CARI, the Rosetta Stone of consumer capitalism.
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And in today’s Dirt, Samantha Culp writes a remembrance of consumer aesthetics past as chronicled through CARI, the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute.
Back in 2017, I showed up for a somewhat random meeting at the Orange County corporate headquarters of Oakley, the sunglasses brand. From the outside, it looked like a landed spaceship—all grey concrete and brushed metal, Art Deco by way of H.R. Geiger. Inside the lobby, corrugated metal vaulted the ceiling while oversized gears, bolts, and drain-pipes studded the walls.
As I sat to wait for my appointment (in a bank of ejector-seats ripped out of a fighter jet, no less), my brain kept tumbling the visual associations, like frantically attempting to solve a Rubik's cube. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis? Tool music video? Tetsuo the Iron Man meets the Works Progress Administration? All these ingredients were there but blended into a specific 1990s hybrid style that I recognized but had no name for.
It was only years later when I discovered the Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute (CARI) that I came to understand that what I was mainlining there in the Oakley entry hall was “Industrial Gothic”—or at least, “Industrial Gothic” with a dash of “Factory Pomo” and “Industrial Americana”. These are only a few of the nearly 100 (and counting) aesthetics identified and tracked by the CARI project, which is described on its website as “an online community dedicated to developing a visual lexicon of consumer ephemera from the 1970s until now.”
But this summary is exceedingly modest. The experience of scrolling through their meticulous website or Are.na channels , not to mention the hyperactive Discord, is more like witnessing a cabal of Gen Z citizen naturalists creating the ultimate taxonomy for the visual culture of Western late capitalism—a Systema Naturae of the shopping mall, if you will.
CARI originated in 2014, when a young Seattle-based architect named Evan Collins began a Facebook group called “Y2K Aesthetic Institute” intended to collect and share late-90s visions of shiny, techno-optimistic futurity (translucent iMacs, TLC’s “No Scrubs” music video, etc). It drew fellow obsessives to add their own finds, and soon expanded in scope to examine other aesthetics—some closely adjacent (eg “Frutiger Aero ”), some way further afield (eg “Decoplex”)—that prompted a migration across platforms and the new name.
Today, CARI is run by a team of about a dozen core curators and a large Discord community, all dedicated to excavating, sorting and analyzing vernacular styles from the past half-century that most of us have grown up with but lack the language to describe: children’s beachwear with rude neon animals (“Rad Dog/Neon Surf ”). Saved By The Bell’s punky soda-shop hangout (“Diner Kitsch”). Raygun Magazine (“Corporate Grunge”). Supermarkets and cookbook covers that looked like this (“Festival Marketplace”).
CARI demonstrates some of what one could call the “Linnaean impulse” toward classification of all micro-aesthetics, subcultures, vibes in niche subreddits, hashtags , starter-pack memes, etc; a process that is both enabled by the Internet and, perhaps, necessitated by it, as a way to manage the anxieties of digital information overflow and rapid change. Then again, this may just be the latest modern incarnation of a very ancient practice that is meant on some level to resist mortality (what Umberto Eco has described as “the giddiness of lists”).
But what sets CARI apart from projects like the “Aesthetics Wiki” site , or other manifestations of our broader moment where “trends” have themselves become trendy, is an interest in history and the rubric of “consumer aesthetics.” CARI defines a consumer aesthetic as “a visual movement unified by overarching attitudes and themes that survived long enough or became popular enough to be appropriated by capital” (emphasis mine), so their research focuses on the things that have already been filtered through corporations, leaving visible traces in the landscape of products, marketing, media, and commercial spaces.
The dominant approach is archaeological, as opposed to generative (i.e. starting and remixing styles, like the thousands of micro-aesthetics born of Tumblr) or speculative (i.e. identifying and magnifying the ephemeral “weak signals” that are the building blocks of traditional trend forecasting). It relies heavily on material artifacts like decades-old trade magazines and design award annuals, many of which are being scanned by CARI members into the digital record for the first time (what used to be called “paleoblogging”).
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The project is also critical—engaging with the fraught politics of nostalgia by annotating the problematic and exoticizing undertones (and overtones) in many past aesthetics, like Pastel Southwestern and Global Village Coffeehouse.1 But even for the most innocuous strands of design history, these archives can be unsettling; the simultaneously ecstatic and eerie encounter with shards of a lost world.
Although CARI’s work extends up through the present, it’s the pre-Internet 1980s and 90s styles they’re documenting that may resonate the strongest with elder millennials like (cough) me. It's not just that, if you are of a certain age, glancing at one of these images boards is as effective as a Proustian madeleine for conjuring something deep in the subconscious, but that these aesthetics were tied to physical spaces and objects—a whole "dimension" of our lives that is increasingly compressed.
Of course, these are also now images on a screen, but they conjure tactility: that someone, somewhere, once touched the weird piece of mosaic art jutting over the coffee-shop sofa (“Whimsicraft”), once brushed past the inexplicable Doric columns in the fashion boutique (“Pomo Faux Ruins”). How grotesque in their excess; how quaint in their absence and replacement by something much more ominous. Perhaps CARI’s lasting contribution will be this documentation of North American consumer capitalism in its most hysterically embodied form, right at the point it began melting into air. — Samantha Culp
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