Johnny Rogers on Pyongyang Apple Store

by Michael Anthony Farley on January 6, 2016 · 1 comment Baltimore + Interview

Pyongyang apple store

The news this week is dominated by technological “progress” from the Pacific Rim. Silicon Valley is showing off its latest trinkets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and North Korea is extolling the alleged successes of its hydrogen bomb program. But here on the East Coast, my Facebook news feed is an absurdist fusion of all of the above: a crowd-sourced brainstorming endeavor to develop products for the “Pyongyang Apple Store”. Recent proposals include the “iShit” and “U2 Editons of Everything”.

The project comes from artist/mischief-maker Johnny Rogers, who will be displaying the resulting products at Current Gallery in Baltimore next month as part of the exhibition Cake Out in the Rain. The installation will transform the storefront into a bootleg Apple Store, which will be open every weekend of February starting with a reception on Saturday the 6th.

For context, I first met Johnny Rogers in 2006, when he had a strict dress code of head-to-toe trademarks—from hats covered in corporate logos to Bart Simpson pyjama pants. This corporate camouflage ensured that any surveillance camera footage of his body was in violation of copyright law and could therefore not be legally reproduced or distributed. When I invited him to participate in an exhibition in 2011, shortly after analog TV was phased out to digital, he built a pirate TV station in the gallery to hijack the dead channels. Several blocks of central Baltimore could tune in to live-remixes of content ranging from infomercials to homoerotic sports massage VHS tutorials. These anecdotes are just the tip of the iceberg for a practice that spans diversions of identity, critiques of surveillance culture, and gleeful mining of consumer society’s obsolete-by-design detritus—all with an aesthetic that’s best described as “cyberpunk Lisa Frank.”

This latest project looks to follow in Rogers’ history of queering copyright, authorship, and the limits of “user-generated-content”. We discussed the work, appropriately, over instant messenger.

Michael Anthony Farley: How did the idea for “Pyongyang Apple Store” come about?

Johnny Rogers: Well I’ve made work that has referenced Apple for over a decade and even did a series of public intervention at the San Francisco Apple Store back in 2004. When I was invited to be in this “camp” themed show I thought a bootleg Apple Store would be fun and create a room for many campy opportunities.

The whole North Korean element is a much more recent development.

So this is part of a larger exhibition?

Yes, it’s part of a larger “camp” themed show happening at Current Gallery, Cake Out in the Rain. Corynne Ostermann is the curator and there are 3 other artists in the show: Kevin Runyon, Walker Seydell, and Adam Arman.

I was invited because a lot of my work is kinda campy.

That’s great. Are you installing in the storefront?

Yes!! I get a whole room/store front to myself! I’m hoping they let me put up “Apple Store coming soon” signs.

I love how perfect that is for the neighborhood, which has sat almost entirely empty since the city used eminent domain to seize all those properties with plans of replacing them with chain stores and luxury housing over a decade ago.

Now Baltimore finally gets its very own Apple Store, only it’s a fake with crap products.

Pyongyang and Baltimore share this facade of state-facilitated Potemkin Villages attempting to mask near-total dysfunction. In both cases it’s so obvious and unsuccessful it’s absurd.  

I hadn’t thought about that but it’s a decent point. I’m still a little on the fence about keeping the North Korean thing. I’m worried it will confuse some people. Recently someone mentioned that my store sounded like a fake North Korean Apple Store. Something they’d build to show off what a real deal country they are.

And I think there’s a comparison to be drawn between the propaganda culture of North Korea and Apple’s empire—they both trade in the aesthetics of revolution but in reality are all about concentrating wealth/power, to say nothing of their respective human rights abuses.

People often call Apple a cult but it has always reminded me more of a fascist political party where people worship the leader. I like that connection, but that’s where the North Korean connection ends—my store is going to have bongs and crap iPods made out of cardboard, stuff North Korea would never do.

That’s so good. What first drew me to the project was the crowd-sourced “product development” you’re doing on social media. Can you talk more about that?

I’m inviting anyone to help develop and build products for the store. We’re all brainstorming and giving feedback in a Facebook group. This has more to do with how I work than the project itself. I appropriate a lot of content from the internet and in this instance am collecting products and memes my peers come up with. I like getting other people involved and think this is the perfect opportunity.

Apple knockoffs

What are some of the best ideas you’ve received?

Well…even just getting the discussion going helps. Yesterday you made a comment which brought “the internet of things” to my mind. From there I hatched the idea for a pair of white underwear briefs with an ethernet cable hanging out: In the future even your underwear will be connected to the computer.

I wouldn’t have gotten that idea had I not been interacting with people in the group. I’ve got one month to come up with as many dumb products as possible!

Haha! Yes, you’re referring to “Google Ass,” a hypothetical piece of wearable tech for anuses, which our mutual friend/DIY-tech-enthusiast Karl Ekdahl has proposed. I recommended you make a competing product, in the spirit of the Google/Apple rivalry.

We are going to be introducing the “iEye” but it’s more like Google Glass. I need to talk to Karl about “Google Ass”.

Yes! So have you physically completed any of the “products”?

I’ve physically completed a few things. I want to have a lot of Star Wars cross-marketing at the store. So I’ve been slapping an Apple sticker on every piece of Star Wars trash I can find in the gutter. I also have my naughty “Think Different” posters with Osama Bin Laden and the Unabomber. I made those 4 years ago.

THink Different poster

Your recycling of material and expanded scope of participation reminds me a bit of the Future Farmers project you were a part of at the Contemporary Museum. There, visitors were invited to contribute miniature utopian cities, temporary monuments, and prototypes made out of trash to an additive video piece. Could you talk about that as a precedent?

This reminds me of that Future Farmers project too. I think I learned how to collaborate this way from Future Farmers. I’ve worked with them on several collaborative projects since 2003 and each one has felt like a think tank of sorts.

Pulling people together, especially the right people, is unfortunately not a strength of mine. I learned some stuff from the Contemporary Museum project and hope to get a little better at it this time around.

So have you set up a studio somewhere that people can stop by and join in? Or a “maker space”, to borrow terminology from the innovation-for-gentrification movement?

I think that would be a whole separate project. The “studio” is the Facebook group. I’ve been calling the group my “Jony Ive design team” [Editor’s note: Jony Ive is Apple’s chief design officer]

Do you have any other preview images to share?

I think the effect will come from a store full of this stuff. But there will be “iBags”:Johnny Rogers iBags

And I’m going to have that painting of Jobs printed huge and hung center in the store. Just like the Dear Leader:

Steve Jobs Dear Leader

I obviously really need help getting products made!

I’m going to make more “Think Different” posters—but not all bad guys—I want one of Roseanne signing the national anthem.

What would you like to see in a joke Apple Store at that location?

That burning West Baltimore CVS as an Apple Store?

Whoa, haha!! I’d love to open an “Apple Store” in that space… revitalize the neighborhood.

Is there anything else we should know about “Pyongyang Apple Store”?

Only that I have a love/hate relationship with Apple, and technology in general. I want the installation to be fun, both celebrating and making-fun of Apple.

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