Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beer-flavoured design fiction

And now for something completely different.

This evening, I purchased from my friendly neighbourhood outlet a six pack of beer. I was just approaching the counter with my selection already in hand, from a reliable local brewery, when at the last moment, spurred by curiosity, I switched it for one I'd never seen before. In part it was attractive pricing, in part it was the label promising delicious double-hopped goodness, and part of it was perhaps subliminal -- and mainly a personal response, I'm sure; this is a dubious basis for mass appeal -- in that this new beer had the same name as one of Radiohead's best, now largely forgotten, pre-OK Computer songs.

Black Star, a Double Hopped Golden Lager ostensibly from Whitefish, Montana, was at first taste unobjectionable, although less aggressively flavourful than the India Pale Ales, etc, to which many U.S. microbreweries have accustomed my palate. A suspicion began to form that I may have fallen prey to a cunning subterfuge recently deployed by America's Big Three -- Budweiser, Miller, and Coors -- to capture a slice of the growing independent market (as documented in the 02009 film Beer Wars). The scheme is to create pseudo-microbrews, sold with indie-sounding brand names under the banner of far-flung locations, thus duping the would-be beverage adventurer back into the oligopolistic fold.

So I googled Black Star. The aspect of their history that caught my eye, and the reason I blog this, is that in the '90s the beer was supported by a couple of ad campaigns based on artificial histories for the product, and using in-world documentary as part of the story. In 01994, a two-part Ken Burns-style history of Black Star was written by legendary ad-man Hal Riney, and voiced over by veteran actor Hal Holbrook. This 'documentary' plays as if looking back on a half-century of history, from several decades into the 21st century. Below is the first part, which has slightly less future in it than the second (both are amusing and quite well done).

A still earlier series of three ads [1] [2] [3], presented by John Corbett, went out under the disappointingly explicit title 'the make-believe history of Black Star beer' (c'mon, don't break the universe!).

So what, then, amid all these fictitious past and future artifacts, of my concerns about the beer's bona fides? Well, Black Star is indeed a product of the Great Northern Brewing Company, based in Whitefish, Montana, although the label I have next to me says 'Brewed and bottled by Great Northern Brewing Company, Milwaukee WI' (which set off my alarm bells, that city famously being home to Miller Brewing Company). At any rate, the brew was first introduced to an Oregon test market in the early 01990s, was out of production for most of the '00s, and then relaunched in 02010. But incongruously, the label claims 'a family tradition of unique brewing since 1856'. A bit of research turned up a San Francisco Examiner article from back in 01996, which helpfully deconstructs the company's 'instant history'. (Just add water... malted barley, and hops. And a bunch of marketing.)

In general, I find it extremely interesting the way both history and future narratives are recruited to provide a sense of substance -- for both fun and profit -- to something that would otherwise lack it. I don't mean to speak of this specific product in isolation (and this post is intended neither to criticise nor to promote it), but the case throws into relief, both in its consciously satirical ('make-believe history'; mid-21st century mockumentary) mode, and in its seemingly earnest ('since 1856') mode, the ubiquity and importance of the back-stories about the things we interact with, and choose to consume.

As the saying goes, when truth and legend collide, print the legend. To this we might add: if there isn't an adequate legend, make one up. (Can we really doubt that there's a good deal of that in how 'actual' history gets made, or rather, canonised?)

In his January presentation at the launch of the landmark design fiction show Made Up (which is still open for a few more days, check it out if you can) at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Bruce Sterling highlighted the wide variety of activities which can be co-located on the landscape of 'design fiction'. His definition of that activity, offered for the first time there, was 'the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change'. Consider that this includes not only the designed artifacts and media spinoffs of vividly portrayed futures, but it also comfortably accommodates playfully counterfactual, as well as patently false, histories.

A potent brew.

Which leads me to suspect, not for the first time, that there's far more design fiction woven into everyday life than we might at first imagine.

Related posts:
> Don't break the universe
Amusing anachronisms
> Killer imps
> Chocolate, beer and futures

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