension of the store’s concept. Ironically, the store served as the backdrop to shoot a scene from Season 2 of the show Portlandia. The skit, featuring Carrie Brownstein with Miranda July, and called “Two Girls Two Shirts,” takes a version of fucked up retail to its logical extreme. The store has only two shirts to sell, and the two girls who run the store seem to spend most of their time dancing. They pause to ask, “Are we trying to get customers?” The response—“we don’t care”—and the show’s rather smug contention that the store is going out of business very soon, misses the absurd point, I think. The joke of Stand Up Comedy is that there may be much going on in retail than sales volume.