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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay


Updated: Jun 11

I was looking forward to reading 'Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You.' by Barbara Kruger but I wasn't expecting to be as engaged with and excited by it as I was ... (Boudicca too, it would seem...)

Barabra Kruger's work repeatedly crops up in books I have been reading about my creeative research themes; propaganda, power, psychological manipulation, control, identity, stereotypes and protest art - so, I decided to buy this book of her works and I was definitely not disappointed. I was particularly taken with the impact of her careful choice of words to expose and interrogate power structures and cultural practices which perpetrate harm and oppression. I was particularly affected by her words on cruelty and idealisation which I have been thinking about a lot recently, in relation to covert abuse. Her black, white and red colour-scheme is certainly not my personal aesthetic, but the perfect choice for delivery of her bold and incisive messaging.

Some quotes and my favourite artworks are below:

‘Among the most extraordinary artists of our time, Barbara Kruger has consistently deployed a graphic form of public address to question oppression, the concentration of capital, and the abuse of power. For five decades, her practice has been on the front lines of a broader contest of values, insisting that art can be part of an urgent public discourse.’ (Page 18)


‘Kruger doesn’t instruct us on what position to take so much as reveal how positions are made: what we take to be our naturally or innately personal positions and identities are, in fact, publicly constructed. Her work demands that each of us recognise the fact that our identities and positions, our mark of difference from one another in terms of gender, class, race, age, religion, etc. are defined within the structuring powers of language, image and space, that is, cultural systems of representation.’ – art historian, Miwon Kwon (page 42)

 ‘Kruger’s tenure at Condé Nast also led to her preferred graphic typeface: the bold yet simple letterforms of Futura Bold Oblique or Helvetica Ultra Compressed. She chose sans-serif fonts for their readability and, as she has said, because “they could really cut through the grease”.’ (page 44)


‘If Kruger’s early work interrogated the complex strategies of messaging from the perspective of the page, this new turn enveloped the viewer physically and psychologically within the rhetoric of images and idioms.’ (page 45)


‘I think I try to be vigilant about the ways in which power is threaded through the everyday. It makes me stop and focus, even for a second.’ – Barbara Kruger (page 46)


‘In taking advantage of mass media, Kruger has ensured her continuous presence in the cultural landscape. Among those who have adopted her style are, for example, the designer brand Supreme, Instagram, and Mamamoo, an all-girl pop band from South Korea. Such pirating is inherent to out overshared, oversaturated moment, but Kriger sees intellectual property as mainly a euphemism for corporate control, and as a futile one at that.’ (page 47)


‘Today Kruger adjusts for audiences with shrinking attention spans. She often speaks about her own short attention span as an attribute rather than a flaw. Knowing that a visitor can walk away at any time, she has employed temporal choreography to elicit attention and pique interest at varying points in her works. We see this with Kruger’s LED work, like Untitled (Your Body is a Battleground) (I1989/2019), which disperses and recollects an image with overlaid messages. The crescendo a timed video loops, engineered to play at varying times, positions the gallery as a stage, embodying, as Kate Linker defined it, “manipulation through display,” which “manifests itself in [the artist’s] control over construction, distribution and reception of information”.’ (page 49)


‘Today we might understand the smartphone as the nexus of advertising and capitalist culture; certainly it is the primary tool via which we receive and transmit information. Kruger wrote about the flattening space of such personal yet collective screens in 2011, deeming us all “exhibitionists and voyeurs”.’ (page 50)


‘In her essay on Stern, Kruger described him thus: “Zigzagging between self-degradation and megalomania, political clarity and dangerous stereotyping, temper tantrums and ridiculously humble ingratiation, he is both painfully unsettling and crazily funny.” Accurately describing Stern, Kruger’s text also represents (and skewers) the cultural zeitgeist of social media influencers and posters/posers today.’ (page 50)


‘Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You. Is about identity and ego, and how people bring their own backgrounds and contexts into the work. Kruger wants to demonstrate how the reader generates meaning each time the text is read. The artist expands on this framework in one of the exhibition’s installations, in which she states:



‘Our culture is media culture. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “Ads are the cave art of the twentieth century.” No artist has grasped and/or challenged that idea as Barbara Kruger has. Beginning her career by appropriating the language of propaganda and advertising, she has made work over almost fifty years that is so influential, distinctive, and ubiquitous that it has now become appropriated by other artists, as well as commercial brands.’ (page 62)


‘Describing this epistemic economy mined from our bodies and lived experiences, Shoshana Zuboff in 2014 began referring to “surveillance capitalism”. Sketching a terrain of extraction and exploitation upon which Silicon Valley has constructed itself, she poses a series of Krugeresque questions relating to the distribution of knowledge and authority: “Who knows? Who decides?” In a perfect illustration of Kruger’s influence and her continuing impact on public discussions of power, the New York Times mimed her style in framing a major Zuboff op-ed about the dangers of this new world order. Titled “You Are Now Remotely Controlled,” the article was accompanied by an illustration by Erik Carter that plainly drew inspiration from Kruger’s 1980s work.’ (page 79)


