Neil LaPierre and I went to Eaton Centre, the big shopping centre in downtown Toronto, together. He used to work at the Sears department store there before it closed down. Now, where it used to be, there’s a big Samsung store with recliner chairs where you can try the latest VR stuff; a Uniqlo where the staff tried to unionize but failed; and a Nordstrom where I tried on a few different pairs of $300 sunglasses.
The Sears job is recurring content in Neil’s work; for example, his opening performance at Belonging(s) will be a re-imagination of when he got laid off. Neil frequently addresses topics that are both so specific and so banal—like online shopping for books about dinosaurs, arguments that he had with an ex, his experience with a not totally popular video game—that at first, some works can seem almost impenetrable.
This slick of familiar yet baffling references captures how lives under capitalism are mediated by a set of symbols that are supposedly shared—through advertising, TV shows, etc.—yet are also entirely alienating, and misinterpreted by each subject in their own way. What seems so basic actually can’t be parsed in batch at all. Capital calls out, “Hey, you’re a 34-year-old woman who’s interested in poetry and stretchy bellbottoms, we KNOW you will LOVE this TV show about an East Asian copyeditor in Brooklyn.” Neil’s art practice affirms my desire to respond with “not today.” I feel like something other today.
We talked in the food court and then went out into the mall to look at what used to be Sears.
OTHER PEOPLE GROW AROUND HIM
Neil: At Sears, I worked in denim and underwear and I didn’t even own a pair of jeans. I stopped wearing jeans in high school, like Grade 9… The rest of my life I wore slacks.
Amy: Why did it seem cool to you to dress like a retiree in high school?
Neil: Well, it’s kind of embarrassing to talk about influence, I think, from high school… but I think there were probably two… One influence would be, I guess, trying to be anti-fashion… [Neil explains how he doesn’t appreciate how California is over-represented in pop culture and too much men’s fashion comes from there…] And then other one was I was obsessed with Andy Warhol when I was a teenager. I did art projects on Andy Warhol but, oh my god, I hope they’re destroyed, I really do.
Amy: What were they?
Neil: Okay, so, this is one that I got in trouble for. It was tracing the CD art from Madonna’s Erotica CD, like the S&M inserts… I think it was like one of those CD booklets that folds out. I traced a bunch of the pictures, and I was using acrylic paint to try to make it look like an Andy Warhol print. [Discussion of why Neil got into trouble for that artwork…]
Neil: I remember me and my friends made a movie. We watched Flesh for Frankenstein—
Amy: Sorry, what’s that?
Neil: It’s just a gory Andy Warhol movie, I don’t even really remember it, but we watched it and then we made a video where we just sat around and didn’t talk about it, but kind of recreated it, but then we weren’t really recreating it… We were just talking about the synopsis, and reacting to it, but also acting it out at the same time. I think we called it a sequel. But yeah, I made videos when I was in high school. I got last place in the high school film festival.
Amy: What was the video that you got last place for?
Neil: Oh my gosh! So, it was called Madonna Fan, because everything was about Madonna back then. [A discussion of Swimfan and how Madonna Fan is unlike Swimfan takes place.]
Neil: Yeah, so it’s called Madonna Fan and it was about this guy who really likes Madonna, so all these people make fun of him because they like DMX, so he starts hanging out with a group of people that like pop music but then the pop music that they like is too intense.
Amy: What do you mean, “too intense”?
Neil: It’s, like, too bubblegum pop. He’s not ready to let go of Madonna… Even though he can say “You know what, I like Madonna, I’m not going to lie about that,” he’s not ready to fully admit that he likes Hanson. He’s got that wall.
Amy: What happens at the end of the movie?
Neil: I think that’s it.
Amy: It’s like a personal journey where he can’t… he doesn’t grow enough to fully accept that he does love pop music.
Neil: Yeah. I think the other people grow around him, maybe.
Amy: Do you think that it deserved last place? What were the other movies like?
Neil: The one that won was like these guys playing X-Men. It was pretty much X-Men. But they didn’t have any special effects or anything, not even costumes. [They just had] Wolverine gloves and California-style clothing. And they were 17, so they had their G2s. So it was a lot of them like getting into a minivan, and then driving somewhere, and then a shot of them getting out of the minivan.
Amy: Like a real Hollywood movie.
Neil: Yeah. And I think it also came out around the time of one of the X-Men movies. Men getting in and out of cars. You know now that I’ve described them, I realize that both movies [that were in first and second place, ahead of mine] were superior.
Amy: One question that I wanted to ask is about shopping and regret. I feel like whenever I buy something new from the mall that is over 50 dollars, 80 percent of the time I regret it or I feel conflicted about it. I’m just wondering if you experience that as well. What’s an item that you’ve bought that you haven’t regretted at all? And what’s the one that you’ve bought that you really regret?
Neil: One thing that I really regretted was I bought a pinstripe suit that was 600 bucks or something.
Amy: From where?
Neil: The Bay.
Amy: While you were working at Sears?
Neil: I don’t know what happened. Sometimes commission salespeople are really good at dazzling you. And I think that’s definitely what happened, where they fixate on one particular item…
Amy: They’re trying to push that item on you?
