Carson Brown wants to make people think critically about what he calls the American landscape, and he’s not talking about mountains and vistas. He’s talking about the American landscape of consumerism.
“I want people to look around the space of a big box store and ask, ‘Is this space necessary? Do I need all these things? Is this a healthy way of living my life?’”
He does this by building sculptures — which look like monochromatic towers — inside stores, using the very merchandise the store is selling. All without the establishment’s permission.
Although he’s critical of big box stores, he also really likes them. Brown makes his living as a commercial photographer and is often popping into various places to buy things for his photo shoots and clients. Brown says he finds the culture and characters inside big box stores fascinating.
“There’s so much happening and so many people involved with lots of voices and stories being told.”
Inside a Meijer on a Wednesday night in Grand Rapids, the plan is to build a sculpture inside the store, then take photos of the end result, and share them on social media. All without getting caught.
Even though the point of Brown’s ongoing art project is to question capitalism, it’s also about having fun and being playful.
Brown grabs a cart with one squeaky wheel, and makes his way past a guy stocking candy. He scans the scene for a prime spot to make a sculpture. In the produce aisle, Brown passes a woman talking into a large cell phone, in Spanish, on speaker phone. The scene makes him smile.
“I just think people are really interesting, and that’s super funny to me. That’s a massive phone and she’s talking so loud. How can you not laugh at that?”
He takes his empty cart and loops around the store looking for the ideal space to build a sculpture.
One of the main things guiding him is the color palette of a particular space and how it might become, as he says, “activated” by creating a sculpture in a different color that would make the space pop.
So, for example, he’s considering accenting a beige and brown corner of the store (aka the underwear department) by building a sculpture with entirely cherry red objects.
But Brown never knows what he’s going to build prior to entering a Meijer or Ikea or Target. He says this art project is about responding in the moment to the store’s grid layout and its rows and rows of similar products.
Eventually Brown finds a quiet spot in a section where the store had previously housed its back-to-school merchandise. He zones in on some empty shelves. He decides the color blue will make this spot brilliant.
So Brown slowly wheels his cart around the different departments, hunting for the perfect shade of blue. almost a blueberry blue. He’s a bit of a kid in a candy store.
“Awww this is perfect, look at this! Bubble wrap. Blue bubble wrap in big rolls. That is pretty beautiful. The shape is super nice.”
He neatly stacks the items into his cart. He acquires a stack of blue buckets, a blue ironing board, blue recycle bins, blue book binders, blue Listerine, blue loofas — those scrunch-y bath things — and blue shampoo.
He fills several cart-loads with products, then goes back to that corner spot and begins carefully stacking the products into a sculpture. Then something on the loudspeaker catches his attention.
A woman on the speakers just said: “All available team members to the shoe department.” It’s worth mentioning that Brown is making his sculpture right next to the shoe department.
Making sculptures without permission wears on Brown’s nerves. “Why would all the team members need to be in the shoe department?” he wonders out loud. He is hyper-aware of curious store employees and shoppers.
When employees approach him and ask what’s he’s doing, he tells them he’s working on an art project. Usually they leave him alone, but he also quick to get out of dodge before they can kick him out.
Shoppers also ask him what he’s up to, and he says for the most part they encourage him and tell him they enjoy his art.
Brown says the point of these sculptures is that he’s on a time limit to build them before getting caught, and that they’re not permanent pieces of art.
Employees often take down his sculptures within the hour, and he has mixed feelings about that. But he says it would entirely change the meaning of the project if he built the sculptures and then dismantled them himself.
He wants people to think about all this stuff we buy.
Back inside Meijer, Brown is in the zone. He moves the objects around, steps back, studies them carefully, and tweaks them again. He does this at least 100 times. No one has said a peep to him tonight, and he moves the store products with such authority that he looks like he truly belongs here.
In fact, he says it’s not uncommon people for people to ask him where to find something, and he usually can tell them exactly where it is.
Once he feels satisfied with his blueberry-blue sculpture, he snaps pictures and blasts them out on social media. But he’s worried he’s taken too long and is drawing attention to himself. So he stashes his almost-empty cart at the front of the store and slips out the door into the parking lot, where someone in a large truck is blasting country music.
Brown says if just one person inside the store does a double-take at his sculpture and wonders what it’s all about, then he feels his art project was a success.