‘Evading definition she also avoids being pictured, undoubtedly in part because she recognises the threat that photographs contain for both the private and public body today. “Cameras invade our exteriors and interior,” she notes in Untitled, (Artforum) (2016/2020), “making for a kind of laparoscopic mapping of our weakest links.” Now you see us. Now you don’t.’ (page 81)


‘How we continue to be “seduced into the world of appearances, into a pose of who we are and who we aren’t,” will shape the near future. For that matter, will we be able to protect who we believe we are and aren’t from the summarizing efficiencies of government and corporations? And what, exactly, will be left to us? Will we be able to tell a secret even to ourselves? I will not become what I mean to you, she said, and we may take it as a motto to live by.’ (page 81)


‘It is here worth bearing in mind that stereotype and cliché are both historical printmaking terms related to the cheap and quick reproduction and circulation of printed texts, describing, a cost- and labour-saving mechanism – a single cast copy of the original component parts, and thus a simpler whole – that prevented typesetter’s having to reset individual letters each time a page of text was reprinted. Stereotype entered common parlance as the term for generalising, over time being understood as a prejudicial behaviour primarily motivated by the need to classify difference. The adherence to stereotype of the unfounded belief in differentiation between human beings has been helpfully described by Homi K. Bhabha as something fundamentally unstable and always in a state of flux, a “fixation which moves between the recognition of cultural and racial difference and its disavowal, by affixing the unfamiliar to something established, in a form that is repetitious and vacillates between delight and fear”.’ (page 86)


‘As stereotypes are relentlessly amplified around us through digital television, streaming services, and social media, we find ever more ways to be simultaneously repelled and beguiled by our own capacity for self-absorption. The audience is self-selecting, drawing on the artist’s core motivators of questioning and casting doubt. Does one choose to avoid the room altogether or to indulge in narcissism in the name of art? Kruger makes way for multiple meanings to be elicited from the spectators as they participate voluntarily.’ (page 87)


‘she optimistically offers, “There can be – and hopefully there is – separation between self-belief and narcissism.” For all its black-and-white clarity, Kruger’s art ultimately revels in the grey areas, luring us into nuances to be found in between the extremes.’ (page 87)

Selected Texts

The selected texts at the end of this book were an unexpected gem and have been especially helpful in relation to my research and developing my understanding and thoughts on the topics explored:

Introduction to Selected Texts – Rebecca Morse


‘British Israeli intellectual and architect Eyal Weizman recounts how the action of investigating trauma and violence – does not numb us to the pain of others, but instead makes us more sensitive.’ (page 154)


Distinction: A social Critique of the Judgement of Taste – Pierre Bourdieu


‘The pure aesthetic is rooted in an ethic, or rather, an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world, which may take the form of moral agnosticism (visible when ethical transgression becomes an artistic parti pris) or of an aestheticism which presents the aesthetic disposition as a universally valid principle and takes bourgeois denial of the social world as its liit


“To Quote” Say the Kabyles, “Is to Bring Back to Live” – Andrea Fraser


‘to evoke a term Bourdieu used only rarely and with caution – demands an ethics: a limit on the exploitation of a form of power we may or may not subjectively experience but nevertheless objectively manifest as holders of relative monopoly on forms of socially and institutionally recognised competence.’ (page 169)


The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic – Hannah Black


‘The tokenism of white cultural organisations is characteristic of this mode of identity politics. People who are not white men are seen as individualised carriers of a biopolitical surplus that has to be constantly washed away in the form of an inclusion that might as well be a disavowal. To perform as evidence of the institution’s purity, the identity artist has to exemplify a race/gender category, but as soon as she steps into the institution’s embrace, she becomes an example of universality. She is artificially cleansed of race/gender even as she is called upon to represent it.’ Page 170)


‘The assumption seems to be that theories or race/gender are always autobiographical and drawn from singular experiences, while theories of class/labour can be abstract and universal, when not reduced to a fully reactionary bootstrap narrative of individual striving. There is an identity politics of class, too, which interprets flatly individual and experiential category, a set of affects, vague anomies. This form of identity politics affords no materiality to history (which is a word for collective experience) beyond the narrow boundaries of the self.’ (page 170)


‘The identity critics are mad at the identity artists because they think the identity artists are only ever capable of pseudopolitics. Ironically, it is the identity critics who maintain this pseudopolitics, with their weird mix of disbelief and blame. The identity critics suspect the identity artist of being opportunistic, of leveraging identity; meanwhile, many of them rest high on the plumped psychic pillow of being white, being cis, and a man.’ (page 170)


