I first met the British artist Darren Cullen back in 2006, when he was handing out flyers in London for a fake holiday he’d created called Violence Week. “Fuck seeing a therapist,” he told me. “Save your feelings up for Violence Week!”
Cullen’s work does a good job of continually outraging the conservative British press, who often use terms like “disturbing,” “grotesque,” and “freakish horror show” to describe his art. But they’re all clearly just right-wing stupid-heads who don’t understand that Cullen’s work is social commentary at its best, and most hilarious. While examining things like religion, advertising, and the existing moral order, his art pushes what we take for granted as being “normal” into the realm of the ridiculous.
Some of Cullen’s recent creations include “Baby’s First Baby,” a pregnant baby doll complete with its own pregnant fetus; a topless Mayan calendar that counted down to the supposed 2012 apocalypse; and a “lost episode” of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos that explores the Meat Planet and its famous pork volcano. Yum? Cullen also writes for the satirical astrology column “Mystic Mark,” where he basically just highlights everything that sucks about all those power crystal, yoga planet, “vibrations” people.
Oh, and he’s also shown in exhibitions alongside artists like Gilbert and George and David Shrigley, which means he’s #legit.
VICE: A lot of people seem to think you’re a monster. Your “Baby’s First Baby” piece particularly pissed people off. Why do you think that is?
Darren Cullen: Yeah, it’s weird. A lot of the press said the doll was disgusting because it encourages kids to have babies, and brought up the problem of teen pregnancy. But people couldn’t seem to see that there’s no real difference between my doll and a standard baby doll—they both encourage children to be mothers. I was trying to highlight this fact, but instead it just confused people. Everyone said, “This doll shouldn’t exist!” And I said, “Of course it shouldn’t, which is precisely why I made it!”
It’s strange how the majority of children’s toys are just unimaginative representations of the most boring parts of adult life.
Yeah, it’s like this 50s expectations of womanhood being marketed to children. Sometimes it seems like children’s toys are in a time warp, especially for girls, who get stuck with kitchen play sets, play makeup, and play ironing boards. With boy toys you can be an astronaut, a pirate, a scientist… The options seem slightly more open-minded.
They should be making little girls “Baby’s First Blog,” so they can learn to write about their feelings.
They’ve actually started selling toy computer terminals for kids, but they mostly just look like office cubicles. The type of thing that makes you want to commit suicide about your feelings.
While we’re on the topic of feelings, can you explain Violence Week?
I have no idea what Violence Week was supposed to be about. I just liked the idea of some level of government deciding to designate a week to citywide violence, under the impression that it would improve society. It’s kind of dystopian.
You recently tried to sell the Olympic flame on eBay, until moderators made you take it down, right?
Yeah, they said it was illegal to send anything through the mail that is “on fire.”
That’s too bad. Did you sell any before it was removed?
No, but I got a few inquiries.
A lot of your work concerns advertising, and the way it affects our society.
Yeah, I actually studied advertising at a point, so I sort of learned the language, and that language is the dominant visual medium that most of us are exposed to on a daily basis. Almost all advertising begins by telling you that your life is deficient in some way. So, for example, “You have dry, cracked heels and therefore everyone hates you!” And then it follows up with an affirmative message, which always involves buying something. And if you don’t follow the instructions of the second half of the ad, then you’re just left with this residue of inferiority.
And then you want to, like, kill yourself.
There was actually a pretty morally ambiguous psychology study done by Dr. Ewen Cameron in the late 50s where test subjects were broadcast messages through headphones or speakers for 15 hours a day. They’d hear a negative message, like—you’re worthless, you’re ugly, whatever—followed by a positive message. By the end of two months, some of these people were so psychologically damaged that they couldn’t remember their own names, they forgot how to eat, and a lot of them suffered from violent mood swings for the rest of their lives. It’s grim to think we’re getting something like this experiment performed on the whole of society every day through advertising.
It’s difficult because, living in a capitalist society, advertising almost feels like a necessary evil. Is there a more moral solution to advertising than the system we have now?
That’s the thing—advertising and modern capitalism go hand in hand, because as an economy we produce far more things than people need, and therefore we have to make people want things. So I’m not necessarily looking for advertising to be reformed, or for advertisements to stop lying—since the ad world is entirely based on lying—but I think people need to be wise to it, and aware of the damage it’s doing. But to be honest I’m kind of a pessimist in this respect, because the genius of advertising is that it works even if you think you’re above it.
