Montague spun additional projects out of “Secondary Occupants” to extend the fictional world. He created covers for the books and records produced by the Waldron Institute, a made-up religious sect that derives apocalyptic meaning from their study of honeybees. Likewise, he designed the exhibition posters for the Thorold Gallery, a fake 1970s art community. In a video worthy of a Christopher Guest film, two real university professors play faux scholars offering context and analysis of the work of the gallery’s contributors. In 2013, Montague and several German collaborators designed an entire ersatz conference for their fictional organizations to participate in, including a ninety-two-page program complete with presentation abstracts and presenter bios. In these projects, Montague told me in an interview, he’s often “appropriating the authoritative voice of modernism” to tell a “cosmic joke.” You can create a scientific system, he said, but it “doesn’t make the world any less absolutely bizarre.”
The central characters in these fictions are as absent as the human agents are in the shopping-cart project. We only know them through the artifacts they leave behind, just as we often know a creature by its abandoned nest or web. It’s worth asking if an artwork also tells us something about its maker. Montague insisted that the person who immersed himself in “the world of the spiders” is a character, not really him. Fair enough, but whereas a novelist’s character only acts within the imaginary world, Montague really did document all the spiders and shopping carts, using the same skills and aesthetic he employs to design posters and murals for real galleries, companies, and schools.
The members of the Waldron Institute may be “psychos,” as Montague described them, but his designs for them and his other clients, real and fictional, exhibit an earnest belief that the world, however bizarre, is intelligible, and it can be represented via an almost universal visual language. Montague draws influence from designers like Fred Troller, whose countless book covers for Doubleday became the graphical signature of Cold War intellectual life. Troller’s minimalist designs reflect a conviction that ideas matter, that they are accessible to a mass audience, and that a systematic approach to societal problems could solve them.
Montague has said the shopping-cart project makes no social commentary. But it does call attention to the cart as a contested object dwelling at the fuzzy boundary between public and private. Carts belong to stores, but they feel like common property, not unlike the parking lots where they spend much of their time. The carts are there for the taking, but they are meant to be returned and infinitely reused to facilitate commerce. People who steal or vandalize them, then, both strike a blow against consumer capitalism and signal a degraded sense of social trust. Or, as advocates of the “shopping-cart theory” claim, people who fail to return a cart to its corral reveal their bad personal morality.
The world of shopping carts is changing. Smaller families and the explosive growth of delivery services have surely altered who uses carts, and how often. Today, more than 15 percent of U.S. retail sales occur online, compared with less than 3 percent in 2006. A “shopping cart” is now often a virtual entity, an icon in the upper-right corner of a webpage, visible only to you and your sock retailer. These carts don’t go astray, but online shoppers do “abandon” them without making a purchase nearly 70 percent of the time. The carts we leave behind on our browsers say something about us as individual consumers, but because they leave no physical trace, they say nothing about our life together in the world.
I have noticed a spike in stray shopping carts in Dallas, especially along the bike trail I use several times a week. Conditions for cart-spotting are ideal: many big-box stores and apartment complexes sit adjacent to the trail, as does a shallow creek. Carts often appear beneath overpasses, where I occasionally see small encampments, though rarely any inhabitants. Almost invariably, the carts become B/18 specimens, used as “refuse receptacles.” But at some point, they were likely someone’s transportation or shelter. People who appropriate shopping carts may be grabbing onto one of the few public goods they can find.
In an essay collected in The White Album, Joan Didion claims that she listens to call-in shows to understand what is really happening in the country. Today, the news tells us there is a housing crisis, that homelessness is a growing problem, that the social safety net has too wide a mesh. We don’t need stray shopping carts to tell us these things. But if we train our eyes to see them, the carts can tell us something more specific and poignant: Here are the gaps, the edges, the hollows in society. Here are the places where public life gives out.
The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America
A Guide to Field Identification, revised edition
University of Chicago Press
$22 | 184 pp.