“Don’t Squeeze the Juice!”: Translating the Untranslatable, Expressing the Inexpressible.

(Note: The weird piece below is for my friend Martin Hugo‘s art exhibit “Not Guilty?”. He is showing a collection of twenty different shirts that were once for sale outside of the courtroom where OJ Simpson was on trial for murder in 1994 and 1995. This is the introduction(?) to a book he will have for sale that features photos of the shirts and an interview with Hugo and fellow designer Shawn K. about their impressions of the shirts and the shirts’ deserved though unrecognized place in fashion. Below is the postcard for the show and a few pics of some of the shirts (which obviously don’t do them any justice). The show is Friday, August 31st at Skylab, 57 East Gay Street, 5th Floor, Columbus, OH.)

On August 31st at Skylab Gallery, Martin Hugo will be displaying his collection of O.J. Simpson-themed T-shirts that were made and sold before and during Simpson’s criminal trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.  Hugo has been searching these T-shirts out over the past few years, shirts that were originally sold on the street by unlicensed merchants, which have now become collectible commodities that often demand high prices on resale sites like eBay. The collection captures an array of aesthetically intriguing “naive” graphic design choices while serving as an inlet to the larger political and social narratives of 1990s America - an era that is currently mythologized as a time of peace and prosperity, which, in reality, was a time typified by bitter, fractious domestic politics. From Simpson’s trial to the Unabomber, Oklahoma City to Waco, the Michigan militia to the Rodney King riots, the Amadou Diallo shooting to David Duke, 1990s America was a cauldron of social paranoia and racial hatred. Hugo’s T-shirt collection perfectly articulates the role of the Simpson trial as an avatar for America’s deep racial divisions and prompts insoluble questions about the nature of commerce and justice in the United States of America.The exhibition will be accompanied by a print publication. C.J. Townsend will be DJing during the opening.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._J._Simpson_murder_casehttp://martinthings.com/

The article that follows uses some pretty bombastic language and freely makes some fairly lofty claims. What may seem at first like facetious praise (or worse, ad copy) is in actuality written with the utmost sincerity and a total lack of pretense, for so rarely does something come along that truly deserves to be called ‘genius’ that anything less than the most profound magniloquence won’t do it justice.

The OJ Simpson shirts Martin Hugo has collected are truly examples of unbalanced genius. They are products without branding, capitalism without commercialism, true examples of art by way of what appears to be the mind of a deranged but entrepreneurial eight year-old. Today they go unrecognized by tastemakers and are too impolitic to be worn as any other vintage shirt would, even by the most impressively ironic dresser. Nose rings and tattoos are passé, shock rock is a lame relic, and shirts with witty, virility-trumpeting double entendres only succeed in classifying the wearer as a moron. Indeed, the OJ shirts are beyond such infantile concerns. Their genius lies in their appeal as outsider art and their simultaneous social commentary; all of the complexities of the Simpson trial are codified into stunningly simple, stunningly brilliant designs. Not many things are this complex while still remaining overtly grotesque (in the best way possible). The shirts bring joy to those who celebrate their baroque strangeness and play an important, almost metaphysical role in keeping society as we’ve established it sane.

As is evident by the abundance of designs, regardless of the fact that two people were brutally stabbed to death, the crime is not universally reviled. The trial was an extremely polarizing affair; like guilt or innocence, the Simpson trial was a black and white issue. The Rodney King beating and the LA riots were contemporaneous manifestations of racial tension, the signs of a turbulent time ushered in by the terrifying thrum and thump of the increasingly popular gangster rap. For OJ supporters, his guilt or innocence was almost irrelevant. On trial was another black man, presumed guilty by overtly racist cops, pilloried by “normal” society as a way to get back at the black community for the terror they inspired in the preceding years. And in the same way that someone supporting OJ was also rooting for the victim(s) of a system already biased against him, fervently professing his guilt was a way for people to root for the other side without directly coming out and saying so.

For this reason, the shirts are immediately shocking because of the way they turn the person wearing them into an intimidating political presence. The wearer is associating him/herself with all that the shirts represent – their statements transcend the cheap, single-minded thrill of the “offensive” slogan to make a statement that directly attacks the values of the status quo. You can never tell if someone is wearing one simply because it’s exuberantly outrageous or to start a serious debate.

