Zwem je rijk! 

J.Thompson, 2002

Griet Dobbels launched her project, Zwem je rijk, as part of the celebrations of Brugge 2002. It was inaugurated at a carefully orchestrated press conference held in the team bathing facility in the changing room complex of the Jan Breydelstadion, home to what was then the top team in the Belgian football league, ‘Club Brugge’. It involved a number of celebrities testing out a ‘spoof’ product, a pink ‘foam-ball’ (badbruisballen) comprising bubble-bath agent and fragments of Belgian bank-notes. While the project was instigated and conceptualised by Dobbels, it was worked out in detail through a collaboration with a group of teenagers (16 - 18 year-olds) studying at the Sint-Jozefsinstituut, a centre for technical and vocational training in the centre of the city. Amongst its supporters it listed the Bank of Belgium. From the outset, then, it combined educational, socially critical and aesthetic intentions. It was not simply an art project, although that was the central focus around which Dobbels organised the various strategies involved in the piece.  Indeed, it refused the kind of authorial focus that art projects tend to work with. Neither was it any obvious sense a public or community arts project.  Rather than reinforcing the notion of the vernacular, the everyday or the popular, it was intended to open the way for a richly textured, experiential deconstruction of all three, for those taking part, but also for the viewing public.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the strategies adopted by Dobbels reflect those usually associated with the world of advertising. The ‘foam-ball’ is caste in the role of a new product requiring an effective promotion and marketing campaign. The idea of collaboration of necessity, then, starts from a theorised discussion and a thorough analysis of the instrumental processes at play in the formation of commercial values and public taste and can only achieve its objective - an appropriate degree of reflexivity - by making this knowledge available to participants and public alike.  In this respect, there is  an important political dimension to the evolution of Dobbels’ project, which lies above and beyond the merely functional. 

In appearance, this extra dimension is best described as an ‘aesthetic’ one, involving, as it does, the ironic ‘abstraction’ of value in the de Certeauian sense. 

As de Certeau pointed out in the closing pages of  Arts  de faire, to proclaim a (new) product using the routine mechanisms of advertising entails different forms of ‘citation’ and - more often than not - the deployment of several different ‘annunciatory tropes’: the verbal and the visual; the passive and the performative. All of them intended to work towards a condition of ‘belief’ in the mind of the prospective ‘customer’. To wish to buy is to believe... de Certeau writes, no matter how momentarily... in the efficacy of the product and the claims that ‘citation’ makes for it. In the case of Dobbels ‘foam-ball’, we know prior to ‘citation’, that the product is a ‘spoof’. Furthermore, the obviously staged context...  the background against which the different acts of annunciation occur, reveals its (semi-) fictional nature right from the start. As a ‘product’, the ‘foam-ball’ is never more than a ‘semblance’... a ‘simulation’. There is, of course, a profoundly subversive aspect to Dobbels’ use of commodification as a form of ‘double bluff’. By combining or, at least, by blurring the distinction between the fictional  and the semi or non-fictional:  between commercial and aesthetic genres of exposure and display, Dobbels generates a multiple discourse around the question of value which can neither be contained within the rhetorical ubiquity of contemporary advertising nor the more personal, idiosyncratic and open linguistic space shaped by contemporary art practice. As engaged witnesses to her open strategy of ‘dissembling’ we are rendered complicit with the manipulations involved, as the active location of the sign - ‘spoof’ commodity and the collection of promotional  material that goes with it - is passed to and fro between the two quite distinct domains. Each of them, in turn, authenticating and de-authenticating the other. 

To quote de Certeau:  The ‘real’ is what, in a given place, reference to another place makes people believe in.

Dobbels’ commodity, the ‘foam-ball’, is intended to function mediumistically then, between two different but contiguous versions of the ‘real’; one that is clearly a ‘representational’ or projected ‘real’, in which desire and the fantasies of possession play a vital role, and another which is both ‘knowing’ and ‘distanced’. Buadrillard has described this last as a satelitisation of the real ,  brought about in the quotidian space through the hyperrealism of simulation. We can see, touch and smell Dobbels’ ‘foam-ball’. We can use it...  ‘spend’ ourselves in our desire for it...  fulfil ourselves imaginatively, through its tongue-in-cheek promise to provide us with the opportunity to be ‘rich’...  to be swimming in money. At the same time we know its metaphorical nature.  We can see the simulatory mechanisms at work. And we are content to play our part in Dobbels mimetic game of commodification through to its conclusion,  knowing full well that its ‘truth’ exists on another, more abstract (aesthetic) level. Dobbels’ ‘foam-ball’ dissolves in order to reveal the absolute dematerialisation of the commodity in the engine of consumption.