Speaking of capitalism,you seem to be slightly obsessed with the idea of Santa Claus.
Well, I think it’s interesting that Santa is this modern myth that’s held almost as passionately as people hold religious myths. Like you can imagine a parent being just as mad if you told their kid Santa didn’t exist, as if you said the same about Jesus 50 years ago. It’s this massive, culturally mandated lie. Literally everyone over the age of nine is in on it and you can be ostracized, or even sacked or arrested, for not taking part.
Also, it’s traumatic when you find out your parents have been lying to you for no reason. You feel duped.
There’s actually an “anti-Santa” movement by groups of fundamentalist Christians who believe that Santa is Satan—“Santa” actually being an anagram of “Satan”—and that Santa was created to steal children away from Jesus.
He’s stealing Jesus’s thunder.
Yeah, which he is, arguably. And also the fact that Santa fulfills many of the roles of God—he knows what you’re thinking, he knows if you’ve been good or bad…
A while ago you erected a billboard in Glasgow that said: “Santa gives more to rich kids than poor kids.” This made a lot of people very angry.
Yeah, but I wasn’t saying specifically, “Santa doesn’t exist.”I was just giving everyone a verifiable fact about the way Santa operates, and I was telling kids about it via this giant billboard. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that advertising targets your children with messages parents might not want them to hear. But also that the idea of Santa doesn’t exist outside of consumerism and debt; it’s central to it.
You also write a satirical astrology column for The Skinny from the perspective of a new age guru. Can you explain that?
Yeah, Mark Tolson and I write it.The column is basically just a platform for us to attack pseudoscientific, new age spirituality—things like crystal healing, homeopathy, The Secret, all that stuff.
That’s all becoming very trendy, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s becoming more and more prevalent. These new age beliefs are basically a mixture of science fiction, religion, and just wishful thinking, really. What scares me is that even rational people—people who would laugh at things like Scientology and UFO cults—are taking this stuff seriously, and somehow neglecting to bring in any critical factors. They’re just like, “Oh yeah, crystals heal people.”
But without any actual knowledge of crystallography.
Right, and there’s some amazing scientific information about crystals out there! Crystal radios, for instance, are amazing.But whenever I try to call people out on the fact that most new age beliefs completely contradict well understood, basic aspects of biology and physics, they just say, “Oh, you’re just not open minded enough.” But it’s actually the opposite. Being “open minded” in not about blindly accepting ideas. It’s about being open to ideas, and then figuring out whether they are real or not. But these people have closed their minds off to rational explanations.
Come on, Darren, have a little faith!
It’s like a religion for a scientifically semi-literate society—people who have heard of quantum physics, but aren’t really sure what it is. And then these quacks come in and say, “Well, crystal healing works because of quantum physics, and you’ve heard of quantum physics, and therefore it must be real!” Like a modern day snake oil salesman or something. And at the heart of many of these philosophies, like The Secret or the law of attraction, are very dark, sinister ideologies.
Just to get this straight, The Secret is the book/philosophy made really popular by Oprah, which basically says “good things will happen to you if you think positive thoughts,” and visa versa, right?
Yeah. And it’s not just a “keep your chin up” type thing. The idea is that your thoughts literally create reality whether you act on them or not. There’s actually a bit in the film version of The Secret where they say the anti-war movement creates more wars by sending out thoughts about war into the Universe. Also, when the author of The Secret was asked about the Christmas Day tsunami in South East Asia, she said that the disaster must have happened because those people there were on the “same frequency” as the event. So basically because they weren’t thinking happy thoughts, the 250,000 people who died brought it on themselves.
What a cunt.
I’m not denying that positive thinking or meditation work for people, but only in so much as they affect your brain and body, which can then affect the world through your actions. What’s happening in the consciousness of a human being is not a cosmic event, and to think so is completely arrogant and human-centric. Like if you believe in the law of attraction, and that good things are ordained to happen if you have positive thoughts, that implies the Universe cares about what some random human on an obscure planet thinks and wants. That’s asking a lot of the Universe!
Wait, so are you trying to tell me that the Universe isn’t happening AT me, specifically?
I think it’s possible to prove scientifically that it doesn’t give a shit.
See more of Darren’s work at spellingmistakescostlives.com