First published on 4 Apr 2012. Updated on 4 Apr 2012.
We speak with artist and novelist Douglas Coupland about his QR code art displayed at Art Labor. We discussed much more than just the artworks, though, and here's what the relentlessly quotable Coupland had to say about Japan, books, technology and Marshall McLuhan.
On being born on an airforce base
I grew up in a family of gun nuts, surrounded by weapons and photographs of jets, and my brother's a taxidermist, so dead animals – insides, outsides – and I thought when I'm an adult I'm going to escape off on a holy train. And so I got to the place I am now and entered the aesthetic realm and I'm the family Martian. I was saying to a friend of mine, Angelie, who I went to school with, at least I escaped the family curse, and she was like, ‘Oh Doug, fuck off. There's this whole corner of the living room with two fighter jets, a soldier, an exploding house, dead people – you've just taken what you grew up with and reinflected it into a new vernacular.’
On the difference between Japan (where Coupland lived in '83, and '85-86) and China
is this thing they have in Japan. Four to five it's guys, but women do it too. At the age of 26 they show up at their parents' places and move back into their old bedrooms and they never leave. The Mom puts noodles outside the door and the hand grabs the noodles. When the police hear 'we've had a domestic incident at whatever and whatever', certainly in North America there's an assumption that it's like wife beating, but in Japan when that happens it's a hikikomori
going evil on their parents. Japanese culture is in so many ways extreme. I just saw some guy [in Shanghai] going by on a bike with 4,000 empty Fanta bottles in a big bag, and he's not feeling alienated. He's thinking I'm going to get a better bike, I can hire some guy to collect bottles for me or whatever but in Japan it's very possible to feel very alienated, very quickly.
On starting again in a new culture
Does it work? I think yes and no. It depends what your intention is. If you're going there just to be a psychic vampire, it's just one notch above cool hunting and we all know what that is. Nothing's going to change. But my experience is, usually the people that make the best adults are the people who had some sort of expat life during their 20s, and I'm not trying to flatter you, but that is the reality I see. All the people I like and whose writing or artwork I respect are usually people who've done a stint in – my bias is Tokyo – but somewhere.
To do something like that you need to be intrinsically curious, you're probably linguistically gifted – important – you're actively seeking out difference. Most of the world, the last thing they want is difference; they just want as much similarity as quickly and as intensely as they can get it.
On big breaks
I'd come back from Japan and I was in Vancouver and I started writing by accident when I was 26. I sent a friend a postcard and she put it on her refrigerator and the editor of the local city magazine saw it and said this guy should write for us. And I said you've got to be kidding. And that was back when magazines still paid money. And I started doing these articles and it seemed to be a very enjoyable, strangely satisfying way to pay my studio bills. I'd been writing all of two years before I decided to start writing fiction. And again we talk about the cluelessness of youth, I wanted to write a book, of course it'll do well. And da-didda-da-da-da.
Youth is like a forcefield, it really is. Things worked out but they could easily not have. There are all these parallel universe Dougs that I don't really want to think about. You don't have any parallel universe yous yet. You will. They'll start being born around 35.
The novel's not dead; it's just not keeping up with the times.
I look at the pile of books beside the bed and it's like oooooh, there's this new feeling in my brain. You're too long. I hope you're going to challenge me or reward me in some new way and if it's not going to do that, it's like a Barbara Cartland novel. It's medication, it's gonna make you feel a certain way. But why not just take the drug?
The visual art world's strange. You're supposed to be unique, have a signature style, but you simultaneously have to reference the more artists the better. Yes but doesn't that go against the cult of uniqueness?
I just sort of feel as if in the last three or four years I've been on a 19th century exploration ship and I've just come back or something. I've been doing a lot of formal experiments and experiments in materials and materiality and in the last two or three years they're beginning to have babies. It's eclipsing all other parts of my life right now. I'm expanding into Europe (I don’t want to sound like Unilever or something), but one part of my life is ending and another is starting.
I think honestly if you tell your computer to fuck off, it really does work better.
I remember when barcodes came in – god I feel old when I talk about this shit – in '70 (you can Wikipedia it) '72? And people were like, that's what 666 is, a barcode. And they’re just barcodes.
On TV and film theorist Marshal McCluan (of whom Coupland recently wrote a biography)
He had massive brain issues, low functioning autism, and he was prone to a variant of strokes which causes religious mania – he got it from his mother. He was a born mimic, he could read that [points to a page in a novel] and memorize it instantly, at least when he was younger. He also had this extra vein, an artery that went into his head, a structure that, in mammals, is only found in cats. There was a lot of weird shit going on in this guy. And in the end he died in 1980, and people thought maybe there's something there, but maybe he's just nuts.
Thirty years later you reread him and he's describing Paypal, he's describing Youtube, he's describing Google, he's describing Monster dot com, all these things that sounded nuts back then when there was no internet to map it onto. Now, looking through what he's written, he was wildly prescient, and if he was right about 2011 then he was probably right about 2021, 2031, 2041 into the next century.