To critique corporate culture and capitalism, these artists...became a corporation

Intern Jonny, Beige Cathy and The Brandscape: the absurdist work of Toronto-based art collective Tough Guy Mountain parodies modern capitalism.

Intern Jonny, Beige Cathy and The Brandscape: Tough Guy Mountain's absurdist work parodies modern capitalism

Company photo at the Grand Opening of The Brandscape, TGM's studio and post-capitalist digital incubator, 2016. (Alec Holtforster)

Like some noisy startup, you enter the Tough Guy Mountain Toronto HQ past a well-stocked display of corporate swag. The collection of mugs, totes and crisp white tees all emblazoned with their logo, a rose-coloured mountain peak, belie how big the company is, how many continents it operates on and what exactly it is that it even does. A small group — executives and an intern, I'm told — dressed in oxford shirts and lab coats invite me into the darkened presentation space lit by a projector. They're out of boxed waters, but they've just made coffee, if I'd like some. They've asked the media (me) here today to deliver their Five-Year Plan.

Intern Jonny gets up, introduces himself and begins the slideshow. Tough Guy Mountain, he explains, is a "wonderful, fantastic" company that manufactures all the brands we know and love. Apple, Google and Starbucks are among its greatest hits. He describes a fanciful land of rolling pink hills, known as The Brandscape, where their operations extract, then process and refine raw brand materials into successful corporate identities.

Jonny begins to walks me through a few of the company's past projects, but, advancing to the next slide, the presentation malfunctions and the screen tumbles down some glitchy digital chasm. Jonny mashes the keyboard and checks the connections. Then, one of the executives, Ivan Phone, cuts in: "OK, so, we haven't been entirely honest with you. We're not actually a large company. There aren't several floors of workers above us. He's not a real intern. I'm sorry."

Alice Embargo controls an intern through her mobile device as Ivan Phone looks on at Intern Testing Facility, 2015. (Alec Holtforster)

"We're just a bunch of regular artists who rented out this basement studio," he continues. "We invited you here to tell you about the projects we'd like to complete over the next five years" — which, coincidentally, is the length of their lease agreement. Even with the curtain pulled back, the Five-Year Plan routine is a pitch deck that's also at least part performance.

Tough Guy Mountain is an ongoing project involving about a dozen members focusing on "the glories, trials and absurdity of late capitalism," Intern Jonny tells me (the group has asked to be referred to by their characters' names). The collective began in 2012, "so we have five years of data to draw from," Phone says.

For so long, it's been difficult to imagine an alternative to capitalism — but it's beginning to become possible to imagine what comes next.- Intern Jonny, Tough Guy Mountain

In TGM's Pantone-coloured, flat design universe, interns — an infinite number of them — are serfs; the executives are impassioned, tempered Olympian gods and goddesses; and corporations are mystical and cult-like faith organizations. It is a parody of our hyper-capitalist moment. And in order to critique it, the group has emulated the aesthetics and practices of business, explains Beige Cathy, another of the executives. The five-year plan is just another strategy borrowed from the playbook of Organizational Management. Their satire is both hilarious and total.

Joan Popular and Ivan Phone break ground at their latest incarnation of Pop-Up Office, a New Media Business Pavilion, in 2014. (Julia Marcello)

One of the main projects in the plan is the facility in which we're seated, the real-world Brandscape — TGM's newly rentable AR and VR production studio, which they'll also treat like an incubator to foster the practices of other digital artists. Then, there's a Tamagotchi-like intern app called Mount that's fed by "likes" received on your Facebook posts. When your virtual intern is happy, it will generate new social media content for you. Others are the Board of Directors roleplaying game or the very PR-friendly "world's first made-for-VR musical."

Another Plan-designated set piece they're currently hard at work developing is called Post Capitalist Propaganda. It's a multi-platform ad campaign imagining the world after capitalism — a dialogue it begins with rudimentary but revelatory challenges and provocations like, "What would you do if you didn't have to work?" The project marks, to my mind, an evolution in the group's focus.

"The thinking around accelerationism changed with Donald Trump," explains Phone. Maybe where the current program was leading us wasn't towards radical positive change, he says, but into a world that gets way more racist and more unequal and it results in the end. "Instead, we need to be more clear about what we want the results to be."

"For so long, it's been difficult to imagine an alternative to capitalism," Intern Jonny adds, "but it's beginning to become possible to imagine what comes next." That's what they're advertising for: what comes next.

Intern Lisa is crowned Intern Of The Month during a musical number at Tough Guy Mountain: A Play at Summerworks Festival 2015. (Jeff Hladun)

In its latest venture, Tough Guy Mountain has taken on the brand of the thing that will end the reason for which it exists, Phones says. "It's like the apocalypse or something — the HQ will collapse, but then the sun will rise in the distance and birds will chirp." It's the morning after doomsday. That's the new brand they're working on.


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton


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