Item Idem is the fictional alter-ego brand name used by the French artist and designer Cyril Duval. Under this moniker, Duval has produced work at the intersection of conceptual art, industrial design, and marketing/branding. Duval’s work has been exhibited at, among other venues, the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow; MoMA PS1, New York; and Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
Duval’s week of Consumer Reporting takes place during a trip to Kuwait, where he speaks at the Nuqat design conference. After a very long journey, time is spent in Kuwait hunting for Shanzhai—the Chinese word for counterfeit branded products—with a particular Middle East bent. The Shanzhai hunt ties into his speech, for which he dresses up as a giant QR code as a means to combat his stage fright. All this and much more in this media-dense post, below.—John Chiaverina
Tuesday, November 10
I am having coffee listening to SIA’s “Alive.” Her performance this past weekend on SNL literally blew my mind. I guess this specific song speaks to me particularly, as I was involved in a bad physical accident this past spring. It’s no joke: music can really heal you, physically and emotionally.
Extremely excited as I am flying to Kuwait City tonight! I believe I am well-travelled but have actually never been to the Gulf… Googling some dreamy images to put on my Instagram: the architecture looks like its been rendered in a video game from the ’90s. Makes me think of my friend Fatima Al Qadiri and the inspiration behind her Desert Strike EP. She was living in Kuwait as a child when Saddam invaded; the planes flying over her head etc… Excited to see her and the kids from GCC this week!
Wrapping up my keynote for the annual creative conference Nuqat, who invited me to speak on the theme of the ‘Copy & Paste Syndrome.’ I will be representing Shanzhai Biennial (our project with Avena Gallagher & Babak Radboy) and my talk is entitled “State of Shanzhai.” It is described as follows:
“Analytics of a creative movement transcending the genres of product counterfeiting & cultural appropriation, illustrated through some of its various shifts & recents manifestations within the context of a globalized cultural economy & distribution apparatus.”
I am particularly amused to speak about the Chinese Obama, who is somehow one of the most recent tropes of one of the most popular Shanzhai cultural brand: Obama!
Finishing my suitcase, I have never packed that tightly. Only minimal attire: two black suits (daywear & evening wear) & one suit for my performance/presentation… More on that later! Because I am not entirely sure of suggested local behavioral policies when it comes to fashion, I have decided to ban colors from my trip and will only wear black and white. I like these kind of mental exercises: they help me to project myself into a visual/mental frame which I find ideal for specific work productions and my concentration. Nevertheless, I am planning on wearing my newly acquired (real) Chanel Pretzel earrings, because as much as it’s quintessential to respect local culture & subtleties, I believe it’s also important to respect yourself.
Posting a funny picture on Instagram of a Shanzhai LV belt functioning as mobile phone holder and I’m on my way to the airport!
In the car, I am listening to the new Grimes album which I am obsessed with. My favorite songs are definitely “World Princess, Pt. II” & “Venus Fly.” I am feeling energized like a millennial club kid on his way to a rave. At least that’s my plan!
I am alone on the plane! Amazing. Never happens! Selfie time. And yes, what is there not to like about this?
The plane takes off and I’m sipping on red wine while reading my friend Zak Stone’s essay on his heartbreaking experience with the sharing economy… He just posted it on FB and the whole thing is going viral with dozens and dozens of reposts. Deep breath before reading (I have lost my dad too in a violent manner) and note to self to write to Zak a personal testimonial.
Falling asleep watching Minions for the first time not in the cinema. Really one of the biggest successes in animation these days. So silly & witty at the same time. I am thinking I want to make a GIF of every silly joke. I finally start dozing off somewhere over the Atlantic. Someone I know posts some hilarious signage from China. I giggle alone on my own at how accidentally pornographic this image is and suddenly realize the irony of it all: I am a French individual on my way to the Middle East to talk about China. That is quite funny too.
