Words by Anthony Thomas
Residing in Brisbane really sucks sometimes for a variety of reason but mainly because there is a noticeable lack of people like Jesse Willesee living here. The name should ring a bell – we recently featured a photoshoot with the Sydney-based artist getting high with Circle Pit’s, Jack Mannix. His past works, 22 Girls Smoking Weed or Passout, both generated substantial controversy as subcultural analysis was mistaken for exploitation. The media circus that followed only saw the notoriety of Willesee’s recurring public photoshoot/exhibition, Flash/Mob (formally 700 Hundred Photos), grow. Following the success of the April Flash/Mob, Willesee returns with his new show, Product Placement. Though unlikely to cause the scandal of previous works in the Tumblr Trilogy, Product Placement promises a toast to our increasingly active involvement in the branding of companies. Naturally, Willesee has gone all out for opening night this Wednesday and yes, there will be free shit galore. How else is celebration of consumerism supposed to go down? I caught up with Willesee recently and regardless of whether you love or hate him, you can’t deny just how relevant his work is when it comes to exploring the insane world of products and social media we live in.
MM: Do you like talking to media?
JW: I love the outcome but I always feel very nervous during the process.
What do you like about the outcome?
It’s funny because people usually want to do a lot of media and it is really important because I’d like as many people to see my work as possible but I find it to be the most nerve-racking thing.
The last time you were in Moustache Mag you were high with Jack Mannix. Are you high right now?
[laughs] I’ve got three pre-rolled joints just for now. I also have a Michelada.
Yeah, you add a bunch of beer, lime and tomato juice but more like the tomato juice you get in American, like a Bloody Mary mix with all the flavour and spice. Then you put some salt around the rim, it’s like beer cocktail [laughs].
Just another day in the life of Jesse Willesee?
[laughs] Well, I do drink a lot of Michelada’s and I do smoke a lot of joints, so I guess so.
Excellent. Let’s talk about your art. Is it politically motivated or is it simply social commentary?
I think the people who say it is political are often very political themselves, it’s something they are very interested in so they see my work in that way. I’m really into reality. I see things and try to recreate them in my own style, often commenting on youth culture and teenage trends. For instance, 22 Girl Smoking Weed came from me seeing a lot of girls smoking on Tumblr. I did another show called Passout based on seeing tons of pictures of people’s friends passed out over all kinds of social media. Now with this show I’ve seen lots of, particularly young, people holding up products in pictures like they are posing in their own ads. I want to know how the kids, who style and shoot these photos for their Tumblrs themselves, feel about it. They’re not professionals but they have an aesthetic that they are pursuing and the work produced often turns out pretty cool.
So the premise of Product Placement is that through social media we proliferate advertising and marketing?
You know, it’s about asking why these kids want to hold up these products in their photos? I wanted the show to essentially be people doing what I was talking about. I’m a conceptual artist, not a photographer, but I often use photography in my work. It’s really important what the people in the images are actually doing and not so much about how the images look. Product Placement is similar to the other shows where I just saw something that people were doing that was interesting and had aesthetic appeal potential. What’s weird about it is that when I told people this concept, they felt they hadn’t seen it before. Yet when I sat them down and showed them my reference images they would say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that before.” It’s crazy. I think marketing was pretty powerful when the generations we’re talking about were growing up, more powerful than they had ever been because they knew what they were doing. Look at Mad Men, they had a some really good ideas but a lot of the time they really didn’t know if things would work or what the impact was going to be. Things are a lot more strategic now, companies really know how people are going to react to things. There’s companies who have made themselves so iconic to young people that they want to share image they have created for the brand. It’s not just the idols that get to pose with the Coca-Cola can, they get to own some of the feeling as well.
Do you agree with the theory that we don’t buy products for their functional value rather the symbolic attachment we instill in them?
Some of the products I’m talking about have almost an acceptance that we actually like the companies that create them. I’m not condemning these kids with the show, it’s a celebration of a certain aspect of consumer culture. For example, in the show I shot Dr. Pepper. I grew up in America and I remember when I first went there getting a Dr. Pepper. I’d never had it before, I’d had Coke or Pepsi, and I thought it would taste the same but it tasted completely different and I loved it, since then I’ve had a great association with it. Another product I shot was Budweiser; it has such an iconic logo and even the beer’s taste is it’s own thing. We like these products and we want to put ourselves next to them and associate them on a level that goes way beyond just buying and consuming it.
Where the people in the photos carefully selected?
I really wanted people who looked like they would actually hold up a product and pose with it. Every now and then I shoot professional models but I’d rather shoot a chavvy, well-dressed person then some stick model that I’ll have to dress. I really like that the people I shoot can come in wearing their own clothes. It feels more real because it is real.
I’m curious, is the artwork the pictures you’ve taken or the product give-away you have organised?
On the night, there will be the pictures I’ve taken. There will also be a projection that will show a lot more of the photos I took. So you can see them displayed and them in another form, a movie of photos. Like I said, big part of my shows is the idea. Even if there were no photos, the ideas and concepts about these phenomena I see is really important to me. Sure, the photos on the wall look really cool and whatever but for me it’s about the concepts. The product give-away is also going to part of it because we will be filming that. Arizona Ice-tea, a drink I used to get in America and have also always loved, is sponsoring the show with 500 bottles, which I’m building an installation out of. At some point in the night the people at the show will be able to take it apart for the products. People get pretty wild for free stuff. You tell people there’s going to be free shit and they’re like, “Free stuff! What’s it going to be?” We are filming everybody getting at all the free stuff, which will create another art work in itself.
What sort of reaction are you expecting?
That’s another interesting aspect because I don’t know! We’ll wait until everyone has had a few drinks because they might be a little shy. That whole ‘I want to grab it but nobody else has yet’ idea.
I wanted to talk about the ‘haters’. Do you have any theories on why some have such negative reactions?
I do these live photo shows in suburban spaces where photographers come and shoot about three times a year and they get quite big. Art people don’t seem think it’s art, they don’t get it and they don’t want to get it. Some of the other shows I’ve done were quite controversial and received media attention, which really brought out conversation. There were a lot of fans from that but there was also a lot of negativity. I find that people who are angry… this will sound weird but when the Kardashian’s talk about the publicity they get and how to market themselves, they had a saying that every hater was worth two to five fans because their voices seem to be so much louder on social media and the Internet, which basically just lets other people know that these people do what they do. You may hate it but they still look and then there’s people who will look and it’s completely their thing and they love it. It’s an odd concept. Plenty of people show up and like the shows I put on and you know what? I do find it weird, a lot people say it’s not art but I see things in the mainstream art space that I think is much less relevant then the things I’m doing. It’s ridiculous.
It’s funny you say that because of that heavy focus in contemporary art on being ‘present’ and I’d say a lot of this negative feedback is because you and your work is so present and people are jealous of that. Seeing things in the world and create as a direct response to that.
Very much so. That is the goal exactly. There’s my art and me and they are intertwined.
This show completes the Tumblr Trilogy. Have you said everything you needed to say?
It is only really the start. I’ve always been really interested in reality stuff. Cops is my favourite TV show, and that was the start of me seeing things in society. It’s almost journalistic; I want to take things straight from the headlines more and more and turn it into my art. That’s where I’ve ended up with the Tumblr Trilogy.