Artist Packard Jennings, born and raised in Oakland, is a prankster of the brainy variety. His series of Market Street kiosk posters, "Postcards from Our Awesome Future!" (done in conjunction with artist Steve Lambert) posits a thrillingly mad San Francisco of zip-line commuting, farmers' markets on BART, and streetcars replaced by elephants. And Jennings' take on shopdropping — the literal and spiritual opposite of shoplifting — in which he left the Anarchist Action Figure dolls he'd created on shelves at Wal-Mart and Target and filmed people trying to buy them — earned him a place in a December New York Times story titled "Anarchists in the Aisles? Stores Provide a Stage."
But Jennings doesn't consider himself an anarchist. Nor, he says, does he necessarily think of what he does as "culture jamming," the term that has come to cover all sorts of manipulation of mass media for purposes of activism or satire. And yet the first thing patrons see when they enter the Catharine Clark Gallery for Jennings' latest show is a "Creative Dissent Workstation," a veritable instruction depot for culture jamming: how to change newspaper headlines, how to slip subversive coupons into grocery store inserts, and how to take advantage of those pesky business reply envelopes that come with junk mail.
What elevates Jennings' work above the everyday fuck-you coupon stuffing is his artistry. After studying painting, glass blowing, and animation at S.F. State, the now-37-year-old got his grad degree at Alfred University in rural western New York. It was at Alfred that Jennings became acquainted with Wal-Mart. The giant had sucked the small businesses out of the local downtown. In response, Jennings created a series of fake products to be shopdropped. The "Centennial Society" line included "Bric-a-Brac," an amorphous plastic beaded globule that he placed in the checkout line, where impulse purchases are often made. It was impossible to tell just what the product was, exactly, but it was attractively and professionally packaged with clear instructions: "It's easy! Simply use Bric-a-Brac. ... Then, just throw it away!" Jennings also created an action figure of Mussolini.
While Jennings was working on the Wal-Mart project, a friend introduced him to the work of RTMark, the group that switched the voice boxes on 300 Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls in 1993 so that Barbie said things like "Dead men tell no tales," while G.I. Joe burbled, "Let's plan our dream wedding!" "That was when I became aware of the whole culture jamming thing," he says. "I guess I was always working in those fields. People have been a lot of the places I've been before me." Unlike RTMark, however, Jennings was creating his products from whole cloth. In his studio in Rockridge, he meticulously models the heads, limbs, and accessories for his action figures out of a plasticine clay, then makes molds, casts the figures, and hand-paints them. He sews the clothes by hand.
The irony of producing handmade figures that look mass-produced is not lost on Jennings, but he is drawn to contradictions. "One of the things that interests me about anarchy are these diametrically opposed ideas," he says. "The way anarchists espouse violence, chaos, they all wear black — but the other side of anarchy is what happens after the revolution, this utopic existence. I find it all incredibly beautiful and incredibly naive." He depicts this process toward utopia in "Business Reply Pamphlet," a 16-page manual for revolution that can be placed in the postage-paid envelopes and mailed back to companies at their expense. In the booklet, office workers knock over copiers, break windows, and revert to a free-love, hunter-gatherer existence. Illustrated in an accomplished cartoon style, it charms, turning the seriousness of anticorporate sentiment into a witty story with a happy ending.
That the artist may never know where these pamphlets end up, or who might be attempting to purchase some Bric-a-Brac, may be the most subversive aspect of Jennings' work. "In some ways I find that a really cathartic experience, in a field where objects are so precious and removed and fetishized," he says. "It's healthy to let them go. It's really for this other person who you don't know, you'll never meet."
By getting people to interact, knowingly or not, Jennings is trying to break down the barriers we have built up against differing ideas. "When people participate, they get giddy," he says. "It changes something in them to do something subversive. I believe that kind of break from 'normal' thought patterns, relationship to government, societal relations — it's therapeutic."
Therapeutic giddy anarchy sounds like another diametrically opposed concept, just crazy enough to work. Could it be that all we need to do to overthrow things is to make them all into one big joke? If you're willing to give it a try, cut out a headline and get your ass to the workstation.