Wednesday, November 11
Land in Frankfurt and everything nice about this trip suddenly disappears. Because of massive strikes on Lufthansa, my connection flight to Kuwait City is cancelled and after hours waiting for a rebooking on a different company, I finally negotiate a longer flight through Doha, Qatar. I figured that if I had to fly even longer to reach my destination, it should at least be an interesting & fun journey!
Following this zombie stop over, I am now ready to board for Qatar. All I remember from Frankfurt is that cryptic advertising about China (again). Euros are so China-obsessed! For real? China it is, then.
Nighttime in Qatar. I am only here for a couple hours but it’s worth it. The airport is so shiny, clean, and rutilant. Pretty much what I was expecting and hoping for! I wander by every duty free store still open looking for local curiosities…Do I need that desert Sheikh Matryoshka in my collection? Probably not. Can I win One Million U.S. Dollars? Probably not.
My friend Aziz Al Qatami from the art collective GCC advises that I snap a selfie with a big teddy bear sculpture, it’s a must-see I am being told! I’m tired but decide to experiment with Boomerang, the new app developed by Instagram that creates funny video loops, almost like little GIFs.
Grabbing a bite in a restaurant by my gate. The food (Western) is delicious and I am gagging at the video I did with those little towels. Can’t stop laughing at the scene in the movie SPY where Melissa McCarthy eats one of them thinking they are appetizers!
A video posted by ? Cyril Duval ? (@item_idem) on
I need to rush to my gate & ask the waiter to wrap my meal as a takeaway but I am being told that the GCC—the real one, the Gulf Cooperation Council—doesn’t allow takeaway for hygiene reasons… Smiling politely I point out to the nice waitress the irony of not being able to take away airport food that for the very first time I actually enjoyed.
Note to self, mention this funny situation to my friends from GCC, the notorious art collective from Kuwait!
Qatar Airways seapunk night glow drama, this is the future… Or at least one side of it I would happily agree to!
Landing in Kuwait city in a funny boutique-y atmosphere… Popping but not as luxurious as I imagined. I spot out a couple of interesting advertisements.
Finally crashing in my hotel room after traveling 24 hours. I want to get a good five hours rest before heading to the conference site. Last but not least, I upload a picture of the Empire State Building that my boyfriend sent me from NYC. It’s November 11, which is for Europeans the armistice of WW1 and for American’s Veterans’ Day… I just started this new Instagram blog (@empirecore) the previous week, for which I use the hashtag #empireporn. Almost daily uploads of the magnificent tower facing my NY studio. A very mechanical gesture, and self-referencing Warhol of course.
Thursday, November 12
A couple hours sleep later and I am on my way to the Nuqat conference, which has already started. Snapping the city frenetically from the window of my cab, I am (as I was expecting) amazed by the architecture, even more by the light. The main site at the Amricani Cultural Center is very vibrant and popping, definitely pan-Arabian but also international, with super cute food trucks and boutiques. I meet up with Khalid & Aziz from GCC and we sit down to listen to Rana Sadik, an influential Palestinian-born Kuwaiti curator & philanthropist. I am feeling fuzzy because of the jetlag but really enjoy her talk on “authenticity in relationships between artist, art-making, collection and space,” and particularly in relation with the GCC and Levant.
Picking up Fatima Al Qadiri at her family house & having the best Thai food ever with her & Khalid Al Gharaballi in a hidden joint in some old school-looking shopping mall. The interior architecture is stunning, but the mall is empty and pretty much all shops are closed. Fatima and Khalid start explaining a very interesting notion, which I had no idea about…Picture this: Kuwait as a Gulf nation is notoriously conceived as a developed and wealthy country, but if you compare it to its neighbors (Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi…), its modern development started earlier in time, but following the end of the first Gulf War, everything started stalling. To simplify, Kuwait started investing their resources abroad rather than in their own country, which sort of gives Kuwait City an atmosphere of modernity, but stuck in time somewhere in the 90s. You can witness this in constructions and an absence of preservation of the recent architectural past.
