A parallel universe

Davis artist blurs the line between our world and one that’s more fun

Davis artist Steve Lambert in his studio, where he dreams up schemes like “reverse shoplifting” and fake advertising.

Davis artist Steve Lambert in his studio, where he dreams up schemes like “reverse shoplifting” and fake advertising.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The fading sticker on the industrial door leading to Steve Lambert’s studio reads, “Anarchists vote everyday.” The studio isn’t some downtown hovel; instead, it is on campus at UC Davis, where Lambert is in the master’s program for fine arts. Lambert says he is not an anarchist himself, but the sculpture he had on display recently, along with the faded sticker, tells you that if nothing else, Lambert thinks anarchy is worth talking about. Lambert’s sculpture mimics every aspect of an official UC Davis development billboard from the Davis logo to the projected building cost. Except that Lambert’s sign claims that space will be devoted soon to an Emma Goldman Institute for Anarchist Studies—something officials over at UC Davis do not have in the works. The fictitious development would include everything from a Chomsky Anarchist History Museum to a Goldman Dance Studio, all of this while being a classroom for labor, peace, cultural and women’s studies. For added irony, “Federal Grants” and the multinational private security company Securitas Inc. were named as funding sources for this imaginary project.

Lambert was inspired by the glut of signs he sees around UC Davis these days, touting one new building or another and offering free PR for the university’s sponsors. Though Davis is rapidly expanding, Lambert thinks something is missing and that a Goldman Institute would be an interesting and worthwhile addition.

This sign announcing construction of the Emma Goldman Institute for Anarchist Studies blended right in on the fast-developing UC Davis campus.

Photo By Larry Dalton

He’s also poking fun at UC Davis’ reliance on the deep pockets of business. “It is the way the university is funded: The Mondavi family makes a donation of millions of dollars, and it makes it a lot easier to have an institute for food and wine science. Anarchists don’t have a lot of money.” Lambert sees his sign as a way to create an authentic interest around the ideas of anarchy and what Goldman stood for.

Mocking development isn’t something Lambert reserves for the university. He also has a series of line drawings based on Sacramento’s suburban housing developments. His ghostly pieces, such as “Frankenstein,” in which “nine or 10 different houses are combined into one super suburban mansion” are intended to help the viewer see what he sees, which he characterizes as “weird cookie-cutter neighborhoods” and unsustainable. His distorted depictions of these houses are included in the art show Sprawl, which is traveling to France this year.

His art antics also include “reverse shoplifting.” Lambert creates phony cereal boxes, which he places on grocery-store shelves, that read, “Yes! The world has gone completely crazy. You are not the only one who has noticed. Tell Others. Write your congressman.” He leaves the boxes in local stores and encourages others to participate as well. “It is fun. I make fake products, but another guy I know leaves pamphlets in clothes—so after you buy it, it’s in there. Or [you can leave] notes to people inside books.”

Lambert sees his approach as a way to get art out of the galleries and make it accessible to everyday people. “With all of this stuff, the minimum I hope to do is to get people to consider the things they don’t think about everyday. In this case, the supermarket is a super-controlled environment, and everything has been planned out for you already, and there is a routine you go into—you go into automatic pilot and get your stuff. [The cereal boxes are] supposed to break people out of that mode and get people to think critically again. They can make their own decisions after that. It is guided in a way, but it is just to get them to reconsider.”

From phony institutes to reverse shoplifting, Lambert sees his work as providing an alternative reality that shows that the world can work differently. He hopes his influence will encourage others to “do what you can, to speak up and still remain happy and live your life.”