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Seth Price's Folklore U.S. by Ben Fama

Koenig Books, London, 2014

Seth Price’s Folklore U.S. documents a series of installations and exhibitions stemming from his dOCUMENTA (13) contribution, which included the Folklore U.S. SS12 fashion show (with collaborator Tim Hamilton), an exhibition at Hauptbahnhof, and a series of shop windows and garments for sale at SinnLeffers. The book is bound with a thick iridescent linen paper that wavers between green and purple as you tilt it to and fro. The first text is an interview with Seth Price, and the other two are with Ben Morgan-Cleveland, who worked with Price on several of his shows: two in New York and one in Cologne.

The interviews tell of the tedium of working in designer fashion and the obstacles to correctly gather and produce a single piece, referred to as “soft sculpture” (Morgan-Cleveland rejects the phrase). Pictures run alongside the interview transcriptions, and the “containers” (as Price’s pieces are called) are coded both familiar and uncanny, approachable and scrambled, products with mixed signifiers that might be ugly, or not. For instance, on a piece called Bag with Decorative Pattern and Federal Element, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—printed liners rattle nerves (it is tax season, after all), but the other printed liners suggest a culture of DIY-patternmaking and lo-fi nostalgia. Price unites material and concept as higher-than-high accessories that could be used, but won’t be.

Scraps themselves are the content of several images. Cotton and flannel fabric swatches in plaid and houndstooth appear lying over an image of a suited man drinking a martini on a sofa which is cited as reference material. These patterns don’t appear in any of the works, and are only referenced insofar as Price flips these tiled patterns away from the Republican, “University Club” look into something less familiar. One interior pattern, on a piece called Study for Unidentified Mouse, is an all-over pattern of Mickey Mouse’s head, the familiar Disney trademark, but in evil-intentioned silhouette.

“Planting the seed of uncertainty,” is one of Price’s tricks, we learn, when he asks the rhetorical question “You know how to be cool?” This phrase appears in the last section of the book, a piece of original writing called “Folklore U.S.” that serves as counterpart and extension to the short contemplations on art and culture and their apparatuses in his previous collection titled Poems, scanned from years of notebooks (1999–2003). Price writes the essay with the tone of someone who thinks they are doing you a favor by lending you their savvy, which gave me a sort of Kanye “Imma let you finish, but…” feeling. Price also has a forthcoming collection of appropriated travel blog posts titled Go Home.

New York City suffered a cold snap the day I received Folklore U.S. I made up this drink—2.0 oz gin, 0.5 oz chartreuse, soda, mint leaf—and drank as I read the essay and thought about what Price was telling me. I know how to be cool: by not ever saying the word cool. But according to Price, I am wrong. “First off you don’t be cool, you seem cool.” Is the function of being cool to draw the other in, or to control the space between? Since the urge is libidinal, it must be both.

“As a means for the preservation of the individual, the intellect shows its greatest strengths in dissimulation,” or so says Nietzsche. So it was for Price in Kassel, when he altered his language to pitch his pieces in different contexts: the exhibition space versus the garment rack. When pitching to the buyers of the latter, he claimed thus: “I wrote it with no reference to militarism or any art concept, I just presented it as white sportswear.”

So what does Price say cool is? Not talking too much, not making too much sense, reversing the expected, and mastering the tonus of adult discourse. In one photo accompanying this last section, purple mood-light blooms like an orchid around three conversing models wearing white bonnets. The caption reads “Shit-talking, backstage after the show.”