The Aldi Project: the people’s food store?

Since its arrival in metro Chicago over two decades ago, the German king discount supermarket Aldi has become a fixture of the city's landscape. Aldi stores in working-class neighborhoods form hubs out of which a city-wide presence disperses through the medium of branded shopping bags. The bags are commonly seen year-round, toted by people walking the sidewalks and waiting at bus stops. The garish logo is difficult to miss even from a distance. A visiting German-American friend spotted one and with the kind of surprise reserved for an unexpected encounter with the familiar exclaimed, "So they have Aldi here! Did you know that Aldi is a German company?!" The question of how an international chain with European roots fully inserted itself into the provincial fabric of my rusty midwestern city seemed worthy of investigation.

Monument to the Last International: Aldi Pallet Patterns (2003-4)
Cardboard boxes and hot glue

Venturing inside the stores I discovered what Aldi shoppers already know. The lines are long, the selection limited. There are no flashy point-of-purchase displays or consumer-friendly muzak. The checker sits, and your bagger is you. You buy the bags or bring your own. The product is pulled onto the floor on pallets and transferred straight into the shopping cart from the box in which it was shipped. The prices are super low. By the end of the day, the four aisles of a standard Aldi store are littered with empty boxes.

Soon after noticing Aldi's presence in Chicago, I discovered that the mysterious Albrecht brothers, founders and longtime co-chiefs of the privately held firm, are multi-billionaires. Last year they placed third on the Forbes listing of humanity's wealthiest. Add to this the fact that the nested squares of the company logo scream third-generation derivative Bauhaus graphic design—Albers into Aldi, like runway fashions that appear in watered-down form on the racks at JC Penny's—and you get a three-sided story of no frills retailing, a steady upward climb on the world's most glamorous measure of wealth, and a diluted graphic aesthetic of high design lineage.

Paying attention to the functional material at the base of the Aldi enterprise seemed like the best way to begin making sense of this odd bundling of sociological, art historical, and commercial elements, especially the Aldi worker ant trio of plastic bags, pallets, and corrugated cardboard boxes. The double duty of each object—i.e., the bags are also billboards, the pallets are also shelving, and the boxes are also the in-store signage—hints at the monstrous efficiency of this enterprise. Costing the customer $.10, the bags are used and reused, setting an admirable standard for the kind of conservation middle-class environmentalists fixate on, all the while displaying the company logo. The use value of the boxes is similarly lengthened by a policy of free giveaway. Customers may carry out their purchases in the boxes as an ultra-cheap option to buying bags.

Photographically documenting the way Aldi bags broadcast themselves in public was the logical beginning of my project. The availability of the boxes begged for an intervention that would further extend their use value by inserting them into the public economy of symbols. Both arms of the project began at the moment a material's conventional utility had been exhausted. For an artist, a parasitic relationship to the object of study is often the most productive kind. But while laboring over mounds of corrugated cardboard collected from Aldi stores, it occurred to me that a purely parasitic relationship to this particular company is difficult to fashion. Even by gathering the boxes, I'm helping the staff in their neverending task of clearing the floor of empties, so they can move on to the next task.

Aldi's minimum-staff policy contributes to its retailing efficiency. The one-direction entry/exit pathways and the four-aisle shop floor—on which every point is visible from every other—do the work of security and stop-theft prevention. The architectural response to the twin problem of keeping labor costs low while maintaining an acceptable level of shoplifting loss reveals a coldness at the heart of the company's view of humanity. This view sees the alteration of consumer behavior through advertising, comfort, and flattery as a waste of time. Product moves more quickly when you meet people where they're at, and most people are at the just-feed-me level. To make a fortune off of what people already do seems somehow unsportsmanlike, almost un-American. It's this extreme capitalization on low overhead costs and what it says about a new idealism of efficiency that I hope to address. Aldi is the last International, a new workers' commissary, one that is fully stocked and led by the secretive German billionaire folk heroes of capital. This vaguely totalitarian view is complicated by a doubtlessly unintentional effect of their supermarkets' architectural features: children participate in the shopping at Aldi. There's nowhere to get lost. There are few kid-attracting sugar cereals and no toys; instead of managing tantrums, adults send their children to help get items. These children will have good memories of shopping at Aldi.