(Re)Inscribing Authority with Oli Watt

A diploma hangs on an administrator’s wall at a liberal arts college. Look closer. No, really, look closer. It’s not actually a diploma. The words aren’t even legible. This “diploma” is not from a university, but from the studio of Oli Watt.

Oli Watt’s work plays with codes and signs of authority. His parodies of authoritative forms call attention to the construction of that authority. Watt is interested in the movement between fact and fiction, reality and cartoon. It used to be that cartoons and fictional worlds, often his source material, were a caricature of reality. Now, he says that it seems to have flipped: reality feels more like a cartoon. He says, “Some of the things I make, that I used to view as somewhat humorous, are starting to feel a bit more frightening through their growing proximity to reality.” He teases out the confusion there, using the tools of comedy. In our current sociopolitical climate, full of tensions between what is real and what is not, those confusions become all the more ripe. As he creates facts from fictions and fictions from facts, the boundaries of both are troubled.

Business Cards, 1998 until present. Offset prints.

In recreating the forms of others, Watt is inherently pushing against capitalism’s treatment of ideas as property, and of originality as another form of ownership. A direct attack on systems of authority would be self-destructive for works that reiterate that authority through parody, but there is potential for subversion from within.

Watt’s Degree (2006) underwrites the authority it is simultaneously undermining. It points to the construction of authority even as it is complicit in it. As colleges and universities become more oriented to the production of graduates poised to climb the economic ladder of success, the meaning of a diploma becomes more like a stamp of approval for an actor entering the stage of the global economy. Furthermore, under neoliberal capitalism, social “success” is predicated on economic “success.” A diploma becomes a necessary component of being a good capitalist subject.

If one doesn’t notice that it is a “diploma,” the object still exudes the same power as a diploma. A viewer who recognizes this object for what it is (and what it is not) can feel the discomfort of de-naturalized cultural assumptions. Its effectiveness relies on deception, which creates a hierarchical distance between author/object and viewer. The viewer is lectured on legitimacy of authority vis-à-vis objects.

Dear Prudence (2001) also questions of the nature of authority from a more horizontal alliance with viewers, allowing for greater agency of the viewer to engage with meaning. Dear Prudence is a collection of miniature traffic barricades standing four inches high, created after Watt spent time observing traffic barricades in the street and considering their function. While their orange diagonals on a white background serve to warn us against hazards in the street, the barricades remain both attention-grabbing and easily ignored—necessary and disposable. Their warnings become so familiar as to be mundane. These barricades are often left behind to be vandalized or run-over. In obeying the barricades, the authority of which they are a faceless manifestation is respected, the barricades themselves are not.

Watt’s barricades have been installed and displayed as a group in galleries or individually on the street—marking a small crack in a sidewalk, or dog poop in a yard. He creates fictional authorities as miniatures of factual authority. However, these miniatures also manipulate their environment. Using these cartoon versions of official objects, the artist is “re-familiarizing the familiar.” Dear Prudence questions real versus cartoon, the authorship of authority, and whether or not it’s worth obeying.

Proceeding with Caution 1, 1998. Documentation photo of screen print attached to existing barricade.

Even Watt’s business cards question the legitimacy of the form. After getting a haircut at a struggling shop in Chicago, the owner put a stack of business cards in Watt’s hands. Soon the business folded, and he was left with the cards. He transformed them into cards of his own by scribbling out the shop’s information and writing in his own name and phone number, adding a non sequitur personal comment on the reverse side. Meaning is literally re-inscribed upon an authoritative object. The card draws attention to its own informal provenance. A postmodern object, demonstrating a self-awareness, disrupts acceptable notions of officialdom.

Once Watt ran through the original stack of cards, in just a month, he liked them so much that he printed replications. Instead of creating tidy, traditional business cards for himself, he re-printed his re-inscriptions. He fuels the confusion of fact and fiction: were these still “really” the business cards of a salon after he wrote over their information? Were they “really” his cards when written over that of the salon? The ritual of handing out business cards and their assumed authority is undermined. At the same time, they remain business cards produced by a professionally trained printmaker. They remain capable of performing the same functions as a traditional business card. As with Degree, there is a tension here: subversion is held taut against the conservative effects of reiteration.

The business card is a vestige of a failure of capitalist optimism. Watt’s ink writes over history in the same way the business was written over in the world—there is now another business residing at the address on the cards. He embraces failure under capitalism with the business card as well as with his new collection of pennants. He salvages the detritus of capitalist society, championing those that the champions will not.

The Background Keeps Changing, 2005. Screenprint on Fabric, wooden flagpole, 48 in x 32 in.

Watt’s pennants celebrating “Losers,” “Drop-Outs,” “Failures,” and the like, points to identities created by those in authority. The current president of the United States has built a platform on the idea of winners and losers. For Watt, he is recognizing Losers, Drop-Outs and so on, “as important parts of the national fabric.” Inspiration was drawn from early-90s tees made by Sub Pop Records, proclaiming “LOSER.” An embrace of the word Loser indicates both an earnest pride in not being on that team and an ironic renegotiation of its terms. He is demonstrating that we are all still part of the same system and we are all contributing in some way or another, even as the president makes it clear that those who do not conform to neoliberal capitalist notions of success are not on his team.

The collection of different pennants suggests a league of outsiders recreating the socioeconomic competition and hierarchies from which they are ostensibly excluded, voluntarily or not.The sports motif is apt for demonstrating the competition between in-groups that is foundational for American culture. Creating these teams of Losers is a statement in opposition to the Winners—not challenging the system that created Winners/Losers in the first place. So it begs the question: who holds the power of naming? And how do we access the power to name ourselves?

Oli Watt’s work demonstrates a curiosity about the confusion between fact and fiction. As “the real” becomes more and more like cartoons and fictions, parodies of cultural texts become less humorous and more harrowing. Now is a more critical time than ever to ask ourselves where authority comes from—and how we can renegotiate its bounds.

Emily H. Cox
Emily H. Cox lives in Kansas City, where she spends her time writing, working at the public library, building community, learning to garden, and dancing to Beyoncé. She holds a BA in Visual Culture from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.