- A Natural History of Consumption:The Shopping Carts of Julian Montague
Seizing the amateur naturalist's field guide as a form, the artist Julian Montague has produced a provocative and haunting work that takes the shopping cart as its subject. While the project might well be read as an amusing and insightful parody of the taxonomic and stylistic ticks and obsessions of a series like the Peterson Field Guides for everything from freshwater fish to the night sky, Montague goes far beyond this, providing rather a startling meditation on the interstices of consumer culture and urban spaces in both his book and a companion website.
While critics of consumer culture regularly offer detailed, entertaining histories and analyses of what and where consumers buy, they more often than not focus on well-worn icons, from plastic packaging to big-box architecture. Cultural critics can turn to dozens of books on shopping malls, for instance, each with vivid illustrations, meticulous analyses, and dour pronouncements. This work is often valuable but it is rarely surprising, even when it takes such playful forms as Montague assumes; for instance, Delores Hayden's recent A Field Guide to Sprawl offers a blunt, thorough critique of contemporary suburban planning from the naturalist's perspective.1 In contrast, Montague provides no critical apparatus at all in The Stray Shopping Carts of North America, yet his considering consumer culture through the shopping cart is itself a profoundly surprising and pointedly critical gesture. What emerges is a naturalist's investigation of contemporary urban consumerism and spatial practices dissected through the liminal form of the shopping cart. A visceral sense of play and shock animates this particularly canted perspective, calling to mind the effects pioneered by Walter Benjamin.
The book begins with an utterly earnest explanation of its classificatory system, in which carts are either "Class A: False Strays" (carts that will return to the store) or "Class B: True Strays" (carts that will not return). Montague proposes for each class a fascinating series of types that describe various situations and states. There are 11 types of false stray, from the "A1 Close False" (a cart on the edge of a store's parking lot) to the "A 11: False Group" (carts at a dwelling adjacent to a source store). The real fascination of the book, however, is with the true strays, of which there are 22 types, beginning with the B1, "Open True." Much of the taxonomic ingenuity of the book is dedicated to describing as completely as possible "shopping carts in different situations and considering the conditions and human motives that have placed carts in specific situations" (6). In the first two sections, the book provides definitions and photographs of all 33 subtypes. The bulk of the text then presents scores of "Selected Specimens," photographs of carts taken primarily in Buffalo, New York, as well as an entire section entitled "The Niagara River Gorge: Analyzing a Complex Vandalism Super Site." Montague assures readers that "none of the photographs in this book were staged; all shopping carts were found in situ" (7).
The illustrations in the "Selected Specimens" have little or no comment beyond designations of the relevant types and the occasional caption clarifying the context, but there is a profound critical force. Many of the types describe carts found in what Montague names "Gap Marginalization" and "Edge Marginalization" to describe "a cart situated in a vacant lot or ditch, between buildings, behind a building, in a doorway, under a bridge or overpass, or in any manner of vacant public gap between properties" (44). The eye is thus drawn into these strange seemingly dead or uninhabited spaces at the edges of parking lots, behind strip malls or apartment buildings. Such spaces are usually unnoticed, or certainly not the visual focus of either urbanites themselves or even most artists or critics taking cities as their subject. Even authors who have celebrated such odd urban green spaces, notably William Upski Wimsatt's Bomb the Suburbs,2 don't provide the wealth of images Montague has amassed. The...