As Baudrillard argued in Le Systeme des objets,  commodification, as a process, depends crucially on the facticity of the object...  its substance, reality and its use value. In this respect it is both ‘object’ and ‘sign’, and as such, is loaded down with meaning.   Some of this meaning is referenced psychoanalytically, the rest is referenced sociologically. On the one hand the commodity-object functions as part of the transcendent and largely phantasmagoric life-style-dominated world arising out of consumerism, and on the other, it seems to offer a ‘real’ opportunity for social differentiation: a change of status...  or the elevation of the consummer-subject in terms of their social prestige. Beyond this duality, Baudrillard suggests, there lies a much more profound ‘dream’. A desire for a form of symbolic exchange beyond the logic determined by use value. Significantly, Baudrillard uses Georges Bataille’s term the accursed portion  to describe this more abstract form of exchange. Suggesting thereby, that it exists outside of what Battaille calls society’s rationalised economy of exchanges.   

There are, of course, certain risks involved when deploying commercial strategies for none commercial ends. The artist’s critical purpose can easily be mistaken and meaning turned on its head. The success of Dobbels’ ‘foam-ball’ project then, depends crucially on her achieving a sufficient transparency of means to allow this other level - the level of symbolic exchange - to shine through. Fortunately, she is enough of a Bordieuian to understand  the complexities involved in the relationship that stands in the contemporary context, between the world of art and the world of money as well as the part that different forms of mediation play in its construction. For this reason Dobbels’ ‘foam-ball’ project focuses our attention - quite deliberately - on the role of journalism in the (mis)shaping (or the ‘de-formation’) of todays instruments of public and private patronage. In doing so, she directs our critical attention  towards the erosion of the public sphere resulting from the media domination of life as it is lived today; media penetration of  the private space and the rise of a new, ersatz version of the old intimacies. To this end, the ‘foam-ball’ project deploys the ‘commerce’ metaphor in a disarmingly witty and humorous  way...   the graphic style of pamphlets, posters, car-stickers and the rest, is lightly ironic and, viewed from a contemporary promotional standpoint, seems to touch upon the faux-naif. But the seriousness of Dobbels’ intent is never far from the surface.  

Her ‘press-release’ (PERSBERICHT), for example, pictures a figure - presumably a journalist - feet up in the bath, a yellow plastic duck beside...  narcissisticaly engaged... professionally self-absorbed...  reading a newspaper very simply captioned, ‘The Press’. The largest of the several bubbles floating up from behind the newspaper carries a question mark. It seems that the out-of-sight journalist is questioning her/his role in the very promotional apparatus in which she or he has been invited to participate.  Turn the page and we are confronted by the same scene in closer focus,  but this time the journalist is absent. Either she/he is submerged and out of sight, has exited the scene, or has drowned...  it is entirely unclear which. The duck is still there, the newspaper lies on the floor, where its seems to have been discarded, and it now bears the title of Dobbels’ project, “Zwemmen in het geld”.  Lying beside the newspaper there is a tablet of soap which also doubles up as a gold ingot. Swimming in money, it seems, might also entail drowning in money.

The ambiguity of this second image, coupled with the very curious listing - on the facing page - of the several different promotional devices to be used during the campaign under the provocative heading Cliches, tends to give the whole document something of an accusatory flavour. In this respect, its transparency is quite startling. It is as if Dobbels is saying to the members of the press...  ‘here you are again...  prepared as usual to be willing participants in the sleight-of-hand and the dumbing-down necessary to the smooth working of commodity advertising and the effective life of the commodity culture’. Here, provocatively, she is holding up a mirror in which the mediatory mechanisms are played back - almost in slow motion - to the mediators themselves.

Dobbels’ project, Zwemmen in het geld’, also points us towards a difficult terrain in public discourse. An art project with a strong educational purpose, it is meant to expose and illuminate at one and the same time, without loosing its coherence as ‘work of art’ or the sharpness of its educational intent. This much is all very clear and above board. But Dobbels is also working with a number of partially hidden and obliquely referenced critical topics which are much more difficult to pin down. These show themselves in the layered, largely mimetic structuring of the piece. Indeed, it would be accurate to say that they are metaphorised structurally more than by the array of advertising artifacts which figure as the surface manifestation of the work. These topics cohere around the question of public policy and how public policy relates to what Baudrillard has described as the obscene delirium of communication,  a condition which he claims is inimitable to commodity culture and the recasting of goods  as simulacra. Viewed in this context, Dobbels project shows through its structure the way in which policy makers in sophisticated contemporary societies mimic the managerial culture that has evolved through commerce...  the way in which they then becomes complicit in what Baudrillard has called the vertigo of competition...  willing players in the competitive game.