As everyone knows, there was enough doubt about his guilt to make the successful case for his innocence. From the beginning, he was innocent until proven guilty, which, in the most official capacity possible, he ultimately wasn’t. Two people were murdered, a tragedy that needs to be treated with the utmost respect, but so do the workings of our hallowed legal system. In a roundabout way, whether intended or not, the shirts celebrate the beauty of the justice system: OJ was found not guilty and therefore he legally has no blood on his hands. The shirts are a raucous and warranted ‘fuck you, assholes!!!!’ to a society whose prejudices usually influence how it operates.

(Or, if some doubt about his innocence still remained, then the not guilty verdict was at least a sort of vindication of a less ethical kind, an example of a minority finally getting to buy his way through the legal system in the same way that rich, white businessmen have for years.)

It is not easy to write a bombastic, inspiring phrase that nonetheless carries the philosophical and socio-political weight of the issue it represents, as you run the risk cheapening the ideology for the sake of brevity. You need a phrase that turns oniony layers of social commentary into something you can yell at opponents without sounding like you are just repeating catchphrases. ‘Genius’ can be applied to those that do it correctly, and needless to say, these shirts do it correctly.

But the shirts are complex for more than just their clever sloganeering. In a certain light, they aren’t even that outrageous. The politics they represent are certainly divisive but are at the same time fairly mainstream. Not to trivialize poverty, crooked cops, racism, and murder, but you aren’t necessarily going to be considered an extremist for debating these issues. They are a common theme in politics. OJ Simpson’s status as a full-fledged criminal is dubious, anyway: because he was found not guilty, he doesn’t carry the same infamy as a mass murderer or pedophile[1]. For example, it would be highly, probably incontrovertibly “inappropriate” to wear FREE TIMOTHY MCVEIGH or JARED LOUGHNER FOR PRESIDENT shirts because the motivations for their respective crimes are hardly sympathetic; the secessionist politics of the former are far too abstruse and weird to be given any mind, and the senseless violence of the latter is just that, not to mention that his psychotic visage brings to mind Jason Voorhees without a mask. Wearing a shirt like this would be extreme but would inspire universal condemnation without the benefit of having made a coherent statement, and it would be hard to make a case for the corrupt politics behind their respective prosecutions.

Conversely, the wearer of the OJ shirts could yet be considered extreme because the pledge to support a controversial cause takes conscious effort to maintain, a position much more serious than offering an uninformed opinion on something in the news. Everyone is expected to weigh in on moral controversies. Reacting to the crime of the week is an essentially harmless pastime, as our opinions on these affairs are only matters of social obligation. We are supposed to pick one side or the other. Our opinions don’t really matter to the people we discuss them with, as they are merely something to talk about. What do Casey Anthony or Mary Kay Letourneau ultimately mean? Nothing, because they had no bearing on society other than to inspire its moralistic indignation for a few weeks. But wearing one of these shirts says that the wearer actively believes that OJ Simpson is innocent, is proud of it, and identifies with the righteous anger associated with it. Wearing a shirt moves the issue from the realm of office cooler small talk and into the face of society at large.

Granted, wearing a shirt may make the wearer feel like he or she is doing a greater duty than he or she actually is, but there is an admirable sincerity on display. The wearer is not driven by notions of being trendy but by the street corner zeitgeist, by a sense of affinity with those directly affected by the outcome of the trial. Thus the shirts offer a more legitimate appraisal of the situation than any example of reportorial gravitas ever could. Why should you trust news anchors, people who are in essence hired to present themselves as trustworthy? Punditry is inauthentic precisely because it presents itself as authentic – the acting is done consciously. We believe them because they know we believe we are supposed to believe them, and both sides act accordingly. These shirts are a loud blast of truth disrupting such broadcasts. No distillation and totally unapologetic. These shirts are authentically, unpretentiously, and directly communicating what so many feel without pandering to commercial sponsors.