Jetlag is hitting pretty hard so I am heading to the hotel for a nap. I have a birthday party tonight and I’m quite excited about it. On the way back, the sun is going down already and the light is fantastic.
Photography by Cyril Duval.
Khalid and Nanu Al Hamad (also from GCC) pick me up at the hotel and we are heading to Aziz Al Qatami’s studio for a double birthday party! For the occasion, I am wearing a gold leather jacket and pants from Comme des Garçons. I figured it would be fun for a sweet/intimate party: Go bling, or go home! It’s scorpio month, and some art patron who is not coming to the birthday has decided to send the most extravagant & ridiculously amazing birthday cake: a 50:1 size menacing scorpio! The body is made out of cake, and the legs and claws are sculpted in styrofoam. The whole thing is airbrushed but the paint ain’t dry yet so we all end up with our hands blackened. Picture below of the scorpio before and after the birthday! Note to self: I need more funny art patrons like that in my life!
Enjoying the legendary Arabic hospitality: We danced, I DJ-ed, we drank (not only mint tea!) and Missy Elliott released her stunning comeback single right during our party: She still got it!!!
Friday, November 13
Waking up so early and enjoying the good aspect of jetlag. Working a couple hours on finishing my presentation which happens tomorrow. Today is shopping day! My friends are taking me to iconic market places as I intend to find interesting Shanzhai pieces (read: ‘next level counterfeited products/garments/accessories’) whose language or iconography are specific to the Middle-East. If I succeed, this should be an important argument within my presentation, in the sense that Shanzhai is a globalized phenomenon existing internationally with its own specifics, and at the image of the distribution of luxury goods or cultural contents it intends to mimic.
I screen capture a picture on Instagram of this gorgeous horse to send to my mother. She recently retired and now lives in the countryside in Bretagne and raises horses. Doing bit of research I learn it’s an Akhal-Teke, and it comes from Turkey. Some are affirming it is (currently) the most expensive horse in the World.
Joining Aziz and friends at the Marina Crescent, which is a mix between a top notch shopping mall and a leisure center/bay area. Looking for the restaurant to meet my friends, I snap a couple pictures of funny shops with funny slogans.
And this gorgeous panoramic of the scenery. I love everything about this place! The turquoise gulf water, the colorful ferries filled with tourists (it’s friday, the religious day in the Muslim world, and dedicated to family time), the palm trees, the sea breeze, the skyline with skyscrapers and all those young children moving freely on their hoverboards.
After lunch, we are browsing the mall and I found this cute book (Detective novels I am told!) which I am snapping for Hans Ulrich Obrist, Simon Castets, Kevin McGarry, and Andrew Elmendorf… Those four have an unconditional addiction to the word OMG which they keep on repeating constantly like twitting birds in various intonations and in any situations. I think it must have started from HUO appropriating the expression and turning this into an art meme of sort. It’s quite funny. #HUOMG
We arrive at the Friday Market, an amazing outdoor area with huge concrete Halles. I instantly realize that this will be one of my best shopping experience ever! I am quite used to street markets, having done research all over China, in Japan, Thailand, India, Russia, Morocco, Lebanon, Mexico, Brazil… But this one is good! Divided in zones for garments, objects, televisions, mattresses, here is a recap of what I stormed in just 2 hours time:
This couches vs carpets moving structure attracts my eye. It looks exactly like an interior piece I would design! I guess all my installation works have been influenced by years of visual research such as this one.
LIKE Cola! Yes to that. Vintage 1980’s. Instantly buying this for my shelved collection of branded artifacts. Reminds me of that stupid hashtag people use on Instagram to gain followers: #likesforlikes. Hilarious.
Yahoo! flipflops, those are a great Shanzhai example! They are not specifically Middle Eastern per se, but great to explain to my audience what a Shanzhai product can encompass…I mean: Who would ever think of designing flip flops with the Yahoo! logo? Like if it was a cool or appealing brand anyway? Well someone did.