Neil: Yeah, and I was 24 or 25 years old. And I shouldn’t have had a pinstriped suit. What I needed was just a cheap suit from Sears.
Amy: Why did you buy it? Was there an occasion or no?
Neil: I don’t remember. It was after I got the sports coat—the one that I always performed with at Doored.
Amy: The grey one.
Neil: I wanted something that was like more… not so flashy, I guess? I don’t remember if there was a specific event. But yeah, it was the worst thing that I could’ve bought. So I went back there and cancelled it. And I was lucky that the tailor didn’t start working on it yet.
Amy: What did the salesperson do that was very convincing?
Neil: They talked about like how great the suit looked. And then when I tried on something else, they talked about how great the other suit looked. It was like he knew that people were going to take me seriously.
Amy: Did he say that?
Neil: Yeah. He said, “People are going to take you seriously.” I don’t know if that’s exactly what he said, but I’m pretty sure he said something like that… It was funny because it was the exact opposite.
Amy: What do you mean?
Neil: It was like a flashy suit; it would make me a caricature.
Amy: Right. So how soon afterwards did you realize that you wanted to cancel the suit?
Neil: I think while I was paying for it. And I was on my break. So I went back to work at Sears. And then I woke up the next morning, I went there while they [The Bay] were opening, and stopped it.
Amy: Did you ever say stuff like that to people when you were selling things to them?
Neil: No. I was really trustworthy. You wouldn’t lie to people. I was totally 100% honest. And I think that’s why I sold a lot of treadmills. And I think that I had a way where I would talk about things and people would trust me. Like nobody felt like I was trying to pull something over. Another thing was that I wasn’t paid on commission. I only got commission for one week, right before they announced the store was going to close.
NOT REALLY REALLY LOVING IT
Neil: What I’m doing for this [online shopping] project is hopefully not something where somebody is like, “I’m on the Internet, I need something in front of me right now, and I’ll take anything.” But I thought of it as something more passive.
Amy: What do you mean by that?
Neil: I mean, like, with Twitch and people playing video games—I have that on in the background sometimes to keep me company, like when I’m cleaning or something, and usually I’m not sitting there watching somebody else do something. And that’s how I thought about it—that it could be something that somebody is interested in, but hopefully not…
Amy: It’s not demanding their whole attention.
Neil: I hope not.
Amy: That’s an interesting way to view performance, because usually, if you do performance, you want to have their whole attention. No standup comedian is like, “I hope they just want this in the background…”
Neil: “I hope they’re just here having a few drinks with their friends and they don’t mind that I’m on stage.”
Amy: “I hope that they catch a few things.”
Neil: Yeah. I really got into listening into like vaporwave. And, like, lo-fi music that’s always in the background now. I think maybe…
Amy: Like James Ferraro?
Neil: I don’t know anybody in vaporwave. I just type in “vaporwave chill,” or “vaporwave chill lonely summer afternoon mix,” and I’m like, wow, this is exactly what I want. So maybe it’s James… Maybe James wants to be a star or something, but the way I feel about it is that those people making that music, I don’t think that they’re really aiming to be super famous.
Amy: I mean, with James Ferraro, he’s made 40 albums or something. It’s way too many albums.
Neil: That’s cool… just making stuff. And, I don’t know, maybe they actually do want to have people really really love it. But I don’t.
Amy: You don’t? You don’t want people to really really love it?
Neil: No, I don’t. I don’t really love any specific vaporwave song in the background. So I guess I’m thinking of a kind of passive thing, and that’s what I wanted to do. But that’s only one small part of it. The main part was that I wanted to find a way to talk and tell stories in a different way. And I was interested in doing it in a way where nothing interesting might happen, or something good might come out of nowhere. Everything I’ve done is heavily scripted. Even though a bunch of people ask me if my performances at Doored were improvised, because I go up there and I talk. But everything is written down, everything is recorded. I listen to the sound of my voice after I record it, and the tone of everything I say is thought out. And for myself, I was interested in putting myself in a position where I don’t have any of that. And I also wanted to just talk and relate to people through objects, which always happens when people are in the chat room. Nobody’s been in the chat room.
Amy: No one’s been in the room at all?
Neil: The first few times they were. People talked to me the whole time I was on, and then all of a sudden nobody’s talking to me.
Amy: So, I’ll talk to you this Sunday.
Neil: OK, that’s tomorrow, you know.
Amy: How long are you are online for?
Neil: Well, one or two hours. It’s officially one hour. But if I have the steam I’m just going to plow through it and do for two. But it’s really hard. It’s really hard to talk to yourself for two hours. You have to be in an okay mood.
Amy: Are you talking the whole time?
Amy: Like nonstop talking?
Neil: Except for a couple of weeks ago, I felt really frustrated that nobody was talking in the chat room, so I stopped talking for like 2 minutes or something like that.
Amy Lam is one-half of the artist duo Life of a Craphead. Life of a Craphead organized and hosted Doored, a performance art show and online broadcast, from 2012 to 2017.