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Interview with Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland likes crowdsourcing. I should know, because he crowdsourced me shortly after the first part of this interview. His ‘in conversation’ partner for the launch of one of the two books he was in town to promote dropped out at the last minute, so I was asked to help him stage a dramatic reconstruction in the shiny new London branch of Foyles; we both played slightly drunker versions of ourselves. In the pub afterwards, I briefly cameoed in a video he made using the slow-mo function on his iPhone, panning round the table as the staff of Black Dog Publishing danced and waved their hair around at their best approximation of double speed. In playback, I remember it having an analogue TV static effect: we’d made black and white confetti from the endpapers of a signed copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

 

Coupland is probably most famous for a succession of fourteen novels, which, from 1991’s Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture to 2013’s Worst. Person. Ever. define and often satirise successive generations’ relationships to technology. The lobby of the Shoreditch branch of Ace Hotel, where the original version of the interview took place, might have been populated by laptop-wielding Coupland characters. ‘Ace Hotel is a collection of individuals’, its website explains, ‘multiple and inclusive, held together by an affinity for the soulful. We are not here to reinvent the hotel, but to readdress its conventions to keep them fresh, energised, human.’

 

The staff found us a less energised room upstairs, and after we’d got some enamel cups of water, I put my embarrassingly low-tech Dictaphone on the table next to Coupland’s iPhone, and got out my copy of his latest book, Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything. Coupland was an art student before he was a writer, and the book in question is a catalogue – published by Black Dog – of his visual work, with written contributions by curators and friends including Hans Ulrich Obrist and Michael Stipe. It accompanies a touring exhibition of Coupland’s art in Canada under the same title, the premise of which seems to be the globally homogenising effects of technology. (Ace Hotels, their website continues, are also available in Palm Springs, Panama, downtown LA, Portland, New York and Seattle.) I found him witty and inventive; whether in prose, visual art, email – where we conducted the second part of this interview – or ‘meatspace’, the way he blends fascinated analysis of his surroundings with ambitious, open creativity is impressive and infectious.

 

Q

The White Review

— In your fiction you often construct narratives out of sequences of voices…

 

A

Douglas Coupland

— Yeah, and within the books you have characters within the situations describing things that would actually in themselves be pretty good art projects. So from Microserfs, which was written around ’93-94, we took out the word ‘clouds’ opens section from book]. I guess they’re like art projects trapped inside a book.

 

When people realise that I do visual art they have expectations about what it might look like, and they don’t expect that it looks like all this other stuff in the book. It creates this nice feeling in my brain – like what would your hard-drive look like if it was sleeping at night. It’s been twenty years that we’ve been in this whole data revolution. Now your machines are talking to each other behind your back, and there’s a bit of menace to it. There’s this thing, DeepFace, which is this project Facebook are doing where every picture that’s been put up on Facebook, even the ones that you’ve deleted, they’ve saved. They’ve got these ever more clever facial recognition programmes and they just want to identify every human being on the planet – it’s really fucked up. Right now, we’re working on things you can wear to a protest or a rally that can make you recognition-proof, like putting a stripe over your eye or a dot on your cheek, so they’ll never find you.

 

Q

The White Review

— I read somewhere that around the time of Generation X (1991) Gap were asking you to do related adverts.

 

A

Douglas Coupland

— It’s so funny because now there’s these millennials and they’re getting the exact same thing: everything people said about X they’re saying about them, and there’s this endearing sense of continuity. And I suppose if you go back twenty years before X it would have been the seventies so it would have been hippies, and twenty years before then it would have been Beats, or jazz players or something.

 

Normcore is about dressing the way people did three and a half years ago. That’s its tenet, and the brands have to be really boring. X was trying to get rid of all labels altogether. I’ve just been in Berlin, which is the most X place you could go. If I travelled back in time to say, ‘Doug, here’s a poster from Gap in London from 2014 which says adopts Zoolander-esque sotto voce] ‘Gap – be normal’ I would think, ‘Oh my God, the future is genuinely dystopic and hellish and what the hell happened.’ But then you see it in a broader context and things are actually not that bad. Except we’re worried all the time and no one has an attention span any more.

 

The thing with the internet is it’s all about you, it’s all about me – what’s on eBay – let me do some actual work – oh, kitten video! Comparing ’91 – twenty-three years ago – to now, I think the future actually is exactly the way I would have described it back then, but it’s happening so quickly now, all these logarithmic technologies are hitting their asymptote. The natural human condition has been to assume that the lives of your children and their grandchildren and your great-great-great-great-grandchildren will be essentially the same as your life, and now we don’t know what’s going to happen six months from now. It’s unprecedented. We seem to be handling it with some element of grace and we should give ourselves a little pat on the back.

 

Q

The White Review

— There’s something you said a couple of times which I wondered if you could expand on a bit: ‘I thought that the internet was a metaphor for life; now I think that life is a metaphor for the internet.’
A

Douglas Coupland

— I was in China for the Alcatel-Lucent book at a router-making factory in suburban Shanghai, and one of my projects for China was to ask people what class they belonged to. In North America, rightly or wrongly most people say, ‘I’m middle-class’, and it would be a very weird person who says, ‘I’m a one-percenter’, or ‘I’m a hobo’. In China people don’t see themselves as members of the People’s Revolutionary Party, they don’t see themselves as bourgeois. I couldn’t find anyone who actually knew what class they were in out there, so there’s this massive state of flux, class flux.

 

I met this one guy,  Peter. The fact that he even has an English first name is a big break from the past. He had this picture of his son, who was 7 or 8, on a frame in his office desk, and I asked him, ‘What’s the difference between him at that age and you at that age?’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s easy: he knows that the internet is the real world.’ That’s 89plus, or actually it’s more like 99plus. If you get down to 95, 99plus people, does that question make sense? What do you mean you’re telling me this taps desk] is some big difference from that points to laptop]. That’s the big rift. The question is the mob or the individual, and this perceptual rift.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Tom Overton is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the archives of the Barbican and Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He edited Portraits: John Berger on Artists and Landscapes: John Berger on Art (Verso, 2015 and 2016)and is writing Berger’s biography, and a book on archives and migration (Allen Lane). He tweets at @tw_overton and collects his articles at overton.tw.




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