Cutest televisions display ever. Loving the wrapping.
Highlight of my shopping spree! A teddy bear singing Qur’An verses! Mindblown. Unfortunately, the bear is too large for my suitcase so we have to part ways.
At least this Chanel backpack is a killer piece. Reminds me of when Lagerfeld designed a collection inspired by Contemporary Art and artists/painters looks, or his Chanel supermarket with fake products…It was very Shanzhai. I feel the same vibe encompassed in this product: It’s counterfeit, but it’s also next level branding at the same time! By Lagerfeld but through the eye of Raf Simons, and the whole thing produced in an illegal factory in Chinese mountains, WOW.
I am exhausted from focusing so much on this research and from the jet lag of course. We are heading to Al-Mubarakiya, the most popular souk of Kuwait City, for a traditional dinner and more late night research.
On our way home, I get a notification on my phone that some people were shot in a bar in Paris. Although no one calls this a terrorist attack yet, I know instantly that this is bad. I get to my hotel and crash for 2 hours. When I wake up in the middle of the night, the whole Internet is agitated from the Paris attacks. I stay sleepless for the entire night, as the tragedy in my hometown unfolds.
Saturday, November 14
A rough night following everything happening in Paris… Sleepless/speechless/breathless, I finish my keynote as I need to present in a couple hours. I am living for my hometown’s original coat of arms, and its latin motto: ‘Fluctuat Nec Mergitur’, which translates as “Tossed but not sunk.” It has been Paris’s motto since 1358. I make it my FB profile.
Going on stage at Nuqat. A bit nervous as always but in comparison to what is happening at home, this exercise is not scaring me anymore. In order to dominate my public speech anxiety, I decided to go dressed on stage as a giant/fake QR Code.
The presentation seemed successful. I managed to make the audience laugh several times…It can’t be that bad, right? I am heading to the hotel to sleep, because it is really needed.
Last evening in town! Fatima, Khalid, and Aziz take me to one of their secret spots: Fashion Café! It’s basically an unauthorized café appropriating the Fashion TV branding, with the same logo omnipresence everywhere, & very very kitsch! Fatima and I are in a state of Bliss. I even try to buy the waiter’s shirt although they were not for sale…
Sunday, November 15
Waking up on my last day in Kuwait as I am leaving tonight. I am spending the afternoon lounging by the pool with Fatima, in the former Missoni Hotel, now called Symphony.
Their banquet room is kind of major too. Khalid from GCC approves!
Back to Al-Mubarakiya for a last shopping session, and I stumble on the rarest item, a bisht (traditional winter homewear for all genders) with a Chanel logo! Even my friends are amazed by it, it is not Shanzhai and beyond any categories. Purely amazing.
This McDonald’s was quite cute too.
Oh and that store sold money! Best shop ever!
On our way to the airport, we stop at this shopping mall specialized in streetwear and of course counterfeit. One last session.
I am quite amazed by these oversize mannequins for big boys.
And more social media flip flops.
I pass on the Freedom Toiletry set. Although that branding was amazing to be honest.
And bingo! This is the weirdest thing ever and I am the one who found it: A Guantanamo T-shirt with a Miami beach aesthetic. Wow. It even has glitter barbwire!
It’s time for me to leave Kuwait and fall asleep in the long journey ahead….
One last souvenir though…On the connecting flight, I recognize the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija only 2 rows ahead of me. We have never met but I know what he looks like. Somehow I am surprised an artist at that level of recognition/accomplishment travels in the same category as me. Premium Economy. Its not that bad to be honest but still: Doesn’t he deserve better? I think this says a lot about the nature and the reality of our industry, supposedly glamorous. But behind the glamour, there is mostly a lot of hard work and obstacles. But hey, you know what: it’s all really worth it!
I hope Rirkrit won’t hate me for this, but I of course had to screen what he was wearing… A full The North Face look! Kind of cool actually.