Book Review: When Études Become Form
Written by Etudes, Contribution by Ari Marcopoulos and Gus Van Sant and Pedro Winter and Mark Gonzales, When Etudes Become Form: Paris, New York, and the Intersection of Fashion and Art, Rizzoli, $85.00, 256 pp., October 2018.
Quintessential to Guy Debord and the Situationist International was the practice of dérive, in which an urban space is occupied and studied, encouraging the dismissal of pre-existing notions of utility and the re-appropriation of space and urban artifacts for alternative movements.  The exercise seems to have a kind of meditative idealism, demanding that its practitioners forfeit preconceived notions about what a space should be and open themselves up to what it could be. The contemporary masters of dérive are found around banking abutments, concrete staircases, and handrails. Long after Debord and his cronies reimagined Parisian alleyways, skate culture is applying the principles of dérive far past physical movement in space, extending this philosophy into a broad spectrum of studies and artistic mediums including architecture, music, physics, and fashion. What other methods of athletic movement have achieved such a wide-ranging cultural impact, have practiced appropriation of its surroundings so thoroughly as subvert the paradigms of cultural capital and in turn inspire institutional monoliths to appropriate and commodity that which has already been appropriated?
It is not a far reach to say that had skate culture not emerged, Études would not exist, for the dérive is foundational to its unifying philosophy. Études, the fashion label which may alternatively be deemed an art collective, designs its collections by adhering to rigid formula of interpreting the work of visual artists into textiles, juxtaposing highbrow and lowbrow elements, and incorporating branding (through its distinctive Yves Klein-esque blue and conceptualized name) for the sake of poking fun at the concept of branding. Well aware that it is not a beacon of innovation, but is instead a curatorial powerhouse, Études has no interest in reinventing the wheel, but instead chooses to feel the grooves of modernity’s mass-produced rubber tires and muse on how from the tread marks left by such societal vehicles arise questions of alienation. As Baudrillard wrote in his essay Transaesthetics, “No matter how marginal, or banal, or even obscene it may be, everything is subject to aestheticization, culturalization, museumification. Everything is said, everything is exposed, everything acquires the force, or the manner, of a sign.”  Études as a cultural entity acknowledges that little remains of art as a productive source of new aesthetics, but what remains is largely an algorithmic rearrangement of cultural and aesthetic elements, a decontextualization and magnification of what has already been produced. When Études Become Form (Rizzoli) anthologizes the collaborations, collections, and influences which cogently reinforce Études’ philosophy of study of the mundane. An extension of the way Études muses on the significance of banal objects and cultural phenomena when they are taken out of context, When Études Become Form is a phenomenological study of Études itself, incorporating interviews with collaborative artists and process-intensive works which expound on the nature of close study.
Joël Vacheron’s 2011 essay “MWWWXC: Adolescentia Aeternum” was selected to set the tone for overviews of Études’s first thirteen collections and the books published by Études’ publishing arm.  The essay addresses the post-Reaganism, pre-Y2K youth mentality from which the capitalist exploitation of mundane life and broken dreams through “cool capital” opened up more opportunities to closely examine the banal. Vacheron appropriates chanting, nonsensical lyrics from era-defining songs and then decontextualizes such words as No, no, no, no… (2 Unlimited, No Limit) and Jump around! Jump up, jump up! (House of Pain, Jump Around) by pairing them with his paragraphs of academic critique which read like undercover poetry. His essay is placed opposite images of archived paint-stained outerwear; although the hoodies and jackets bear the logos Champion and Nike and are not styled on models, their selection reveals their history as extensions of the human body. Their stains reveal that they are products of labor, shed as if a snake’s skin, on which the selfhood of the individual who wore them has left a more lasting impact than their value as a product of their brand. The combination of these elements point toward a regenerative quality of youthhood that is constantly slipping through fingers and instantly being rendered into nostalgia, prepped for appropriation. The detritus from who we were and how we once lived is recycled into our forums for making sense of the world we live in now, a world slipping through our fingers just as quickly as that the one we have just left.
In each collection, Études meticulously curates elements pulled from urban observations and artistic practice to explore such questions of who we are in the context of our environment and what our roles are as interacting characters. Such questions range from the cultural role of the artist, how symbology is linked to individuality and collectivity, and how movement itself transforms geography. Like a Zen master presenting a koan to a pupil, Études does not tend to concern itself with the conclusions drawn from contemplation on such questions and use its platform to send moralistic messages about how the world should be, but instead digs into the questions it proposes and the process of musing itself. In many of Études’s recent endeavors, such as the Fall/Winter 2017 collection Études N°11: Nevermind, Études has collaborated with process-oriented artists including Dike Blair and Matthew Chambers, artists whose work can be interpreted as gazing at the relationship between end product and production.
Blair’s photorealistic paintings of the coke cans and cigarette packs that litter his immediate surroundings require such intensive scrupulation of the mundane, in-between spaces of day-to-day solitude in the process of their production that, in spite of their similarity in subject matter to the Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans of pop art, seem to have little to do with the meaning of art or commodity and more to do with the amount of attention given to different aspects of our lives. The floral paintings of Matthew Chambers, which underwent a similar conversion to textiles as Blair’s paintings, also seem to nod to Warhol, yet are intonated with the warmth of sentimentality and the comfort of rituals—appropriate given Études’s interpretation of the images into knitwear. Yet like a research experiment which thwarts the outcome of observing particle duality, the translation of these images through less tedious processes into commodities reintroduces any pop art qualities the works might have evaded, reducing them down to their symbolic attributes.
Not that Études is too cut up about it—studying is another aspect of the urban human environment to study, another casualty in drawing hidden infrastructural elements into the light of our culture-hungry eyes. If anything, Études is keenly aware of how it functions within its cultural infrastructure, often selecting itself as a tongue-in-cheek subject of phenomenological observation. In a collaboration with Berlin-based home design studio New Tendency, a side table which seemed to be a fusion of a child’s elementary school desk and an oratorial podium was rendered in that athletic royal blue which Études seems to delight in for the sake of its ironic application to a brand based around work that is well-acknowledged to be sourced external to itself. That this particular piece was selected to receive Études branding declares, “We are selling you the behavior of looking at and questioning the world around you.” It’s a funny joke, the idea of aestheticizing the very practice of aestheticization. After everything around us has been subject to aestheticization as Baudrillard predicted, little is left but the process of aestheticization itself. Even as Études drags the overlooked world out of the shadows, it quickly recedes into its own, only for a hand in the eternally near future (likely its own) to revive it for the alternative use, or for the sake of getting a little closer to understanding what it means to be.
 Plant, Sadie. The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, Routledge, 1992.
 Baudrillard, Jean. “Transaesthetics” in The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, translated by J. St. John Baddeley, James Benedict, Verso, 1993.
 Vacheron, Joël. “#MWWWXC #AdolescentiaAeternum” in Études, 2011.