When Corporate Activism Has a Dark Side
In Ours, a digital exhibition for the New Museum, artist Samuel Marion imagines a not too distant future in which outdoor brands use slick advertising to mask more sinister aims
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The website for the brand Ours looks like any other ad you’d be served on Instagram. On the site, visitors are invited to discover what the company is all about, with minimal capitalization and chunky serif fonts laid over soothing photos of tents and mountain bikers in wide-open spaces. “At Ours, we believe in protecting Americans and their environment,” the site says, in a seemingly innocuous echo of pretty much every U.S. outdoor brand’s philanthropic mission statement. But it quickly becomes clear that something is very off: “We’re asking you to take a stand to protect America against overpopulation, because right now, nature can’t protect itself.” Another page elaborates: “Ours grew out of a small garage that made non-lethal military defense weapons…We take localism very seriously—and we’re happy to share our ‘Locals Only’ attitude of defense technology with outdoor lifestyles.”
Ours is not a real brand. It’s a browser-based art exhibit at the New Museum designed by Samuel Marion, an artist who focuses on digital spaces and contemporary culture. Marion grew up in the outdoor hub of Salida, Colorado, but swears the site isn’t “some deep-seated, psychoanalytic adolescent resentment coming out.” When he started putting it together in 2019, he considered it more akin to a speculative, sci-fi view of the outdoor industry. But the exhibit ended up getting at dynamics that are already at play in outdoor brands, and as Marion wrote in an essay about the site, Ours sometimes felt “so close to reality that it seemed to hardly differentiate itself from it.”
Marion first started thinking about the project while being bombarded with bland ads online and all over the subway in New York City, where he lives. He specifically cites the men’s wellness brand Hims as inspiration, with its signs featuring beige tones, cacti, and very little indication that the company is selling hair-loss supplements and erectile dysfunction medication. It’s the height of brand-as-euphemism—less about aspiration than sneaking unglamorous ideas into consumers’ heads with a friendly, accessible gloss. Marion wanted to take that idea to its extreme conclusion. “I was really interested in how you could create this box around something that looks necessarily good and well-intentioned, and then stick something inside of it that was horrible and nasty and see how long does that hold up,” he says. The outdoor industry, with its wholesome image and uncontroversial message that everyone deserves to get out there, seemed like a natural fit for the experiment. What if a brand sold a mission of population control, anti-immigration policies, and white supremacy—but painted it over in pastel tones and “this land is our land” messaging?
Ours leads visitors through a digital maze that’s disorienting by design. Users can click through multiple vague pages that advertise how to “become an activist” and eventually lead to reassurances that people don’t need to do anything but keep adventuring: “While we help you pursue your passion of exploring the American outdoors, you’re helping us find and deport unwanted persons…we think of it as a ‘do good’ tax on all our products.” The shop features unbuyable items with hidden meanings in their names, like the Tanton jacket, named after anti-immigration figure John Tanton. Marion made it obvious in certain spots that this is fiction: Ours donates to organizations like “private border defense groups, organic farms, radical lobbyists, [and] recycling programs” and partners with a fictional group called the Malthusian Initiative. But once you’ve caught on to what Ours is really selling, even its more harmless-sounding language takes on a different connotation. One page simply reads “healthy boundaries” and offers vague language about “keeping the chaos out,” but anyone who’s gotten to that point will understand the subtext.
Though it’s generally clear that Ours is satire, it’s unsettling to see how easily the language of the outdoor industry can be twisted to take on a double meaning. One page shows an image of a skier boot-packing up a mountain, overlaid with “More of this,” followed by a bird’s-eye view of a gray, densely populated city, overlaid with “Less of this.” This statement could have appeared, word for word, on an actual outdoor brand’s website. Like Ours, gear brands sell a version of the outdoors that offers escapism and entertainment for recreationists with money to spend. But as outdoor activists have been pointing out for years, not everyone gets to enjoy the blissful image of nature that these brands are selling.
There are socioeconomic, physical, and geographic barriers to access and countless ways people are made to feel like they’re doing it wrong, getting in the way of more experienced outdoorspeople, or otherwise unwelcome. These structural barriers are upheld in part by us-versus-them attitudes that, consciously or not, frame access to pristine landscapes as a right only for some (often the wealthy and white). This mindset can manifest itself in grousing about overcrowding at national parks, militant Leave No Trace shaming, or neglecting urban areas in conversations about environmentalism and recreational opportunities. It can result in grave environmental injustices, one of the most obvious being that pipelines, polluting facilities, and Superfund sites are disproportionately built in places where they will affect poor people and people of color. It’s no coincidence that affluent communities can more easily fight these developments, just as they can more easily act on their disdain for crowds and get away from it all with their pricey, lightweight hiking gear.
At its most extreme, this sense of entitlement can look like the eco-fascist ideology of Ours, which blames the destruction of the environment on immigration and overpopulation. In researching Ours, Marion took a lot of inspiration from John Hultgren’s book Border Walls Gone Green, which explores how anti-immigration values show up more subtly in many environmentalists’ efforts. When Marion started developing Ours, “this overlap of wellness and fascism and exclusion seemed really distant,” he says. “And now it doesn’t.”
Companies that run the gamut from clothing brands to fossil fuel corporations are frequently accused of greenwashing, or putting on flimsy, aesthetically pleasing shows of eco-friendliness while continuing with business as usual. Ours raises the possibility that the outdoor industry’s positive image can obscure legitimate concerns about unsavory practices and attitudes. This is especially true because it’s harder to find fault with, say, a climbing gear brand than with Shell or BP, and it’s easier for customers to feel that in purchasing from outdoor companies, they’re acting on admirable values. Where’s the queasiness in buying a reusable, chemical-free water bottle to help you stay hydrated while unobtrusively exploring your local trail system? Call it outdoors-washing. A company built on shiny nature-for-all values can more easily rest on its laurels and fend off concerns about access, privilege, and responsible business practices. But it’s clearly worth asking questions of these brands, too. In 2018, companies like MEC and REI refused to sell products from brands under Vista Outdoor, including CamelBak, because the parent company owned a brand that made AR-15’s. It was one of the only times a company in the outdoor industry has been held responsible for such connections.
Ours is an overtly evil brand, but every brand has its own set of interests that probably don’t make it into ad copy. It’s not that outdoor brands are inherently awful—it’s that they often wriggle out of critical questioning by promoting the idea that outdoors-oriented values are inherently good. As Marion writes in his essay, “The more the brand stresses the positive environmental impact of their philanthropy, the more the brand paddles (skins? boulders?) away from the criticality conventionally imposed on profit-seeking ventures.” It’s a funny way of getting at the unsettling feeling Ours leaves viewers with. Ours makes a show of paddling away from criticism with slick aesthetics, but in the end it’s just a front for blatant white supremacy. If, on the other hand, you’re skeptical about a real gear company’s dedication to equality in the outdoors—did you not see the friendly ads proclaiming that you’re totally welcome to pitch your tent wherever you want?