With rhapsodic after rhapsodic on possibility and new meaning in the marketplace, you would think that I’d've explored every last chainstore from frontdoor to stockroom. And additionally with all the hype about the hyperreality of IKEA, you could only assume that I’d've peeked, if only for the sake of breadth and balance. But before September 15th 2004, these feet had never been set on IKEA soil. That was the day everything changed.
(First, an IKEA primer…)
As you probably know: IKEA is a store dedicated to affordable, modular, home furnishings (some assembly required). One half of IKEA is a warehouse. The other half is a display area partioned into slick, sample, yuppie dreamrooms: living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens, children’s quarters, etc.. There are seemingly hundreds of rooms, each as hyperreal as the next, linked together in a long, exitless labyrinth. Employees sail through every once in a while but— adopting the suitably Scandinavian neutralism of IKEA policy— they remain more like breezes and whispers than the flesh-bone-and-badge members of any workforce.
IKEA hails from Sweden, and it shows. Half the store is in Swedish. The display books, which are everywhere and which are real books, are in Swedish. “Real” both as in you can pull them off the shelves and read them, real, and as in “not-being-grocery-store-fiction” real. Philip Roth’s En Git an Communist and such. Each item— or each species— has a cute, round, proper name like STACKEBO, MAGICKER, or TANJA BLOMMIG. It’s like Pokemon with translucent home furnishings.
There is, also, a free cafeteria. In Athenæum-ese, this translates as: instead of trashcans, IKEA has well-occluded shelving units, where customers stash their trays and all the potatoes, meatballs, and apple crumble that they just couldn’t finish. Next to this alcove, there is a microwave for you to heat and enjoy the potatoes, meatballs, and applecrumble that they just couldn’t finish. There are also free-refills; which in these times of Right and Reason, has become an inalienable right of any civilized nation. End of primer: now onto new meanings.
II.Blurring the public/private distinction.I consider IKEA nothing more than an extension of my living room, an ultraplush westwing of the South Philadelphia Athenæum, where I go to come home. Where I go to to bend the public/private distinction badly out of shape. Where I go to read and squeak down into a spaceage lazyboy and enjoy the pleathery taste of domesticity without all the demands. Without the cleaning, the worry, the hassle of refilling the paper towel dispenser. Again, loitering is like a twentyfirst century sit-in for another kind of reclamation— as necessary as any confusion between the public and the private. Philadelphians are, accordingly, welcome in my private living quarters, whether or not they consider the trade fair. The blur works both ways.
III. The Gift for Mimicry.IKEA is the very model of exquisite artifice, despite all the track lights, explanation, and pull for Scandinavian transparency. Everything is perfectly fake— Epcot center fake, Busch Gardens Williamsburg fake, Madame Tussaud fake— and fake stuff is always twice as nice as real stuff, in my book. Levels better than the Genuine. Any day.
The Fake is two realities for the price of one, with a certain tension tingling between them as a little bonus. Fake fireplaces, fake furs, wigs and wax fruit, plastic flowers and xmas trees, props and proptronics, fiberglass volcanoes, rhinestones— all of it. They are parodies of the universe; perfect parodies of history, crass utility, and everything simply, obviously, and uninterestingly real. Why do you need an authentic Pirate’s Cove? A real Enchanted Forest? A real fireplace?
This logic carries over into the Athenæum, with a heavy door near the elevator that reads “Employees Only.” Behind that door, is neither a room, hall, nor stairwell, but a cinderblock wall. To me, this is so much better and awesomer than a real door opening upon a real space. Speaking of cinderblocks, we briefly had a cinderblock made of Styrofoam, coated with stuccoed grey to give it the look of the genuine article. After a show, we were all tossing it around, pretending to hurl it at people, and making all kinds of stupid muscleman cracks. Point being: I can’t remember the last tiem I had that much fun with a real cinderblock.
It’s probably fair to ask whether anything at the Athenæum is really real, but truth is we just get further without worrying about whether our evetns and projects and castles and game shows and tiem machines are really, really, real. Fakeness (as opposed to “falsity”) is the handy stratagem for satisfying the impossible.
IV. Co-co-option; stealing back.I steal ideas and sodas are from IKEA in nearly equal measure. “Co-opt” would be the more precise term. Co-option, in the other direction, is all the more easier in that it will always be tricky for cashhounds and trend analysts to wiggle through the crevices of secret culture. But bright-eyes can find corporate brainwork everywhere, in plenty and in plain view, with billboards off the interstate pointing the way. We have a considerable advantage, to say the least.
I happened to spy, on the way out of IKEA, a carpetéd bench with many essential tools— a screwdriver, mallet, and pliers— chained to the head of it. I thought it was a delightful organizer. Ideal for the So. Phila. Athenæum, a blackhole where where any tool or bit slips into oblivion no matter how pricey, shiny, or new. Now I just chain the little buggers up. At a worksation. Only, at the Athenæum, I had to put the workstation on wheels. A workmobile. Thank you, IKEA. Zero dollars and zero cents. But wait— that’s not all!! I’ve also begun to properly name every object— or object-species— in the Athenæum, lifting the names right from the pages of the IKEA catalogue: LINGO, CIRKEL, BJORKKUDDEN, KARLSKRONA, GRUNDTAL, and MALM. What a quiet and beautiful symbiosis between corporations and secret culture…
There’s the whole galaxy of commerical methods and ideas waiting to be plundered and used for noncommercial purposes. I will soon even begin distributing my written words in brochures, the greatest of late-American vehicles for expression. In the proper hands, it becomes a vehicle for another kind of persuasion. Maybe God is no longer on the side of the big battalions.