I occasionally trawl my junk mail folder in search of poetic gold. Subject lines like “Boobs as big as balloons,” “Don’t pay a penny!” and allusions to enlargement are intermingled with ESL haikus, such as this gem from the Spam Poetry Institute: “A rag mends a concluding bean, a leading apple freezes.”
It seems that the dark underbelly of the Internet hides in every spam folder. Of the seven trillion spam messages expected to be sent this year, most will never be read. However, artist James Howard considers his overflowing inbox to be his muse, cataloging relentless pop-ups, phony advertisements for magic hair cream and the aforementioned haiku in absurdist Photoshop collages that layer text and images from the web’s back alley. These works are currently on view in the Saatchi Gallery’s “Newspeak: British Art Now” exhibition.
In a recent interview with ArtInfo, Howard states that “it all begins in my junk email folder, in the place where everything that has a bit of a question mark over its authenticity — pensions, Russian brides — lands. I take images and texts from that junk email folder and from pop-up adverts and I collage them together into artworks.”
He continues, “Spam preys on our insecurities and needs; in the privacy of our own homes everything becomes much more available and dangerous. I think of this piece as a portrait of today and my work is a sort of ongoing social commentary. I work with urgency to get as much of this stuff processed before it’s entirely lost: soon spam filters will be so advanced that we’ll forget what a spam email ever was.”
As the interviewer states, Howard is one of the few artists today who is inspired by the Internet, yet whose work exists primarily as physical objects. In an interesting turn of events, he acknowledges that some of his creations cannot live online without courting those who wish to buy into the schemes he lampoons:
“There is an online scam where people are persuaded that suitcases of black paper are actually full of $100 bills that have been dyed black. It’s one of these incredible spam email stories that one in a million people believes and ends up spending hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to clean black paper. I made a physical representation of a hundred million U.S. dollars in wads of black paper. It exists as a sculptural installation, but the main part of the project was to document the sculpture and put these photographs online. As soon as they were up, I started getting all sorts of emails from people all over the world asking for the cleaning chemicals.”
What does your unsolicited email say about our society?