Micah Purnell & Dear Progress: Letters to the future

Kate Feld

Micah Purnell’s new Manchester art installation asks probing questions about where progress is taking us.

Dear Progress, an installation from artist and designer Micah Purnell, has a quick question for us. Actually, seven of them. Appearing on billboards across Manchester city centre from late March, Purnell’s designs will use the form of short letters to deliver gnomic questions about modern society, technology, anxiety and the true price of admission to a media culture that is continuously updating, upgrading and refreshing itself.

“I’m probably breaking a thousand rules,” Purnell says of the project. “With advertising you don’t get 7 different designs out at once, you pick one and it’s all over the country, everywhere… But I’m not a corporation. I can’t afford a full page spread in the Sun.”

His messages draw a lot of their inspiration from Oliver James’ book Affluenza: How to Be Successful and Stay Sane, a bleakly brilliant polemic against a society infected by rampant capitalism. Basically, James says, the richer we get, the unhappier and more anxious we become. The more things we have, the less we value ourselves, the more we seek satisfaction through buying stuff and attempting to conform to impossible aspirations, put in our minds with the express purpose of turning a profit. To see these messages sprout in advertising space seems deliciously provocative.

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards”

Purnell grew up in Newton Heath and went to school in Hulme, so the cityscape with its flyposters and billboards feels like his native ground. He counts among his childhood memories “running through Piccadilly Gardens, dodging drunks and punks.” He studied design and visual culture at Salford and developed a practice that dances along the fine line between graphic design and art.

Text, flyposters and art in public spaces have been recurring themes in Purnell’s previous work (on his own and as a member of the Print and Paste collective), but mounting an exhibition on billboards has long been an ambition – and with the support of Arts Council England and a host of other partners, it’s finally being realised. The cost of 21 billboards for 2 weeks at standard rates runs to £9,000, which brings home the insane amounts of money being made in the business of thrusting things into our eyespace.

“I’d love it if just 10 percent of all our billboards were given to art, just to give us all a bit of breathing space,” Purnell says. His project was originally meant to coincide with last year’s Art Everywhere project which put famous works of art on 28,000 billboards around the country, and made a welcome bit of noise about art taking back a little bit of the territory we’ve all, somehow, ceded to the ad-men.

Employing, as it does, the media network to interrogate itself, Purnell’s project has thrown up some interesting problems. His original designs didn’t have any social media fingerprints on them, but he’s been encouraged to add Twitter and Facebook icons to the billboards by Arts Council England, on the basis that social media is an important marketing tool and a means for people to engage with the project on a deeper level. Purnell wisely decided not to put Twitter handles on the accompanying beermats he’s producing, though (put down your beer and retweet my art about how we’re all slaves to technology!)

Purnell says the idea of addressing the letters to “Progress” came from thinking about a favourite Aldous Huxley quote: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” For instance, he says “smartphones have brought with them the problem of not being present with people. These things aren‘t bad in themselves, but I want to be the one with the power.”

According to some trustworthy-seeming articles I just googled, the average person looks at their smartphone 110 times a day. Shocked? No, me either. I never loathe myself more than the moment I look up from my phone and realize that one of my daughters has been talking to me, and I am not listening to her. I don’t want my kids to grow up learning that people come behind devices in the attention pecking order. We live in a world where chubby toddler fingers scroll touchscreens, where “developing mouse skills” is a key target at nursery school, where six year olds are given laptops or tablets. They are becoming players before they understand the rules. By the time we can comprehend what it is we are losing, we have lost it.

“I’m not going to get to the bottom of these things,” Purnell says. “I’m asking questions.” Sometimes, that is all art needs to do.

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