When corporate activism has a dark side

The website for the Ours brand looks like any other ad that runs on Instagram. The site allows visitors to find out what the company is about with minimal capitalization and chunky serif fonts about calming photos of tents and mountain bikers in large spaces. “At Ours, we believe in protecting Americans and their environment,” says a seemingly harmless echo of pretty much all of the United States The philanthropic model of the outdoor brand. But it quickly becomes clear that something is very wrong: “We ask you to take a stand to protect America from overpopulation because right now nature cannot protect itself.” On another page it goes on: “Ours grew out of a small garage in which non-lethal military defense weapons were manufactured. We take localism very seriously – and we are happy to share our stance on defense technology, which applies only to locals, with the outdoor lifestyle. “

Our is not a real brand. It’s a browser-based art exhibition at the New Museum designed by Samuel Marion, an artist who focuses on digital spaces and contemporary culture. Marion grew up in the Salida, Colo. Outdoor center, but swears the website isn’t about “ingrained, psychoanalytic youth sentiments.” When he first started putting it together in 2019, he viewed it as more of a speculative science fiction view of the outdoor industry. But the exhibition achieved a dynamic that is already being felt by outdoor brands, and as Marion wrote in an essay on the website, we sometimes felt “so real that she hardly seemed to be different from her.”

(Photo: Samuel Marion)

Marion first started thinking about the project when she was bombarded with boring advertisements online and all over the New York City subway he lives in. He specifically cites men’s wellness brand Hims as inspiration, whose signs include shades of beige, cacti, and very little evidence that the company sells hair loss supplements and erectile dysfunction drugs. It’s the culmination of the brand-as-euphemism – less about aspiration than about sneaking nondescript ideas into consumers’ minds with a friendly, accessible glow. Marion wanted to bring this idea to its ultimate conclusion. “I was really interested in how you can create this box around something that absolutely looks good and well-meant, and then put something terrible and bad in it and see how long that lasts,” he says. The outdoor industry, with its healthy image and the undisputed message that everyone deserves to get out of there, seemed like a natural fit for the experiment. What if a brand sold a mission of population control, anti-immigration and white supremacy – but painted it over in pastel tones and the message, “This country is our country”?

Ours leads visitors through a digital maze that is disoriented by design. Users can click through several vague pages that tell how to “become an activist” and ultimately lead to the reassurance that people don’t have to do anything but keep adventuring: “As we help you, your passion for exploring American nature, you are We help us find and deport unwanted people. We consider this a “good” tax on all of our products. “The store has priceless items with hidden meanings in the name, such as the Tanton jacket, named after the anti-immigration figure John Tanton. Marion made it clear at certain points that this is fiction: Our donations go to organizations such as “private border protection groups, organic farms, radical lobbyists, [and] Recycling Programs ”and partner of a fictional group called the Malthusian Initiative. But once you understand what ours is really selling, even the harmless-sounding language takes on a different connotation. One page simply reads “Healthy Boundaries” and offers vague language on the subject of “Keeping the Chaos Out,” but anyone who gets to that point will understand the subtext.

our(Photo: Samuel Marion)

While it is generally understood that our satire is, it is disturbing to see how easily the language of the outdoor industry can be twisted to take on a double meaning. One side shows a picture of a skier grabbing a mountain, overlaid with “More of it”, followed by a bird’s eye view of a gray, densely populated city, overlaid with “Less of it”. That statement could have appeared word for word on an actual outdoor brand’s website. Like ours, equipment brands sell a version of nature that provides escape and entertainment for recreational athletes, who can spend money. But as outdoor activists have been pointing out for years, not everyone can enjoy the blissful image of nature that these brands are selling.

There are socio-economic, physical, and geographical barriers to access and myriad ways people can feel like they’re doing it wrong, get in the way of more experienced people outdoors, or are otherwise undesirable. These structural barriers are in part perpetuated by us-versus-them attitudes that consciously or unconsciously frame access to pristine landscapes as a right only for some (often the rich and white). This mindset can manifest itself in national parks being overcrowded, militant Leave No Trace being shamed, or urban areas being neglected in discussions about environmental protection and recreational opportunities. This can lead to serious environmental injustices. One of the most obvious is that pipelines, polluting facilities and superfund sites are being built disproportionately in places where they affect poor and colored people. It is no accident that affluent communities find it easier to combat these developments, just as they can more easily respond to their disdain for crowds and get away from it all with their expensive, lightweight hiking gear.

In extreme cases, this feeling of entitlement can look like the eco-fascist ideology of Ours, which attributes the destruction of the environment to immigration and overpopulation. Marion drew a lot of inspiration in researching our books from John Hultgren’s book Border Walls Gone Green, which examines how anti-immigration values ​​are more subtle in the efforts of many environmentalists. When Marion started developing ours, “that intersection of wellness, fascism and exclusion seemed really far away,” he says. “And not now.”

our(Photo: Samuel Marion)

Companies that range from apparel brands to fossil fuel companies are often accused of greenwashing or putting off weak, aesthetically pleasing shows of eco-friendliness while going on as usual. We raise the possibility that the positive image of the outdoor industry may mask legitimate concerns about unsavory practices and attitudes. This is especially true because it is more difficult to find bugs, for example. A climbing gear brand than Shell or BP, and customers can more easily sense that they are responding to admirable values ​​when buying from outdoor companies. What’s the problem with purchasing a reusable, chemical-free water bottle so you can stay hydrated and unobtrusively explore your local trail system? Let’s call it outdoor washing. A business built on brilliant values ​​can more easily rest on its laurels and ward off concerns about access, privileges, and responsible business practices. But of course it’s also worth asking questions of these brands. In 2018, companies like MEC and REI refused to sell products from brands under Vista Outdoor, including CamelBak, because the parent company owned a brand that made AR-15. It was one of the few times that a company in the outdoor industry has been blamed for such connections.

Our brand is obviously evil, but each brand has their own interests that are unlikely to make it into a commercial copy. It’s not these outdoor brands are inherently terrible – the fact is that they often wriggle their way out of critical questions by promoting the idea that outdoor values ​​are inherently good. As Marion writes in his essay: “The more the brand emphasizes the positive environmental impact of its philanthropy, the more the brand paddles (skins? Boulders?) Move away from the criticality usually imposed on for-profit companies.” It’s a fun way to get at the unsettling feeling our viewers leave behind. Our show shows how to paddle away from criticism with a refined aesthetic, but in the end it’s just a front for the obvious white supremacy. On the other hand, if you are skeptical of a real outdoor equipment company’s commitment to outdoor equality, haven’t you seen the friendly advertisements saying that you are welcome to pitch your tent wherever you want?

Main photo: Samuel Marion

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