‘It is difficult to live the multiple valences projected onto you by identity champions and identity critics: both to be a miraculous body capable of absolving white and misogynistic institutions just by your presence, and to have this miraculous power ascribed to a narcissistic desire for difference. Although the identity artist is often praised or accused of being “very personal,” the material of race/gender is not personal at all.’ (page 171)


‘Equally, art is not a space of pure self-expression. It is a place where we can treat the self as historical and social material. The universality of race/gender does not lie in whiteness/masculinity as its apex or negation but in a universally shared entanglement in race/gender’s problematics. Art can come close to the real structure of “identity,” which also entails a kind of nonidentity with the self.’ (page 171)


‘What the contemporary politics of identity makes painfully visible is the problem of establishing meaningful collectivity – without elision, domination, or uninflected hierarchy – against a capitalist class capable of extreme acts of violence and mass control. Collectivity might be the necessary first step toward making life bearable, but the production of that collectivity may be less cozy than strategies of inclusion, diversity and universality suggest.’ (page 171)



Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Dectectability by Eyal Weizman


‘We cannot know the past as a conclusive, transport fact mechanically etched into matter or memory or perfectly captured in an image. Historied of violence will always have their lacunas and discontinuities. They are inherent in violence and trauma and to a certain extent evidence of them.’ (page 173)


‘The potentially fragile nature of such evidence makes political mobilisation necessary. Unlike law, politics does not seek to render judgement on past events from the vantage point of the present and its institutions. Rather, it is driven by a desire to change the way things are. One of the most important insights from time spent in forensic work together with activist and human rights groups is that rather than numbing our perception of the pain of others, work on sensing, detecting, calculating, processing, and presenting the facts of violence and destruction has, in fact, further sensitised us to the world around us.’ (page 173)


The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World – Elaine Scarry


‘Physical pain is able to obliterate psychological pain because it obliterates all psychological content, painful, pleasurable, and neutral. Our recognition of its power to end madness is on of the ways in which, knowingly or unknowingly, we acknowledge its power to end all aspects of self and world.’ (page 173)


‘The position of the person who is tortured is in many ways radically different from that of the person who experiences pain in a religious context, or that of an old person facing death, or that of the person who is hurt in the dentist’s chair. One simple and essential difference is duration… A second difference is control: the person tortured does not will his entry into and withdrawal out of the pain … A third difference is purpose… there is in torture not even a fragment of a benign explanation as there is in old age where the absence of the world from oneself can be understood as an experienceable inversion of the eventual but unexperienceable absence of oneself from the world.’ (page 174)


‘World, self, and voice are lost, or nearly lost, through the intense pain of torture and not through the confession as is wrongly suggested by its connotations of betrayal. The prisoner’s confession merely objectifies the fact of their being almost lost, makes their invisible absence, or nearly absence, visible to the torturers.’ (page 174)


‘The verbal act, in turn, consists of two parts, “the question” and “the answer,” each with conventional connotations that wholly falsify it. “The question” is mistakenly understood to be “the motive”; “the answer” is mistakenly understood to be “the betrayal”. The first mistake credits the torturer, providing him with a justification, his cruelty with an explanation. The second discredits the prisoner, making him rather than the torturer, his voice rather than his pain, the cause of his loss of self and world. These two misinterpretations are obviously neither accidental nor unrelated. The one is an absolution of responsibility; the other is a conferring of responsibility; the two together turn the moral reality of the torture upside down.’ (page 174)


‘Yet as soon as the focus of attention shifts to the verbal aspects of torture, those lines have begun to waver and change their chape in the direction of accommodating and crediting the torturers. This inversion, this interruption and redirecting of a basic moral reflex, is indicative of the kind of interactions occurring between body and voice in torture and suggests why the infliction of acute physical pain is inevitably accompanied by the interrogation.’ (Page 174)


‘The obliteration of the contents of consciousness, the elimination of world ground, which is a condition brought about by the pain and therefore one that once objectified (as it is in confession) should act as a sign of the pain, a call for help, an announcement of a radical occasion for attention and assistance, instead acts to discredit the claims of pain, to repel attention, to ensure that the pain will be unseen and unattended to.’ (page 175)


‘This phenomenon in which the claims of pain are eclipsed by the very loss of world it has brought about is a crucial step in the overall process of perception that allows one person’s physical pain to be understood as another person’s power. When one human being “recognises” the incontestable legitimacy of another human being’s existence, he or she is locating the other’s essential reality in one of two places – ether in the complex fact of sentience or in the objects of sentience, in the fact of consciousness or in the objects of consciousness.’ (page 175)


‘but we – our museums and curators alike – must be aware that cultural institutions are part of the structures of power that protests often seek to undo. In recognising this, museums must do away with neutrality’ (page 20)


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