Carson Davis Brown's Mass series kicked off spontaneously after an aisle in his local Meijer—a midwestern store chain—packed with bright yellow packaging caught his eye. The artist corralled the objects, snapped a photo, and put the items back in their rightful spots. Pretty soon, he was making larger installations, filming and photographing the masses, and leaving them for people to discover.
While the images of the meticulous, borderline obsessive installations are curious and make you wonder what they are, the project doesn't stop at a snapshot of the installation. It's about altering our perception of retail spaces and what constitutes their landscape. (It's not, as I incorrectly thought, about an F-U to big-box stores.)
"I wanted the image to represent an experience instead of just creating a photo for the Internet," Brown says. "Leaving the installations added an element of anxiety to the project. The biggest criticism I receive is that I do leave them in place but the reason I do it is I see it in relation to street art and land art, which could last months or weeks or years. It could last forever or just until someone cleans it up."
Brown creates the installations on his own with no permission from the retailers. Surprisingly, he says he hasn't been hassled that much. Some employees have stopped to watch him work and see how he goes about it.
"One of the most recent ones I did was at a store in Grand Rapids that I'd built at quite a bit and an employee recognized me," Brown says. "She said, 'I know who you are.' I didn't know what to do. Was she pissed? Was I going to be escorted out? Turns out she was genuinely was excited and wanted to watch. I was baffled. It totally changed the project. A few minutes later someone else walked by and said, 'If you're going to buy something, you need to do it at the front of the store.'"
On occasion, Brown sticks around to see customers' reactions. "They're little perplexed—is it intentional? Is it meant to be there?" he says. "It's a success if someone does a double take and is broken out of the everyday rhythm and patterns of the space."
In addition to the monochromatic installations—which are a sight to behold—Brown stages other interventions. "Part of it was thinking about how I could use this environment as a factory or as its own resource," he says. He built one of them in a Target near a display of digital cameras, placed his own SD card into one of them, and filmed the process.
For another event, Brown set aside a day and time for a pop-up gallery of sorts, but left the precise location a secret up until the last moment. He printed a handful of installation photos, placed them into frames at a the store, and then sent out a mass text alerting people to his location. "It was nerve wracking and fun," he says. "The viewer feels like they're part of the project and they get to experience the work in the way I got to. The store didn't know I was doing the show but it was happening in their aisles. If people wanted to buy a piece, they had to just purchase the frame."
Brown has staged three pop-up gallery shows and in total has built around 70 masses in stores around the country. "It's kind of taking art out of a white-wall space and putting it into a retail landscape," he says.