The French Situationist and philosopher Guy Debord warned in the 1960s that life had become a spectacle in which people related more to commodities than to other people. He accused collectors and museum curators of "gorging on falsehood." He chastised the bourgeois for embracing representation over actual experience. The cover of Debord's book, The Society of the Spectacle, shows an audience wearing 3D glasses and staring trance-like at an unknown sight—a much grimmer take on J.R. Eyerman's 1952 Life magazine photo of an audience watching the first-ever 3D movie.
In his MFA thesis show, A Synthetic Spring, Missoula artist Jack Metcalf also addresses "the spectacle." He is inspired by Debord's ideas, but his art tends to be more playful; a critique of inauthentic—or synthetic—life disguised in down-the-rabbit-hole quirk. In his 2011 show at The Brink, for instance, he created a woodblock print of a Tijuana Zebra or "zonkey," which he titled "I have nothing to say/and I am saying it." Metcalf has also put on performance art shows in the basement of the Top Hat. During the recent album release show for Missoula art-pop band Needlecraft, he stood on stage, oiled-up, wearing nothing but shorts and lifting weights to the music. In other words, he relishes absurdity.
Metcalf is also an elusive creature who will only reveal so much about his projects ahead of time. "I think people like surprises," he says with a grin. "People like surprises, right?"
A Synthetic Spring will be a one-night-only art show at the Crystal Theatre that employs visual art, choreography from Missoula's Bare Bait Dance group, music from DJ Kris Moon, costumes by Needlecraft drummer Hana MT, plus work from other composers, actors, videographers and poets.
Despite the collaboration, this is Metcalf's project through and through. As evidence, Metcalf's studio is overflowing with things he's made for the show that play on the idea of mass-produced commodities that Debord so loathed. There are 43-cent stamps, bottled water and pencils, all labeled with "Jack Metcalf" as the brand. Two small boxes brim with Jack Metcalf-brand fortune cookies, and instead of a fortune each holds poetry he and his collaborators wrote. He also has a life-size cut-out of himself smiling like a smooth-talking salesman. There are elaborate costumes adorned NASCAR-style with the show's actual sponsors. "Nothing's to be sincere or genuine," Metcalf says. "I've been studying printmaking, which [deals with] repetition and technology. Multiples of multiples. This show is about supply and demand, it's about abundance, it's about consumption, expansion and appearances."
The set of A Synthetic Spring is reminiscent of other pieces Metcalf has done during his tenure as an art student at UM. Everything in the showthe set, props, costumes—sports his tell-tale black and white zebra-like print, which evokes the zonkey. He used the same design for an art piece in last year's Day of the Dead parade. Metcalf says he's begun to use the zebra print as a way to brand his work, to create a Jack Metcalf identity. It's made with a printmaking block and adhered to the 10-foot-tall set with wheat and water—which is what political street artists have often used instead of glue.
In the show, Metcalf will be played by Missoula actor Jeff Medley, whom he recently collaborated with on a verbatim staged rendition of an old Mister Rogers album. In fact, when I first met with Metcalf to talk about A Synthetic Spring I half expect to be greeted by Jeff Medley instead. "We thought about doing that," says Metcalf, laughing. "We should have."
A Synthetic Spring does something that Debord's bookish criticism could never do. It revels in inauthentic commodity culture, and yet by being a show that celebrates creative artists, it's exactly what Debord would approve of.
"The show is definitely meant to be fun," Metcalf says. "I participate in the spectacle, too. But it's also kind of a critique."
A Synthetic Spring takes place at the Crystal Theatre from 8 to 10 PM on Thu., April 18. Free.