Interview: Ron English

You may have seen Ron English‘s artwork before. Remember Super Size Me, the documentary by Morgan Spurlock, in which Spurlock bravely eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month straight? The 32-year-old gained 24.5 pounds, a 13% body mass increase. His cholesterol level also rose to 230 and it took him 14 months to lose the weight and get his body back to normal. Fun stuff.

Spurlock needed a representation of what Ronald McDonald would look like if he actually ate his own food. Enter Ron English, a notorious artist known for what has been coined as Agit-Pop, but which English prefers to call POPaganda. His painting of a super-sized McDonald made its way into the film and became one of the Oscar-nominated documentary’s most resonating images.

Ron English has been in the culture jamming game for quite some time now. He has run over Hummer, smoked Camel, and even taken a bite out of Apple’s “Think Different” advertising campaign. For the latter, English replaced the ad’s original “great minds” — Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso — with Bill Gates and Charles Manson. The change was a poke at Apple’s co-opting of deceased luminaries, whose likenesses had been used by the company to shill computers without their consent.

English’s method is quite simple — well, sort of. Locate a corporate billboard and paint over it creating a entirely new message, but leave the visual aesthetic almost the same. He is also known for pushing religious buttons, which leaves him open not only to criticism but also to threats of physical harm. He once covered a billboard with the words “LETS GET DRUNK AND KILL GOD,” a phrase that didn’t exactly endear him to the local community. Within minutes, angry men with baseball bats were chasing English to his getaway car.

Love it or hate it, English’s art does what good art should do; it allows you to question the world we live in and to do so in new, exciting ways. When English was asked about his art, he said, “Essentially it’s the use of mainstream media techniques to subvert the mainstream media. By forcing people to question whether or not an ad is real, you demystify how commercial messages are presented. You make them into more critical thinkers.”

I thought it would be interesting to ask English for his take on everything from the health care debate to outer space.

Owl and Bear: Can you please explain to our readers what exactly “culture jamming” is?

Ron English: The term was coined by Negativeland and refers to the term “jamming” from CB radio culture. In CB lingo, to jam meant to interrupt the conversation. Culture Jamming is a Robin Hood-style interruption of corporate advertising.

Owl and Bear: Has consumerism become something of a religion in this country?

Ron English: The religion is the act of buying, consuming and disposing of products. The ad men are the high priests. A pious person is a consumer, not a citizen.

Owl and Bear: Can you please explain the difference between free speech and corporate free speech?

Ron English: Every person in a corporation should have the right to free speech as an individual, but the corporation itself is not a democracy, and it should not be a vehicle for the few people with a controlling interest to be elevated to the status of super-citizens with extraordinary rights to “free speech” above and beyond their rights as individual citizens.

Owl and Bear: Do you think people’s idea of art has become skewed because of the way it is used as a marketing tool?

Ron English: I think their idea of art is skewed by the distortion of the big-moneyed insider trading of blue-chip art more than advertising’s use of art.

Owl and Bear: Why do you think the images presented to us in the media are so accepted by society in general?

Ron English: Repetition and visual dominance.

Owl and Bear: Your work helps to tell us that we do have a choice, and that it’s okay to question the messages and imagery, but why do you think so few actually do?

Ron English: Because the daily life of an American consists of the making of thousands of decisions, rendering it impossible to give each individual decision considered attention, which opens up encroachment opportunities for advertisers.

Owl and Bear: How do you think President Obama has done at this point in his presidency?

Ron English: As good as can be expected considering the united effort by the right wing to marginalize him.

Owl and Bear: What are your thoughts on the seemingly endless health care debate? Is it something that can be fixed, or are we doomed by dogma?

Ron English: It can be fixed, but probably only in stages. I am pleased and hopeful with the progress so far. I hope we eventually get to the single payer model that most civilized nations use.

Owl and Bear: What do you think the biggest cultural danger to America is?

Ron English: Isolation, arrogance, exceptionalism.

Owl and Bear: You have worked with several musicians in the past, perhaps most notably Daniel Johnston, who is a friend of yours. How does the world of music influence your artwork and what are you currently listening to?

Ron English: Music unleashes creative currents in me, and I admire the art form very much. I have a band called The Electric Illuminati and we’re currently mastering our first album.

Owl and Bear: Are there any artists out there who you feel the world needs to know about but don’t get the exposure they deserve?

Ron English: There are so many great artists out there right now. Two names that come to mind are Mark Dean Veca and Beau Stanton.

Owl and Bear: If you could include one piece of your artwork in a time capsule, to be seen hundreds of years in the future by humans or aliens, what piece would you choose?

Ron English: I would submit a blank canvas, because the greatest art is yet to be made.

Owl and Bear: How do you see the future from a sociological standpoint? Are we on the path to a dystopia like Orwell predicted in 1984?

Ron English: We’re either going into a benighted or enlightened age, but I don’t think we can balance both as we have been for the last few years.

Owl and Bear: What kind of projects have you been working on recently?

Ron English: We recently ascended Santa Christ to Heaven on Easter Sunday at the altitudinal epicenter of American Christianity, Colorado Springs.

Owl and Bear: What do you ultimately hope a viewer of your artwork walks away with?

Ron English: An empty bank account and an open mind.

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