Features » Art


News from Teenyland

The "Coolhunters" exhibition in Karlsruhe looks at youth culture between the media and the market. By Elke Buhr

Michael van den Bogaard "ohne Titel", photo and © Michael van den Bogaard
You can't say rapper 50 Cent looks intelligent, standing there with pants that hang down to his knees, his undershirt and crooked grin. But he's an incredibly cool guy – or at least that's what he says in his songs. Every now and then Snoop Doggy Dog walks into the picture, pats his curls as if he were doing an ad for hairspray and raps on theme of the perm. And beside, above, below and between hiphop's self-satisfied mega-earners, naked women hold their correspondingly inflated silicon breasts into the camera.

Anyone who regularly watches MTV might be tempted to see in this "adult version" of 50 Cent's hit P.I.M.P. the very essence of pop culture today: the relict of a subculture corrupted by big money, spending its forces in primitive macho poses. A colourful sexed-up culture industry bubble that threatens to burst any moment, just like the pumped up breasts of the girls in the video. The youths who consume this culture en masse, however, don't just lose their last 50 cents. They also inhale a thoroughly sexualised, commercialised world in which being cool means looking dumb and wearing expensive brand name clothes, where men are primitive dudes and women even more primitive sex objects. But MTV also shows videos like "I'd rather dance with you" by the Kings of Convenience. Norwegian singer Erlend Oye is a sort of young Woody Allen, with big glasses, small shoulders and a mop of curly hair. He stalks through a group of girls in a ballet class, shows them how to wobble their knees and demonstrates that a pop star can also be a likeable, post-macho nerd from next door.

"Aye, Me (Heart Explosion) 1", photo and © Alex McQuilkin. Courtesy Galerie Adler
In the "Coolhunters" exhibition organised by the ZKM art and media centre in the Städtische Galerie in Karlsruhe, it is certainly no coincidence that the two videos play on opposite sides of the same screen. Even in times when commercialism rules, curators Birgit Richard, Klaus Neumann-Braun, Sabine Himmelsbach and Peter Weibel hold to ideas that were prevalent in cultural studies in the 1980s. For them, youth culture is both conformity and resistance, mainstream and avantgarde. The exhibition shows how young people appropriate mass commodities in their own, original way, modifying and combining cheap stereotypes to create their own distinct look. It presents teenagers as coolhunters on the lookout for the new, as fashion hunters and trendscouts, continually patching together their own definition of coolness from what the media or their peer group have to offer. They are eclectic, unpredictable and always one step ahead of marketing strategies.

And truly, visitors to this agreeably concentrated exhibition will see a rich kaleidoscope of today's youth cultures. The exhibits from the "Youth Culture Archive" of Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt which Birgit Richard secured for the show demonstrate the confindence young people have in handling fashion. The complicated lacing that turns brand name running shoes into works of art serves as a mark of recognition for the hiphoppers. Equally, techno events in the 90s saw many self-designed T-shirts, portraying in an ironic and cynical way the logos of companies from Shell to Jägermeister, a German herb liqueur. The teenagers, trained in globalised mass consumption since babyhood, use their self-stylisations to forge a place for themselves between individual expression and being part of the group.

Producers like Adidas or Nike now factor this need for "customising" directly into their products, offering certain models in personalised variants, tailor made as it were. This creative appropriation of products also functions in the area of computer games, otherwise regarded with a certain suspicion. The exhibition features several humorous sequences programmed by the players themselves, variations on the official version. And a series of photographs by Pia Lanzinger shows how meticulously young girls can constitute their own private world out of childhood relics and the offerings of pop culture. Lanzinger travelled through Germany and Scotland, photographing girls in their rooms among stuffed animals, star photos and pictures of their first boyfriends.

"Union Rave", photo and © Andreas Gursky
Art plays an important role in the exhibition, oscillating between documentation and stylisation, interior and exterior views. Andreas Gursky photographs ravers as a mass ornament, like ants at a strange religious service. New York artist and rising star Alex McQuilkin, herself in her mid-twenties, stages trashy suicide scenes a la Kurt Cobain, wallowing in stage blood and the clichés of the teenager as despairing victim of pop culture. A video installation by Catrine Val shows in turn how clichés become reality. On three monitors, she presents young cheerleaders in the classroom, during practice and performing in front of staged settings. One minute the thirteen-year-olds sit sweating over their notebooks, the next they are poster images of themselves with perfect smiles, kicking their slim legs like Britney Spears.

According to the organisers, the show caters especially to young audiences. The exhibition architecture is reminiscent of a skateboard half pipe; visitors can play games or write comments on the Internet. Yet the curators' systematising perspective is not just communicated through the sociological jargon in the explanatory texts. "Coolhunters" functions as an ethnography of the tribes, communities and individual lives of average teenagers. Yet the sympathetic look at this creative diversity does not entirely correspond to the reality of 50 Cent & Co. Maybe youth culture can't really be shown without snuggling up to it a bit. Youth is a rare species, and much loved – as much by art and academia as by market research.

Städtische Galerie Karlsruhe, 23 April – 3 July. The book "Coolhunters. Jugendkultur zwischen Medien und Markt", edited by Klaus Neumann-Braun and Brigit Richard, is published by Suhrkamp Verlag and costs 10 euros.


The article was originally published in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 27 April, 2005.

Elke Buhr is a journalist and editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european