From a purely design standpoint, the shirts almost satirize their own brutality. The shirts are arresting in their amateurishness but much more powerful because of it. They are made with an uncalculated approach to design, avoiding the rules (and thus the sterility) of mainstream design because the creator is aloof to the fact that these rules exist. The same aesthetic that makes a cut and paste kidnapper’s ransom note eerily appealing is shared by these shirts. The maker just wants to express something, and he or she does it in a way that he or she thinks looks cool. And it totally does. For whatever reason, these shirts possess an intrinsic brilliance that some things simply don’t. The shirts are a rare example of the kind of utterly groundbreaking success that comes from an inexperienced person saying, “I can do that!”, who then does it in his or her own way and succeeds for reasons that can’t be taught, planned, or even envisioned.

That’s why these shirts are so weird. They are direct representations of what is going on in someone’s brain – unadulterated and replete with charming imperfections borne from urgency. (The urgency coming being the need to get them designed, printed, and sold as quickly as possible at stalls outside of the courthouse.)

The design world doesn’t seem especially impressed by these artifacts, despite their evident genius. There isn’t a huge market for these shirts; Martin paid at most forty dollars for a shirt, and this had more to do with their vintage status than their status as oddball works of art. Despite the lack of official recognition of the shirts’ achievements, the fact that they have an underground following (which may, in fact, only be Martin) heightens their grubby mystique, like illicit goods you have to know someone who knows someone to access, or, in an even more unsettling sense, like the collection of someone who obsessively collects something relatively mundane yet the very act of collecting it (and the numbers in their collection) makes it seem like a perverse hobby. Seeing all of these shirts in one place is an amazing, disconcerting experience.

Taking all of the above into account, the shirts still function as more than just wacky old clothes or vehicles for political expression. They are so perfectly strange that they actually improve our lives. The casual existence of small yet utterly deranged things is a kind of necessary iconoclasm; it’s not large scale miracles that we need but weird little blips here and there on our radar to remind us things aren’t as predictable as we imagine. We don’t expect to see Bigfoot, but we couldn’t handle it if we did. These shirts fill the void between a glimpse of the incomprehensible and something equivalent to the strangeness of déjà vu. Seeing one of these shirts is weird because you don’t know if you saw what you think you saw. They get your brain working and you find yourself thinking deeply about things that don’t have anything to do with the shirts, to use the example at hand, all because you experienced something a little off. These mildly incongruous things upset the complacency and groupthink that society instills in us by reminding us that there is more to life than the examples of it we see in commercials. Life isn’t as squeaky clean as corporations, the church, and the Man wants, and neither is the human experience. Try as it might, capital-S Society can never claim dominion over peoples’ surprising, interesting, and hilarious minds. These reminders don’t have to be strange t-shirts, but in this case they are. These anomalous things keep things from getting too ordinary, even if we barely notice them.

OJ is not around to appreciate the by proxy support offered by Martin’s show. He is in prison for thirty years for the armed re-robbery of what he claimed was sports memorabilia stolen from him, an insane thing for a man so closely scrutinized by society to do. It was a dumb, unsympathetic crime, and it seems that most people feel the same way. His recent incarceration was only a minor scandal, eliciting not protest from the public but rolled eyes and annoyed sighs. There is nothing especially political or controversial about his new charges, just the logical result of some rich prick blowing his third chance at life. Indeed: a search for current OJ-related shirts yields designs where he is only the butt of jokes. (“I Told You OJ Did It – Again;” What Happens in Las Vegas Stays in Las Vegas” (where the recent robbery occurred).) The impact of the original trial and its verdict may have lessened over time, but that moment in time when OJ stood for much more than even he could imagine is carried on through these shirts, as are the raucous spirits of DIY designers, trials by media, and artless art. Thank you Martin Hugo for maintaining this collection and preserving for us an outrageous chapter of human history.

[1] This isn’t taking into account the documented evidence that he abused Nicole Brown for years. Horrible photos abound showing the wounds he inflicted, and at one point she called the police afraid that he was going to kill her. Nobody seems to take this into consideration when weighing in on the outcome of his trial, and it unfortunately doesn’t seem to matter. When discussing this here, his history of domestic violence isn’t being overlooked intentionally but it isn’t being raised because it doesn’t factor, for better or for worse, in affecting the opinions of those that support him and how they are expressed.

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