Artist Interview: Kenneth Pietrobono Searches for Answers to the Big Questions of the Millennial Generation

On September 3, millennial artist Kenneth Pietrobono began a project that he calls "Terms and Conditions." For 30 days, he committed to wearing shirts which display either "a political, economic, or social principle that shaped our lives and interactions." Both a political protest and a psuedo-performance piece, "Terms and Conditions" provides a new lens through which we can acknowledge art and the political furor around us. 

Born in 1982, Pietrobono focuses his art on political and social critique. A 2005 graduate of Florida State University, Pietrobono's work has appeared at solo exhibitions in Florida and New York. As his site states, "Through photography, works on paper, performance and installations [Pietrobono's] work presents reflections of our civic and social environment." As an artist, Pietrobono also incorporates language as a means of using both words and images to create alternate perspectives on the world we live in. 

I chatted with Pietrobono about "Terms and Conditions" and the use of politics and language which reverberate throughout the project.

Elena Sheppard (ES): Tell us a little bit about "Terms and Conditions." What should we make of this project?

Kenneth Pietrobono (KP): "Terms and Conditions" is a project I've developed where for 30 days I will wear shirts that acknowledge economic, political or social principles that organize and shape our lives and interactions. While these concepts, dynamics and thoughts often go unnoticed, they are constantly at work in our environment and culture affecting our choices, what options are available to us and the ways we function within a larger system. The project is an attempt to understand the terms and conditions of participation in our complicated and often contradictory environment.  

ES: What do some of the words on the shirts say, and how did you decide upon what language to represent? 

KP: Most of the terms are taken from my own reading and research, news articles, and social science and economic text books. These include:

DISPOSABLE INCOME

PROPENSITY TO CONSUME

HUMAN CAPITAL

OPPORTUNITY COST

EXCESS LABOR


Many of these terms were chosen based on the ways they are used to study our actions and behaviors and predict our future wants and needs. The project is also an attempt to deal with my own misunderstandings of these terms and how they are used. What is my "propensity to consume?" From a social/economic perspective, is this the best way to know "me." 

Beyond these, some terms are more emotive and acknowledge the thoughts and reactions I (and many of us) have when trying to understand my/our place in a larger system:

PROTECT ME FROM DISAPPOINTMENT 

THE SUM OF MY DEBTS

GAMES WE CAN'T ALL WIN

WHY DON'T WE LEAVE?

More than anything, I tried to choose phrases which are somewhat elusive and can be read in multiple ways, implicating myself, those around me, or the environment at large. 


ES: What do you hope to accomplish through "Terms and Conditions"? What does the act of wearing these words symbolically represent? 

KP: My hope is to create awareness of the power dynamics constantly at work, which rarely manifest themselves, and when they do are often confusing or our politics, and lead us to read them in different ways. With the 2008 crash and subsequent bail-out, the full fall-out, tough(er) times and necessary conversations were essentially absorbed by the system. We were quite literally "protected from (further) disappointment." In doing so, we never reconsidered if the way we organize our culture and economy is the most sound, the most beneficial to everyone. 

Broadly, a system which made a clear indication that it is not sustainable was made stronger and more entrenched. For me personally, the shirts are an attempt to stand back and assess an illogical system, my place in it, the ways it works against me, and the ways it directs me beyond my control. I am not declaring an opinion on OPPORTUNITY COST but simply trying to find it and understand it. In a way, its a big game of Marco Polo, calling out to these dynamics which are mostly unseen.

ES: What are other similar projects you have undertaken, and what are some of the issues that your work typically sheds light upon?

KP: More than anything, I feel that I am trying to understand our landscape and realign it to reflect actual experience. I am a first-generation American and it is somewhat difficult to see the disconnect between the ideals people attribute to the United States and the actualities once they live it. Our opportunity/mobility gap is one of the largest in the modern world, yet the 'Land of Opportunity' narrative still rings louder than ever. As the modern system grows and expands, I really think we need to understand it at face value, even if we can't agree on what it means or what to do about it, lets just name it. 

In one project, "The National Rose Garden Series" I rename the national flower (the rose) to reflect truer elements of our culture such as 'Corporate Growth,' 'Super PAC,' and 'Citizens United.' These things are in our environment everyday and if the rose is to be used as a symbol of our culture, it should be a true reflection. Maybe if we really confront our landscape, try to understand it as it is, not what we want it to be, we can have these conversations on solid ground. 


ES: What role do you believe art has in politics? 

KP: I honestly don't know, if any. I think art has a role in social interactions, challenging perceptions, and creating conversation at the individual level. I think art comes in when there is a communication gap between groups or to acknowledge a disconnect between what is told and what is experienced. In that regard, it can function as one of many tools within the political conversation. 

ES: As we head into this election, what do you think are some of the biggest social and political issues that shape our time and our generation? 

KP: Socially, the cost of our own comfort. I think I really come out of a generation where we were led to believe that the goal should be autonomy. We should be able to live alone and not depend on marriage as an economic arrangement. We should be able to have higher education and a career where we can own property, cover our costs, save for our children and save for our own retirement. Those are our measures of success. 

The problem is that many of us are realizing it is unsustainable. The amount needed to retire, even the idea of retirement, is exceptional. Buying property was pitched as the guaranteed way to establish yourself and place yourself in line for continuous growth. Now I think every person in my generation has a parent or relative in an upside down mortgage, something incredibly painful to watch. So we really need to redress these expectations and reconsider the cost of this kind of comfort and the cost of its pursuit. 

Politically, I jump to money and the media in elections. Both elements distort, confuse and outbalance. 

ES: How do you use artistically employ language? Can words themselves be art?

KP: Language can most certainly be art. Artists such as Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer are huge inspirations for me. Language shapes how we think and understand our environment. It can be one of the most effective ways to challenge social conventions and connotations. 

Explore more of Pietrobono's work here.