Brian Coleman is a local writer and historian whose new book, Buy Me, Boston, offers a cornucopia of more than 375 vintage ads for businesses and characters that “made this city tick in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—restaurants, hair salons, bands, bars, clothing boutiques and more.” So when Somerville-based artist Catherine Siller wrote us about her “new, theatrical dance performance ‘Are You Buying?,’” a “free performance” that “combines larger than life video projection, movement, and sound clips from radio and TV ads to playfully skewer fashion and beauty tropes from the 1920s to today,” we asked Coleman to write questions we could slide to Siller. The resulting exchange provides a fascinating look at advertising then and now, as well as a bona fide incentive to check her show (and his book) this week.
BC: How did the idea for “Are You Buying?” come about, and how long ago? Was it always envisioned to be this manifestation (with sound clips and video), or has it gone through many different stages over time?
CS: In 2015 I was working on a series of performances and videos called “Applying Myself,” where I juxtaposed poses from contemporary fashion ads with gestures of habitual body monitoring—pinching loose skin, plucking unwanted hairs, things like that. I wanted to contrast the confident public posturing that had become so common in selfies and the self-conscious private beauty rituals that go on behind the scenes. While I was working on this series, I started to wonder how our fashion and beauty stereotypes have evolved over time, which gave me the idea to look back at the history of advertising.
I received a Live Arts Boston grant in 2017, which I used to produce an early version of “Are You Buying?” at Boston CyberArts in Jamaica Plain. From the start, I knew that I would use large-scale video showing ads from the 1920s to today, but the content of the video has gone through many different stages. For “Are You Buying?” Downtown Crossing, I’ve focused exclusively on ads about beauty and body image. I’ve also developed the mannequin character and costume a lot over the past year. Transforming into that character has become a part of the performance.
Why did you specifically want to address advertising? Is that something you’ve always been drawn to? (Or, conversely, repulsed by?)
As a teen and young adult I spent more time and money than I’d like to admit trying to get the kind of flawless complexion promoted in all the ads. Finally, I realized that maybe I couldn’t get a “flawless” complexion because the ads kept raising the bar—there were always new “problems” that only their products could fix. I’ve always found advertising incredibly seductive, but when I started looking more closely at the messaging—get flawless skin instantly, says a beautiful model surrounded by op art and flowers—I realized that ads are completely absurd. I started making videos and performances to explore this juxtaposition.
What are some of the most harmful ways that advertising affects people, especially in the world of beauty and fashion?
Ads are training a whole generation of young women to be dissatisfied with their bodies. Most beauty and fashion ads distort our reality by featuring models who fit a very narrow definition of beauty. It’s particularly harmful for young girls to learn that this is how they’re “supposed” to look and to hold themselves to these unrealistic standards. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 81 percent of 10-year-olds are afraid of being fat.
Are there any positive aspects of advertising—in beauty / fashion or beyond—that you want to make people think about with “Are You Buying?”
I love that people can use makeup and fashion to change their appearance to reflect who they are and how they feel. “Are You Buying?” celebrates the playful ways we can transform ourselves through beauty and fashion, while critiquing ads that reinforce stereotypes and promise impossible transformations.
What is your ultimate “best case scenario” for people to walk away with after viewing “Are You Buying?” What do you most want to make people think about (and, maybe even deal with in their own lives)?
There’s a tension between female empowerment and objectification in advertising. For every ad promoting the positive, transformative power of beauty and fashion, many others reinforce gender stereotypes or objectify women’s bodies. I’d like viewers to walk away from “Are You Buying?” thinking about how these conflicting messages impact their lives. Do these messages shape their relationship with their own body or their expectations for the women in their life?
I don’t think that advertising is inherently bad, but I do think that we need to be more critical consumers of media messages. Every time we see an ad, it would be great if we thought, “What’s the message and am I buying it?”
You mention that your protagonist—a mannequin—is “chasing an ever-shifting beauty ideal”—do you feel like that’s autobiographical for you on some level? Or is it something you have gotten over and are trying to help younger people, especially women, to deal with in a healthy way?
I definitely made “Are You Buying?” as a way to deal with my own complicated feelings about beauty. The more I learned about advertising, the more I got over the pressure to meet stereotypical beauty standards.
I know you cover advertising from 1920s to present day; is there one sweet spot chronologically? Were there certain eras that had more great stuff than others, from your creative perspective?
I found the 1950s and ’60s particularly rich, from a creative perspective. There are a lot of ads from this time period where the models are covering their faces with their hands. The poses are so strange; they really inspired me choreographically. I perform a whole section of the piece with my hands over my eyes. This is set to old sound clips of men telling women how to use mascara and eyebrow pencils to make “ordinary eyes important,” which I find pretty funny.
A lot of the ’50s and ’60s ads also featured mirrors. I’ve replaced the images in the mirrors with live video of myself that I stretch and distort, so it looks like I’m looking in a series of funhouse mirrors.
How often have you done performances like this in a public setting vs in an actual theater where people are paying and specifically there to see you? I suspect there are a lot of extra elements to deal with in the public setting sphere; what are some of the more difficult pieces to deal with beyond just the performance itself?
I’ve done a number of performances in public settings. One of the biggest difficulties is that people come and go at various points rather than watching straight from beginning to end. The performance has to catch people’s attention right away and can’t depend on a longer narrative. I’ve designed “Are You Buying?” as a series of short vignettes that tell a larger story if you watch them all together but can still be appreciated individually.
Securing public space is also difficult, so I’m particularly grateful to the Downtown Crossing Business Improvement District for giving me access to the vacant storefront at 349 Washington St. It’s exciting to perform in Downtown Crossing, where the piece will be in conversation with actual retail spaces and advertisements.
Beyond the Downtown Crossing performances in Sept, do you have any other future plans for “Are You Buying?”
I’m working to organize at least one other pop-up performance of “Are You Buying?” in the Greater Boston area in next few months. Keep an eye on my website for more information or to sign up for my newsletter.
ARE YOU BUYING? WED 9.12–SAT 9.15. 349 WASHINGTON ST., BOSTON. FREE. CATHERINESILLER.COM FOR MORE INFO.